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Interview with Michael Doret

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Read Time: 15 min

Michael Doret's career works have influenced generations of designs. You might be familiar with his design works if you have seen his logo for the NY Knicks or one of his many Time covers or the album cover design for KISS band and the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

He has designed a number of beautiful fonts with up to 2000 glyphs per font, and endless ways of using digital technology to emulate hand-lettering. We recently had the opportunity to interview this award-wining designer, lettering artist, and illustrator. Michael talks about his childhood influences, his education and his brilliant start at a freelance career. He tells us about his experience working with some of the big clients and the valuable projects that challenged him to explore his creative potential.

Q Hello Michael thanks for taking the time for us to interview you. To start with, can you please give us a background bio of yourself, where you are from and what is a typical day like for you?

I grew up near Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY. Dating back to the beginning of the 20th Century, Coney Island was a very well known amusement area in New York City, and all its sights and sounds left quite an impression on my young mind - the effects of which can easily be seen in most of my work. My career began and developed in New York City, but in the early '90s I moved to Los Angeles where I currently live and work together with my wife, illustrator Laura Smith. My work almost always revolves around letterforms - whether it's a logo design assignment, or one of my own font designs.

I don't really have a "typical" day because every day there are new surprises that usually need to be dealt with. But suffice it to say that I absolutely love what I do (working with lettering) and I'm happiest when I'm being creative.

Q Could you tell us about your formal education in the design and art field? How important is a formal art education in terms of getting a career in this field?

The main focus of my higher education at The Cooper Union in NYC was actually Fine Arts. At the time I started college I didn't know in what direction I wanted to go, but after a year or two at Cooper I knew that I wanted to be a graphic designer. At that time the course offerings at Cooper for graphic design were rather limited, so I took extra courses and got as much additional education as I could outside of my regular day classes. I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, but this degree played little or no direct part in my career success. Practically everything that I do now was either learned on the job or self-taught after I graduated and started working.

However, I will say that the formal education I did get at Cooper Union was priceless to me. It gave me the background, the foundation, and the tools I needed in order to be successful at what I eventually decided to do with myself. So if you have the opportunity for a college education I would definitely suggest taking that opportunity and using it — if nothing less — as something to use as a basis to build a career upon. Otherwise, in my opinion, you will be skating "on thin ice."

Q You have worked with a number of great clients and large companies like the New York Knicks, Wired, Kiss, Columbia Records and more. How has the experience been? What clients or projects have been key in influencing your creative and career growth?

I was extremely lucky that at the beginning of my freelance career I was able to hook up and partner with some very big names in the illustration world such as Charles White III and Doug Johnson. Working together with them gave me instant access to some very big clients. So very early on in my career my lettering appeared in places that were very visible to millions of people: for example in such pieces as the "Screaming Yellow Zonkers" poster I did with Charles White III, and on the New York City Yellow Pages cover with Doug Johnson. Although when I was starting out I worked for very little money, the experience of working with some very visible clients was invaluable to me — especially for my self-esteem. I knew that what I was doing was really good, and so I never assumed that any job was out of my reach. I didn't always get the projects that I wanted, but I was never so intimidated that I was afraid to try.

The projects that have been the most valuable to me have been the ones that have challenged me to go beyond what I thought I was capable of. Some of these projects have been the album covers for "Rock and Roll Over" and "Bedlam Ballroom," the logos for the "New York Knicks" and the "Graphic Artists Guild," and my covers for TIME Magazine and the Toronto Bluejays. All those projects forced me to step beyond my usual way of solving problems and try something a little different.

Q Tell us about the cover you designed for KISS's iconic "Rock And Roll Over" 1976 album. How did you manage to land the project? How the concept was developed, and what was the design process?

I was assigned that project because at the time I was working on some projects with the agency (Howard Marks Advertising) that was working with KISS. They were familiar with my work and thought it might be interesting to see what I would come up with for an album cover design for the group. The members of KISS agreed, and so I started work on that cover design.

The concept I developed was rather simple and obvious — I took the name (Rock and Roll Over) and very literally illustrated it by creating a design that could be rotated (or “rolled over”). The group members liked the idea and so I developed a colored pencil sketch to show them.

After I presented them the color sketch there were a few minor changes — mostly in the details of their faces. After that I created the final art which was done as a “mechanical,” or “pre-separated art” (black ink on drafting film overlays). That was in the pre-computer days. I recently recreated that art in Adobe Illustrator for a limited edition large scale print that is available from the KISS Online Store. The actual cover was printed in five Pantone match colors. This was very unusual as most album covers were typically printed with standard 4-color process printing.

Q In 2009 you designed another album cover (Sonic Boom) for KISS. This was almost 30 years after you designed their previous album cover. What was the difference in design process of these 2 albums? Did you design it digitally?

Paul Stanley definitely wanted the new cover to relate very closely to the older one stylistically. The design process for the newer one wasn't that different from what I went through for the earlier one. But then again my design process hasn't really changed. Design is first and foremost a mental process — not a digital or an analog process.

Designing really has nothing to do with software, or in the case of the earlier cover with colored pencil, pen and ink, and drafting film. It has to do with ideas, and with a designer's vision of what they want to achieve. Whether he or she realizes that vision with digital tools or with analog media isn't that important.

Q How have your tools changed from when you started until now? Has moving to digital changed the way you work or your style? Was it an easy transition?

I transitioned from my analog tools to working with a Mac back in 1995. I made that transition primarily because it was expected of me by my clients. It became clear to me that if I didn't no one would know what to do with my "mechanical" artwork.

That said, I should emphasize that I still begin my projects the same way I always did — with pencil sketches on tracing paper. In earlier years I would take the final tracing, place it underneath my frosted mylar overlays, and do my finished inking over it with a Rapid-O-Graph. Now I take that same tracing paper sketch, scan it, place the scan in Illustrator, and work over it.

My style hasn't changed that much. I don't believe that style is something that you can consciously control. I believe it's a result of who you are and what your influences have been. I speak about this extensively in a talk that I give called "It Began In Brooklyn."

The transition to digital media was very easy for me. Perhaps it's because I had a predilection for mathematics, which certainly seems to be beneficial in understanding how Illustrator works. The other thing I like about working digitally is that it allows me to do things design-wise that would otherwise have been very difficult for me to achieve — such as integrating complicated textures. Also working in Illustrator has allowed me to do my work more accurately and much quicker than before.

Q You have designed a number of beautiful fonts like Metroscript, Steinweiss Script, PowerStation and more. How and when did you get interested in type design? What was your first ever font? What influenced you to design the fonts professionally?

Lettering and type have always been a part of what I do. As I mentioned earlier, my first work was with some well known illustrators: what I tried to achieve in my work with them was to integrate my lettering into their illustrations in a way that was seamless — where it became something more than letters placed over an illustration.

I've been interested in font design for a long time, but only recently has it become a viable way to make a living. I actually did a font design back in the '70s for a film called "Savages." At the time there were no digital fonts, and this design went no further than the use in the film. But a few years ago I decided to create a digital version of this font. Even though it was not my first digital font, the reality is that it was my first real font design.

For me font design is a very, very labor intensive process. It takes me many months to create a finished font design. In earlier years, the amount of time I'd have to invest was way too much for the amount of money that I would probably make from the design. So it wasn't cost effective for me to do it. The fact that many people are now buying fonts for their personal computers has made the process of font design financially a much more realistic endeavor.

Q Can you describe your work process for type design? How does a font come to life? What is your favorite part of the type design process, and why? How do you name the font?

The process is actually different for each typeface that I do. But as different as they all are, they're all very personal to me. It would be very difficult to describe the process for any one of them here in a few words.

For example, Steinweiss Script evolved out of cover lettering I designed for Taschen Publishing for a book on the work of Alex Steinweiss – "The Man Who Invented the Modern Album Cover." That story is quite involved, and spanned more than a year, but those who are interested can read about it here.

I'd have to say that my favorite part of the type design process comes at the very beginning when I hone in on what will be the actual design of the font — what makes it distinctive and what makes it work. After that, it's actually a lot of very tedious technical work in a program called "FontLab," which I'm actually not that excited to do. So I work with a guy named Patrick Griffin in Canada who is really good at this programming work, and is happy to work together with me on it.

The naming of the font can actually be one of the hardest parts of the font creation! Why? Because there are so many fonts now, and almost any name you can think of seems to be already taken. "Grafika" (the font I designed for that movie "Savages") was originally named "Chrysler" (after the Chrylser building in NY), but after I created the digital version a few years ago, I found that the name was already taken. "Steinweiss Script" was a fairly obvious choice, but I felt that I needed to get permission from the Steinweiss family to name it after Mr. Steinweiss (I got it).

Q Your font Deliscript was chosen to receive the prestigious "Certificate of Excellence in Type Design" by the Type Directors Club in 2010. What was the inspiration and influence behind the creation of that font? Is there any font that is your personal favorite?

Not only was Deliscript honored by the Type Directors Club last year, but this year it was selected by Communication Arts to appear in their first Typography Annual as a winner in the Typeface Design category.

In brief, Deliscript took its name from its initial inspiration — a neon sign over the front of Canter's Delicatessen in Hollywood. The story behind this typeface was actually much more involved than that: in an article I wrote for the AIGA, I describe the whole process and how, in an interesting turn of events, the process turned back on itself and led to my actually working on a design for Canter's new food truck.

As far as my favorite fonts are concerned, that's a difficult question. My fonts are all quite different from each other, but I'd have to say that if I had to pick favorites that they'd all probably be my scripts: Steinweiss Script, Metroscript, and Deliscript. They are three fonts in which I feel I have tried to push the boundaries of what's possible to achieve with a font. They all have extensive OpenType features that allow them to do things that most other fonts cannot do. These features help to remove them from the realm of standard typesetting and to achieve a little bit of the look and feel of hand lettering.

Q Do you have any interesting projects that you're working on? What excites you most about that project?

Yes, I'm currently working on an identity project for a new concept in restaurants. I cannot divulge too much about it because of confidentiality, but I can say that this concept may change the way we experience restaurants. I'm involved with creating the overall identity, and then the individual identities and signage for several different types of restaurants that will fall underneath the larger "umbrella" identity.

I'm very excited about this project because it will allow me to try to expand the possibilities of what I ordinarily do. It will allow me to try to move beyond what everybody usually expects from me and create what I hope will be surprising graphics. Trying to do something different and interesting is, I think, what excites designers like me the most.

Q How do you recharge your creative batteries? Do you listen to music while working? What kind of music do you listen?

Although I do love to listen to music, for me it's not easy to listen while working. It can be difficult because of constant interruptions, phone calls, and sometimes the need to concentrate and focus on what I'm doing. Listening to music that must be turned on and off is not fun! What do I listen to? Anything that's new, fun and/or experimental! Lately I've been listening to M.I.A., Girl Talk, Beck, and Zap Mama.

Getting out into the world and just looking around can be very inspiring to me. Traveling around the globe, experiencing things with fresh eyes is what really gets my creative juices flowing. I just got back from Paris, where I was visiting my son. Getting away from my studio for a while, and exposing myself to what's going on in other parts for the world is really good for one's creativity.

Q Thanks for the interview Michael. Any word of advice you would like to give to aspiring designers and illustrators?

Actually yes. The one thing I would stress to young designers and illustrators is that what software you use is not as important as your thinking process, and how you solve problems. Of course it's important to master the software you're using — whether it's Illustrator, Photoshop or whatever. But you shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the software is there to serve your needs — and it shouldn't become so important that it takes over and controls you. When I look at a great piece of art, I don't want to be aware of what kind of paint the painter used. In the same way, the software should become invisible and subordinate to the vision of the artist.

Michael Doret on the Web

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