Two-Dimensional Man by Paul Sahre: a different kind of design book

Two-Dimensional Man is an unexpected book. We’ve become used to a certain kind of design book: a mix of lavishly illustrated projects with details on how they were made, combined with liberal sprinklings of advice for those who would like to achieve the same levels of success as the author.

But Paul Sahre breaks this mould entirely in Two-Dimensional Man, creating a book that would be a fascinating read even if you knew nothing of his career. It’s not that design doesn’t feature: the book has multiple chapters devoted to projects and a fairly large section that details several of Sahre’s book cover designs, for which he is most famed. And for those looking for insights on life as a designer, there are plenty to be found here.

But where it is most engaging is when Sahre talks about how design has influenced his everyday life, and how it has affected him. He talks with wit and charm about his early interest in record covers, his job as a sign painter for a second-hand car dealership, and a drunken epiphany about the design of a gas station ice bucket. And, most significantly, he tracks his family history, and in particular the impact on his life and career of his two brothers. These family stories, which are both funny and deeply tragic, are told with a no-holds-barred candour.

Paul Sahre
Top: The Paper Monster Hearse created by Sahre for the album Join Us by They Might Be Giants; Above: Sahre as a child (third from left) with his family

Talking to him via Skype in his office in New York, Sahre says that one of the motivations to do the book was to try and explain to his family what it is that he does. “A reason to do the book was probably frustration with … well, certainly family, but people in general not getting it,” he says. “You know, graphic designers, I think most of us feel incredibly lucky to have found this thing that we are obsessed with and are fascinated by and have dedicated our lives to. And then, the world’s like ‘huh, what is that, I don’t get it’.

“At least that’s my experience, I think that’s changed over time, people have a better understanding about what a graphic designer does now, but certainly when my career started, you’d be at a party and someone would say, ‘I’m a filmmaker, what do you do?’.… ‘I’m a graphic designer.’ And it would just end the conversation. I stopped telling people that after a while. Just because they didn’t get it.”

Paul Sahre
Cover design by Paul Sahre

From the outset, Sahre wanted to avoid the ‘portfolio’ approach to creating the book. “In a lot of ways it just doesn’t make sense now. Graphic design anyway isn’t meant to be in a book, in this way, it’s just totally removed from context…. It’s a weird thing because context is everything for a graphic designer and a monograph or a gallery is definitely not something I’m designing towards when I’m designing.”

It’s not that Sahre doesn’t believe that graphic design can have a place in these settings – he is in fact working on a gallery show of his work to be held at his alma mater, Kent State University, later this month, when we speak. But it’s clear that he wanted to avoid some of the trappings that have built up around design, such as a certain kind of language, in the book. The result is a more honest take on his work.

“I really had to consciously steer myself away from some of that language,” he says. “Later in the book I almost fall into that trap a little bit. A couple of times I caught myself – there’s one essay in there about my experience at this theatre, which started off as ‘portfolio speak’ and I caught myself doing that and was ‘no, don’t do that!’. So I really tore that one apart.”

Paul Sahre
Poster design by Paul Sahre

Alongside his work, Sahre tracks his family history and uncovers some revelations on the way. There is a clear creative streak in his immediate family, though there is also a pattern of mental health issues and alcoholism.

Running throughout the book is the story of his younger brother Angus, who is an elephant trainer with the circus, and his struggles with alcoholism. During the researching and writing of the memoir, Sahre discovers that there is a familial precedent for these problems, in a grandfather who committed suicide aged just 39.

“It was revealing for me to do,” Sahre says of writing the book. “We tend to be conscious of what motivates us in terms of work but I didn’t put it all together until I did this. Certainly there were some really amazing epiphanies that I discovered while I was writing, because the link between my grandfather that we never knew who killed himself and my brother, that was a link that I think is totally there, it’s totally there. They almost died at the same age and they’re dealing with the same stuff that was passed down probably genetically. And my brother was a mess at the end. He fell down the stairs drunk.

“A number of people have said that the ending is sad and emotional,” he continues. “I didn’t realise it until my wife Emily and I were driving back from the city, and I said ‘I’ve finished the last essay’ and she read it out loud and we were weeping – I didn’t really expect it, because the book’s light too. It’s supposed to be funny, there should be humour in it.”

Paul Sahre
Spreadin’ the Luv by Paul and Greg Sahre

Equally complex, but more uplifting, is Sahre’s relationship with his older brother Greg, who is deaf with a learning disability and has never left their parents’ home, yet has been a significant creative influence on Sahre. In 2010 he did a collaboration of sorts with his brother in ‘Spreadin’ the Luv’, a project that featured a symbol designed by Greg based on the sign language symbol for ‘I Love You’. Sahre, unbeknownst to his brother, then shared the symbol around the world and invited others to customise it.

“The ‘Spreadin’ the Luv’ project – I sort of just did it without asking him, and he just didn’t really know what to make of it, I was really surprised,” he says.

“It was easier for me to write about my younger brother because he passed away. There’s so much that could have been in there about Greg … but it just wouldn’t have been fair to him. But he was a huge influence on me. There’s all kinds of stuff that he does – he makes and makes and makes and makes and no one ever sees it. He doesn’t have any training, he’s just compelled to do it. And it’s sort of beautiful in its way.

“We went up to visit their house last weekend and he’d mowed the names of my two boys into the lawn in the front yard,” he continues. “Now it wasn’t Sagmeister typography, but it was way cooler – he’s not seen any of that stuff so he just thought it was a good idea to do and it’s just great. So Greg was a huge influence on me, for sure.”

Paul Sahre
Book cover by Paul Sahre

Sahre also alludes to his own challenges with obsessive and controlling behaviour in the book, which is something that he acknowledges can be a common trait among graphic designers.

“I don’t think we have that much control over what we end up doing,” he says. “It sort of happens along the way. At least that’s the way I feel about it. That’s a very tough thing for a graphic designer to admit because designers are total control freaks. But how much control you really have over things … I think accepting that you don’t in a lot of ways is healthier. At least it was for me.

“There’s one part in there where I talk about a mentor, or a teacher of mine at Kent State saying something about ‘graphic designers are needed because the world is a mess’,” he continues. “And there’s this sense of order that it’s our responsibility to apply on the world out there, and at the time I really latched on to that – ‘yeah, right, it’s a calling’. But I totally don’t agree with that now. I think the world is great the way it is. If graphic designers had control over everything, it would be miserable. I mean, the Manhattan subway is super cool because it’s just like this Modernist thing in this sea of mess. But if everything else was like that, you’d just be miserable.”

At times Sahre’s obsessiveness has proven obstructive though. “There’s one thing that I sort of came to after the book was done that I wish was in there a little bit more because I’ve definitely struggled with that over the years, being an obsessive personality,” he continues. “And I’ve learned over time to focus it and control it, but there’s a lot of times in my life when I haven’t been able to.

“There were moments when you’d be seeing a shrink and you’d be talking about some of this stuff and you’d say, ‘I think it ties into my work’ and then he’d say ‘give me an example’. And I brought in a stack, it was probably 500 print outs of one cover that I was working on, and I was printing it out every single time I made a design decision. I’d change the type two points smaller, I’d print it out. I wasn’t even thinking about it, I was just doing it to see what it looked like.

“And when he saw that, it was like ‘Oh. Yes’. It’s totally that scene from The Shining – ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. When you look at those sheets, they’re amazing. They’re like concrete poetry, the guy’s a genius. But he’s crazy.”

Paul Sahre
A book cover designed by Sahre for Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible takes on a new resonance when ‘wild posted’ in New York

As well as reflecting on his personal life and experiences, Sahre does examine his work in in detail in Two-Dimensional Man. He does this with typical frankness, meaning that both disasters and successes are acknowledged. Of the former, the chapter ‘Getting F*cked by Steely Dan’ is particularly entertaining as Sahre recounts bad behaviour by both himself and the band/client.

Happier experiences are found in a chapter on his work with They Might Be Giants from 2011, with the band offering bounteous creative freedom to Sahre. The result of this was both the cover for the album Join Us, Sahre’s first music video and also the construction of a giant pink paper monster truck hearse (which could also be downloaded and made at home).

Sahre is back working with the band again on some new projects, which sound similarly expansive. “We’re in the middle of so much new stuff for them right now, it’s so great,” he says.

“It’s just so hilarious that I’m working with them,” he continues. “I would say They Might Be Giants and probably REM are part of my development as a designer. I would listen to their music all day long while trying to figure out what I was doing – trying to do with your work what you were hearing, if that makes any sense. Now, cut to 2011 and I get an email from John Flansburgh out of the blue saying ‘hey, you wanna work with us?’!? I mean I guess it maybe makes sense in a cosmic way.”

Paul Sahre
Sahre in his studio in New York, which features a portrait of George Washington on the wall, topped by a banner from Seoul, which translates as ‘You Are Alive’

Sahre, who is revered by designers in the same way as contemporaries Stefan Sagmeister and Chip Kidd, is in the enviable position of being able to sit back and let clients come to him, and also to say no to projects that he feels will make him miserable. He acknowledges that this is partly down to success but also that it has, to some extent, been his intention from the start.

“Maybe it gets back to because I’ve done this for so long – but I’m not going to spend time doing something that I don’t want to do,” he says. “That’s been the motivating concept for the way I’ve worked because I’ve been small constantly, I’ve kept such a small footprint – I mean, I’m working alone again. It’s never been more than three or four people and it’s usually just me with an intern or maybe an assistant over the years, it’s fluctuated based on certain projects.

“When you have a certain attitude where you don’t want to do certain things and won’t do them, it sort of steers you away from certain kinds of work I would definitely say. Starting my career in these larger situations and being miserable … because most of the work you end up doing it for not any kind of creative reason, you end up doing it because of billing. Fine, if that’s what it is, but I just realised that that wasn’t the model [for me] pretty quickly.”

Instead, he describes his current situation, after a 30-year career, as being most like one of a grad student.

“I’m working like I’m a grad student,” he says. “It’s very similar. If something is interesting to me then I do it, I typically move things around so I can do it, whatever it happens to be. This morning I was gluing ping-pong balls onto a black jumpsuit, so you never know what’s going to be happening.”

Paul Sahre

Two-Dimensional Man: A Graphic Memoir by Paul Sahre is published by Abrams Press on September 19, £26.99; abramsandchronicle.co.uk

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