Ivan Chermayeff – The Pack Rat

In the early 1950’s, upon arriving at Harvard University, Ivan Chermayeff met with the Dean of Undergraduate Studies to discuss a certain request. He was uniquely minded and this was something the school recognized quickly. Ivan explained that he did not want to major in a specific subject. But that he wanted to take many classes and major in the professors themselves. The Dean approved. This unique approach to his college education gave him exposure to many exciting and provocative professors and classes. Chermayeff defined himself as having a “pack rat” personality. This personality gives us a closer look at his exposure to many different areas of life that gave him a wide array of knowledge to draw from. This wide web of knowledge gave him what he needed to solidify himself as one of the leading graphic designers of our age.

When his family fled the troubles of World War II in Europe they came to the United States for safety. They arrived in Montreal, quickly moved to San Francisco, and then several times throughout the East Coast where they finally settled in Massachusetts. Both his father Serge was a well known architect and his brother Peter also became highly regarded as a designer. Goes to show that, indeed, creativity ran deep in his family. He went to study for two years at Cambridge under several different professors that became meaningful mentors to him. Soon after, Ivan attended the Chicago Institute of Design where he studied visual fundamentals. After two years there, he began at Yale University where he earned his Bachelor’s of Fine Arts Degree. Chermayeff attended a total of twenty-four different schools throughout his life as his family was never settled. He gained an exposure to life in this way that helped him garner his unique perspectives. 

In 1957, Chermayeff and Yale classmate, Tom Geismar, founded their own design firm known as Chermayeff & Geismar. Their firm went on to become one of the best-known design firms in the world. They created over six-hundred trademarks for different corporations and were known to be some of the very first graphic designers to develop an abstract trademark for Chase Bank in 1960. Their studio worked with major companies worldwide like Armani, National Geographic, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), NBC (National Broadcasting Service), Rockefeller, and quite a few more. Chermayeff was also known to be a very talented illustrator and collagist that could rationally balance a composition with abstract images and geometric shapes. In 1962, Chermayeff became one of the seven founders of a design practice known as Cambridge Seven Associates. Geismar and Chermayeff’s brother Peter were also part of the Cambridge Seven Associates and became long time collaborators with Ivan. 

Ivan Chermayeff is most certainly one of the influential graphic designers of the modern era. His career lasted his entire life, having worked 60 years in the field until the day he died in 2017. His work is highly rewarded by all in the field; receiving medals from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Society of Illustrators, Yale University, admission into the Art Director’s Hall of Fame, and a plethora of many more. Chermayeff also served as president of the AIGA and on the board of trustees for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Three years after the release of his book Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks Chermayeff & Geismar, Ivan and his partner Geismar were awarded the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Smithsonian’s National Design Museum. 

But for designers everywhere, Chermayeff’s greatest achievement is the lasting impact and inspiration he’s given to thousands of novices. Geismar remembered Chermayeff by saying, “He loved surprise, large scale objects, and the color red”(Heller). Geismar followed that up by stating that Chermayeff’s contributions to the world of design will continue to remain unsurpassed. 

As a teenager, Ivan didn’t like the idea of failure. He became fascinated with graphic design because he saw that if graphic design was done well it would always be published. He did not like the idea of having an architectural project relying on funding and other things that could potentially ruin the end goal. In other fields of design, other certain outcomes for a project are relied on. Ivan also stated that his education taught him little importance about graphic design. He gained the perception that graphic design must be developed personally. With technological changes always happening, people keep on learning new techniques and styles. Chermayeff stated in a 2013 interview that his best design work is “hopefully free of my past work or anyone else’s. It’s in other words, within limits, original.” Of course the design must work for the clients, if it is to be successful. When asked how he’d define good design he said, “Good design is a design that works. If it doesn’t work, no good. No matter what it looks like”(Munari).

Ivan Chermayeff believed that finding relationships was what graphic design, along with poetry, is all about. Finding similes, analogies, and metaphors embedded within reality is how a designer may make connections. For their design firm, combining poetic communication with efficient practicality made Chermayeff and Geismar successful. They became acclaimed for their wide variety of aesthetic approaches to finding answers to what their clients needed. They looked at each one of their projects as a problem to be solved and they looked at themselves as problem solvers. Their methodology of making details that worked at every size and scale helped them accomplish their creative goals and gain acclamation throughout the design world. Chermayeff’s influence extends much further than just the world of graphic design but to the whole art and design community together. Chermayeff mentions Paul Rand, his mentor, as being probably the most influential and inspiring designer of his life. He loved Rand’s whole body of work. Chermayeff talked about finding his heroes in truly sophisticated people and he had an undeniable sense of attention to detail for everything in his life.


“Ivan Chermayeff.” ADC Hall of Fame, ADC Global, adcglobal.org/hall-of-fame/ivan-chermayeff/.

Munari, Nicola-Matteo. “Who’s Who: Ivan Chermayeff.” Design Culture, 30 Sept. 2013, www.designculture.it/interview/ivan-chermayeff.html.

Heller, Kate. “Memorable, Clear and Direct-Remembering Ivan Chermayeff, FSEGD.” SEGD, 4 Dec. 2017, segd.org/memorable-clear-and-direct%E2%80%94remembering-ivan-chermayeff-fsegd