January 13, 2012

Class Valedictorian

MODERN DOG; Seattle, Washington, USA

Author: John Foster

Topics: Color, Design Reference, Handmade, Layouts, Profiles

A lot has been written about the early days of Modern Dog and their role as the class clown at the design table since their founding in the 1980s by partners Robynne Raye and Mike Strassburger, so this profile narrows the focus to why they stand before you as a New Master while others of their generation are bypassed. Their work has been exhibited worldwide in prestigious museums and collections, and their main representation in those lofty environs is the simple and direct poster.

"We still do lots of research and head-scratching, just like any other studio project."

The firm started to make waves in the early days through funny and sometimes shocking designs for theaters and festivals. The posters proved so popular (and plentiful) that they were repurposed as playing cards and sheets of stamps, neatly tying in the firm's other claim to fame: innovative packaging. In the years to follow, Modern Dog felt the decline of the poster as projects became less and less frequent, but they never fully disappeared. More recently, however, posters have really picked up steam, and Modern Dog has reemerged as a leader and innovator of this form. The amusing part is that they have done so mostly by beating the young bucks at their own game: the gig or rock concert poster.

The studio had continued doing posters for speaking engagements and local events, but now they were reinvigorated with work for today's rock stars. They were poised for another big splash in the poster scene.

Why Not Get the Original?

Very quickly, venues saw that they need not hire a firm to give them that Modern Dog vibe when they could actually get the big dogs themselves. Keeping their business small over the years, the studio stands strong at four (not including various mutts and interns) and remains nimble, as everyone gets their hands dirty every day. Every piece has the personal, home-grown feel that is a hallmark of their work. The studio loves these projects for the "creative release" of "jamming out a gig poster with few artistic limitations. And to complete a poster in just a few hours feels really rewarding." It is this freedom they thirst for, but they add, "We still do lots of research and head-scratching, just like any other studio project."

Raye says of her poster process, "It feels more organic than for other projects and free of typical design restrictions. Personally, I turn on the waxer and get out the X-Acto blade. Then I just start by pulling out ideas that appeal to me on an emotional level. It's different for each person in the office, but one thing we all do consistently is try to relate to the subject in some way."

Mutual Appreciation Society

In the same way that they collect people's flotsam and jetsam for inspiration, they are true design lovers. Raye states, "There are so many past masters we admire. In college, Mike and I were really inspired by the great Polish poster artists of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The greats like Henryk Tomaszewski and Roman Cieslewicz remain inspirational to this day. We like the raw and highly illustrative problem solving done during that movement of poster history. Many years ago, a friend gave me a limited-edition book called Corita. The oversized book has several beautiful reproductions from Sister Corita Kent, a Catholic nun whose bright silkscreened posters were the all the rage during the 1960s. She designed the first Love stamp, as well as greeting cards, book jackets, and record covers. Her stuff still blows me away. Also, who doesn't love Saul Bass? The list could go on and on, so I better stop now." They also enjoy the current crop of poster mavens such as Methane (featured on page 124), Jewboy (featured on page 92), Sagmeister, Niklaus Troxler, Patent Pending (featured on page 140), as well as "the duo called Seripop [featured on page 154], because they continue to deliver the unexpected."

Modern Dog, as a firm, has remained the same size, but they haven't just gotten older—they have grown up a little (sometimes begrudgingly). As they matured a tad, they still remain well known for their "eighth-grade sense of humor" but also for so much technical know-how that they served as consultants on Adobe's software. This mix of keeping in touch with their raw emotional thinking about visual problem solving, pouring a little of themselves into each piece, and a savvy mature marketing sense and aesthetic makes them a hit with clients and allows them to leave their imitators in the dust.

Source: New Masters of Poster Design

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