Editor’s Note: Mirko Ilić is known as a creative rebel, but this reputation is equal to his talents in illustration, design and education. A visionary, Ilić is a respected voice in visual culture across disciplines and around the world.
Fist to Face by Dejan Krsić is a highly visual biography that examines Ilić’s formative years growing up in Yugoslavia during the era of Communism; his early comic book and magazine illustrations; and his immigration to the U.S., where he quickly achieved fame for his work as Time magazine’s international edition art director and art director for The New York Times’ op-ed pages. Ilić has always pushed himself as a designer, reinventing himself time and again.
The following article is an excerpt from Fist to Face.
What bandleader Benny Goodman said about swing can be said for Mirko Ilić’s work: “It is as difficult to explain as the Mona Lisa’s smile or the nutty hats women wear — but just as stimulating. It remains something you take five-thousand words to explain then leaves you wondering what it is.”
In the 1960s and 70s, the dominant approach to graphic design, especially in advertising, was idea-based — that is, the business problem, and not the designer’s particular visual approach, dictated the solution. Design was based on ideas, not styles. But in the late 70s, many young designers — especially in Britain and on the west coast of the United States — began to question the belief.
During the last decades of the 20th century, back at the time when Ilić was making his name, a series of famous designers appeared with distinctive personal styles. Among the first to become famous was Neville Brody with his works for the magazine The Face and independent record companies. However, in New York in the 1980s, Tibor Kalman revived the tradition of idea-based design, with work that was smart, witty, humorous, and rooted in vernacular and popular culture. An autodidact in the field of design, he opposed the conventions and the complacency of the American design scene entrenched in advertising, had very strong opinions, and did not hesitate to express them at the cost of conflict.
Kalman was also an ardent advocate of design with socially valuable content, so after studio M&Co. closed, his associates — like Stefan Sagmeister, who opened Sagmaister Inc. in 1993 — strengthened that current in the New York design. This was the atmosphere in which Ilić began to practice design on the American scene.
“It took me a long time to get design jobs,” Ilić recalls. “I first got serious jobs after I started to work at Time magazine. I partially accepted that position because I needed a break. I have never met Kalman. It was always interesting to me, I saw several projects, but until Colours, I was not engaged. It was cool, but still corporate stuff … The biggest thing he did when he closed the studio—was divide his clients between his associates. Stephen Doyle got a part, Sagmeister got his, Studio Seventeen got a part, everyone got something out of it …”
When it comes to the formal style, Ilić seems to be following Oscar Wilde’s maxim that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. He especially emphasizes the issue of communication, in which form itself must be relative to the content.
“I would like to have a style,” he says. “It would have been much easier. Unfortunately I think that style is a pattern, you solve everything based on it and things work. It is wonderful to be a designer if you know in advance how you will solve any problem that you come across. Exactly because I do not have a style, I often make a lot of bad things. I do illustration under the pressure of impossible deadlines, other clients want something as well, so I would probably screw something up… If I had a style, it would be snap—snap—snap based on the pattern and it would be done correctly. But that’s boring to me. Things do repeat in my work, but only because I bump into a subject that requires a response similar to something that I have already made. I do not have four aces, and things are not always the same; I have some mixed cards that do not always win for sure, but combinations are more interesting. There are times when certain things begin to resemble one another, but often I make one thing and then in two years the other…”
Despite the dozens of different styles and approaches he has used over the years, Mirko Ilić’s work is recognizable more for his way of thinking than his drawing style. Moreover, some of his drawing styles seem so deceptively simple that others often tried to mimic him; of course without a whole lot of success. “It is easier to steal the hand than the brains, and thus it is easier to steal the style than the idea,” he says.
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