Alan Peckolick, an influential designer who created several widely recognized images, including the corporate logos for General Motors and Revlon, and who made the imaginative use of lettering the focus of his designs, died Aug. 3 at a hospital in Danbury, Connecticut. He was 76.
He had Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Jessica Weber, and sustained head injuries in an accidental fall.
Peckolick became a graphic designer out of desperation, after he was about to be kicked out of his college’s illustration program because of his poor drawing ability. He soon became fascinated by typography and letterforms, or the appearance of the alphabet in a graphic, visual sense.
Beginning in the 1960s, he had a key role in developing the corporate identity of many companies and educational institutions, from Mercedes-Benz and AT&T to New York University. He designed countless book covers and film posters, including one for Martin Scorsese’s 1978 music documentary, “The Last Waltz.”
“Alan Peckolick was a master of letterforms, part of a generation of design legends who elevated typography to a deserved art form,” Todd Radom, a designer and branding consultant for professional sports leagues and teams, including the Washington Nationals, said in an email. “His work was both eye-catching and cerebral, and it contributed to a golden era of graphic design that still resonates and inspires those of us in the field.”
Along with his mentor, Herbert Lubalin, Peckolick helped define a school of graphic design known as “expressive typography,” in which the words were no longer secondary to a pictorial image. Instead, the arrangement of the lettering became the focus of the design.
Peckolick’s signature style included the bold use of typography — which he created by hand — often against a background of color. Some of his designs used elaborate flourishes and curlicues, others were stark in their simplicity, including his General Motors logo: the solid sans-serif letters GM, with a white underline, set inside a vertical blue rectangle.
His logo for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer emphasized the letter “f,” descending to the edge of a blue oval, almost as a visual reminder of how to pronounce the company name.
“It wasn’t the sound of the word that intrigued me but the look of the word,” Peckolick said in a 2015 interview with the HuffPost. “I saw each letterform as a piece of design. Cat is not ‘cat,’ it’s c-a-t.”
Alan Jay Peckolick was born Oct. 3, 1940, in the Bronx. His father was a mail carrier.
“I never knew anything about design or graphics or any of those fancy words,” Peckolick told the HuffPost about his youth. “But … I used to draw everything. When my mother used to send me out to get groceries, by the time I was back there were little drawings on the grocery bags.”
His mother collected his drawings in a shopping bag, which Peckolick used as a portfolio to apply to art school. He was accepted as a provisional night student at New York’s Pratt Institute.
After several months, he was told he would have to leave the illustration program became his drawing wasn’t improving. A friend recommended that he switch to Pratt’s graphic design program.
“I said, ‘What’s that?,’” Peckolick recalled.
By the end of his first year, he had become a star student. After graduating in 1964, he worked for advertising agencies but kept getting fired “because I was spending too much time futzing around with type, and not coming up with a concept.”
He turned down a job offer from Saul Bass, a well-known designer of movie title sequences and posters, and joined a design agency run by Lubalin, eventually becoming a business partner.
Peckolick later formed several companies, including one with another influential designer, Seymour Chwast, before easing his way out of the business in 1995 to concentrate on painting. His canvases often featured faded commercial lettering on buildings. He continued to take occasional design projects and recently created a new logo for Asics, a Japanese manufacturer of athletic shoes.
Peckolick spelled out his visual aesthetic in a 2013 book, “Teaching Type to Talk,” which included many of his logos, posters, book covers and other designs. His graphic designs were sometimes exhibited in museums.
His first marriage, to Joan Rothenberg, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 33 years, designer Jessica Weber of New York and Sherman, Connecticut; a sister; and a brother.
Peckolick, who created all of his designs by sketching on paper, cautioned younger designers about becoming too dependent on computers.
“I think the computer is a brilliant electric pencil,” he told the HuffPost. “But it can’t think … The only thing that should come before design is think.”