George McCalman on the relationship between artistry and creative direction
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco and Grenada. His design studio McCalman Co collaborates with a wide range of cultural clients. McCalman’s background in the editorial world has been a foundation of his storytelling, and his decision to cultivate his fine art practice alongside brand work reframed his perspective and synthesized the importance of design. His first book ‘Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and Unseen’ was published in Sept 2022 to profound accolades by The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, NPR, The New York Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle. His book won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author in Feb 2023.
What does being a creative director mean to you personally?
I can distill it down into one sentence. I get to be a teacher and a student.
The teacher side is because I have many years of experience. I'm on the inside of this experience and this process. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of successes, and learned from both. That collective experience has allowed me to feel settled — I don’t have anything to prove to anyone. I am comfortable in my skin about my perspective and the way that I work.
As a student, I simply mean that I always get to learn, to keep learning. I like to bring both these angles and awarenesses into everything that I do. As a student, I get to be excited and nervous and thrilled and contradictory; as a teacher, I have to have the answers, to guide and ground other people. I love being able to mentor some of the people I work with, to be a shepherd in a process I love doing.
Tell me more about how the idea of mentorship manifests in your practice.
Well, it's something that I can say now — that I am a mentor — but that I didn't see for many years. I've been a creative director, art director, and designer for almost 30 years now. For the first few years of being an art director, I was working in publishing in New York. That means I was working with people who at the time were the tops in their fields — this is New York in the 90s, the center and pinnacle of the publishing world. So I worked with some of the best photographers and best commercial illustrators in the world during my first year of being a graphic designer and budding art director.
At the time, being an art director meant you were on the phone a lot with the people that you were working with, that you were guiding a vision, that you were answering questions, that you were working through issues before a shoot, before an assignment. And after a while, I got to realize that I was really good at this part of the job, just getting on the phone and talking through or articulating my vision and an editorial mandate.
I found I had a skill for figuring out the space between what the artist wanted to represent versus what the story wanted to represent. I really love the challenge of finding the sweet spots in between.
Over time, I started hearing photographers and artists calling me a mentor, and I was like…that’s news to me. That wasn’t how I thought of myself. I’d worked with many people already then, so I’d worked with creative directors that got off on calling themselves a mentor, on actively playing that role. But that wasn’t me, so when people started talking about me that way, it took me a long time to accept.
I just love communicating with artists. Having been an artist, being an artist still, it’s something that I really value — the idea that someone would stop to talk to me about any insecurities I have as an artist, or give me important context. That’s what an art director does, and I can now do that for myself. I’m often the artist on projects I’m also art directing, and I do essentially counsel myself through.
I've become my own mentor, which is such a funny thing to say. It’s a tough line to walk.
It suits my brain's capacity because they're at opposite ends of a spectrum, so it doesn't feel schizophrenic at all. It just feels like I'm using the left side, now I'm using the right side. The graphic designer in me loves a good organizational system, but the artist in me sometimes just needs to go for a walk and feel my way into it. It’s not linear.
What’s the relationship between your more personal artistic practice and your professional practice? How do those two things feed each other?
When I first started realizing that I was an artist, it was starting to distract me from my art directing work. I knew that there was something there after working with artists all those years. I knew the mind of an artist and I recognized myself in it. At a certain point, I needed to separate these things in my own mind.
I took a sabbatical for a year and didn’t really design for anyone else, which was crazy. Looking back now, I can’t believe I did that. At the end of that year, I thought I would want to stop being a graphic designer and art director. But what I learned is that it instead gave me perspective on something I’d been taking for granted — that I was now thinking about things as a designer with a fresh perspective because I was being an artist. I realized there were two sides of my brain that I could indulge in different ways.
Becoming an artist made me a better designer and being a designer made me a better artist. For example, most commercial illustrators learn composition in the context of commercial illustration. It’s a different understanding than an independent artist’s understanding of composition. One of the reasons I’ve been able to advance so quickly as an artist is that I already have an inherent sense of how my work is going to live, and I’m already thinking of it from an art director’s perspective while making it. It feels almost like an unfair advantage.
What’s a key to shepherding great ideas from the brainstorm stage through production and into the world?
I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m really patient with the process. I don’t try to force things along exponentially. That’s a significant part of being a creative director. The metaphor I use is you’re a band conductor — you’re not the musician, but you know better than anyone else how everything fits together.
When I’m directing a shoot, whether it’s still or moving, I view it from that conductor lens to make sure everything is working together and coordinated. But I’m also there in a capacity that is a little outside of the process at the same time, because I’m not the stylist, I’m not the photographer. I’m there to know enough about how everyone is doing what they’re doing that I’m able to anticipate problems before the people who are in the process are even aware of problems. I can tell just from five minutes into a shoot whether it’s going to be successful or not. I know how to start adjusting the details to make sure it’s successful. It’s about being hyper-present while standing just slightly outside of the process, listening and seeing to a high degree.
How have you seen the publishing industry change over the last 30 years?
Publishing has changed radically, radically, radically, from when I started. One of the main things: it's dying.
Publishing is dying as an industry and has been for some time, but the reason I don’t think it will ever completely die is that the particular form of storytelling the publishing industry produces is still better than anything else. The advertising world has not caught up with that, even as advertising and tech have absorbed a lot of those storytellers.
What magazines do for the people working on them is teach a military precision around storytelling. You’re in service to your audience, there’s a specific process, you have to do research, you have to fact check — you can’t just write whatever and make things up. And context is king. If you don’t understand why you’re writing what you’re writing, then it really doesn’t matter how well-received it is. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.
The death of magazines comes alongside this sort of death of information happening all around us, where people think their opinions are facts and that their emotional state means what they’re feeling is real out in the world. But magazines, great magazines, are valued on this premise that both the people behind the scenes and the audience are taking them seriously, that there’s a duty of quality and something like truth.
That type of storytelling will never die. But the sad thing (truth?)is that the best people in the magazine industry are no longer in the magazine industry.
Is there some piece of advice someone gave you years ago that's been foundational to the way you've moved through this line of work?
Yes. I've been given a lot of advice, but the one that has best served me is “know yourself.” Because work will challenge you. Circumstances change, production deadlines change, stories are killed, revised, and people will argue with you. But at the center of it all is you and your perspective.
What I have always attempted to do as a creative director and what I'm known for, is that I'm really grounded. I love explaining the process. I have no ego. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong. It's not a big deal. But I'm also rarely wrong. And I love collaboration. I love not being the center of gravity, when something is working so well that I don't have much to say as an art director. That's how I know it's successful, because people are contributing, everyone is feeling good, and they're bringing their best to the table.
When it looks easy to everyone, that's when I know I've done my job well. Because it's not easy.