Written by: Chelsea Brown
Photo by: Sam Feldstein
Alexander Isley is a bit of a design legend. As a part of N.C. State’s Amazing Alumni lecture series, Isley gave two on-campus presentations about his life, work and process. He had also planned to visit my Senior GD Capstone studio earlier that afternoon to inspire us for our final projects and future careers.
Unfortunately, Isley’s visit to N.C. State started a little later than planned when his flight out of LaGuardia Airport was delayed. His flight finally landed at RDU around 1:30 p.m., giving him just enough time to make his 3:00 p.m. presentation at D.H. Hill, not looking at all flustered or exhausted.
Although he wasn’t able to make it to studio, his presentation did not disappoint. Isley wasted no time jumping into the events that shaped his design career. A fast talker with a snarky sense of humor, Isley whipped through a presentation packed with more inspiration than I’ve ever experienced in one hour.
Isley started his own design firm, Alexander Isley, Inc. in 1988. Long story short, his firm helps companies develop their identities. Whatever that entails, Isley is up to it.
Isley said he doesn’t refer to himself as a “graphic designer” but simply a “designer,” expanding the scope of his work and influence. His firm has worked with a wide range of companies, including MTV, Starbucks and Girl Scouts of America, and his design team is all about collaboration.
“That’s what I really like about design,” he said. “It’s not just sitting in a room by yourself.”
Isley talked about his life as a student and early professional. He had a lot of inspiration from his father, an architect, and his mother, a writer and photographer for an ad agency. After attending the College of Design at N.C. State (and only breaking a few rules), he went on to study at Cooper Union. He entered the professional design world right after graduation and was quickly promoted to Creative Director of M&Co at age 26.
“I think it’s really important to put yourself in a situation where you’re over your head,” Isley said.
Throughout his presentation of major projects, Isley shared pieces of design advice he learned along the way.
“Design should look good but also have meaning.”
“Don’t fall in love with your first idea.”
“What something looks like is the last thing I figure out.”
“A test of a good design is if you can tell someone what it is over the phone.”
Isley’s work has subtly and depth, making it very powerful and memorable. Each piece, whether humorous or informational, tells a complete story with no shortcuts. With such a breadth of work and natural talent, Isley has created a design style not only for himself, but for the industry.
I rushed to write down as much of his design wisdom as I could before his presentation ended. My studio walked out of the auditorium feeling recharged for our capstone projects. It wasn’t too long ago Isley was in our position, trying to define ourselves as creatives and wondering what the next step will be. Isley ensured us we’ll never know what’s next and we’ll be reinventing ourselves every day.
A collection of Isley’s work, The Alexander Isley Papers, is now apart of NCSU Libraries Special Collection.
Chelsea Brown is a senior in graphic design with a minor in journalism at N.C. State. She has a passion for sharing stories and making connections through her designs and writing. She is a type-nerd, grid-lover and bookworm. On her days off, she enjoys running, baking brownies and blogging for Cut & Paste and Nights Like This with her roommate.