20 Questions with Lance Wyman, "Navigating Life"

Read Time: 14 minutes

SEGD asks 20 questions of Lance Wyman, FSEGD, an experiential graphic design legend—a literal icon of icons—who is currently working on a massive transit system for Mexico City, where he did some of his most beloved work in the late 1960s.

Lance Wyman, FSEGD is hands-down one of the coolest people you could ever meet—and seems to do so completely effortlessly. Soft-spoken dressed in narrow black jeans, skater kicks and hip "Power Through Peace" Mexico68 jacket (a recent collaboration with Puma), he could as easily be 18 as 82. He sat down with us over coffee to talk about his life and work.

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Would you please tell us the origin story of the Lance Wyman Ltd. logo?

LW: It’s a W that also has an L in it with an arrow. It was done originally as part of an alphabet as part of a show, and Bruce Blackburn had the B and said ‘Wow, I like my B, I think I’ll use it for my office logo.’ So that was it.

 

What are you working on now?

LW: Two very exciting things: I might be doing a program for Teotihuacán—the large pyramids just outside Mexico City—and for the city, I’ve been invited to do a [wayfinding] integration project for all of the transport systems.

I did the Mexico City Metro exactly 50 years ago. The Metro is part of the project along with the Metro Bus, a new cable bus and the connections between other parts of the system. It’s really exciting for me; it’s like a dream come true to be able to work on that.

 

What does Mexico mean to you or in your life, outside of doing work there?

LW: It’s a land of discovery for me. Mexico has meant a lot, because it’s a culture that I’ve absolutely fallen in love with. And, I think I’ve done most of my best work there.

Growing up in New Jersey and New York, I didn’t really know much about anything about Mexico or points farther south. We grew up with Anglo-centric, Northern European-based history education—I knew they had piñatas, in fact, that was the only thing I did know.

So, when my partner Peter, my wife and I got one-way tickets and went down for the first time [for the 1968 Olympics project], it was a true voyage of discovery going from New York to this big, historic city.

 

Do you think that being in a physical place or space inherently influences the work you do there?

LW: Well, I intentionally do that and especially for placemaking. In Mexico, the idea came up to do icons for the different Metro stations; it just seemed so natural, because there’s so much going on in the city, from a historical perspective and of the moment, new building projects that would be the future of the city, people and personalities involved—it all added to a story that people that live there weren’t necessarily conscious of.

I think for that particular system, the idea of having icons for each station was like archaeology itself—we dug up the city’s past and brought it to the surface. In that sense, it was really a nice experience, exposing the roots of the place.

Every place has roots, we don’t always pay attention to them.

 

How do you get to such perfect simplicity in your work? Is it a reductive process?

LW: It has many routes.

I think Einstein—I might’ve been a high school student when I first heard this—said, ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ The catch is the ‘not simpler’ part.

With too much simple, you risk stupidity; with not enough, it becomes too complicated and the message gets lost. I think there has to be content. Simplicity doesn’t mean anything by itself. When you’re talking about identity, you’re talking about communication and that’s all about content.

 

Are there any forms or colors that you have an affinity for or are a recurring theme for you?

LW: I’ve never thought about that.

If anything, it would be circles. To me, form is not static. I’ve had the most success letting energy happen through form. The perfect example would be the Olympics—letting the forms be an expression of energy and speed. All the parts that came together for that program came from round forms, which can express energy in a continuous way that’s suggestive of the human body. That is, without hard edges.

 

How and where did you start thinking about design?

LW: I guess it started when I was a kid and would make model airplanes and had a model train that rolled under the bed—when I think about it, it wasn’t the trains that interested me as much as the Railroad Crossing sign, which I thought was so cool. Actually, working in transportation has been a pattern in my family: My Grandfather worked on the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad—DLW—and when I was born, they wanted my initials to be the same, so I became David Lance Wyman.

They never called me David, though. My first day of kindergarten, I was sent home because they thought I was deaf when I didn’t respond to my name—that actually happened!

 

You could have been just as successful doing only identity work—why EGD?

LW: Goodness, it just happened. A lot of the early work that I did was not really done before, especially the use of iconography.

Before the [1968] Olympics I had experience that touched into the field, but I think exhibit work is where I first got a sense of it. I did the USA Pavilion at the Zagreb International Trade Fair [Zagreb, Croatia, 1962] and I remember getting a kick out of the symbol because it was this sort of bouncing ball that was simple but conveyed perpetual movement. Then, I came home to New York and I worked on the Chrysler Pavilion at the NY World’s Fair [New York, 1963] and we had five islands, so I had to get involved with indicating where everything was, and that was my first real wayfinding project. When I made it to Mexico, having that experience was invaluable.

 

What other projects affected the trajectory of your career?

LW: Well, certainly the Olympics was a turning point as far as being involved in really complicated systems. I think it was through that experience that I realized iconography was going to be my future. Whether I knew it in a literal sense or not, I certainly felt and pursued it.

When I worked on the Metro after the Olympics, I suggested using an icon for each stop and they asked if I thought their people were illiterate! If you can’t read or write, icons help—but it wasn’t so much about illiteracy, as the fact that cities are places where people from around the world visit.

It increasingly made sense to me, and I was able to translate that to the people I was working with at Metro. Thank goodness they got it and now it’s history. I love it; it’s so rich.

Even Darwin doesn’t know the origin of our languages or have a precise evolutionary answer for why it happened. Maybe our way of communicating doesn’t have to be language—the visual world is something that we take full advantage of—a wink says a lot, right?

 

What advice would you give about translating ideas into an environment?

LW: I think the basic communication is absolutely critical and the implementation depends on the environment. I dealt with this on the Calgary +15 Skywalk System [Alberta, Canada, 1985] where the solution was partially inspired by how the local Blackfoot people use patterns of circles that represent constellations of stars—and each family or group has one, presented on their tepees as identification and a wayfinding device.

What could be better than a constellation as a wayfinding symbol for a skywalk? So, I made the +15 system out of circles, with a little character walking along it.

I like to be literal, but not dumb-literal, you know? It’s like a joke, if you have to explain what’s being referred to, it doesn’t work. This is the same type of thing.

The circle was ideal too, because you can cut a circle into any kind of flooring material. To keep people on track going through spaces like bank lobbies, I cut circles into marble floors and inset a different shade of marble; it was subtle, and you couldn’t clean it away—it will always be there. In more active environments, like a department store, you could do vibrant bright-color dots into the linoleum tile.

 

What does the user research or design research look like for you?

LW: The best thing you can do is show up and not have attitude. Just try to really see what’s going on and what you’re dealing with.

I did this in two or three city projects: I’d ask for a squad car and ride around with Police, because they really know what’s going on. When I started the City of Detroit Wayfinding [Detroit, Mich., 2000] project I knew quite a lot about Detroit, but I didn’t know much about what had happened in the years since I’d lived there—before the riots burned much of the midtown area. I rode around with two police officers, who told me that they knew we were going to put signs about the major points of interest in the area but added that people were frightened to drive into certain areas, so signs directing them to a way out could be helpful. I would never have thought of that; that kind of information is invaluable. 

The bottom line on this is: Make sure that you know that you don’t know everything. Don’t try to be a smarty and come into a project with a pre-determined solution.

 

What work or project has taught you the most about yourself, or grow the most on a personal level?

LW: There have been many, but one was being on the SEGD Board.

After I was voted president of my high school class, I discovered would have to get up every Friday in front of the whole school and read announcements and bible passages. I got up there for the first time and my knees were banging against the big wooden lectern so hard that I had bruises! But, after a year of that, I was comfortable speaking to large groups. One on one conversation was always okay for me—but man—when I first started on the Board, with 12 people all at odds on a subject, I really had a hard time participating. That experience really helped me overcome that small group dynamic and I’ll always be grateful to SEGD for it.

As far as work goes, the experience I had with the Mexico68 Olympic Games was a blessing, because we had to work with three languages: Spanish, French and English. With signage, it’s hard enough with one language, much less three, so the language we used was visual.

I realized we could use silhouettes very effectively for any type of information: a row of seats, an individual seat, walking, running, whatever you want—you can do it with silhouettes pretty easily. I remember sitting around a table with the organizing committee and saying we have 19 sporting events and we know how to identify them, but there are also 19 cultural events like science projects, music, dance and a children’s program. How do you identify them? Making icons for them was difficult. It’s finding a way to make things look like they belong to the same club, so to speak. That experience was key for much of my future work.

 

Who have been some of the biggest influences on the way you make images?

LW: I’ve always loved the way Leo Lionni thought about form. He did a delightful series of books with form work.

When I was a student, Saul Bass was doing identity work I really liked. I had a series of his posters on my wall. I studied industrial design—at that time, they didn’t teach graphic design except on the graduate level, which is where I first came in touch with it. I represented the Industrial Design School at Pratt at the first General Motors Student program, where I met at student at Yale studying graphic design and I never turned back, so Paul Rand would be in this category as well.

From fine art, I’ve always loved what David Smith did with simple forms—that got me into the sculptural, into forms, into space.

And certainly, discovering the Pre-Hispanic cultures in Mexico was very influential for me and I don’t think I was the only one. If you look at the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, it was obviously influenced by early Mexican architectural forms. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Walt Disney looked at the way animals were expressed—they were so good at using geometry to handle the expression of nature, human and mythological forms.

 

How do you feel about material or graphic trends in the field?

LW: I love it all. I’m not against any form of expression, as long as it works. To outlast a trend, though, I think you have to do something powerful.

 

Has the way you choose or come to projects changed over the course of your career?

LW: It takes care of itself. I have a reputation for doing certain types of things, I do a lot of work for cities and when they come along, I say yes.

I’ve gone through different points in my career where I was looking for work—and that’s torture—but I’ve also been lucky because one thing has led to another and the nice thing about that is, you can never learn enough about any one subject.

Take iconography: when you think about it, we navigate our lives now by iconography. We’re still learning how to design icons and that’s great.

 

What business advice would you give young designers?

LW: I’m not the business type, I’ve never been good at that. Bill Cannan and I had an office for nine years; he was the one who put the business model together.

I taught for 40 years at Parsons, and I had a student who when we would put stuff up on the wall, I could’ve just gone off and slept and let him talk, because he was such a great critic of design. I told him at the end of the semester, ‘you’re probably not going to be a great designer, but you’re going to be a great design director,’ and that’s what he did.

So, my advice is: follow your talents and do what works best for you. There are many areas in design that can be stepped into, especially as the field becomes more diverse.

 

What’s the immediate future for the field?

Software is giving designers the facility of integrating code into what they do.

I did an icon set for Adobe and attended a conference of theirs in Berlin; the conference was all for people who write code, and the presenters were all designers. You could see the writing on the wall: The coders want to know more about design, because they’ll be out of work when designers have easier ways of writing or integrating code.

It’s an ever-changing field—thank goodness I kept up with it. In my generation, a lot of designers eschewed computers and did everything by hand. It’s not about by hand or by computer. It’s about concept, refinement and sensitivity in the end. The sensitive refinement of a good idea always wins the day.

 

Where are you finding daily inspiration?

LW: Inspiration is all around you, just keep your eyes and ears open, it’s never one thing even when you’re delving deeply into one subject for a project.

I’m not a birdwatcher, but I find inspiration in the birds in Central Park.

 

So, retirement is off the table forever, right?

LW: When I was a kid, I remember being very impressed by this old guy in his 80’s, Pablo Casals, giving cello lessons on TV, which was a huge box with a tiny bubble screen. I thought it was so cool and I thought ‘when I’m older, I want to be chipper like this guy.’ So Pablo, thank you!

Those things happen, they’re epiphanies.

 

Please tell us one more?

When we came back from Mexico, my wife and I bought a run-down building in a bad section of New York with another couple. She got involved with citywide block associations and brought me to community groups with the idea of having me inspire them to get talented people in their community to do logos and t-shirts for their block associations.  

So, we’re in Harlem in the basement of a church with 40-50 people in attendance in a packed room, and I was going to present about what graphic design could do for their community. I got about five slides into my presentation and a woman stood up and said, ‘What the f*** are you talking about, man?’ Talk about in your face! Thankfully, I had enough speaking experience to be able to ask if her block association had a t-shirt. She was still on my case, ‘No!’ I asked why not? I could see she was starting to soften, so I started my presentation again, this time without mentioning graphic design or any shop talk. All I did was talk about what they could do with what’s available and at the end, I got an applause—even from her!

That was a really big lesson: We talk to each other too much. You’ve got to get out, know your audience and speak to them the way they speak.

 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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