Michael Bierut | Essays

Rick Valicenti: This Time It's Personal

"Mother's Little Helper" from "The Good Life: Bliss in the Hills," in Emotion is Promotion: A Book of Thirst, Rick Valicenti, 2005

The more graphic design monographs are published, the less certain we seem to be about their purpose. Are they history? Inspiration? Self promotion? Self indulgence? This confusion often begins with the subjects themselves. Some emulate the authority of the art history book but add confessional captions suited to a tell-all memoir. Others lose themselves in experimental layouts that provide a live demonstration of creative viruosity, but impede understanding by the uninitiated.

And then there's Rick Valicenti. In his newly-published book Emotion as Promotion: A Book of Thirst, Valicenti does the seemingly impossible: he provides a glimpse into a designer's life that is at once accessibly seductive and brazenly idiosyncratic. It is a combination that few would attempt and even fewer would pull off. Valicenti does it.

Many designers find themselves trapped in situations far removed from the passions that led them to enter the field in the first place. Each of them can take comfort and inspiration from Valicenti's ability to reinvent himself. He started out as the consummate professional. An early triumph was the lurid and ubiquitous red Helvetica Bold logo for Chicago's Jewel supermarket chain; in the book he surrounds it with over four dozen similar logos, viewing his role as the Patient Zero of the gruesome Helvetica Bold epidemic with a mixture of pride and horror.

Nearly a decade of buttoned-up success followed, and then he threw it all away."After eight years of operating a design-as-vendor-operation titled R. Valicenti Design," he writes, "I decided I would build a practice only for a discerning clientele. Cultural institutions were my first target." A typo (1st, 2nd...3st) suggested the studio's name: Thirst. Emotion as Promotion provides a comprehensive look at the nearly 15 years of work that followed from this decision.

The studio's work is shown in a refreshingly intelligible, even obvious, manner, ranging from conventional assignments handled unconventionally (a annual report for the Chicago Board of Trade), to risky experiments that defy classification (a self-funded ad in I.D. that exhuberantly embeds the slogan "Fuck Apathy" in an anti-Bush message). Valicenti calls on clients, co-workers and collaborators to provide the context in similarly inventive ways: reconstructed meeting transcripts, reproductions of email exchanges, and — for two particularly heartbreaking failed corporate identities — full-blown Elizabethan dramas.

Stories of clients gone bad are fun to tell, of course, and they've become a staple of the contemporary graphic design monograph. In contrast, Valicenti is unique in his unselfconscious passion for those clients that love him back: Herman Miller, Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes, and especially Thirst's most enthusiastic patron, Gilbert Paper. A recorded conference call between three Gilbert executives titled "The Client's on the Line" goes on too long (and, in true Valicenti heart-on-his-sleeve fashion, is almost downright mushy at times) but serves as an unvarnished demonstration of one of the book's aphorisms: "There are only two ways to secure design's opportunities: reputation and personal relationships." Valicenti has built the first through the second.

The creation of Thirst wasn't the last transformation in the restless career of Rick Valicenti. In 1995, the studio closed its downtown location and relocated to Valicenti's suburban home forty miles away. "My new desk faced the woods (beyond an open courtyard, beyond our pool). Right behind me was the kitchen door. Our cherry table, once reserved for meals and homework, made itself the hub of a Thirst boardroom." In a world where most of us carefully guard our hip profession's black-clad image, Valicenti cheerfully embraced all the trappings of midwestern American suburbia, documenting the neighborhood McMansions and casting his soccer-mom neighbors as surreal heroines in Photoshopped fantasies. The raw material is anything but hip, which makes the resulting imagery especially arresting.

The change was temporary. "Our routine dissolved when another round of success came to Thirst, which soon outnumbered family in the residence," says Valicenti. "So ended the Good Life." It is telling that Valicenti spends so much time seeking a balance between two things — success and the good life — that most people find anything but mutually exclusive.

Towards the end of the book, Valicenti writes:

The seduction of the big brand name is very real; the excitement of the phone call from New York or Frankfurt or Tokyo is quite attractive; the notion of designing a brand mascot or national advertising image is a thrill. But somewhere along the way the glitter would fade and it would be just me and the process. I never woke up with a real sense of purpose or a relationship I could value. So in the end, if I would not want to have a new client wake up in my house and share breakfast with my family, why should I give up my time for them?

Designers yearn to be provided opportunities for personal expression, but we labor under the illusion that business must be, in the end, an impersonal activity. But is it? Taking the work personally involves considerable risks: exposure, rejection, embarassment. Emotion as Promotion is a valuable testiment to how substantial the rewards can be.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Media

Comments [19]

I recently met Rick at Design Inquiry, Portland Maine.
Rick is design inspiration. He is design truth.

Also, Check out what the crazy kids are up to at WILDLUV.
A project of Lorrain WILD, LU (Louise) Sandhaus and Rick Valicenti.

bill klingensmith

Michael, thank you for your impassioned review of Rick's book - surpassed only by the exuberant work and career this publication documents. As someone who has watched, and been influenced by, Rick's career and now has the privilege of being close to the flame through our new venture, Wild LuV, I've seen personally what makes Rick special. He represents a rare model of practice (but one that is the quality of the historical work that we remember best and most): Passion creates passion. Rick's opportunities came, and continue to come, because he takes risks, because he makes people he works with feel good and have fun and because of that his clients deliver their own energy and confidence. Being a great talent is only half the game - cultivating and caring about the dirt in which you grow is the other. Rick is the shit!
Louise Sandhaus

Ditto to the above, oh comrades from DesignInquiry. I was lucky enough to be in Rick's (and Louise's, and bill k's) workshop group, 6 days running. It was liberating to watch Rick constantly doodling, or turning a chopstick into a thorny shape dripping in black ink, or cracking wise: a doodle of a bracelet reads WWJAD (What Would J Abbott Do?)... The man's energy and inventiveness are prodigious.

Since then, I've been enjoying what I'm calling the Rick-ochet effect. No bars held, the worst thing that can happen is that I strike the wrong note, keep moving forward. Fearlessness coupled with curiosity. Throw empathy into the mix, reach outward, and there's a life practice worth having.
Marty Blake

everything is personal.

As someone who grew up "40 miles" from Chicago, I had to do some more digging. His work is familiar to me but not in name. Now that's changed. Although Barrington, where Valienti, lives is a bit more posh (their post prom parties were legendary including once a private showing at Second City) than dear old Geneva, its good to know that there is creativity springing forth from the Far Western Suburbs.

Mr. Bierut:

I want to start off by complimenting this website. Like one of the many upcoming designers struggling to find their niche, this website provides us with insight and inspiration, especially when it comes from someone of your (and your colleagues') stature.

In the article, you stated, "Designers yearn to be provided opportunities for personal expression, but we labor under the illusion that business must be, in the end, an impersonal activity." This statement really struck home with me. Has this ever happened to you (I assume it did since you made that comment)? If so, how did you break out of that?


This is a great question. All of the good designers I admire have developed a conviction that the way they serve their clients the best is by bringing a strong point of view to the designer/client relationship. This doesn't always mean simply imposing a strong visual style on everything. It can also mean caring deeply about the meaning of the work, what the messages are, how they're directed, and so forth.

Many clients enter into relationships with designers from a defensive position. They don't understand the design process as well as they do the rest of their business life, so they are wary of being taken advantage of by this mysterious character the designer. The only antidote to that is to work hard to develop trust and mutual respect. Sometimes, if you can afford it, it means walking away from situations where you can't make this happen. (By the way, you always can afford it.)

I wouldn't claim to bring anywhere near the same idiosyncratic form making skills and interests as Rick Valicenti does in his work, but in all my favorite projects I would say that my personal concerns are key.

There are many other Design Observer discussions that have touched on this subject one way or another. An interesting one is here.
Michael Bierut

I met Rick at a lecture in Dallas about 12 years and found him to be totally inspring. I stayed after to help him sell his "AIDSHOULDIE" t-shirts at a nearby table. His skethes made absolutely no sense and were quite terrible. But this guy has huge balls and scratches them in a new and refreshing way.

Me? I scratch em old-fashioned. Which can only mean one thing: small balls.
felix sockwell

But this guy has huge balls and scratches them in a new and refreshing way.

well then.

I suppose a thank you is in order.

Thank You.

Just today I was alerted that the Monacelli Press had requested a belly band for this book's point of purchase. In an effort to appropriate any line from Michael Bierut's knowing review for an employ-a-good-pull-quote-design (with Michael's ultimate permission, of course), I came across comment #8 which captured my attention and begs for tomorrow's permission request.

Funny how the more human the message, the more compelling its presence. rv
Rick Valicenti

Human balls usually carry presence.

Glad you liked the quote... you can use
it however you like. I'd be flattered.

felix sockwell

Just picked up your book yesterday and what can I say... a thing of beauty -- a personal journey of hope and wisdom.

After slowly turning through the pages, I saw stuff from way back and remembered how moved I was when I first saw those early Thirst images. In retrospect, I remember those early days when I was working at Reactor some 18 years ago now, looking at your stuff and attempting to rip it off (gently), just to get a peak of what was inside you, so that I could find out what was inside me. I liken it to listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane and trying to lift some of their improvised lines -- not to merely lift their licks, but to attempt to understand and comprehend the language of improvisation within ones soul.

Best of luck + love on this book Rick and its about time that everyone can see what you hear.

Also, thanks for listing me in the intro as well... it moved me,

Paul Sych
paul sych

I was intrigued by the choice of image to accompany Michael's review of Rick's book.

"The Good Life" was a lot of fun to make. It was back when it was just four of us at Thirst: Rick, Barb (Valicenti, Rick's younger sister), Patric (King) and myself in a room off the back of Rick's house. He sketched out the whole piece, creating dys/utopian scenarios about his neighbours' lives in some technologically-advanced parallel universe. PK made the incredible digital renderings - this was in 1997, when a complex 3D render would take days or weeks to generate. Then PK and Rick photoshopped the pictures which Bill (Valicenti, Rick's younger brother) had taken under the art direction of our neighbour Jim Root, who is featured along with his family in this photo. A young guy in Iowa named Chad Johnston created the perfected vector versions of Rick's phone doodles, which were diecut into the typographic overlays we made using a small and crazily mismatched collection of Thirstype fonts: Smile by PK, The Royal Family by Patrick Giasson, and my Rheostat. (All three of which are now out of print.)

Damn, we had fun back then. Rick never held an idea back, or reigned an idea in. And when we made something, we made it all: we wrote, directed, produced, and sometimes starred in the piece. We used type from friends, or we made it ourselves. We took the photos, or worked directly with photographers. (We licensed a single stock photo - a field of corn - which was overlaid with a photo of PK dressed up as Uncle Sam. (To illustrate a Clinton-era farming policy.))

If there's a quick and easy path and a difficult but scenic path to a destination, you can bet that Rick will take the latter path. He's always pushing and risking failure: when he fails, he does so spectacularly; when he succeeds, he does so spectacularly.

Thoughts on Rick Valicenti and his book.

I was excited when I found out that his book was coming. It's not just because I liked his work and admired him as a designer. It's because I had the great opportunity to meet him and worked on a small project with him 6 or 7 months before the book came out.

We met at DesignInquiry where we both attended as participants. At that time I just came back from Japan so I didn't really have a place to stay. Rick told me I could sleep on the floor in his place where he was staying. It was just funny that I crashed into his place the day I met him and actually Rick let me sleep on the floor for 3 nights.

I thought the size of his book would be about the same as Sagmeister's book. But when I got the package, I was like "wow! this is big!" The package was, however, much bigger than the book, but it was still a big book! I opened the package and started flipping through the book in my studio. I usually don't like the dust cover because it always gets in a way when I read a book so I just take it off every time. But I liked the plastic cover on the book and it didn't really bother me so much. After flipping his book through, I thought "Is this it???" I felt that something was missing. On a second read I found I was mistaken.

I guess I was expecting to see something crazy from his book. I assumed that he would go and design something crazy for his own book like sometimes he does for his clients' projects or his personal projects, but the book was nothing like that. Its genius is in its simplicity.

What amazes me is that Rick knows exactly what he is supposed to do and he did exactly what he was supposed to do with his book. Yes, of course, he is in this business for years so he should know what he has to do as a designer. What I am trying to say here is that he always has done his best for his clients and himself. Rick uses every possible way to do his best for the job. I personally don't think that it's easy to do what you are suppose to do and give your best as a designer or in any other profession for so many years. He pushes too much so sometimes he fails as Tibor said, but I bet he tried so many times and created genius pieces of work only to have his best work rejected so many times by his clients. We don't usually see it because we see the perfection of his final pieces and the sunny side of his persona as an internationally renowned designer. He knows how hard he can push and try because he has learned from his experiences. Rick offers many great lessons for young designers who pressure themselves to never fail.

While Rick could have done something crazy with this book, it seems to me that he knew exactly how far he wanted to go with the design from his own "experience" and the book came out quite simple, but with so much good stuff in it. But again not too much. It looks like no matter how many times he might fail, Rick can't stop himself from trying, pushing and doing his best. Rick knows how much he can do and can't do, but he does as much as he could anyway. For his book, Rick didn't really go crazy. I get a sense that he knew what his book should be doing and he designed the book as he wanted it to be.

Thanks Rick. You are wonderfool!!!


I'd like to get Rick's word on Rick—The Book. Everyone (it seems) likes to give a last word on what it was like to edit and produce their own tome. Sagmeister said his was one of the most enjoyable experiences ever while Scher worried that design monographs are the kiss of death.

Per Saturo's note, its nice to see positive endorsements going Rick's way. I hate these obscene episodes in flattery but apparently its hard to put a good man down.

felix sockwell

RV's "Nabisco Thing" is one of the greatest mascots of the 90s. Remember it? Rick took the radio-antenna-like Nabisco logo and turned it into a dancing rainbow man! (You can still find him on some OREO boxes... and in occasional eBay auctions for Nabisco playing cards & keychains.)

I wish there were more Nabisco THING-related material in this book!

I also wish RV would have included his late-2001 Photoshopp'd photographs of the Sears Tower getting hit by passenger planes. When I got those photos in my inbox, I wondered -- just as I'm sure RV wanted me to -- "What the hell is this guy thinking?"

A nervously hilario-serious commentary on Chicago's inferiority complex: "Look -- WE can get hit by planes TOO!"

A few weeks back I watched The Godfather Part III. Its uncanny how Rick looks like (not as old mind you) Al Pacino and how poignant his line is in the movie "Just when I thought that I was out they pull me back in"... Rick is like the "Pacino" of the Design world -- he takes no shit.

Better still, watch Rick in Scarface for the real Pacino.
Paul Sych

I saw Rick speak at an event sponsored by Gilbert paper a number of years ago. After he showed his work and talked about making good work, there was a Q & A session. I stood up and asked him: "You produce work that is provocative, but often somewhat grotesque and less concerned with beauty than the message. How do you sell this work to your clients?"

Rick was slightly taken aback by the question, (and it apparently upset the people from Gilbert Paper that were in attendance.) This wasn't my intention - I really wanted to know. I realize that the beauty of Rick's work isn't necessarily on the surface - it's genius is in the fact that it jars the viewer and is never the same twice.

Big balls indeed. But he also has clients with big balls.
Travis Cain

big brains. big balls and even bigger budgets. you ever see one of those Gilbert promos? they weigh at least 2lbs- which is exactly twice the weight of a normal-sized promo. impressive.
felix sockwell

Please let me debunk a bit...

The printing = $$$$$. The design = ¢. The paper = FREE!

The budgets for those Gilbert promotional pieces are high from a production point of view, as they are meant to show how great the paper is, and how well it performs. Which is why most pieces have 4c process (or hex), foil stamping, engraving, die-cutting, die-stamping, etc. etc.

The budget for design is usually small, but it's "such a great opportunity" and a "blank canvas". Never mind that blank canvas projects are really quite difficult; one is charged with making something from nothing. Rick is good at this.

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