Right: Buzz machine. December’s Illustrate Me by Mike Essl. See the full-size illustration on last month’s archive page.
Mr. E and Me
Don’t be fooled by the heavy typography and painful-looking blades he’s rendered, though — Mike is one of the nicest and personable fellows I know. He also happens to be crazy prolific: aside from running one of the most prestigious design curricula in New York City, Mike is vice-president of the board of directors at AIGA New York, a founding partner in the famous design studio The Chopping Block, and among the most versatile freelance designers I know. Few people can be as visually articulate online as they can offline, but Mike manages it, and he does so with an acuity that’s native to each media; I know a lot of print designers who Dreamweaver their way onto the Web, but not only can Mike send a 6-color job to a printer without a hitch, he can write sterling, standards-compliant XHTML and CSS in his sleep, to boot.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Mike also maintains the world’s largest collection of Mr. T memorabilia. For real.
Questions for Mike Essl
What was your inspiration for December’s Illustrate Me?
Initially I wanted to do something that showed your love — and my hatred for — Helvetica. I imagined buzz saws cutting through the titles and pieces of Helvetica flying everywhere. Once I got over that… the buzz saws stuck. This is also a blatant rip-off of the best piece of graphic design in the known universe, Michael Doret’s “Rock and Roll Over” cover for KISS.
Back up. You hate Helvetica?
Yes. I pretty much hate it to death. It never looks good to me. To be fair I don’t hate the actual typeface, I hate the way most designers use it. Using Helvetica now, in 2007, is a stylist choice to represent ‘corporate chic.’ The biggest problem is that most designers will argue that it’s not a style, that Helvetica always looks good, and that it’s neutral. Which to me is absoludicrous.
(I will confess that I really love the use of Helvetica on the Chuck Klosterman books designed by Paul Sahre. It seems intentionally dumb on those covers and for that I love it.)
So is it fair to say that you don’t believe in ‘neutrality’ in graphic design? Do you ever strive for neutrality in your own aesthetic?
I believe in making things quiet when they need to be quiet but I don’t believe that any typeface is neutral. For instance, I’ve recently started designing books and I would never pick a loud typeface for the text. (One time I used Sailor Gothic as a text face. But I swear it looked good.) I don’t think I’ve ever used the same font more than once on any of the books I’ve done. I like things to be custom or hyper-considered.
So you hate one of the most popular typefaces of all time. Your Illustrate Me is probably the most violent I’ve ever run. Your arms are covered in tattoos, you’ve got earrings and a shaved head. And yet, you’re one of the nicest guys I know. How do you square all that?
Those two things, the hatred for Helvetica and my self-image, go hand in hand. I simply can’t stand the default, I want my type and my body to be custom! I wouldn’t say my piece is violent. It’s just really metal and aggressive. I briefly considered putting in a severed finger; now that would have been violent.
Also, Christina Aguilera is “popular” but you wouldn’t think it was so crazy if I hated her music! Not that I think Helvetica and Christina Aguilera are the same thing… Helvetica is more like Tom Hanks.