Lance Wyman

In November 1966, the 29 year old, American graphic designer Lance Wyman took a gamble with his last few hundred dollars. Accompanied by his wife, Neila, and a British collaborator, Peter Murdoch, Wyman took a flight from New York to Mexico City to pitch for the graphic identity programme of the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games.

“We put almost all of our money into the airline tickets,” says Wyman. “Even then we could only afford one-way. The Olympic Committee there had agreed to put us up in a hotel for two weeks while we developed ideas, but if we weren't successful, getting back home was going to be tricky. We were taking a chance.”

I had a natural aptitude for art. In school, I was always the kid who could draw

Wyman and Neila were also taking a honeymoon, albeit by default. The couple had recently married and had so far taken only a brief celebratory break. “But as it turned out, we didn't see much of each other over those two weeks,” says Wyman. “Peter and I were hard at work at the Olympic Committee every day and I didn't get back to the hotel until about 11 o'clock at night. Neila did Mexico City pretty much on her own. I guess it was sort of a honeymoon though.”

Happily, Wyman and Murdoch won the commission, and went on to make design history with a brand identity that is distinguished not only by its empathy with traditional Mexican visual art, but also by an inspired synthesis of that tradition with mid-20th century European and north American op art.

Happily, too, Wyman and Neila, a psychotherapist, are still together 48 years on, “sort of a honeymoon” or not.

In the event, Wyman's contribution to the Mexico 68 project was more significant than Murdoch's. In 1967, a range of pop art-styled paper furniture Murdoch had designed before leaving for Mexico was put into production in Britain. Over 76,000 pieces were sold during the first six months of 1967 alone, necessitating Murdoch's temporary return to London early in the year.

And when asked directly whether it was he or Murdoch who came up with the crucial synthesis of traditional Mexican art and op art, Wyman says, “It was I who actually had the good luck to discover that.”

Wyman was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1937, and brought up in the suburb of Kearny. The neighbourhood was industrial and Wyman's family were working people. His father was an ocean-going fisherman, who served overseas during the 1939 - 1945 world war and the 1950 - 1953 Korean war. He was also an alcoholic and, one way and another, Wyman did not see much of him during his childhood. Wyman's paternal grandfather was a train driver and there were periods when Wyman saw more of him than he did his father. “I used to go down to the railroad yard and see him in his cab,” he says. “I remember seeing him sitting way up there with one of those striped caps on. I thought it was pretty cool.”

Wyman may have inherited some of his design flair from his father. “My father had a lot of talent,” he says, “but he never had the chance to pursue it. He designed a boat that was quite lovely. He called it The Raven - he liked reading Edgar Allan Poe. The boat had a mahogany hull and he painted it black. I believe Chris-Craft, a boat manufacturer over here, may actually have taken some ideas from it. I had a natural aptitude for art. In school, I was always the kid who could draw.”

Growing up in an industrial environment shaped Wyman's emerging design style. “I acquired an appreciation of the no-nonsense, functional aesthetic of the sea and factories,” he says, “along with respect for the skills of the people who work in those environments. And it has remained with me. It has been an important influence in my approach to design. It was one of the reasons why I chose to study industrial design when I went to college. There were other courses you could do, like advertising, illustration or fine arts - they didn't teach graphic design as such in the undergraduate schools in the 1950s - but it was industrial design that appealed the most to me.”

Wyman studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His parents were unable to meet all the expenses involved and he paid his own way by working in factories in Kearny during college vacations.

“After graduating in 1960,” says Wyman, “I got a job as a designer with General Motors in Michigan. I worked on Delco, a packaging system for auto parts. It involved unifying 1,200 different packages. GM was a great environment to work in. They did a lot of research and development and there were decent budgets and technical facilities.

“Logos were integral to the programme. At college I had become fascinated with their design and application. The basic attraction for me was the challenge of communicating layered messages through minimal form - I think that, at its best, a logo is like visual poetry. I was drawn to the work of Paul Rand and Saul Bass. Rand was a master of logo design. Bass too. He always made a statement and I was impressed by that. His work had a lot of dimension because he wasn't just doing logos. He did many other things, movie posters for instance. And I sensed he was always deeply involved with whatever he did.”

In my experience, research starts with a lot of logical thinking. If you put in the rational, conscious thought, which is the foundation, then the intuitive, unconscious solution seems to follow, organically

In 1962, Wyman joined the US National Guard. “I did it to avoid the draft,” he says. “I had to leave General Motors to do basic training but I learnt a lot about maps and map reading. I began to see maps differently. This came in useful when I got into wayfinding design.”

Along with logo design, wayfinding projects were to become one of Wyman's specialisms. The wayfinding project for which he is probably best known is his route map for the Washington Metro, which he developed in the mid-1970s and was invited to update in 2011.

Wyman's first wayfinding project came along in 1962. “After I'd completed basic training,” he says, “I went back to civilian life and I needed a job. There was nothing going in New York, but a friend of mine was working at William Schmidt's in Detroit, and he suggested I interview for an opening for a US Department of Commerce project in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. It was called 'The Constructive Use of Leisure Time'. The brief was to develop branding throughout the event. It was my first opportunity to combine branding and wayfinding and I loved it. That project changed my life.”

There was an element of wayfinding in Wyman's work for Mexico 68. But the commission was for a 360-degree programme incorporating two and three dimensional, monochrome and colour, and iconographic and linguistic elements, with many different usages and applications.

Was Wyman familiar with traditional Mexican visual art before he arrived in the country?

“Actually, I had very, very little prior knowledge,” says Wyman. “Mexico wasn't a big part of US culture in 1966. We had Spanish-speaking people here, but they were mostly from the islands, from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and so forth. I really didn't know much about Mexico and the organisers made it clear that they didn't want any Mexican-in-a-sombrero-sleeping-under-a-cactus type solutions. So it was about going there and spending a lot of time at the Museum of Anthropology and getting out in the street and going to the markets and observing. I mean, it was a crash course but it was a beautiful subject to crash into.

“I've applied the same immersive research process to every project I've undertaken since. It prevents you from going in with an attitude. You go in with as open a mind as you can and just kind of soak it all up. Don't think that you know everything, find out as much as you can about what you're dealing with before you start thinking about solutions. In my experience, research starts with a lot of logical thinking. If you put in the rational, conscious thought, which is the foundation, then the intuitive, unconscious solution seems to follow, organically.

"But you need both those things - the rational process and the irrational flash. You can't leave either one out. Being a designer you're mandated to communicate something and it's usually defined fairly precisely in front, in the brief. So you have to deal with that and then you use your intuitive processes.”

How did Wyman arrive at the fusion of traditional Mexican visual art and modern op art?

“It started by following the basic geometry in an entirely logical way,” says Wyman. “The five Olympic rings were a given, I had to work with them. When I discovered that the two bottom rings could generate into the bottom halves of the 6 and 8 it was simply a matter of following that. Going into the patterning of the white and black was a way of delineating those geometric forms. Once that started happening it was apparent that we were into something that was powerful op art geometry and also had a look that sat very comfortably with what we had seen in Mexican pre-Hispanic art and folk art. It all seemed to come together, it was one of those magical things that you wish would happen with every project, a real eureka moment.

“When it happened we only had a day or two left of our two weeks and we were pretty resigned to going home. We realised we'd cracked it when a stream of people started coming in to our office and looking at it and wanting copies. Then it took on a momentum almost of its own, a very fast pace, spreading wider into the programme itself. It was all very, very natural, it was like planting a seed and nourishing it as it grew.

“The truth is we did everything you probably shouldn't do to a logo. You can't get close to the Olympic rings usually, not these days anyway. Now it would be an icon and the rings separately, not both fused together.

“Avery Brundage was the chairman of the International Olympic Committee, and they were based in Chicago, and they had to approve everything. We were fortunate that Brundage had an eye for that particular geometry and what we were doing. He liked it and he let us push and push and push until we had a programme. We were also fortunate in Ramirez Vazquez, who was head of the Olympic Committee in Mexico. He was an architect so he knew what he was looking at it. You didn't have to sell him. He was like a benevolent dictator in that he made good decisions, he made them fast and he knew how to get things accomplished. Ramirez would present our suggestions to Brundage, get them approved and let us get on with it. We wouldn't have got the programme through without those guys - remember, we only had 18 months from being commissioned to the opening of the Games. The process takes the best part of ten years today, with a profusion of committees along the way.”

Socially, 1968 was a turbulent year in many parts of the world. Anti-government student protest movements proliferated across Europe and the US. Mexican students were in revolt, too, and their posters and leaflets made extensive use of Wyman's Mexico 68 iconography, subverting it, turning it inside out and adding new ingredients to it. Ten days before the Games were due to start, soldiers massacred protestors in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Square. At least 50 and maybe as many as 300 people were killed by sniper fire.

“I wasn't aware of the extent of the protests or the severity of the government reaction immediately,” says Wyman. “Peter and I were still working at the Olympic Committee, which was away from the centre of the city. And of course the government tried to stifle news reports. Neila saw things before we did. When I did become aware of the gravity of what was going on, it was a pretty heavy duty, conflicting thing to have to confront. On the one hand we realised it might threaten the Games themselves, and we didn't want that, we wanted the Games to happen, we'd put so much effort into them. On the other hand, I was only a few years older the students and I empathised with them. How do you solve a conundrum like that? The truth is, sometimes you can't. But I have to say that I felt dirty.”

That's the thing about that type of work. You're not selling a product. You're doing work that is compatible with the environment that you're designing it for, and not just the way it looks, but the way it works and the way it is accepted by the people

Wyman says the dirty feeling stayed with him until 1986, when he was invited to give a lecture at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (National Autonomous University of Mexico). The rector, who in 1968 had been one of the protestors in Tlatelolco Square, presented Wyman with a book, La Grafica del '68, which collected student agitprop iconography based on Wyman's graphics. He made a speech during which he thanked Wyman for providing them with such potent raw material.

“The moment he started thanking me,” says Wyman, “I became totally overwhelmed by the intensity of being there in 1968, when the kids were being killed. I had been carrying that around for 18 years, trying to come to terms with it. When he thanked me it was one of those experiences you just couldn't make up….. I couldn't talk. Something really powerful was going on. I'd been carrying that stuff around so long. It was a very emotional few minutes for me. It still is when I think about it. But somehow, at last, the dirty feeling was lifted.”

Wyman's work on the Olympics was universally acclaimed. John Canady, the chief art critic of the New York Times, flew out to Mexico to write about it. It was the first time an art critic from the Times had deigned to write about anything other than fine art. “It made me a bit of a hero in the New York design world,” says Wyman, “especially among advertising people. I wasn't aware of it at the time. Neila and I were still in Mexico and I was working on other projects by then.”

In the wake of the Games, Wyman could have named his price on any number of projects back in New York. But he and Neila had grown to love Mexico and they stayed in the country until 1971. Among the commissions Wyman took on was the graphic identity of the Mexico City Metro and the design of a series of postage stamps for the Mexico 1970 FIFA World Cup.

“Working on the Metro was one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever done,” says Wyman. “It gave me a chance to really understand the city and put that understanding back out there graphically. That's the thing about that type of work. You're not selling a product. You're doing work that is compatible with the environment that you're designing it for, and not just the way it looks, but the way it works and the way it is accepted by the people.

That I love doing. If I can do that I really feel like I'm accomplishing something. When it happens, I get off on it more than with any other kind of satisfaction this job can bring.”

While Mexico 68 remains the defining point of Wyman's career, that career has already lasted over five decades and is still active. “I've recently been doing a lot of collaborations with other offices,” says Wyman. “That's more comfortable for me than heading up a staff myself.”

On the homepage of Wyman's website, lancewyman.com, is a click-on, nautilus-like spiral which catalogues his work before Mexico 68 and since, starting chronologically from the centre of the spiral. It is a characteristically functional yet elegant Wyman solution to accessing and communicating a large amount of data. At the time of writing, it needs updating with a couple of dozen recent projects.

When asked to pick out some of his most significant post-Mexico 1968 - 1970 projects, Wyman lists his work for Citywide Block Associations in New York, the National Mall in Washington, Minnesota Zoo, the +15 Pedestrian Skywalk in Calgary, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Hoboken Waterfront project, the Railrunner Railroad in New Mexico, the World Trade Center 9/11 Tribute Center, and the City of Santa Fe. (To which you might add Wyman's poster for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, sales of which raised around $2 million for the campaign. “It was about expressing energy and movement and that's been a big part of most everything I've done,” says Wyman).

“A lot of the substance of these programmes really is very similar to what I learnt in Mexico with the Olympics and the Metro,” says Wyman. “Each project has its own personality, in that sense they're all different. But the substance of the methodology is the same.”

Wyman's 1971 logo for New York's Citywide Block Associations, however, provided him with another early formative experience.

When Wyman and Neila returned to New York from Mexico in 1971, much of their Upper West Side neighbourhood was run down, boarded up and awash with hard drugs.

“No-one went there unless they wanted to buy drugs,” says Wyman. “We had to get all that cleaned out. The whole community idea became very real, because it was the only way you could deal with it. So Neila got involved in our block association and then she got involved in Citywide Block Associations.

“I got an epiphany out of that. Neila used to drag me round all these community groups with the idea of me showing slides on graphic design and showing them how they could use graphic design to do t-shirts, logos, banners and stuff like that. One time she dragged me up to a group in Harlem or the Bronx, I forget exactly where. It was mostly women. So I started my slides and I was saying how great graphic design was. I got up to about five slides in when this woman stood up right in front of me, no more than five feet away, and she said 'What the fuck are you talking about man?' And I realised she was absolutely right. I was talking about graphic design in a way you might talk to an audience of professional graphic designers.

“So I said to her, 'You're right,' and I started over. I talked to that group that were in front of me. I didn't show them anything they couldn't use themselves. I actually got applause at the end. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I was intimidated when I walked in the room, and then that woman really got to me. But I hung in there. The epiphany was 'talk to your audience, don't talk about the subject matter alone, pitch it at who you're talking to.' And that's as true when you're actually designing as when you're talking about designing. When I think of moments that really changed everything, that was one of them.”