Portland's Dean of Design
By Melissa Delzio
If a council were formed to determine a list of the “Founding Fathers” of the Portland design community, Byron Ferris’s name would have to be near the top of that list. Sure, there were others who grew to be big-wigs in advertising, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone as talented, influential and well-loved as Byron.
Byron Ferris's design work: top left to bottom right: Port of Portland logo; Jantzen ad from "Jantzen Armed Services department; 1966 Jantzen ad; Jantzen ad from "Jantzen Armed Services department; Jantzen ad; OHSU logo; Sketch and copy deck for Benson Hotel ad; PDX Airport signage/icon design; ZGF Architects Holiday card.
Born in Portland in 1921, Byron’s creativity and organizational skills developed early; he drew his first cartoons for his classmates and for money at age nine. While attending Jefferson High School, class of 1939, he formed the Korny Kartoon Klub with fellow schoolmates which kicked off a lifetime of writing, entertaining, drawing and telling “korny” jokes. For Byron Ferris, who later be known as Portland’s “Dean of Design”, humor was always critical.
He Wrote the Book
“Advertising today displays examples of the professional artist’s work more than any other field in art,” Byron Ferris wrote in a 1955 magazine article geared at aspiring advertising artists. He continued, “In addition to understanding the craft of producing art for reproduction, the advertising artist must offer in his work a solution to communicating the advertiser’s message to the reader. Finding these solutions and adding his own ideas and personality to his work can be very gratifying. The good commercial artist who expects to make progress never stops studying—whether in regular classes, workshops, in studio groups or on his own.”
In 1955, Byron was 34. He was working as a freelance designer, was president of the Portland Advertising Artists Guild, and was clearly following his own advice. Byron, a natural teacher, began as a design and letterform instructor at the Museum Art School (now PNCA) in 1959, joining the likes of famous calligraphy instructor Lloyd Reynolds, and designer Douglas Lynch.
Former PNCA President Sally Lawrence recalls Byron’s strength as, “the power of all his years of teaching delivered in his calm, intelligent, genuine, and caring manner.” By the 1960s, Byron Ferris co-wrote THE book on commercial art during the golden age of advertising, titled “Fell’s Guide to Advertising.”
Byron never stopped writing. In the 1960s he teamed up with designers Dick and Jeane Coyle and become Associate Editor of the new and already influential Communication Arts magazine.
He later become known for his Oregonian Magazine series about design and culture, which he later self-published as Sense of Design and some Non-sense. A quote from his introduction read, “Laughter can be aspirin for the pain of accepting a newly realized thought.”
Byron’s jokes, puns and general sense of humor were not limited to his personal life, they were abundantly applied to his work as well.
He Brought the Sizzle
In 1967 he started a firm with partner Roger Bachman, appropriately named Bachman/Ferris. The firm’s accounts included such clients as Old Spaghetti Factory, Hannah International, and Port of Portland. The successful shop was eventually sold to McCann Erickson (a familiar storyline in those days).
“Roger Bachman and Byron Ferris hired me in 1969,” Meridel Prideaux, a co-worker, mentee and friend of Byron for many decades recalled. “They had a boutique advertising agency, and they hired me as a production manager. Roger Bachman was the total opposite of Byron but they were such good partners for many years. Roger got in at 7am and left at 3pm. Byron got in at 10am and left at 9pm or later. Roger would give assignments to Byron at say, 3pm in the afternoon. Byron would stay until 11pm, so that when Roger got in at 7, he had this layout done that would knock your socks off. The layouts sold. Byron was a real showman and a salesman. He had European style. He was very convincing. He would tell stories and make you fall in love. Roger’s part of the presentation would be market research, the demographics, etc. When Byron would present, he would add the sizzle.”
“When we were at McCann Erickson, we lived Mad Men,” Meridel remembered. “We dressed like that; the furniture was like that; the style was the same. When McCann bought us, we grew to 250 people—the largest agency in Portland at that time. We had two floors; everyone smoked at their desk. The men, you would sit down at their desk, and they would pull their whiskey out from the drawer. There were no women in important positions. We were production managers, media buyers, copywriters, and stylists. Roger, Byron and I only stayed at McCann for two years. Roger and Byron hated working for McCann. New York was telling them what they could and could not do. We had handled political campaigns before when it was Bachman/Ferris. We did George McGovern for the State of Oregon and other Democrats. At McCann, they were all Republicans. They didn’t like us doing that. So Roger and Byron just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s leave.'”
“This isn’t nostalgia: it’s the foundation on which today’s design and ad business was built.”
After McCann, Meridel continued to work with Byron on a freelance basis from the same offices, and they often pitched clients together.
“Byron would do these daily walkabouts, where he went around the office to each person’s desk, tell his daily joke and visit with them,” Meridel said. “‘Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side’ was one such joke that she heard every month for about 40 years.”
“Relationships were important.” Byron’s wife, Carol Ferris, said of that time. “Designers in the 60s were also a part of a larger community, they weren’t isolated to the blue light of their computer screens yet. They were connected through working relationships with photographers, engravers, typesetters, copy editors, writers, and the cab drivers who ferried copy and proofs to and from the craftsmen to the accounts. This isn’t nostalgia: it’s the foundation on which today’s design and ad business was built.”
In 1976 Byron started another firm, this time with Charles Politz, Peter Teel and Robert Reynolds, called Design Council, Inc. (DCI). Their client list included Willamette Industries, Pacific Power & Light, Richard, Ltd., Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, and Boyd Coffee Co.
Byron was an advocate for design in the greater community. According to colleague Joe Erceg, Byron was involved in expanding the idea of good design throughout the city. “Byron started this thing as a part of the Art Director’s Club, that was the ‘Best Sign Award’. The group would nominate and vote for local businesses who had good sign design, and they would honor those businesses with an official award.”
Byron’s community work continued, and in 1983 when The Portland Ad Federation founded the first ever museum dedicated to the history of advertising in America, Byron Ferris was a founding board member. The American Advertising Museum was located in downtown Portland until 2004 and included displays featuring advertising from as early as the 18th century and one of the six original Jantzen Diving Girls once used at Jantzen Beach Amusement Park. Byron’s extensive knowledge of design history helped in crafting the museum’s exhibits, while his humor kept board meetings light. Byron impressed his fellow board members by drawing furiously throughout meetings — often cartoons depicting meeting attendees, like accountant & treasurer, Jim McDonald.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of the ad business from Byron, Meridel absorbed from Byron a love for travel. “As a young person at Bachman/Ferris, I hung around at night, to learn from him. After hours, he got into showing me his travel slides of Paris and London—he had traveled all over the world—and I would drool over that. He would say, ‘All you have to do is save $25 a month for a year, and then you’ll be able to go.’”
Byron’s innovative spirit let him to pursue and secure several patents, among them the klimamasek, a “hot nose” to cure the common cold (it never made it into clinical trials), and an improved photo wheel for use by graphic designers. Even in Byron’s retirement, he was still writing and creating. His creations included the books, “Jokes for Grandkids” and “The Four Jeffs” about his adventures with his pals.
“Byron’s work lives on through the design students from his years at the Museum Art School (now PNCA) who carry forward his commitment to good design and to letterform," Carol Ferris said of Byron’s impact. “His commitment to design as a viable commercial art field laid a foundation in the 60s and 70s for the current inclusion of design thinking at PNCA.”
According to Carol, Byron believed, “that life as a designer meant carrying a dynamic curiosity and focus into all aspects of modern life. Byron was insatiably curious and widely read about many things, loved to travel, loved language, loved good food and wine, and yes, martinis.”
Thanks to Carol Ferris, Meridel Prideaux, Jim McDonald & Joe Erceg for their time, and to Eric Hillerns for connecting me to Byron Ferris when he spoke at an AIGA event in 2008.
If you have more to add to this entry, or a recommendation on who we should feature on Portland Design History, please reach out to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters from Byron Ferris
To Irwin McFadden; Jan 29,1994
So the world has got more complicated and louder. And I'm sitting here knowing that knowledge and information has truly expanded exponentially to the point where its hard to find clear answers and simplicity has lost its respect.
I long for and still believe in the value of clear-mindedness, even with the din of too many people and things. That may be why I like being at home where the clutter is kept at a minimum and your painting in our dining area is a reminder of the inspiration of clarity. The true meaning of the word "elegance" is refined, graceful, propriety, though it has come into common use to equate the word with opulence and profusion. "The elegant solution" still means the refined and simplest solution, and nature itself still insists on that. A species will die out if it doesn't find its way to the appropriate and simplest accommodation to its environment.
Los Angeles, as with our other cities, built itself into a complicated web of materials and manners and then the earthquake came.
So I m thinking of a more simple life. I may even throw out the cat.
To Irwin McFadden; June 29, 1994
…I’ve learned a lot about the current practice of design. Because of a series of interviews, am realizing that practicing design workers are separating themselves from each other at great speed. I find the condition interesting and, since there are names you recognize in my survey reports, I'm including copies of reports which explain the meaning of the above. hope you enjoy the reading.
I suspect that the rapid change is happening because of the very competitive commercial scene-- too many designers, each protecting their hold on what clients they have, and the old community we had when we were all trying to bring the importance of design to the industrial world, is not now to be seen. We've lived through quite a saga.
Yesterday I had lunch with Chuck Politz, a wonderful time at an Italian bistro, Portofino, hidden in the old Sellwood district, that serves marvelous food done subtly in the Old World manner. Chuck and I are now working out of our own home studios and we haven't seen each other for a month. I told him some things I'd gathered from my snooping around town for the survey, and he was amazed.
Don New, who started the largest studio in Portland a couple of years ago, has quit and gone fishing. Ray Dodge left Knoll, Dodge and Assoc. to start his own creative agency. Tim Leigh, one of the partners of Bronson, Leigh, Weeks quit to go freelancing. A new studio has been started by a couple from New York, Johnson and Wolverton, in the Irving Street Lofts, and they are doing massive work for Avia, all on the computer and using the filmless camera (direct digitized imaging) to do pictures of the Avia sneakers. So a major dispassion is growing from the turn to manufactured artwork by electronic machine without hands-on art. Loren Weeks thinks that a new loss of creativity is happening, defined by a generational split. Our generation won't be able to talk to the new one entering the design field, knowing only the keypad, scanner and monitor."
So my recent survey travels have given me quite a shock. Chuck and I seem to agree that we don't want to learn the new language talked by technicians who don't talk design. It all seems a natural progression of an old political system desire, putting the means of production into the hands of the workers.
I've suggested to CA Magazine that I write another piece of the "Annals of Design" to illuminate the current shift of graphic design. I don't think the new editors want me to have the forum for my acerbic viewpoint. Patrick Coyne is really "GeeWhizz" about computers. I still like our generation more.
To Irwin McFadden; December 13, 1994
The just arrived issue of CA is the Advertising Annual, packed with clever ideas, some ads nicely designed. The ad folk seem to know that they have to communicate so presentations are clear, much better than the Design Annual stuff. The people who did these recent ads show that they don't want ads to look like ads. There's a flurry of use of romantic letterforms and graffiti scrawled text. Ah, the search for what's new. Surprisingly, the layered type that seems to be in vogue with the graphic designers seems not to be represented, though mixed fonts in the same word are used often.
Come to think about it though, the generation of current producers has grown up with graffiti and TV, and type scrolling up on the screen, changing size and form to keep the action lively seems to work alright. It's what they're used to, but trying to do the same thing on a static page is very confusing. I guess its generational. The current New Yorker has a cartoon of a father talking to a son and the father is saying "You'd better ask your grandparents about that, son- my generation is very uncomfortable.talking about abstinence." Am I getting uncomfortable talking about incontinent current design?
I'm now wearing eyeglasses to see well. It's like always looking at the world through windows. Perhaps that's why I like to get to our beach place to stare at the ocean for awhile and look at all of the nothing out there.
The first weekend of December, Carol and I went to Palo Alto for the CA Annual Meeting. It was great fun having dinner with all of the staff and catching up on the gossip. Since Dick Coyne died two years ago and Patrick Coyne took over as owner/publisher, the sense of the magazine has changed.
Patrick is doing a very good job and has invested in major electronic equipment to produce the book. They laugh at me because I'm the only contributor who still sends them typed scripts for my pieces. Carol has offered to put my scripts on disc for me, so they'll feel more comfortable. They all treat me with respect, however, which is pleasing. They even listen to my railing about designers being a flock of "mouse jockeys" losing the feel of designing by hand.
I point out then that there's a history of graphic design, that once we did layout "blueprints" for the composition folk to lock up hot type, cuts, and sig cuts in the type shop chase to do the actual finish. Then came lithography and the designer could use hand-and-eye design directly on the drawing board, in control of the work. That was the golden age of design and we called it graphic design. Now, the designer is again distanced from work shoving pre-programmed things around on the monitor. I think it’s a loss.
But the same battle has been there for decades, the battle between art and reproduction, the battle between the artist and the designer. In Zurich, in the late 50s, there was a steamy discussion at the first ICOGRADA conference, talks about the same battle. The Gewerbe Kunstlers (commercial artists) screamed about Neue Graphik (New Graphic Design), expounded by the Swiss, as being a mechanical methodology and being restrictive to the art spirit.
Of course, Neue Graphik was pointed toward letterpress production and control of space to find an inherent art, and I loved it as a discovery. It was a good discipline which insisted on clarity, and clarity is still my message. Beauty in the universal.
To Irwin McFadden; February 10, 1995
Writing for Communication Arts is quite a stimulation. I have to read a good many books I really don't care about. Anne Telford sends them up for review and I must be attentive. I'm about the only one of the writing stable who's still interested in fine letterform, and I'm also about the only one who had ad agency experience and business management responsibility. Books on these subjects I enjoy, but they're seldom. I seem to get a lot of vanity books, self published so that the authors can hear themselves talk. Ah, well. Tolerance, BF, tolerance.
I do like being part of the CA family, however. My stuff is the only writing they still get as typed script. Everything else comes in on disc. So I asked Carol to input my typed text onto a disc and I got congratulations with this month's check. (I did send them my typewritten scripts, however. I don't trust those little electrons to be real. Who can see them?)
Susan Stamberg, reviewing an art show on NPR this morning, quoted Claus Oldenburg as saying that the accident of being able to draw connects the hand with the sense of fantasy. I think I like fantasy. I watch a lot of television, which is a fantastic maker of pictures in the living room. Such magic. I watch a lot of bad television.
You comment that you find the art obsession with handcraft to be offensive. I fear that I am beginning to be on handcraft's side, a reaction to CA's obsession with making everything out of electrons. Carol continues to get us socially involved with her watercolor painters group, people who are good and clever craftspeople, people I've come to like. I am tempted to try direct exhibit work again, maybe sculpture in plastics, because I don't think I'm suited to pushing electrons around with a mouse.
Our friend Charles Politz has, in his pragmatic way, defected. He is doing a 100 page book and has found that our service bureau, Admiral Typesetting, will do the setting and formatting for $6 a page. There'll be no pasteup, just spreads including photo-boxes, captions in place, crop marks and register marks appearing magically out of the hard-copy machine. All that Chuck has to do is paste proofs and color Cannon copies to size into a layout dummy.
Chuck is delighted and he has made a handsome book by eyeball. The precision comes from Admiral for cheap. Of course, that lets the designer do what he does best. If he has the taste.
I bought a book last night which was written by a friend, but put together easily by an entry level girl. All that technology in the hands of the inept is causing graphic design to lose its charm.
I'm pleased that CA maintains its typographic integrity, though Patrick has made some small innovations. Dick Coyne insisted that we cleave to format, though I too felt that it got a little old and fusty over the years. When Dick died a few years ago, I think Patrick was afraid to change very much lest a bolt from heaven strike him down at his monitor.
I talked about the "Golden Age" of graphic design, and felt very good about meeting George Nelson and Max Bill and being part of the time when art and craft and technology were all somewhat equal. We didn't have to specialize until we found what we liked most. It was interesting and that was the "Gold" of it. And we could do it ourselves- be as good designers as we could manage.
Now CA seems to be filled with talk about which software program to buy- programs figured out by someone else programs to buy to plug in another "talent" for your offering.
However, it is politically correct that everyone have exactly the same talents so that no one will be made to feel inferior. This can happen when all designers are completely plugged in with all available programs and we're all able to do the same thing. It will be a much kinder world. We'll not tolerate violence in the movies. We'll watch movies such as "Slap-out at the 0.K.Corral". The sequel to today's top-grossing movie "Dumb and Dumber" will be "Dumbest". CA will only be filled with poetry.