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Pacific Northwest College of Art  Online Magazine  Portland, OR

3 Questions

3 Questions with Alexander Isley

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Designer Alexander Isley on putting in the effort, speaking multiple languages, and why people value expertise.

3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.

The MFA in Applied Craft and Design, with PNCA’s Communication Design Department welcomed Alexander Isley as part of the 2012-2013 Graduate Visiting Artist Lecture Series. You can also listen to a podcast of Alexander Isley’s lecture.



“First why, then what.”


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Photo courtesy of Joey Edwards, MFA ACD ’14.

What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?

I’d say whether you are pursuing the fine or applied arts you will need to put in an incredible deal of effort in order to achieve success. There will be a lot of competition, but most people give up too easily.

That means to be a success you need to truly LOVE what you are doing, and not just do it just because it merely seems interesting. (Although it certainly has to be that as well.)

I can only speak from the perspective of a designer. I enjoy what I do because it’s both an art and a business, and one needs to employ a wide, ever-changing range of skills in order to solve problems. If you look at any designer you admire, whose work inspires you, and whose approach somehow resonates with you, I promise you’ll find a person who does not think of what they do as just their job.


How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?

I’m fortunate in that I look forward to going in to work every day. Some of this is excitement, some is anticipation, and some is panic. I’ve had business advisors over the years who have told me that to be a success you should specialize in one particular thing and become an expert at it. I have been unable to do this, however. Too boring. I think if our job is to be communicators, then we must be engaged in as many different types of things as possible. That’s what keeps me going. I get paid to learn and make things that were not there before. It’s nice.

I’ve never been good at solving puzzles or playing games. I lose interest quickly. But if someone comes to me and says we have this much time, this much money, and we need to do this — well, that’s the kind of game I like. I think generally designers like the challenge of solving other people’s problems and working against constraints, and artists are good at establishing their own constraints and therefore solving their own problems. How’s that for a sweeping generalization?

Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?


A printer once told me that you should be hired for what you know, not what you can do. That was a huge realization for me.

It’s the difference between being an advisor and being a vendor.






Alex Isley first gained recognition in the early 1980s as the senior designer at Tibor Kalman’s influential M&Co. He also served as the first full-time art director at the funny and fearless Spy magazine, and in 1988 founded Alexander Isley Inc. He has lectured and taught in design, typography, and exhibit design at Yale, The Cooper Union, School of Visual Arts, and Rhode Island School of Design, and has been president of the New York Chapter of AIGA.

— Posted on 10/08 at 10:00 AM

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