Although he didn’t know it for a long time, Tom Brown was always practicing to be a graphic designer. As a child he would cut out letters and paste them together. He hoarded magazines and pilfered pieces to cobble together pictures—part word, part art. This nebulous intersection that is design, eluded him, even as he moved inexorably toward it.
A third-generation Canadian, Brown was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in the small town of Duncan, halfway between Victoria and Nanaimo. His mother did oil painting and crafts when he was a child, which inspired his early attempts at art. “I learned how to draw a lot of stuff from those ‘how to draw’ books. Drawing by shapes, I’d draw tigers and lions,” says Brown. A detail-oriented child, he also began making models of cars and planes, painting the tiny parts with great care—a hobby that he continues today.
After high school he went to an area community college for two years on a scholarship, but had no idea what he wanted to do. As self-imposed research to aid his decision-making process, he began reading about the history of graphic design, which proved to be revelatory. “I had no idea I loved typography,” Brown relates. “I’d cut letters out, and keep files. I did that on my own as a kid—when you don’t know you can make a living at it. Getting a designer job, where do you go to do that?”
Trying to find the answer to that question, Brown took a series of jobs, each leading closer to design. He used vinyl-cutting machines at a sign shop and worked in a “really small design studio” with a couple of guys he’d gone to school with.
Brown’s memories of college are less than stellar. “I was always waiting for permission to try something. I was too inexperienced and young,” he says now. “And probably way too polite,” he adds wryly.
“I wanted to get really good at design so I got a job at a little design studio in downtown Vancouver,” Brown says. “I worked with a guy out of advertising, [who did] a lot of corporate identity.” There he became fascinated with the photocopier. “I was using it for paste-up,” he says. “It’s a way of making reproduced light reaction flares.”
Interested in the mechanics of design, he wanted to know how a designer arrived at a final product. “I knew there wasn’t a magic formula,” he says in his droll, matter-of-fact style. Eventually Brown’s boss turned over most of the work to him and soon Tom took over the space and brought in a friend to work with him. Meantime, at home his dad would fold up the paper and slide it over to him with ads marked, and chide, “You know Safeway is hiring.”
One day, Brown came across an ad for an advertising designer at a magazine, a job title that sounded infinitely more appealing in print, than in reality. “It’s really bottom-line graphic design,” Brown claims. “You’re a wrist and someone is telling you what to do.”
Then in another nudge toward destiny, a friend showed Brown an ad for a paste-up artist at Western Living magazine. He was 23. He met with an assistant art director who showed him the ropes and put him to work all in the same day. “That was my first magazine experience,” Brown remembers. It was a part-time job that turned full-time pretty fast. Three months later he became the assistant art director.
The gaps in his education drove him to seek out a mentor and to form his own process. “I needed somebody to plunge me into the deep end of how to think,” Brown states. “Vancouver was the city magazine, the poor stepchild of the publishing company. A position came up. I went in there like a dirty shirt,” he says with a grin. He got the job as assistant art director, was asked to think about redoing certain pages and was given design parameters by his boss, Art Center grad Rick Staehling. “He’s a really inspiring guy. He taught me how to appreciate illustration, how to do typography. Like any good mentor, the door was open both ways to learn and excel,” says Brown.
Eventually he answered the siren call of America’s publishing Mecca. After long deliberation, Brown accepted a deputy art director position at Men’s Journal and he and his wife Kelly relocated to Manhattan in January 1996. He was interviewed for the position under then art director David Armario by Rolling Stone art director Fred Woodward, who at the time was creative director for three titles in Jann Wenner’s magazine empire. Woodward advised him to listen to everybody (even those with “bad” ideas) and to take an idea and go farther with it. In late 1997, American Express approached Brown to redesign Travel Leisure Golf, which they were planning on setting up in Boulder, Colorado. Brown used that as the impetus to return west.
He had used his time in the Big Apple wisely; Brown absorbed the New York scene like a sponge. He also made inroads into book publishing as a freelance designer. As a testament to his thoroughness, Brown made eight fake book covers he took into a meeting with Michael Ian Kaye at Little Brown to show him how he thought. It worked. He walked out of the meeting with three assignments.
“My name went like wildfire through the publishing industry and lots of people called me,” Brown says of his career trajectory after New York. “I got so much book work and magazine work, it was almost like having two brains and having to switch back and forth.” Eventually, he decided to give book design a hiatus and concentrates now mostly on editorial design.
When Brown returned home to Canada, he wanted to stay small and work for himself. He built a sleek studio in the basement of his three-story home in a Port Moody subdivision of curving streets and mountain views not far from the mist-shrouded coast. There he honed his methodology. “My goal was to move quickly, print things out, analyze them, see where the shapes of the words were going, using what happened in the process like bent copies,” Brown explains.
Brown literally receives inspiration from what he is surrounded by. He’s incorporated everything from vacuum cleaner dust to crumpled paper on layouts. Sometimes it takes years for him to utilize an element of his collected ephemera.
Soon he began to receive nominations and awards for his magazine design work. For Brown, “[The] recognition of accidents and seeing the beauty in them was liberating for me. I like to make mistakes and implement them,” he says.
“With Tom the iron-man work ethic and abiding respect for readers and editorial content is a given,” says former mentor Rick Staehling. “The bonus is his personal touch: the ability to produce magazine pages that can be grab-you-by-the-throat direct or gorgeous or sometimes both. When Tom talks about designing things that are ‘really cool’—which he often does—he doesn’t mean hip and happening. He’s after looks that are up-to-date and won’t date. He’s after deep design.”
“I’m not a staff magazine guy,” Brown claims. “I purposely set out to do varied work, some redesigns, some prototypes, so I’m not doing the same thing over and over.” His pleasure, and his challenge, is to design for the intended audience of a publication. Even better is how he is able to successfully work remotely, designing all his contracted magazines from his studio in Port Moody, including titles from Indonesia and Malaysia to Toronto and New York. Brown has redesigned everything from Adbusters, Field & Stream and Golf to Men’s Journal, SKI, Travel Leisure Golf, DestinAsian and Yachting. “With Adbusters, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to do a parody of a magazine or redesign it,” he says.
Brown works in so many different time zones he has three clocks in his studio, set to New York, Vancouver and Denver time. “Sometimes I’m forced to work through the night because I’m working on an Asian magazine,” he says, although he is quick to add, “I love to work at night.” He seems quite content to monitor the noises of his family upstairs (sons Alex, seven, Max, five and daughter Victoria, three) and jokes that he doesn’t leave his house. Vancouver with its big-city bustle and international flavor is a 30-minute drive away, and clients don’t seem to mind the trek to Port Moody, where a sign at the city’s edge proclaims “City of the Arts.”
A master at knowing just when a soft touch, or a punk jab is called for, Brown works with illustrators and photographers to craft unique design expressions for sports, business and shelter publications here and abroad.
Toronto-based illustrator/educator Joe Morse remembers, “I first worked with Tom nearly ten years ago, when he was deputy art director at Men’s Journal. I still have his note dated December 4, 1996, giving me the brief and reference material for a portrait assignment in one run-on sentence: ‘...DON’T use this image or any other as direction go off in your own manner...BUT again let’s see what you come up with and we’ll go from there.’ The difference with Tom, he actually means it, and ten years later he still uses lots of bold type in his messages.
“Tom uses illustration because it mirrors his own approach to editorial design. He starts each job with a blank piece of paper. He doesn’t have a shelf in his studio where he keeps his ‘house brand.’ He crafts the elements of the page together, blurring the boundary between the content and the visual realization. He isn’t interested in style or novelty, rather the diverse expression of illustrators connecting to the content of the page.
“The results,” Morse concludes, “are editorial spreads with startling compositions and image and text that seem to be made for each other.” Exactly what Tom Brown intended years ago with those magazines and scissors, he just didn’t know what to call it. ca