Design: A Family Affair
Two generations of creativity with John and Mark Sposato
February 5, 2020
by Michael Bilsborough
John and Mark Sposato, father and son, respectively, co-teach Type and Image: Graphic Impact. Representing two generations of creativity, the Sposatos share valuable insight into design, invention and transformation.
“Innovation comes from really having something to say,” Mark says. “It can be a distinct voice in the work, a clever conceptual idea or a new way of looking at something that we all took for granted.”
John notes, “My career can be separated into two halves: pre- and post-computer. When Photoshop emerged, I switched to it immediately, and I’ve been a photo-illustrator ever since, mostly using my photography. I tell my students I was born for Photoshop.”
Mark adds, “I firmly believe in research and sketching before even touching Adobe Creative Suite. Specific, targeted research is essential when starting freelance work for new clients.”
Mark’s art education began at a young age, as both of his parents worked in design and illustration. “That core identity was built into my DNA,” he reflects. Mark loved to draw and wanted to study illustration; John steered Mark toward design, regarding it as a “practical form of creative expression.”
“My parents met in an SVA Continuing Education class way back in 1972. My dad started teaching right out of college, and he’s been my best and favorite teacher. I’ve had incredible instruction at both SVA Continuing Education and the Tyler School of Art, but my dad has been there since the beginning. We critique each other’s work constantly, and I think we make each other better.”
Like Mark, John began his career right out of art school. He specialized in book cover design. “A lot of the most inspiring work appeared on book covers of that period,” he says, reflecting on how 1960s artists created “the whole package: concept, design, typography and image/illustration.”
John counts more than 500 book cover designs in his portfolio, including titles by Gore Vidal, Carlos Castaneda, Bob Dylan and Pulitzer winners Neil Sheehan and Norman Mailer.
John’s recent highlights include editorial collaborations with the New York Times, as well as hand lettered titles for the novel Queenie and the poster for the Broadway show Crimes of the Heart. The latter two works were adapted into movie posters. His political posters were recently featured in a book, Protest!: The Posters That Changed the World 1968–1973, with an accompanying exhibition at MIMA in Belgium.
Mark opens up about influence: “One of my dad’s design heroes has always been Milton Glaser, so of course that influence trickled down to me. Posters are among my favorite assignments, and Saul Bass has forever been a great source of inspiration.” Mark also cites Gail Anderson, Chermayeff & Geismar, Paul Rand, Herb Lubalin, Paula Scher, Pentagram, Sagmeister & Walsh, and McCandliss and Campbell. “Campbell was Dad’s former student,” notes Mark.
“I don’t believe in having one set style. For me, each assignment presents a unique challenge, and I like to try different techniques, problem-solving and storytelling approaches,” Mark says. John concurs, “One of the purest pleasures of graphic design practice is still the challenge of solving problems that come from outside oneself. If it came to a choice between the complete artistic freedom of personal expression and the challenge of creating within the parameters of a client assignment—most of all, I need a problem to solve.”
Both father and son appreciate deadlines. “I feed off the nervous and excited energy that comes from working under pressure,” Mark says. “Some of my best personal and freelance projects turned a corner at midnight the night before a deliverable was due."
John agrees: “When the New York Times asks for an idea and finished art completed overnight, I really enjoy the challenge. I guess it’s the old story of how it takes an emergency to focus the mind.”
Mark’s formal education opened new creative doors. “At the end of college, I met my wife, Courtney, who was studying film. After 10 years of dating and about a year of marriage, we translated a shared passion for movies into a creative partnership. Co-writing and co-directing our projects has been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far,” he says.
For Mark, both filmmaking and design are modes of telling stories: “I’d always been very immersed in storytelling. In fact, I see the type of conceptual design I always strive for as a form of storytelling itself.”
Amid the generational influence and reinvention, we ask: Would you rather get advice from your older self, or give advice to your younger self?
John says, “I’ve always been a teacher, giving advice to the young, even when I was young myself. Some appreciated it; some didn’t.”
Mark answers, “I’m making a short film with Courtney about this exact scenario. Hey, It’s Me is about a man who gets a life-altering phone call from his future self. I won’t spoil the ending, but based on our script, I would much prefer to give advice to my younger self. Hindsight is a powerful tool that can be used to grow and change as you move toward the future. It’s important to always remember where you came from and the people, places and things that helped shape your identity.”