Gail Anderson Takes the Helm
Meet the new chair of SVA’s BFA Design and Advertising
June 25, 2020
by Keren Moscovitch
Gail Anderson is a New York-based award-winning designer, writer and educator. As the newly appointed chair of SVA’s BFA Design and Advertising departments, and the creative director of in-house design studio Visual Arts Press, Anderson is instrumental in leading the College’s vision through design innovation and education. Herself an alumna of SVA, with 25 years of service as a faculty member, Anderson shares her wealth of wisdom, history and tips for getting ahead in design.
SVACE: How did you get started as a designer?
GA: I made Partridge Family magazines—or what would now be called “zines”—as a kid in the Bronx. And I did Elton John and Jackson 5 drawings in my notebooks, and made my own posters for my bedroom walls. I wondered if I could get a job in what was then called “commercial art” when I grew up, so I worked on my high school newspaper, literary magazine and yearbook, and I was encouraged to attend SVA by my art teacher—she’d taken SVACE silkscreen and calligraphy classes at SVA for several years. So between her recommendation and that famous Paul Davis “To be good is not enough, when you dream of being great” poster, I was set. I didn’t apply to any other colleges.
I was fortunate to know what I wanted to do, even though the role of the designer was a bit of a mystery to all of us in the early 1980s. The Media Arts Department had just gotten a few Macs in my senior year, I believe. But I didn’t take the class because I figured I probably wouldn’t have to know much about computers in the future. And it seemed like a lot of math at the time—ha.
SVACE: Tell us about your time at Rolling Stone. You probably contributed to decorating the dorm rooms of many ’90s college students, and we want to know!
GA: I spent almost all of my young adulthood working for Fred Woodward at Rolling Stone—from 25 right up until not long before my 40th birthday. I’ve learned from the best—from Paula Scher and Carin Goldberg while I was a student at SVA, from Lynn Staley and Ronn Campisi at The Boston Globe, and from Fred at Rolling Stone. My formative years were spent with people who were exacting and demanding, though nurturing, supportive and forgiving. And I’ve been surrounded by my SVA classmates at every job and even worked for one, Drew Hodges, at SpotCo, for many years after Rolling Stone.
While at the magazine, I think I put in the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing to rack up in order to do something really well. We worked crazy hours, ate most meals together and watched TV late into the night while we waited to close issues every two weeks. Almost everything I know about good typography and working with illustrators and editors was learned in the close to 15 years I spent at the magazine. I’ve watched my colleagues and classmates go on to great jobs because of our years with Fred. And we had a lot of fun—it was a different world back then in sooooo many ways. Don’t get me started.
SVACE: What was it like to be the recipient of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award?
GA: Caroline Baumann from the Cooper Hewitt left a message for me, and I thought, “Oh, let me remember to call her back,” thinking perhaps she wanted me to do a student lecture or something. After Caroline’s second call, I realized I needed to get back to her, assuming she wanted an answer ASAP. I called, feeling bad that I hadn’t responded quickly enough.
Caroline said, “I’ve been trying to find you! You won—you won the Lifetime Achievement award.” I was quiet, slowly taking in what she said, and then I sort of squealed and laughed. Caroline cracked up and honestly, when I hung up, I wasn’t sure of what she’d said. Did I really win the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement? Really?
The weeklong festivities leading up to the Gala were sort of a blur—there was something new almost every day. I participated in student and community events, and got to work with people with neurodiversities, with little ones and high schoolers. We visited a grammar school in Oakland a few months later to do a series of design work- shops, and I’ve since participated in committees and other Cooper Hewitt events. I feel like I have a new home— and it’s a home with a great gift shop.
SVACE: Which of your design projects are you most proud of?
GA: I’m lucky to have worked on a variety of projects over the last 30-plus years. Ultimately, the one that probably means the most to me is the postage stamp I designed for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The 100th-anniversary stamp was designed by the legendary Georg Olden, so I’m in pretty fancy company. That project led to my serving on the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee for the US Postal Service for the last six years. I can’t believe I get to work with the art directors who create the stamps, as well as with a dozen other experts from various fields like American history, sports and collecting. The committee work and quarterly meetings are some of my favorite things to do—even the homework. I’ve gotten to know D.C. pretty well, though I seldom have enough time to fit in a museum visit. Next year.
SVACE: What is your vision for the BFA Design and BFA Advertising programs? How do you see the industry changing in 2020?
GA: I’m enjoying my new role as chair of BFA Design and BFA Advertising. This academic year is about meeting instructors in small groups and sitting in on classes to learn about what’s being taught and the various strategies instructors employ to connect with students.
I’ve spent lots of time with students over the 25-plus years I’ve been teaching at SVA, and have worked one-on-one with many design interns as creative director of Visual Arts Press. My hope is to build on what [founding chair] Richard Wilde created to the ever-broadening design and advertising worlds. There are such tremendous opportunities waiting for students—and really great jobs doing things that weren’t part of my creative vocabulary at their age. The sky’s the limit, especially in terms of technology and design thinking, so I want to make sure our graduates are ready to get out there and make some waves.