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Jeff Fisher, the Engineer of Creative Identity for  Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, is the author of "The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success: Ideas and tactics for a killer career;" released by HOW Design Books in 2004. He can often be found preaching what he practices through speaking engagements at creative industry events around the country and writing for various design-related magazines and webzines. For more information about the designer's work click the link below.

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An introduction - and farewell tip of the hat — to Mr. Tharp
By Jeff Fisher, Engineer of Creative Identity, Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

Update 07.20.15
Mr. Tharps's disappearance had been treated as a missing person case. That status changed on July 18, 2005 with the identification of a body found in the San Francisco Bay near Red Rock as being Rick Tharp. Click here for more information.

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 didn’t 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 “it’s 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 ever known.

Most who have known Mr. Tharp will agree he’s 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 Tharp’s work defines Los Gatos, from the town’s 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 firm’s 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 studio’s 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 Valley’s 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, he’s 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 that 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 didn’t really like the project or the person, he wouldn’t do it,” said client and Steamer’s restaurant co-owner Paul Matulich. “It wasn’t about the money.”

Tharp Did It’s 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 Tharp’s company name concept. I appreciated the simplicity of the designs produced by Mr. Tharp’s 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, “…white space 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. Tharp’s attitudes about design do come to light a bit more in the AIGA’s 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 don’t 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. “There’s 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 that’s it. I’ve got a much longer article on this subject. I just haven’t 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 Steamer’s 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 ... received a letter from the legal department of adidas. While conceding the “cleverness” of Mr. Tharp’s 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 Steamer’s.”

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 Rick’s 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 wasn’t 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 book out into the world for review.

In the December 2003 issue of HOW Magazine, Tharp wrote of working with a “graphically challenged” client and the client’s “opinion panel.” In critiquing the presented work, one of the panel members said: “I don’t like the color combination ... I know about color contrast since I took a class in color 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 they’re 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 to Tharp.”

In advocating and promoting the profession of graphic design, Tharp was an active member of the Western Art Directors Club, served as the organization’s 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 Area’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. A protester of the Vietnam War in the 70’s, Tharp also contributed to the Another Poster for Peace project and his work appears in the new book The Design of Dissent.

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 Area’s 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 company’s brochure or something),” according to Eklund. “He then asked me to try writing something for his door. Since it was for Rick, it wasn’t 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:  

"Behind this door you may find Mr. Tharp, who has been designing things in this studio since 1975. That’s 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 doesn’t do it alone. Usually you’ll find several people working in the studio on graphic identity and design. So the name THARP DID IT is something of an oversimplification, But it’s catchy, isn’t 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. You’re still reading. That can only mean one thing. The door is locked. No one’s here, dammit. What’s up with that? And by now your squatting, practically lying on the floor to read this, so you can’t 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, the Los Gatos Weekly-Times and the Phoenix Data Center.

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 Lab. Other logo design books will also be recommended in the next column.

Jeff Fisher, the Engineer of Creative Identity for Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, has received over 475 regional, national and international graphic design awards for his logo and corporate identity efforts. His work is featured in more than 75 publications on the design of logos, the business of graphic design, and small business marketing.

Fisher is a member of the HOW Magazine Editorial Advisory Board and is also on the 2005 HOW Design Conference Advisory Council. His own book, The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success,” was released by HOW Design Books in late 2004. An excerpt from the book may be found at CreativeLatitude.com. More information about Jeff Fisher LogoMotives is available at www.jfisherlogomotives.com.

 

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