Deborah Sussman: Creative Foundations

ADC's final interview with Hall of Fame laureate and legend

We at ADC were extremely saddened to learn of the passing of ADC Hall of Fame laureate Deborah Sussman, who died this morning at the age of 83. We interviewed Deborah in our latest issue of ADC Magazine. Below is that interview in its entirety.


Environmental graphic design as we know it would not exist without Deborah Sussman. Establishing her career with the legendary Charles and Ray Eames and eventually founding the venerated firm Sussman/Prejza with husband and design partner Paul Prejza, she has been behind of some of the most innovative urban branding in the world, including Disney World signing and the identity for the 1984 Olympics. We spoke with Deborah about her early education and the formative creative experiences that made her into a design pioneer before she knew she was one.

Environmental designer wasn’t necessarily a check box on the “what do you want to be when you grow up” list when you were a kid. How did your upbringing bring you to that point?

DSMy parents, especially my mother, were very cultured. I am first generation: they came over from Russia and Poland. My mother was intellectually inclined: she loved literature and she was very linguistic, which I inherited and so did my sister. She began to teach us French even before we were five. My father was a commercial artist. He could draw like an angel and became a very famous airbrush man in New York. For himself he would paint watercolors.

So I had this background of my artistic, visual father and my eloquent, linguistic mother, and ever since I can remember, I loved to draw. They also gave me every cultural and educational advantage that they could think of. As I got a little bit older and was able to take courses at the Art Students League.

What do you remember about that early exposure to the creativity and art?

One thing I always remember is riding on the BMT from Brooklyn to Manhattan to go there, and as the train rose up to the bridge there were two signs: one of them looked like a toothpaste tube, vertical with pastel colors, and the other one was a hand painted sign, red on white, which said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and Thou Shalt Be Saved.” Well, since we were Jewish, I wasn’t going to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ — but I did want to be saved! So I worked out a little deal with myself that as long as I could look at that sign every time the train emerged into the daylight, I would be saved. So I looked at it every time. Little did I know that a long time later, graphics in the built environment would be so important to my life, to my career, to everything.

“‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and Thou Shalt Be Saved.’ Well, since we were Jewish, I wasn’t going to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ — but I did want to be saved!”

At what point did you start to think that you could do something like that as a career?

At Bard we had Junior year away, and I went to the Institute of Design in Chicago and fell in love with design. I also fell in love with Chicago. It was a whole new world of design and such a discovery to be able to set type — just imagine how long ago that was! When we set type, we inked it and then we could do these abstract things with all kinds of fabulous metal characters, and we could make sculptures out of these pieces. In Chicago we learned to do things like draw with a leaf, draw with a stick, how to make basic forms out of plaster, and about typography. We presented our ideas, and it was a real community of designers all hanging out together. Can you imagine, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind together with us students going to Jazz clubs at night!

The summer program you attended at Black Mountain College had a similarly collaborative and unorthodox atmosphere. How did that experience build on your time at ID?

When I was there, Franz Kline was teaching painting, Merce Cunningham was teaching dance, John Cage was there, and Charles Olson was there. Francine Du Plessix was a student and became my best friend. Rauschenberg and Twombly were there, too. It was a magical time. The first Happenings happened during my summer there. So that was very informative: Black Mountain opened up the world of the arts. There was no line between any of the arts there. I remember once when Merce had to go away for a couple of days, John Cage took over his dance class and we started dancing with chairs! Merce came back and he was furious at John and at us. I guess we didn’t dance with chairs well enough.

I didn’t know at that time that my education was all about jumping outside the box. It was that way at Bard. It was that way at Black Mountain. It was that way at the Institute of Design. And it was true at the Eames office when I was invited to join while still a student. That education helped me navigate through life.

“I didn’t know at that time that my education was all about jumping outside the box.”

How did that invitation to join the Eames office first come about?

I was invited to join the Eames office for a summer internship, so at the end of the summer, I said, “Well Charles, I have to say goodbye. I have to go back to ID to get a degree.” And he said, “I don’t have a degree! And besides, Ray and I are going to Europe for a few months. Would you like to stay at the house while we’re there?” Well, that was that. I didn’t go back. I only had four units of Music Appreciation to complete! But I had struck root and I spent four happy years at the Eames office before I went to Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, then worked in Milan and Paris, returning to Eames afterwards.

What kinds of projects did you work in that early stage of your career? How do you think they influenced your developing aesthetic?

The fall before I got my Fulbright Grant, I had a great experience in Mexico helping with the Eames’ film “Day of the Dead.” During those early years at Eames I had met Sandro Girard who became an enormous influence on my life. The kind of color that Sandro used was very inspiring to me; and Mexico became a major force on the aesthetic side of who I was. Many years later when I did the colors for the ’84 Olympics, the idea for those colors was based on the Pacific Rim, on my experience in India, and on the cultures of Los Angeles — and those cultures were impacted by Mexico, Japan, and Asia. Magenta was the major color of the ’84 Olympics. I was very surprised that it was used for the London Olympics in 2012 as well. Magenta is now au courant: you see a lot of magenta with yellow, orange, and red and so forth. That was a palette that inspired me in the 1950s.

A complex understanding of color does indeed seem to be one of the basic foundations of your work. Why do you think that is?

Color to me is conceptual. I don’t just choose colors because I like them. I choose colors that mean something, and that have content in them related to the program at hand. In the late 80’s I was collaborating on a project for McCormick place in Chicago, and I remember sitting with the interior designers and architects at a wonderful office that overlooked the lake. There were three buildings in McCormick place at that time, and I suggested using the colors of the West and the Prairie for the westernmost building, the colors of Chicago for the northernmost buildings, and the colors of the lake for the lake-facing building. The designer said, “What do you mean by the colors of the lake?” And I said, “Just look out the window!” Color has been an important part of my work and probably always will be.

“Color has been an important part of my work and probably always will be.”

Is there anything else can you say that about as you look back on your storied career?

Passion has defined my career, but there is a lot more to it than that. When you work on big projects you’ve got a big team of people to collaborate with. I am very collaborative; I’ve learned that it is just my nature. I am not a person who can sit at the screen all day like many people do. I’ve got to get up and I’ve got to talk to people. Not too many people talk anymore. People will type me a message but I’ll just come over to talk. I like butting in.

How does this working style compliment that of your longtime design partner and husband Paul Prejza?

Paul is analytical and I am intuitive. He can handle the most horrendous proposals imaginable. I remember he did one with the help of our senior staff that was 45 pages long and I could never do that! But Paul thinks A to B, to C to D. I think M to G to W to A to X. Somehow, that analytical power combined with this intuitive craziness, and the team work of the staff, can always make things happen.