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Lance Wyman talks Process

By Mark Sinclair

Our new book, Lance Wyman: Process, is a near facsimile of the leather-bound ‘sketchbook’ that the US designer made when working on his proposal for the 1976 American Bicentennial identity. The book opens with an interview with Wyman where he discusses how the project began, how his design thinking evolved over its duration, and how an understanding of his own ‘process’ became integral to the creation of the work. An edited extract of this conversation with Adrian Shaughnessy is featured below.

Wyman’s original book catalogues the work he produced in collaboration with the architect Michael Cohalan, which was submitted in a competition to design a logo and graphic identity for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations that would mark the creation of the USA as an independent republic.

By 1970, Wyman had acquired quite a reputation. His work for the Games of the XIX Olympiad, otherwise known as the Mexico 68 Olympics, was widely acclaimed, especially by clients involved in civic and public wayfinding projects, and it had been eulogised in design magazines – even the art critic of The New York Times had written a fulsome appreciation. 

Having spent four years in Mexico City, Wyman came home to New York in 1971 – and to a country that was on the verge of officially decreeing that graphic design, and design in general, was to have a central role in Federal policy. In 1972, President Richard Nixon initiated the Federal Design Improvement Program, a far-ranging initiative run by the National Endowment of the Arts and headed up by the visionary Nancy Hanks.

Wyman was to work on numerous projects that came from this enterprise, some of them amongst the most celebrated of his career: National Zoo (1975), Washington Mall (1975), Minnesota Zoo (1979). But before any of these large-scale civic projects, and before he had even returned to the USA, Wyman took part in a competition to design the graphics for the Bicentennial celebrations which were to take place in 1976. As can be seen in the pages of his sketchbook, Wyman approached the task with his customary mix of graphic rigour and visual ingenuity.

Adrian Shaughnessy: I’d like to begin by asking you to say what the work in this book is?

Lance Wyman: What we have is a reproduction of a book I made as a record of the work done for a competition to design a logo and graphics for the Bicentennial celebrations planned to celebrate
the USA’s 200th birthday in 1976. There are proposals for the symbol and how it could be translated into architecture. There is also a proposal for a typeface, for merchandise, and for various environmental applications.

I really just wanted to document the work for my own use. At that time, I was having things bound in leather because in Mexico it was quite inexpensive. I worked very hard on this project, and actually won the competition. But then, as I’ll explain later, it all fell apart.

AS: This was a competition run by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission to find a symbol and graphics programme for the national celebrations in 1976. How did you come to be involved? Did the Commission know you from your Mexico Olympics work?

LW: I don’t know for sure that they were aware of it. I was also known for the work I’d done with George Nelson before going to Mexico in 1966. I had worked in the Nelson office, and I worked with George personally on a project for the United States Information Agency (USIA) for an exhibition in the USSR of American industrial design. We used an adaption of the US flag for the
main symbol.

AS: Was there a brief from the Commission?

LW: I don’t remember a brief. There must have been one, I suppose. I remember the Commission was quite formal. I had to have a letter from my banker stating my financial stability! You can see the letter at the back of this book. Ultimately this formality worked against me. Because although I won the competition, I didn’t end up doing the work because I didn’t have a US office with staff.

AS: Did you work alone?

LW: I worked with my wife Neila’s brother, Michael Cohalan. He’s an architect, and back then had a practice in Washington DC. I flew Michael down, and we put in an intensive week of effort. It’s a good example of combining graphics and architecture. It was taking a visual idea and pushing it into physical spaces.

AS: Can you say something about the design thinking that went into the symbol?

LW: I’d used a lot of parallel lines for the Olympics, which was inspired by the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico. As I’ve already mentioned, I had worked with the US flag before. Traditionally, no-one used the flag for commercial purposes, or altered it in any way. But I think the Brits broke that down in the 1960s when the Union Jack was used in fashion and music. I must say, I enjoyed the freedom to work with the flag. I had the idea of the flag in motion, the motion of cloth.

AS: There is also the use of the numerals 7 and 6. They are used quite subtly, was that intentional?

LW: Actually, my first thought was to just use the numerals. But then I got the idea of combining them with the flag, and yes, I was concerned that the numerals were too subtle.

AS: But the Bicentennial Commission must have liked them because you won the competition.

LW: Well, yes, I did. But I don’t have any letters saying that I’d won. I remember a lot of telephone calls back and forth. And I remember it getting tricky because they were not sure I could handle the job. They let me keep going, and I did some other studies, but by this time they were talking to other people, and I knew it was all over. In the end, the symbol and graphics were designed by Bruce Blackburn at Chermayeff & Geismar Associates.

AS: What would you like a young designer, raised in the digital age, to take away from the work here?

LW: The hardest thing to teach is having a concept, a new idea that can become a good solution. With the computer there is a tendency to start with the final refined solution. But this misses out on an important step – first establishing a unique concept. With every job, I’d pin everything to the wall in search of that magic idea. It’s really easy to sabotage yourself by trashing something – by thinking - too obvious, corny, crude, etc....

I’ve found that if I keep my ideas in front of me, even if I’ve sabotaged some, I have the visual evidence of what had happened and I can rethink. So yes, there is a role for this book to show process, to show how a concept is the first step, and how it is refined over time. It’s a process. It’s not instant.

This is an extract of the full interview with Wyman that appears in Lance Wyman: Process. A proposal for the 1976 USA Bicentennial identity, available now from the Unit shop.