Michael Doret, Illustrator/Designer

Michael Doret is the forever quiet storm, an innovator whose career works have influenced generations of designs. Born of the era of design giants, a 1960’s Cooper Union graduate with roots in Brooklyn, he’s part of a golden age that continues to produce great works in the face of great competition. Doret’s works stand up, stand proud, and are ultimately successful for the clients who hire him. In our current arena of cost cutting, where stock and cheap-as-possible solutions arise from trickle-down belt tightening, quality tends to slide, but to what damage? Designer/Illustrators are feeling a pinch for sure, with younger designers, many who might not realize their concepts are derivatives of Doret’s, getting the nod for gigs over the old pros.

What’s an icon to do? Diversify? Learn some new tricks, or rely on their skills and name-recognition? There’s no easy answer. With the creative market ever-changing as audience behavior shifts like undertones from print to web and back, splintering into smaller and smaller audiences, the places for “good” illustration/design seem like springtime icebergs, molting and calving. Are magazine covers the last outpost? Pharmaceutical ads?

We ask Mr. Doret about his carer path, design, and his craft, and he answers with the bold color swaths found within his illustrations.

Wise Elephant (WE): Font face, type design, letterform. What led you to focus on this art/design

Michael Doret (MD): I can remember even in High School doing an anti-litterbug poster where I drew a crumpled piece of loose-leaf paper and you could see the distorted and fragmented words on the paper spelling out the headline. I don’t remember how I figured out how to draw those letterforms, but I can see now that even back then I was fascinated with the drawn letter.

Who knows how we respond to certain stimuli as we grow up—why certain things will affect one person one way, but somebody else completely differently. I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn in a neighborhood near Coney Island. I would ride my bike there with my friends to get a hot dog at Nathan’s. I recently found an old photo of my brother and me in front of the Tilt-A-Whirl. In the photo I’m surrounded by the incredible signage and banners that Coney Island was known for. I’d never really thought about it before, but when I found the photo I had an epiphany…that being around this stuff growing up must have had an indelible effect on my brain. My Dad worked in Times Square, so I’d find myself there quite often—again surrounded by incredible signage, billboards, sights and sounds. I realized that most of my work would feel right at home above a Coney Island shooting gallery or on a billboard in the Times Square of my youth.

Somehow in school (Cooper Union) I seemed to gravitate towards things typographic. After school I apprenticed with my typography teacher in his type shop on West 26th St. My first job out of school was at a place called Photo-Lettering, which happened to be (at the time) the world’s largest photo typesetting house. After that I held a series of staff design positions, but took on freelance design work at night. For some reason I could never find the fonts I was visualizing for my designs, so I started drawing what I saw in my head. One thing led to another, and here I am.

WE: It has been said that speaking is natural to human brains, and that writing
is unnatural, that it is a forced and uncomfortable skill. Why is it that
well crafted letterforms are so imperative?

MD: I don’t think I’ve heard that before. Perhaps it’s true. I don’t think of my craft as having that much in common with the act of writing. What I do is much more deliberate and more akin to sculpture or illustration, where I start out with an amorphous sketch, and then in stages, hone in on it in ever tightening drawings until it’s something like the configuration I’ve visualized. It’s not so much writing as solving a visual puzzle.

Until I started creating fonts (just the last three years) well crafted letterforms were not my focus. Sure, I did lettering, but the style of letters was never as important to me as the overall “constellation” I was creating. In other words it was more important for me to create a thing, a conglomeration, a configuration, which most often consisted of more than just letterforms, but could contain illustrative elements as well, all working together harmoniously. So the style of letterform for me could be interchangeable and not as important as the “gestalt” of the whole. It’s more important that the piece I’m working on creates the right mood and has the “look” I’m going for, than for it to correctly reference “Bodoni” or “Cheltenham”. That the whole is well-crafted for me goes without saying. Perhaps that is just part of my obsessive compulsive nature.

WE: Guy Kawasaki, an early Mac engineer, stated that desktop publishing saved
the Mac computer. Did desktop publishing ruin or reinforce letterform

MD: I’m really not sure about how to answer this. The people who do desktop publishing are not my market. I do think that the pervasiveness of personal computers in general are helping to make many artistic specialties appear to be irrelevant. As far as what I do, I believe that many are incapable of perceiving the difference between my work and something they can concoct on their computer by setting type and applying a few Photoshop filters. Most people are now free to think of themselves as “designers” despite their ignorance of the subject. The results are apparent everywhere. Cheap imitations abound.

WE: What new markets do you see that could/would benefit from letterform design?

MD: I can’t answer this question specifically, but what new market couldn’t benefit from just plain old good design in whatever form that was relevant to it?

The problem with the PC is it seems to be a large factor in enabling a march of mediocrity. Now everyone can be an artist, everyone can be a critic, etc., etc. I think some good can come out if it too, but on the whole I think it’s a mixed bag that, in my humble opinion is a bit weighted towards the negative.

WE: From our current interview with Tyson Domer, he identifies that there is a deficit in a general public understanding of “design” which leads to the mediocrity. Thoughts?

MD: I believe that any “deficit in a general public understanding of ‘design’” comes out of an almost complete ignorance of and lack of respect and awareness of the arts in general—and I’m only speaking of the public here in the US. “Art” is generally thought of here as the something one dabbles in on weekends—usually by dilettantes and communists. Art is not part of peoples everyday lives as it is in Europe, and it is not understood how important it is in terms of everything around us, from the lowliest paper clip to the tallest skyscraper. Art is not ingrained in our society, and very little importance is placed on it by our educational institutions. Is it any wonder that our cities look the way they do? Taking a walk around most parts of LA would depress the hell out of you.

One has only to look into Steven Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” in our culture in order to understand why people also “rely on a basic instinct or “feel” to describe whether they like or dislike a particular place, and leave it at that.” One doesn’t need any in-depth knowledge of anything—all you need is to feel it in your gut.

WE: What can you do as a designer to provide the viewer with the realization/entry into the fact that your designs are top-level. Is it in the craft itself? The type of clients you work for?

MD: I don’t believe there’s anything I can do in that respect. Many people will look at my work and somehow “feel” that it really works. But they don’t understand what’s behind it. Many think that if they set some type and apply some Photoshop filters, they’d have a close approximation of my work. And many can’t tell the difference anyway. I think for many the only way that they might understand that someone’s work is better than others is to incessantly drum it into their heads by either constant promotion or by constantly being praised by “authority figures”. Most people know who Picasso or Andy Warhol were, but go a little deeper and mention names of respected artists that haven’t been drummed into their heads, and you’d probably draw a blank stare.

WE: Do you use “feel”? How much is your work feel vs. intellect?

MD: Contrary to what I wrote above, there is a point beyond which one’s art education cannot take you. When doing a piece I do follow certain formulas, but there are many cases where I have to depart from what I “know” is right and follow my feelings. For example, I can’t explain why but I think of color in terms of musical chords. I might look at a piece I’m working on and realize that it doesn’t “sound” right. So I’ll adjust the color until it has the right “tonality”. I can’t really explain it with words better than that, but I do know that those decisions are still informed by what I know and what I’ve learned.

What is inspiration? Where do ideas come from? Are they “feel” or “intellect”. If they’re from pure intellect, then computer could be artists. If they’re from “feel”, then anyone could be an artist (and clearly that’s not the case!). It’s probably a strange brew of the two.


Learn more about Michael Doret by visiting the following websites: