Art Center’s Instrument of Creativity


For Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the humble pencil holds special significance as an instrument of creativity. Traditionally, it has been the way that designers first give visual expression to raw ideas surfacing from their subconscious. The erasable-leaded pencil gives artists and inventors permission to test concepts, doodle and sketch without committing anything to the permanence of ink.

For decades, Art Center has used the pencil as a symbol for creativity and artistic endeavors. Each year it recognizes the outstanding achievement of alumni with Gold and Silver Pencil Awards. For its donor wall, it has made a display of oversized pencils etched with the names of donors to the College. This year when Art Center launched its fund-raising effort, it asked one of its most illustrious alumni, Michael Schwab (Advertising, class of 1975), to create a poster for the campaign. Although Schwab’s strong graphic illustrations have become the brand identity for countless companies and for the Golden Gate National Parks, he admits that being asked to create something for his alma mater was both a “proud moment…and daunting assignment.”


While searching for an object or image that would represent what Art Center was all about, Schwab too saw the iconic i mportance of the pencil. “That lowly, little yellow wooden drawing device,” he describes. “The vehicle of creative ideas. The beginning of heroic designs. At my drawing table, I forever strive to keep things graphically simple, bold and dramatic. ‘Less is more’ and to that, the pencil works!”

As with all projects, there was give-and-take between designer and client. Schwab says, “My clients initially worried a little that the name ‘Art Center College of Design’ was the smallest thing on the poster. But I had a rationale. It’s like a target – the larger shapes, words, borders, and colors will graphically draw the viewer in closer and closer…until they arrive at the destination, the confident little red words on the warm yellow diagonal — Art Center College of Design. The heroic adjectives around the perimeter are printed in silver, metallic ink on a flat black border, symbolic of the stature and integrity of this historic institution.”

Distilled to its essence, Schwab’s pencil sparingly communicates that Art Center is where ideas are born.

Art Center’s Pencil Genesis

The origin of the Art Center pencil began with the College’s tabloid, Review. Each issue featured a drawing/photograph or sculpture of a different pencil done by an Art Center student or alumnus. The pencil series began in May 1987 and continued until 1991.

Pencil no.1 by Gerald Huerte, May 1987

Pencil no.2 by Walid Saba, September 1987

Pencil no.3 by John Hersey, August 1988

Pencil no.5 by Nicholas Wilton, May 1989

Pencil no.6 by Rick Eskite, November 1989

Pencil no.7 by Larry Duke, September 1990

Pencil no.8 by Kit Hinrichs, July 1991