Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

James Miho

Advertising '55

James Miho was born in Gridley, Calif., in 1933. During World War II, his family was interned at Tule Lake on the border of California and Oregon. Miho fought in the Korean War, and during a leave in Japan was so inspired by the art and architecture there that he decided to pursue a career in design.

After graduating from Art Center in 1955, he began that career at N.W. Ayer & Son in Philadelphia, where he collaborated on the influential “Great Ideas of Western Man” ad campaign for the Container Corporation of America during the 1960s and '70s. He introduced to the series the work of such Pop artists as Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers. He has worked for Needham, Harper & Steers in New York City, where he art-directed the famous “Imagination” series of themed paper sample brochures for Champion Papers.

He established the design office James Miho Incorporated in New York in 1970, servicing such clients as Chrysler Corporation, Atlantic Richfield, Xerox Corporation, Denise Rene Gallery of New York and the Danish Embassy.

Miho is also an esteemed design educator, having served as Art Center's Chair of the Graphic Design department from 1988 to 1996. An AIGA medalist, he has also served as Chair of Multimedia Design at Innovative Design Labs (IDS) of Samsung in Seoul.

Art Center: What inspired you to become a designer?
James Miho:
In 1951, after seven months of combat in the Korean War, I went to Japan on leave. After all that time fighting, seeing nothing but rubble and death, I went to Kyoto. I saw the garden at the Ryoanji Temple, and it was pretty cool.

Then I saw some of the shoguns' palaces. I saw how well designed they were, and how well the rulers of the country lived. They lived simply but beautifully. They were tyrants, but in their Kyoto palaces, I saw possibilities. And I thought about how lucky it was that Kyoto was spared from the atomic bomb in World War II. I was only a teenager, but I decided if I came out of this war alive, I wanted to do something beautiful and good and positive. That's when I realized I wanted to be an architect or a designer.

AC: How has the global marketplace changed the approach to design and marketing?
JM: When I was vice president for Needham, Harper & Steers, I had a whole staff of researchers. I had attorneys advising on us on the laws so that we were aware of what we could and couldn't do, what we could and couldn't say. That was just to sell to America. Now we're selling to two billion Asians and 500 million Europeans. It's a huge marketplace, and you have to understand the particular market that you're selling to. Not just the commercial market for whatever the product is, but cultural conditions, legal issues. Everything.

AC: Who inspires you?
JM: Lorser Feitelson was the first to inspire me, because he talked about all these things that I didn't know about. He inspired me to learn after I got out on my own; to experience things and engage in a lifelong education. Even in Detroit, I went to night school to study more about sociology, psychology and fine arts; about how Wall Street works.

And [the designer] George Nelson was very inspiring. Once, long ago at a Christmas party in New York, he was talking about designers who are specialists versus those who are generalists, and that designers who specialize only in one thing were always in danger because that one thing could become obsolete due to material or medical problems, changing markets, being banned by the government or whatever.

So he inspired me toward becoming a generalist, because if something happens on one side of your world, you still have the other side of your world to work in.

AC: Designers have a unique responsibility in guiding the future not just of markets, but also of the planet. How would you advise young designers to handle this responsibility?
JM: They have to develop a process of knowledge that continues to develop once they're out of school and in the real world. They should read. Use the Internet. Accumulate knowledge to use as they go up the ladder, so that when they have a position of leadership, they also have the knowledge to conduct themselves responsibly.

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