Anthony Zukofsky on the multidisciplinary balance of design, education and writing in his practice
Anthony Zukofsky is a New York-based creative who curiously explores a multitude of disciplines across graphic design, education and writing. His career has seen him work with a broad range of studios, brands and institutions, from Apple, Pentagram and The New York Times Magazine, to his current positions at Instrument and the School of Visual Arts. We caught up with him to find out what he’s learnt so far, and how he benefits from his multidisciplinary approach.
EM Hi Anthony, how’s the new year treating you so far?
AZ Elliott, hello. So nice to speak with you. Over the holiday, I managed to step away from all screens and devices and for once not think about graphic design. If you have the chance, I couldn’t recommend doing this enough. With that said, I feel very present. refreshed, and healthy despite everything happening all over the world. I hope your 2022 is off to a thriving, healthy and present start.
EM Can you give us a little career background on how you got to where you are today?
AZ I’m originally from New Jersey and my awareness of design started while attending a state school for two years prior to the School of Visual Arts. These two years were my primer into graphic design. I was fortunate enough to study with Jan Conradi, a design educator, author and friend who was very close with the Vignelli’s. While I was studying with her, she published one of the most important publications on the prolific design firm, Unimark International. As you can imagine, the curriculum was very steeped in the international style. For me, it provided an incredible grounding in design history, grids, typography (even hand drawing letterforms) and composition. However, it lacked location and access to a larger community which was something I was eager to engage with. This led me to transfer to the School of Visual Arts in 2012. It was actually the only design school I applied for as I wasn’t interested in taking a drawing or design entrance exam at other prominent design institutions.
While studying at the School of Visual Arts, I was thrown right into working with some of the most prominent historical and contemporary figures in graphic design. It’s a humbling experience to take a class with Paul Sahre, Carin Goldberg, Joe Marianek, Dinah Fried, Gail Anderson, Peter Ahlberg and others. It was and still is a special place for me. I spent three years at the institution and maintained a very fruitful set of internships at Apple, The New York Times Magazine, Champions Design (previously OCD) and The Office of Paul Sahre.
Upon graduating, I landed a job at Pentagram working for Michael Beirut. Working under Michael and his team was like attending a graduate programme. Seeing how they produce, navigate and challenge the work was ever so refreshing. The most important thing I learned from this experience wasn’t just about design, but about being a generous, thoughtful human being. From there I went onto Google, XXIX, Base Design and now Instrument. I’ve been beyond fortunate to learn, work and build friendships with the designers at these incredibly talented studios including designers like Rob Giampietro, Min Lew, Jacob Heftmann, Jake Hobart and others. I can’t thank them all enough. While doing so, I’ve intentionally maintained a mixed practice that generally includes working full-time at an agency, small studio or in-house setting, taking on freelance projects, teaching at the School of Visual Arts and writing on the side. For me, working between these channels, feeling uncomfortable and moving on whenever I’ve felt like I’m not learning has provided me with a very rich relationship with design thus far.
EM How do you balance your time between being an Associate Design Director at Instrument, a professor at the School of Visual Arts and all while maintaining a writing practice?
AZ The designer maintaining a holistic practice is something that’s very important to me. As demanding as it may be at times, it provides a very generous relationship with design and our community. It’s taken me a while to strike the right balance and it hasn’t been easy. What I’ve come to learn is the most important thing is understanding yourself as a human and a designer along with what you want from design. It’s something that takes time, it’s something I’m still and always will be trying to figure out but you have to put in the work into yourself first. I’ve learned that as a designer working through these channels of output you have to be constantly checking in with yourself while also being realistic when it comes to time. Plus, staying sharply focused throughout the day.
I’m a morning person and I find that time to be very nurturing for me when it comes to writing. Now that I don’t have to commute, I give myself an hour or so every morning to sit down and write. It’s a very John Cheever-esque routine. This can be around a design or non-design related topic, working on an existing piece, taking on research or taking part in an interview like this one. My day at Instrument doesn't really kick off until 9-10 pm EST as I’ve been working on West Coast hours. This gives me an ample amount of time to check emails, catch up on project tasks and settle into the day. For the past six years now, I’ve taught an evening class once a week at the School of Visual Arts. I find stepping into the classroom (or now the virtual classroom) to be very fulfilling after being in a studio and client setting all day. The students provide me with so much energy along with an ample amount to learn.
I was speechless and had an incredible sense of imposter syndrome.
EM How did you get into teaching and decide that’s something you wanted to do alongside design?
AZ For me, it was a very obvious decision to get involved in academia. All of my mentors (design and non-design related) were either full-time faculty, adjunct professors, or active critics. It goes back to the life learner principle and the fostering relationship that an academic setting provides for design. While studying, professors would invite me to critique other classes or give guest lectures and I absolutely loved being on the other side of the podium. SVA really thrives off inviting recent alumni back into the classroom and after a few semesters of student teaching, they offered me my own class. I was speechless and had an incredible sense of imposter syndrome, which I must confess, is something I still carry to this day. Teaching provides you with a sense of clarity into the work you produce as a designer and your practice. It comes full circle when you're working on a branding project with a client while also giving a lecture on branding to your students. Plus, client work does get monotonous at times.
It’s important to understand that as a designer you are part of a growing, thriving community and you should be actively engaged in that community. There is a nurturing exchange when it comes to teaching, you learn so much from your students and they learn just as much from you. The classroom gives you a space to foster growth, collaboration and teamwork. You're also passing down the torch to the next generation of designers. Everyone is in this together and it would be a shame not to share your experience with someone who is trying to navigate the small yet ever so intimidating world of design.
EM How about your writing – what direction would you like to take in that area of your practice?
AZ First and foremost, I don’t really consider myself a writer. I consider myself a graphic designer who writes, which for me are two very different modes of working. Working this way provides me with a bit more autonomy and grounds me in the fact that I don’t write for a living. The work doesn’t have to be as precious as someone who does this as a primary source of income. It’s a wonderful realisation to accept that and use writing as a tool to bring clarity to the work you produce as a designer. I’m also quite insecure when it comes to writing, I find writing to be a much more intimate experience than designing. I’m interested in short, accessible pieces of text. I find writing on graphic design to be either very academic or too superficial. With that said, I want my writing to have substance but also be accessible, which is a fine line to walk. It’s humbling to think about the rich history of graphic design writing over the past century with people like Michael Rock, Mr. Keedy, David Reinfurt, Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton, Norman Potter, and Jessica Helfand the list goes on and on. I’m incredibly influenced by all of them in different ways. When I first started I was overly existential and thought that every essay had to be this long, exhaustive set of prose but it didn’t have to be that way at all. I’ve also learned that our community doesn’t have a long attention span, so trying to fit a thesis into 500 or 600 words is much more appealing to me.
The business side of design opens up a whole other chapter of the design process.
EM What skills would you like to learn that you haven’t yet found the time for?
AZ I think as a designer you should be constantly learning, feeling uncomfortable with what you're doing, and searching for or challenging a new set of skills whatever they may be. For me, at this moment, I’m interested in leadership, team dynamics and client relationships. How do you ‘design’ a team? How do you get the right team chemistry? I can’t help but think about the work that Elliot Noyes produced while at IBM, collaborating and orchestrating the design process with some of the most prominent architects and designers at that time. How did he do that? Working with clients can be very difficult at times, so how do you manage a good relationship while also keeping the work moving? These interests in leadership have also brought me into the business side of design which is something I’m still learning to navigate after freelancing for a bit and working at various studies. The business side of design opens up a whole other chapter of the design process. All of the things that unfortunately aren’t spoken of in a design education setting that should be but I’ll save that for another time.
EM As you’ve transitioned through to a more senior design position, what have been the pros and cons of how your role has changed?
AZ Stepping into a new role always takes some time to acclimate, especially when it comes to taking on a role within leadership. It’s always going to feel unsettling no matter how ready you may feel for it, in particular, the transition from a Senior Designer to an Associate Design Director was and still is a learning process for me. Luckily, working as an educator, writing and experiencing various studio, agency and in-house environments has helped me step into a leadership role with a bit more ease. These transitions require a different perspective to the work. You aren’t just heads down in the work all day like you might be at a junior, mid or senior design level finessing your craft. You now have to be hyper-vigilant of your team, timeline, resources and next decision, constantly. Your time management needs to be crucial because most of the time you will be juggling meetings all day. With that said, it’s a very humbling and exciting role to be in and you can’t be afraid to fail because it’s going to happen inevitably. Instrument, in particular, provides a very nurturing environment for growth while giving you an ample amount of autonomy to run with projects. You quickly realise that you have a whole team to lean on, learn from and to help you through the process which is how it should be. It’s ever so important to work as a collective, put your ego aside and realise that you are all here to make the best work possible.
EM What do you think about the direction the design industry has been heading in recently? Do you have any favourite studios or creatives that you think are leading the way?
AZ I think we are at a very important turning point in graphic design history. Designers are eager for change brought upon by the impactful political, economical, racial and health threats of the past few years. It's a very raw moment, a moment top of mind for everyone whether we want to engage with it or not, especially for designers whose role it is to exist and flux within this changing world. The critical conversations around race, gender and equality are ever so important and should be happening daily in studios. Discussions around toxic studio environments, student loans, supporting small type foundries and the state of design education should also be happening. I’m so tired of hearing from students or interns about a bad experience they had at a studio or how they’ve been mistreated or underpaid. We should be vocal around these topics, especially coming from a community we hold so near and dear to us. I feel optimistic but it’s going to take hard work and tough conversations in order for us to step into the next chapter but it needs to happen. My favourite studios and designers are the ones that are taking part in this action, breaking down barriers and challenging conventions. For me, graphic design is way more than just making beautiful work. I think designers should care more, we need to be more aware and focused on the space we exist in now along with accepting the crooked history we are trying to break away from.
EM What do you enjoy about New York as a city to work in as a designer?
AZ New York City is one of, if not the most, thriving cities for design in the world. Not just graphic design but design as a whole. Working here forces you to wear many hats and embrace all of the diversity the city has to offer both conceptually and aesthetically. It’s a place that is so steeped in graphic design history that it’s hard not to be influenced by it. Prior to the pandemic, it was a beautiful experience to attend lectures, exhibitions and engage with other designers from various backgrounds. You would run into friends or meet new designers that you might collaborate with down the road or open doors to new opportunities. There is a collective mentality in this city and that’s not just within graphic design. New York City is also one of the only places where you can experience everything from a small studio setting to an agency to a large technology company. It’s something that designers here take for granted but we definitely use it to our advantage. Why not build a set of completely diverse relationships in your community? Why not learn and experience as much as you possibly can from these places and people? It’s something I always tell my students. The design community here gets even smaller the longer you’ve been in it and the more you realise that everyone knows everyone. This can work in your favour if you are a nice, friendly and talented human being. There is a stigma that the design community here in the city is very intimidating to access, which I understand, but in fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s open, welcoming and every single designer or studio would be glad to meet up to talk over a coffee or virtually on a screen.
EM Are there any not so good things about the city?
AZ Of course, it’s easy for me to complain about the city from an economic, educational, political or urban planning point of view. It’s not a sustainable place to live by any means. The city always will present friction in every possible way but that’s what also makes it the best place to live and work, especially as a designer, nothing is easy. Specifically, in the context of graphic design, I do find that it’s easy for designers here to fall into a very similar and expected path of working at the same studios, doing the same type of work, and engaging with the same like-minded set of individuals. These designers then go on to open their own studio and continue to do the same work they’ve always been doing all along. This cadence builds a strong community but on the contrary, leads to a monotonous cycle of sameness within that same community. At times, I find designers to be too comfortable with the work they do and unwilling to change or challenge conventions. I’ve always found designers whose background spans various sectors and spaces to be the most fruitful, the designer who has defined their own path and not followed a given set of preconceived notions. I’m not sure if designers are aware of this or want to accept it but why not try something different? Why not step out of your comfort zone and collaborate with someone from an opposite background? Why not work at an unexpected startup compared to a studio where previous peers or colleagues might be? I’m guilty of this as well but doing the complete opposite of what everyone else is doing is a space I find quite interesting.
EM What are you looking forward to over the next few months?
AZ I’m looking forward to being here and now. The pandemic has taught me that you have no idea what the future holds so why bother thinking about it? Graphic design was literally the very last thing on our minds during those unexpected times. This all sounds very nihilistic but it’s humbling to think and accept these terms. Being in the present, slowing down, and realizing you exist within a living ecosystem will only make for better work along with being an even more engaged designer and individual.