As a boy, Michael Doret spent many happy hours in New York’s Coney Island amusement park. Now, as a well-known graphic designer, he can see the influence of all that flamboyant and colourful carnival lettering on his own design work. In this week’s post, Michael takes the time to tell us more about his life as a man of letters.
How & why did you first get into graphic design?
I don’t think there was ever that moment when I said to myself ‘I’m going to be a graphic designer’. It was more of a gradual process. I was lucky enough to have had some great art teachers in high school who believed in me and gave me excellent guidance and encouragement. That led me to apply to and get accepted as a college student by The Cooper Union in NYC. The ‘Foundation’ year at Cooper included Architecture, and for a while I thought I might pursue that but, in the end, art won out. Cooper had some graphics classes, but the Art School was more oriented towards fine arts. After a year or two at Cooper I realized I was not cut out to be a fine artist, and so looked to take more graphics classes. At the time Cooper offered those, but they were at night and more for people already working in the design field. I took those classes anyway, and that was probably the first indication of my commitment to graphic design.
After college I held a series of jobs involving various levels of design expertise. I learned a lot at these jobs, and about five years after graduation made the decision to go out on my own and pursue a career in graphic design.
You grew up at Coney Island, NY. What effect did that have on your design style?
I grew up near Coney Island, not in it, like Alvy Singer from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall who grew up in a house under the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster in Coney Island! A few years ago I happened upon a 3-D slide of my brother and me enjoying a day at Steeplechase Park in Coney Island. This slide was a revelation to me and played a pivotal role in helping me figure out why my work looks the way it does. In the center of the slide are my brother and me—he’s looking very cool—and very aware he’s being photographed. But I’m off in my own little world, fixated on all that’s going on around me. Around us were all the sights and sounds of the amusement park that are burned into my memory. In studying this photo I realized something very important: all that signage, all those banners and lettering, all those beautiful, colorful graphics were impressed deeply into my subconscious, and many years later had resurfaced and had all come out in my work. They were my colors, my letterforms, my configurations of typography and borders—I’d have been proud to have created any of them! Then it dawned on me: somehow as a kid I fixated on all those graphics, and stored them all away for future use.
You run Alphabet Soup type foundry, designing lots of creative fonts. As someone who generally doesn’t use fonts in your design work, how did you get into type design?
I never did use a lot of fonts in my work, preferring to handle most of the typography as hand-lettering (except, of course, for body text). But while we all understand that lettering and font design are two very different disciplines, they do have a lot in common. As a freelancer my workload goes through peaks and valleys—it’s usually either feast or famine! So it was during one of those lulls back in 2003 that I decided to fill my time by creating my own projects that could generate income. Given my knowledge and expertise in designing letterforms for my assignment work, it seemed quite natural to me to try my hand at designing fonts. I soon discovered that I was right about that, but in some of my early attempts at font design I found that it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. While hand-lettering and font design have much in common, there are also some significant differences as well. But those challenges are what made this new endeavor all the more interesting, and it proved to be a great learning experience. As it happens, I haven’t had too many of those in my assignment work, which has kept my font production fairly low—about one a year.
Designing a font is a huge project and obviously very different from designing a logo. Which sort of work do you prefer?
I still prefer assignment work over typeface design. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you complete a project that you cannot get when designing a font. Font design is more of an intellectual pursuit in that there’s nothing you can really point to at the conclusion (other than a collection of separate letters)—there’s not really a moment when you can hold something up as a finished product and be proud of it. And then there’s always the disappointment of seeing your font misused by people who don’t understand good design. But when you design a logo or other piece of design, you can hold up the finished piece and be proud of it, and know that it’s finally done!
Was there a project you especially enjoyed?
Many projects through the years have been memorable and enjoyable to me. The title treatment for Disney’s feature ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ is the latest one that stands out in my mind. Among others which I have enjoyed are the cover art for the Squirrel Nut Zippers album ‘Bedlam Ballroom’, in which I recreated a neon sign in 3D, and the logo I created for a new Hollywood restaurant – ‘Sassafras’, and others. And going back a few years I created many ‘illustrated’ covers for TIME Magazine that I am still quite proud of. In all these projects I was given free reign by the client to pursue my creative vision and create art which I believed would be memorable.
What would be your dream project to work on?
Actually I haven’t done that many designs that have actually been fabricated as three dimensional signage—I could probably count all that I have been involved with on one hand! I’m not sure why this is, but it is definitely the one area that I’ve always wanted to get into, but just haven’t had many opportunities to do so. What makes this especially ironic to me is that it was the signs and banners of Coney Island and the incredible giant billboards of Times Square in New York that were my first inspirations.
Are there any designers/sign-makers/artists who inspire your work?
The work that has inspired me the most has almost always been the work of anonymous artists. Not that they chose to be anonymous, but history has chosen to ignore them. It’s not sophisticated design, but rather the design of artisans who perhaps didn’t have the training to know what not to do. So consequently they designed without the reservations (or the sophistication) that their more educated peers had. To me this was a plus since the work that they produced was not clichéd or tired, and had many aspects which would be considered by others as mistakes. These ‘mistakes’ in their sometimes naïve work are what I find interesting and attractive. It’s most commonly found in the work I look to most—that which was produced in the US between the ’20s and the ’50s. It could be old matchbook covers, movie posters, theater marquees, cigarette packs, airline and hotel stickers, logos, et-cetera
Why is creative signage important to a business or town?
To see why creative signage is so important, all one would have to do is come to Hollywood and take a look around. The visual blight here is absolutely appalling. It’s as if business owners here just didn’t care, or have no pride in what their businesses project. Cheap plastic and vinyl signs proliferate without any restrictions. Almost none of them have any creative or interesting aspects to them, and the net result of all this is that you drive down the street here, and just want to close your eyes. If you ever look at photos of old Hollywood you’d realize what the potential was, and how far we’ve strayed from that ideal. I blame the businesses for this in that their only consideration is the bottom line, and I blame the cheap sign shops for churning out any kind of crap that’s requested.
Could you tell us about some of the signage projects that you have been involved in?
As I said there haven’t been that many. I guess people just don’t feel it’s worth it to spend money on design. So I can cite the work I did for master craftsman Blaine Casson in Toronto for his business ‘Iron Oxide’. He fabricated the signs I designed himself, and did a fantastic job of it.
I did a sign for my local homeowners group ‘The Hollywood Dell’ which came out pretty nice—there were several of them which were fabricated dimensionally out of wood by one of the sign shops at Universal Studios. Several years back I did two signs for a local ephemera shop ‘Chic-A Boom’ which were affixed to the front and on the roof of their store. They were painted, and fairly cheaply done . . . the store has now closed and the signs are gone.