Illustrate Me for December

Illustrate Me for December 2006I haven’t forgotten our deal: once a month, I ask a designer or illustrator to create artwork to accompany the prior month’s archives, cutting loose in any fashion he or she desires to add a little bit of life to these pages. And in turn you, dear reader, take it in wholly and enthusiastically, even if each piece’s overall awesomeness leaves you too speechless to leave a comment on this blog. For a refresher on this arrangement, you can start at the November 2006 or October 2006 archives and work your way back to see all the wonderful work produced over the past year.

It may be nearly an entire month late, but I’m finally living up to my end of that for my December 2006 archives. (The fault for this truancy is mine entirely, not the artist’s.) This month, I was able to convince my good friend Mike Essl, who is the Assistant Professor in Graphic Design at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, to contribute what’s turned out to be the most aggro entry yet. It’s a shake ’em up, in-your-face change of pace from what we’ve seen before, and I dig it loads. You can see it here.

Right: Buzz machine. December’s Illustrate Me by Mike Essl. See the full-size illustration on last month’s archive page.
Illustrate Me for December

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

Khoi Vinh

What was your inspiration for December’s Illustrate Me?

Mike Essl

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.

When asked what the T stands for in his name, Mr. T often replies, “For the children it stands for tender and for the bad guys it stands for tough.” I’ve been trying so hard to stop referencing Mr. T in moments like these but that quote just fits.

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.