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MAD (WO)MAN: The Colorful Career of a Creative Legend
By Matt Schrader
Her face has a few more wrinkles than it once did, and her pace is a little slower, but every early afternoon, 78-year-old Deborah Sussman strolls into her office with as much energy and vigor as any 22-year-old fresh out of college.
Sussman is hardly the typical CEO, but as one of the world’s most praised graphic designers — from her imaginings of Walt Disney World to the colorfully memorable branding of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — she looks every bit the part of an artistic genius. Wearing her trademark lime-green thick-rimmed glasses and sporting Andy Warholian, blue-dyed hair.
“Everybody likes blue,” she explains.
Her nearly 55-year experience in design — 40 years as president and CEO of her own company, Sussman/Prejza — lends her words distinct meaning and credence.
“Blue doesn’t frighten anybody the way [other colors] do. Maybe some people don’t like red, but everybody likes blue.”
Sussman is the creative brilliance behind some of the biggest and most recognizable branding efforts in history, designs that now exist only as memories for hundreds of millions of people — part of the reason the City of Santa Monica spends thousands of taxpayer dollars each year to keep her services just a phone call away.
Just last year, the Santa Monica City Council approved one of her colorful designs for a Mini Blue beach shuttle — part of the city’s widely known Big Blue Bus system — in a city council decision meant to shape public branding in a city long known for its imagery and artistry.
Big Blue Bus Director of Transit Services Stephanie Negriff said Sussman’s new design could further boost ridership, but more importantly, it’s part of a much bigger push to keep Santa Monica one of the nation’s most visually inspiring cities.
“We want to make it appealing to a large spectrum of people who come here,” said Negriff. “We’re using brighter colors, and [the Big Blue Bus] is one of the first systems to kind of move in this direction.”
Sussman, along with her head designer on the bus project, Holly Frasier, and Negriff, presented three unique designs originally, before the City Council chose a marketing direction.
“Rather than just flat color,” she said, “we were looking at using a photographic image — with all the different colors going one into the other — which we felt reflected the nature of the hybrid vehicle [in Santa Monica].”
Mayor Ken Genser, who was a supporter of the approved Mini Blue design, said that buses should look “fun to ride,” and although many cities may not spend as much time or money on aesthetics, design can set apart a city from the rest.
“I personally liked the one with the waves,” he said. “[It’s] very evocative of Santa Monica, and very graphic and it really snaps out at you.”
Councilman Robert Holbrook said the bus design contributes to the city’s overall image, which is something that can have tremendous impacts on tourism.
“When I see a car on the road that has skis on it, I know they’re going skiing,” he said. “I just really had hoped [for something on the buses to make] you say, ‘Oh, that’s the one going to the beach.’”
Twenty-year-old University of Northern Colorado student Chelsea Barefield, who was visiting Santa Monica on break from classes, is one of 5.5 million tourists who visit Santa Monica every year, according to the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Barefield said she thinks the city’s oceanside location is more than enough to brand the city — far more effective than anyone’s illustration could ever be — and questioned the city’s spending for public art.
“People go [to Santa Monica] because of the ocean,” she said. “It’s stupid that people’s tax dollars go to someone’s drawing … when there’s a beach.”
Sussman, however, said branding has a very strong impact on everyone it comes into contact with, whether they know it or not.
“It’s surprising how much you find [about it impacting the public],” she said. “The blue-gold design we made for [Santa Monica’s] street signs … a local newspaper even started using on the front page for their design. It becomes ingrained in the culture.”
Negriff phrased the importance of marketing simply: “How we look is just as important as how we operate.”
Genser said the more than $1 billion in annual tourism revenues indicate that the strategy of stylizing the city has worked.
And the artistic culture may be the result of Sussman in many ways, in fact. Her graphic design and imaging company has been the official branding contractor with the City of Santa Monica for more than 20 years.
Sussman — who worked more than a decade with legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames, made famous for their architectural and industrial concepts and for being early pioneers of graphic design — said she felt more than comfortable when asked to craft Santa Monica’s official city logo almost three decades ago.
“It was fun,” she said. “We took the curve of the coastline (as seen from the Pier) and added in the sun.”
Negriff said, instead of opening the bus design up to the public, it would be best to use Sussman/Prejza again, for the sake of branding consistency.
“We thought it was sort of a natural marriage to use a company who had such a strong vision of who Santa Monica is,” she said. “[They’ve] already defined Santa Monica.”
The 22-year Big Blue Bus employee said, despite minor backlash from unhappy taxpayers, most residents of Santa Monica are proud to be a part of a city with such a colorful and expressive history.
“We (the people of Santa Monica) are forward thinking, we’re sustainable, we’re cool, we’re all those things,” Negriff said. “That’s what these bus designs say.”
And entering her ninth decade in early 2010, it’s clear Sussman still gets it.
When designing the layout of the Staples Center-L.A. Live complex years ago, it was Sussman architects came to for inspiration.
“They wanted something hip,” she said.
The giant, permanent billboard-like installments on many of the downtown area’s newer buildings are the work of Sussman’s creative genius.
The layout for Universal City’s “CityWalk” AMC theater was Sussman’s idea, as was the creative schemes of hundreds of buildings, ads, buses and street signs all around the world.
The most obvious parallel perhaps — ironically for many of the younger generations — is that of fictional 1960s ad man Don Draper on AMC’s award-winning “Mad Men.”
“Mad Men” takes viewers through the world of New York Madison Avenue advertising creatives, including that of a marketing genius, Draper, years ahead of his time.
Sussman told me she liked this concept for a TV show, although she’d never seen it.
She definitely still gets it.
“I’ve heard good [things] about that,” she said. “I’ll have to watch it.”
And while her wrinkles, she says, only seem to get bigger, she says she couldn’t have asked for a better or more fulfilling career.
“It keeps me young,” she said.