Five Questions: Graphic designer Gil Shuler has changed the city

November 27, 2016

Graphic designer Gil Shuler is the elder hippie guru that all other designers in Charleston bow down to. He’s the groovy dude they all abide.

Shuler kind of started it all. An artsy fellow from Sumter, he settled in Charleston in the fall of 1983 and helped to transform the city. Little by little everything commercial, municipal and nonprofit began to look better. And when things look better, they are better. His operation, Gil Shuler Graphic Design, has long sat at the center of the design community, an inspiration to others who have increasingly found their own niche in town.

Today, several excellent companies are hard at work in Charleston creating corporate identities, posters and publications, witty logos and general appeal. Together they have elevated the profile and the aesthetics of the Holy City.

Q: Were you a doodler as a kid? When did you first discover your interest in art and design, and how did you initially cultivate that interest?

A: I was a doodler. I drew all the time. When I was around 6 years old we added onto our house and I was fascinated with the architectural elevations, so I started drawing our house based on the elevations — using a ruler, the whole deal. It was crude but my parents saw something in that. Then in second grade my folks signed me up for piano lessons. I loved music but I was bored with piano and complained a lot, so they said, “Would you rather take art lessons?” And I said, “Yeah!” Little did I know that was the start of my art career.

I ended up taking those private lessons from Mildred White, a phenomenal still-life oil painter. I did that for the next eight years. My folks’ house is full of my oil paintings. I won a bunch of student awards, sold some too. By 10th grade I was kind of burnt out on painting and my testosterone was raging so I bagged it for the next two years, although for my last two years of high school I was the art director for the Sumter High School literary art magazine, Signature. This was an amazing high school publication. The adviser, Grady Locklear, was a true inspiration for me and really encouraged me to pursue art.

Q: When did you move to Charleston and why? How has the the growth of the city, and the growth of your industry, influenced your work?

A: I graduated from college with a BFA and a concentration in graphic design (Western Carolina University) in 1983, went back to Sumter for a few months, had a few interviews, then — you know, I wanted to live in Charleston, a super-cool place with the ocean where I could go fish. So I went and got a News and Courier, found two want ads for assistant art director — one at the newspaper and one at a local ad agency. I got offered both jobs. My portfolio was really tight thanks to the design department at WCU. Well, I took the ad job (no offense).

This was 10 years before computers so it was all paste-up, and I was fired up to make an impression as a designer in Charleston. Fortunately, they liked my ideas and within six months I was offered another art director job at a downtown agency. I lasted a year and half there, then decided I needed to be on my own.

I’ve always had a problem with authority and wanted to do things my way. At that time I think there was me and maybe three other serious designers. I was, and am still, very charged up about good design and good ideas. At that time, being published in print magazines’ yearly design annual was a big deal and I can remember the first piece that was published in that annual. For me it was like winning an Academy Award. Anyway, I ended up having a piece in that annual for the next 25 consecutive years. Designers all over the world look at that annual and I would like to think that I helped Charleston be known as a good place that cultivated good design.

And, like you said, good designers started showing up here, wanting to be a part of this great community. Good design enhances everything, so I feel very proud that as a designer I personally helped our city look great to the world. When I see great work from a lot of these young cats, it just makes me want to be better.

Q: Tell me a little about your process? How do you go from the handshake that begins a collaboration with a client, to the end result?

A: Once we hammer out a deal, we dig deep into the project with the client, asking questions — likes, dislikes — and then start sketching. I have many sketchbooks full of logo ideas, illustrations, concepts, etc. Before the Round One presentation to the client, we take our concepts/sketches and tighten them up (vectorize them) — seeing how they may look on a hat, a patch, business card, storefront, package, bottle, etc.

After that first round, we get good feedback and usually have a definitive direction. The client is happy and excited and we move to Round Two, which involves more definitive color options, details, paper choices, printing/digital choices, etc. Then Round Three is final art approval and we send that baby to press or fabrication.

Q: What is your graphic design philosophy?

A: My design philosophy came from a very influential designer, Ivan Chermayoff, who said good design should be based on ideas, not a fashionable style. “A good trademark, whether a word mark or a symbol, is devoid of fashion or trend, which makes it potentially iconic if it’s seen for long enough in the right places.” Anyway, solving communication problems is what we do. We try to make things understandable, understand what people care about, how they feel.

Design impacts society immensely — good and bad. A good identity for a company, restaurant, etc. can be art. It can elevate the customers and the employees, bring pride to your workplace as well as sell merch (wink wink). Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.

Q: What have been some of your best collaborations, and why? Your worst?

A: As I said earlier, I’m not good with authority, so collaboration has to be with folks I truly respect. Recently, we collaborated with Blue Ion (local web gurus) on the new brand for the Gibbes Museum of Art. Went like clockwork. Had a lot of client involvement, but it was smooth and very successful.

But I would say my best and longest collaboration has been with Mark Sloan and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. I have collaborated with Mark for over 10 years on the Halsey identity, art show identities, many book designs, posters, etc. Mark is a genius and has opened my feeble mind to amazing art and to the world. I wouldn’t trade our relationship for anything. The worst? I never remember the worst. Seriously, I never remember the bad stuff, it’s a flaw I have. I guess that’s good.