The news, or at least rumors,
spread through the recent HOW Design Conference in Chicago
like a western wildfire: Rick Tharp, better known as Mr.
Tharp, was missing. My first thought was it was probably
one of his legendary practical jokes. I didnt know
Charles Frederick Tharp personally. I had only met him once
at a Western Art Directors
Club event many years ago. However, I immediately liked
the cantankerous designer
with the edgy wit. The glimmer in his eyes as he
looked over his glasses was a sign to me that he thought
he was pulling one over on everyone and he usually
was doing so. I had always been a fan of his design work especially
his logos and his writing seemed to project a personality
somewhat similar to my own mantra of its better
to be a smart-ass than a dumb-ass. For me the conference
rumors took a very serious tone when Jim Sherraden, of Hatch
Show Print, dedicated his conference session to his friend
Rick Tharp. Several designers sitting near me were asking
each other Who is Rick Tharp?
This column, certainly not part of the original plans for Logo Notions, is an
attempt to introduce those designers to Mr. Tharp and, in a small way, pay tribute
to one of the most unique and colorful individuals the graphic design field has
Most who have known Mr. Tharp will agree hes been one helluva graphic designer
and an incredible representative for design industry. LosGatos.com, an information
website for his hometown of over 30 years, lists Tharp as one of its famous Los
Gatans with: Internationally acclaimed designer Rick Tharps work
defines Los Gatos, from the towns street signs and light post banners to
the newsboy logo of the Los Gatos Weekly-Times and the signs on many longtime
local businesses. His impressive roster of clients includes Brio Toys of Sweden,
Hewlett-Packard and Mirassou Wines, among many others.
In fact, his firms poster work for Brio Toys is included in the Smithsonian
Institutes National Design Museum and a book for the same client is in the Library
of Congress. The logo, corporate identity, environmental graphics and packaging
design (especially wine label creation) of Tharp Did It are known well beyond
the Bay Area through awards won, articles about the work and examples being included
in many design books and annuals.
After earning a degree from Miami University in Ohio in 1975, Tharp moved to
California and initially opened a business designing and making signs. According
to the Los Gatos Weekly-Times, Tharp took a cross-country road trip
and stopped in Los Gatos on his way to San Francisco, but never left. Much
of the graphic identity, signage and imagery of the town is due to the efforts
of the designer.
The 52-yearold designer was famous for his studios annual Christmas cards,
pranks played on friends, the black and white car with a hand painted on the
door, his bowling shoes, and the humor he expressed in his work and business
interactions. His official business card at one time stated that his firm was
in the poodle grooming, repair and taxidermy trades. Never one to
take himself, or his work, too seriously, design award certificates were hung
out to dry on a clothesline in his studio. He once donned a gorilla suit,
upon hearing that a rival design firm was having a picnic, and interrupted the
festivities in costume to assault guests with water balloons.
In 1997, Metro, the Silicon Valleys weekly newspaper, referred to
Tharp as a Prima Donna Grump in its Forest of Grumps; The
Biggest Grumps in Santa Clara County issue. How can the man who
is largely responsible for the graphic charm in the town of the cats be a grump?
Reee-arrrr!, wrote the paper. Conspicuously adorning all of his creations
and logos with Tharp Did It, this ego-comes-in-extra-large guy has
no trouble lashing out at tradition by having his stationery printed on black
paper. Tharp shares with the world a brutal honesty and has been known to tell
clients and other associates when they are too insignificant for his talents,
too ridiculous or too poor. Usually, hes right.
Beneath the exterior of a curmudgeon was a designer who cared deeply about
his community and how it could be bettered through design. Tharp himself wrote
he was attracted to Los Gatos by the quaint charm and artistic character
of the town. It was to organizations in this community that he often donated
his design services, or provided work at reduced rates. A major identity project
for the Los Gatos Museum Association came with a 75% fee discount.
If he didnt really like the project or the person, he wouldnt
do it, said client and Steamers restaurant co-owner Paul Matulich. It
wasnt about the money.
Tharp Did Its logo designs have caught my attention for many years and
had a great deal to do with my own business going in the direction of identity
design over a decade ago. Prior to adopting the business name Jeff Fisher LogoMotives
I used the tagline Jeff Fisher Has Done It Again! (
And Again!) in
a my promotion and marketing efforts a not too subtle borrowed adaptation
of Tharps company name concept. I appreciated the simplicity of the designs
produced by Mr. Tharps firm, marveled at the uniqueness and cleverness
of the creations, and always got a smile from the tongue-in-cheek quality within
the images the hidden joke in many of his logo designs.
In his introduction to the book White Graphics, by Gail Deibler Finke,
Tharp conveyed his thoughts on another aspect of design,
in graphic design offers a different set of challenges. As graphic designers
we are supposed to present a message by putting something into that white space,
but visual communication is as much about taking out as it is about putting in. In
his own design efforts, white space is almost always a major player in getting
the message across to the viewer.
Mr. Tharps attitudes about design do come to light a bit more in the AIGAs
Design Heroes Forum, moderated by Petrula Vrontikis. In part, Tharp wrote; there
are also some non designers who have affected the way I think about design. One
is Kurt Vonnegut and another is Martin Buber. Reading Vonnegut has taught me
to find humor in the simplest and most obvious things. Reading Buber has taught
me that you dont have to look too far for all the important stuff because
it has been right under your nose the whole time.
This is how I feel about design, Tharp continued. Theres
nothing wrong with injecting humor in your design solutions and the answers are
in the problem, not out in left field somewhere. I want to keep this article
short so thats it. Ive got a much longer article on this subject.
I just havent thought of it yet.
Tharp did like to push the limits a bit. A 1989 issue of The National Law
Journal contains the story Fishy Ad Is Stepped On:
After designer Rick Tharp and assistant designer Kim Tomlinson had created
an ad for Steamers seafood restaurant of Los Gatos, Calif., Mr. Tharp made
a slightly unusual suggestion. He felt the ad, which featured three fish in a
design that bore more than a passing resemblance to the distinctive adidas logo,
might prove thought-provoking if placed in the sports sections of the local newspapers
... The ad provoked more than thought. Five days after it appeared, Mr. Tharp
a letter from the legal department of adidas. While conceding the cleverness of
Mr. Tharps design, the letter nevertheless claimed the fish
ad variation of [adidas] trefoil device logo constituted trademark
infringement and demanded the ad be discontinued.
Mr. Tharp responded by producing a second adidas-inspired design ... Although
this new concept is extremely creative, wrote back adidas, the presence
of the three stripes along the side of the fish/shoe still would tend to confuse
the public into perceiving a connection between adidas and Steamers.
Undaunted, Mr. Tharp forged ahead with concept No. 3 ... the same fishy
footwear — splashed this time with a well-known wave design element.
According to a friend, photographer Franklin Avery, He always felt all
the best designs happened after a couple glasses of wine at lunch with a white
napkin and a black ink pen.
Mr. Tharp was also recognized for his writing. He was a frequent contributor
to HOW Magazine.
Editor Bryn Mooth recounts. I guess I had always been sort of offput by
Ricks manner (you know, his preference for being called Mr. Tharp, his
luddite refusal to use email). Until I met him.
I think our paths first crossed at a HOW Conference years ago (he had also
judged a HOW competition a long time ago). But it wasnt until I went to
The Design Conference That Just Happens To Be In Park City that I got to know
him better and discovered his very generous side, added Mooth. He
contributed some great writing to HOW over the years observational humor
that captured the foibles of designers and their clients.
One great piece for HOW begins; Designer and armchair humorist Rick Tharp
has endured countless ill-fated interviews and hellish portfolio reviews. He
presents his Ten Commandments for youngsters seeking sage advice and the perfect
job. The list in the article Portfolio
Purgatory should be required reading for any designer taking their
out into the world
In the December 2003 issue of HOW Magazine, Tharp wrote of working with a graphically
challenged client and the clients opinion panel. In critiquing
the presented work, one of the panel members said: I dont like the
color combination ... I know about color contrast since I took a class in
for my quilt-making. In addressing the critique Mr. Tharp, in his typical
fashion, wrote: Typically, when the graphically-challenged are asked their
opinion of a design, they usually feel obligated to criticize whatever theyre
being asked about in order to justify their being asked in the first place.
Tharp went one step further with another HOW article, The Real Truth About
Designers, and posted responses to a challenge in the article for designers
to submit jokes about their own profession. Supposing that HOW would never print
the jokes, he posted them on his own website in his column According
In advocating and promoting the profession of graphic design, Tharp was an active
member of the Western Art Directors Club, served as the organizations president
and was a member of its Advisory Board. In 1998 he inherited the
role of The Redoubtable Potentate of The
Design Conference That Just
Happens To Be In Park City (aka TDCTJHTBIPC)
an intimate nonprofit design conference, now in its third decade, held each winter
in Park City, Utah. Each year since, Mr. Tharp has opened the conference with Anyone
who has any
complaints, suggestions or advice please let me know and you can go organize
the conference next year. In recent years, Mr. Tharp served
as the Design Umpire for the Bay Areas bid for the 2012 Olympic
Games. A protester of the Vietnam War in the 70s, Tharp also contributed
to the Another
Poster for Peace project and his work appears in the new book The Design
So much of the personality of Mr. Tharp can be discovered in the text that covered
the front of his office door. Writer Ken Eklund, also known as WriterGuy,
was a collaborator on projects for clients such as Le Boulanger, BASOC (the San
Francisco Bay Areas bid for the Olympics in 2012), and Tigo, an early-education
project for First Five Contra Costa County.
Rick had seen a door with a lot of text on it somewhere in his travels,
and thought the look had potential. I think the door he saw had repurposed text
on it (i.e., text taken from the companys brochure or something), according
to Eklund. He then asked me to try writing something for his door. Since
it was for Rick, it wasnt hard to realize that the text should be: (1.)
fully aware of the audience's situation and perspective, and (2.) funny and smart.
The text of the door read:
this door you may find Mr. Tharp, who has been designing things in this studio
since 1975. Thats probably waaay before you were doing whatever
it is that you do. So of you want to know whodunit, it may very well be him.
Of course, he doesnt do it alone. Usually youll find several people
working in the studio on graphic identity and design. So the name THARP
DID IT is something of an oversimplification, But its catchy,
isnt it? Catchy enough to get you here, anyway. Now, do you need to walk
through this door? These people really like what they do in here, and so do others.
They have awards to prove it (when you go in, look up). They even have a Clio,
which is a lot like an Oscar except that Nicole Kidman will never, ever get one.
They are busy, and very dedicated professionals. So if you are selling toner
cartridges or mobile-phone plans, just walk on, okay? Uh-oh. Youre still
reading. That can only mean one thing. The door is locked. No ones here,
dammit. Whats up with that? And by now your squatting, practically lying
on the floor to read this, so you cant be feeling so red-hot. Hey. Relax,
The worst is over. Your graphic problems are gone. Kaput. They are history. Or
they will be. In just a few short minutes. When we return."
Unfortunately, it appears Mr. Tharp will not be returning to his office.
Rumors of Rick Tharp missing turned to reality with California Highway Patrol
verification of a witness reporting that a person resembling the designer jumped
from the Golden Gate Bridge on the evening of June 4, 2005. A backpack containing
Tharp’s writings was found nearby and his car was later found parked in
the Presidio, not far from the bridge. Friends have reported that Tharp had
been dealing with depression, which may have been brought on by recent health
issues, including suffering from tinnitus, which manifests as a ringing in the
ears. It is actually a neurological condition, and in Tharp's case there was
apparently no cure. At this time Tharp’s disappearance is still being
treated as an open missing persons case until his body is found. A death warrant
has yet to be issued.
A memorial service will be held in honor of Rick Tharp on July 14, from 5 to
8 p.m. at The Opera House, 140 W. Main St in Los Gatos, California. More information
can be found on the sites of the WADC,
and the Phoenix
It only seems fitting that this column be concluded with a tip of the hat to
the creative genius of Mr. Tharp from one of my favorite Tharp Did It personal
identities the Dandy Candy Man logo, representing Tharp as the Head Dandy
Man and Purveyor of Condommints.
Click here to see more of Mr. Tharp's work.
NOTE: Logo Notions will return to its originally planned format with the
next update of Creative Latitude. Watch for an interview with Christopher Simmons,
of the design firm MINE, and a review of his new book Logo
Other logo design books will also be recommended in the next column.