From Texas Tech University to designing Texas, DJ Stout (Class of '81) has a simple motto: solve the problem; don't decorate. It is a motto that has proven successful.
Stout won two national awards in his first year as art director for Texas Monthly, where he would spend 13 legacy-defining years. He also kicked off an unexpected trend at the magazine – after his departure in 2000, every art director since has been a graduate of Texas Tech.
As a partner in the Austin office for the global design firm Pentagram, he has designed everything from books and magazines to whole visual identities for intuitions such as Loyola Marymount University.
Stout is a fifth-generation Texan (or sixth – depending on how you count). By all accounts, he loves to make that fact well known to everyone, including his worldwide clients.
"I have always liked the Texas brag," Stout explains. "Because all the interesting things – art, literature – come from a specific place."
That specific place for Stout boasts everything from wealthy oilmen and beauty queens to fire ants and prairie dogs. He has made a career of embellishing all of it in his design while being finely pointed, creating an identifiable Texas that other states can only fall short of. "The Myth," as he calls it, creates a central point where one can experience the trials and tribulations of the world.
"My design was informed from that time," reflects Stout. "Texas Monthly was so well respected because we showed the world through the eyes of Texas."
Stout designed papers for every neighborhood he lived in as a military brat. His father's career in the U.S. Marine Corps brought them to Virginia. It was in Harrisonburg, Va. that Stout began his college career.
James Madison University had become a co-educational school and was in a period of great expansion. Stout was eager to expand his editorial designs – the things that made him feel special and not like a perpetual stranger. However, James Madison did not offer a degree in communication design or graphic design. Texas, as in most cases, had the solution to his problem.
Texas Tech's School of Art, now housed within the J.T.& Margaret Talkington School of Visual & Performing Arts, offered a design communications degree. The program was small at the time but featured Frank Cheatham, a faculty member who challenged his students to achieve their full potential. Cheatham was experienced, tough and brutally honest.
"It was the classic 'really great teacher' thing," remembers Stout.
Cheatham was a Texan, Stout makes clear, but had made a career working for designers in Los Angeles. The two often butted heads.
"Frank made his mark ... on a lot of students – some who hated his raw honesty, but most who came to understand the value in it," explains Alvin Colvin in his 2009 blog post remembering the late Cheatham. "Frank presided over a lot of discussions, debates and arguments – some ending in people walking out; some ending in tears, but a lot more ending in discovery – epiphanies, even."
Stout honors those showdowns with Cheatham.
"He said things about conceptual thinking that I tell my designers to this day," Stout says.
The concept begins with defining the goal – what problem will be solved.
"We are asked to think differently and solve problems. We are designers, but we also are problem-solvers," defines Stout. "We are solving problems in a visual way."
Just don't decorate it.