Design alumnus Alexander Isley tries not to sweat the small font

January 20, 2015
By Chris Saunders

alex_isleyAlexander Isley believes it’s his dedication that has led to a successful career for the 1983 College of Design graduate. He says it’s not uncommon for him to put in 14-hour days, six days a week, at his Connecticut design firm, Alexander Isley Inc.

And even when those days close, it’s hard for him to leave his job behind when he sees letter spacing that doesn’t work on a sign or poor use of a font on a product label in the supermarket.

His critical eyes are simply always on. “It’s part of your life. I bought music back in the day, or books, just because a cover was great,” he says. “You appreciate good design and you want more of it.”

Isley, a Durham native, says there was a certain inevitability to his becoming a graphic designer. His father was an architect, and his mother was a photographer and an advertising copywriter. “So I was surrounded by people who knew you could solve a problem by design,” he says.

After Isley graduated from NC State, he was a senior designer at M & Co., an influential graphic and product design firm, and then was the first full-time art director for Spy magazine, a publication that garnered much acclaim in the 80s and 90s for its satirical take on politicians and celebrities.

It was there Isley became known for incorporating irony and humor in his style. “It’s not really a hidden agenda,” says Isley, whose work has won major awards and is celebrated in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The things that are funny have always struck me as being a way to get your ideas across. I used to read Mad magazine a lot. I’ve always been drawn to things that have humor involved, whether it be the Kinks or Lyle Lovett.”

isley.web_In 1988, Isley founded Alexander Isley Inc., and for the last 27 years he’s been helping his clients think critically about how to identify themselves and sell their brands with design. Whether it’s designing a book jacket, a website or the interior signage for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Isley says it’s still the enigma of problem-solving that captivates him.

“To me, the excitement comes with a problem. And that moment when you think you might have a solution,” he says. “I think when you’re under the pressure of a deadline, it’s easy to jump to a solution. Sometimes it takes time. In order to solve a problem, you need to take time to learn what the problem actually is.”

And those bigger problems help him stay focused, even when his eyes want to wander. “I try not to get too bent out of shape about [typeface] Comic Sans,” he says, laughing. “There’s bigger fish to fry.”


Alexander Isley will present at the inaugural Designlife Alumni Lecture Series, hosted by NC State’s College of Design, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015, at 5:30 p.m. in the Hunt Library on Centennial Campus. His work will also be on display as part of an exhibit, “Make Believe: The Work of Alexander Isley.” The lecture is free and open to the public.


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