Each year, the Herron Alumni Association recognizes an alum whose service, dedication, and achievements have exceptionally contributed to the school.
The recipient of this year's award is James Sholly (B.F.A. Visual Communication '87), co-owner of Commercial Artisan. Founded in 1990 and operated in unison with his brother and Herron alumnus Jon Sholly (B.F.A. Visual Communication '03), the Indianapolis-based studio has designed for local nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies with clients as diverse as the Humane Society of the United States and Under Armour, Inc.
He is highly engaged with Herron, having served on the Herron Alumni Association's board of directors from 2006 to 2014; supported the school's development efforts; and designed several publications including exhibition catalogs and the latest viewbook.
We spoke with Sholly about the roots of his design life, home-grown entrepreneurship, and how each new project brings creative opportunity.
HERRON: Let's start with your backstory. What originally piqued your interest in pursuing a design profession?
JAMES SHOLLY: My brother and I grew up being exposed to beautiful Scandinavian design. Our mother was from Sweden and she and our dad (a Colonel in the Army) filled our military base homes with Danish modern furniture and all types of decorative Swedish objects and textiles. Having beautiful, functional items as part of everyday life was a fantastic introduction to the strong role that design can play in enhancing someone's life.
My own childhood fascination with comic book art prompted me to investigate art classes in high school. One senior class offered a design component, which was a revelation to me. I couldn't get over the fact that making posters and album covers could potentially be a profession! My high school art teacher told me about Herron and encouraged me to learn more. So, I soon began to reinforce my portfolio and initiate the application process.
HERRON: What key lessons did you learn at Herron?
SHOLLY: I was fortunate to have a number of influential professors during my years at Herron. Two stand out as being particularly important to me.
Candace Lorimer taught typography during my junior and senior years. Her background was in type, printing, and book arts, but she was also completely plugged in to current trends in music, art, and fashion. She was a smart, tough instructor who didn't reward mediocrity. In her class, we strove to go beyond what other instructors might have accepted and to push the boundaries of conventional typographic communications. She eventually opened a textile and fashion design business from her apartment, which showed me that I didn't necessarily need to work in an office or follow a traditional career path to move ahead in design. I admired the fact that she took decisions about her work and creativity and (independently) put them into practice.
I also met Paula Differding in my junior year, which happened to be the first year she taught. Her background was graphic design in the Indianapolis design and advertising community. As her student, I was exposed to the most talented figures in the local creative community, as well as the most skilled printers, typesetters, and color separators. Her warmth and enthusiasm were only exceeded by her depth of knowledge about professional practice and print production. She provided a kind of practical, real world entry into the possibilities graphic design could offer.
HERRON: How would you describe your aesthetic and approach to design?
SHOLLY: I appreciate simplicity and gravitate to it as much as possible. Design is most frequently a problem-solving exercise for me, but I still attempt to bring a sense of strength and elegance to the projects we care most about. The majority of my studio's work is printed, so I take advantage of the tactile possibilities that can be achieved using that process.
HERRON: As the owner of your own design studio, what does a typical day look like for you? What do you enjoy most about working with Jon?
SHOLLY: I've worked out of a studio in my home for almost 30 years, and I still love it! My brother lives about ten minutes away, so he shows up at about 9:00 a.m. and we review what needs to be done that day. It's typical for us to have 15 to 20 projects going at any one time. They're all at different stages and range from fairly straightforward (a business card) to more complex (corporate literature).
Jon and I work really well together. He's extremely adept at figuring out how to visualize the concepts that we generate together. He's lovely and I'm very lucky to get to work with him.
HERRON: Is there a project you're most proud of or had the most fun with?
SHOLLY: The project of which I'm most proud is our "Commercial Article" series. It's a printed publication we produce outside of our regular studio work that aims to document the lives and work of design figures from Indiana who we feel haven't received the attention that they deserve.
It's surprising to some people, but Indiana has an extremely rich design history and "Commercial Article" is our modest attempt to try to preserve it. We've produced ten issues with at least two more on the way. "Commercial Article" has been featured in Metropolis magazine and has connected us to other individuals who are similarly concerned with the preservation of regional design history.