The Progression of Arem Duplessis
From Hampton to the New York Times to One Infinite Loop
When people start working for Apple, they disappear behind a clean, white, impeccably lit wall—clean like the techno surfaces of the company’s product packaging — and covert like the FBI (but the FBI wall is tan, and scuffed at the bottom).
Arem Duplessis went to work as a creative director behind that pristine wall at 1 Infinite Loop, ducking out of the globally public New York Times Magazine, where he was nothing but visible.
We’re proud of Rem around these parts—he grew up in Hampton and is a graduate of the Hampton University class of 1993. We're proud of his achievement even though he can’t tell us much about his current work. His full title is cross-functional creative director for Apple's world-wide marketing.
Apple CEO Tim Cook provided a shred of explanation about Apple’s rep for secrecy during an October 2014 interview with Charlie Rose. The Apple staff is secretive, he said, because people copy from them.
Culture of secrecy aside, Apple marketing has smoothly echoed its devices: clean = cool. For example, the introduction for the Apple watch available in stores in early 2015. (On the Apple Watch webpage image shown here, a clickable element in the central space led to a page with more info.)
Duplessis joined Apple in January 2014, after almost a decade as the design director of the New York Times Magazine. He and his team designed the Sunday magazine covers and interior contents. Duplessis's design knack is to telegraph the point of an article in clever, visual shorthand — for example the hand-grenade shell out of which Twitter emerged. He has won wide recognition in his profession, garnered multiple awards, and has lectured internationally.
How did he get from here (Hampton), to there (NYT) to the world’s most valuable company (Apple)?
That’s a story we can tell here.
Duplessis’s dad, Errol, is a owner of the Lake Rawlings quarry in Virginia where people learn to scuba and rescue dive. Which tells us something about how the Duplessis family rolls. Aquatics expert Errol grew up in New Orleans when the swimming pools were segregated. Pretty much everything is possible, the Duplessises believe.
And then they set about doing it.
Rem’s mom, the late visual artist Laurel Duplessis, amassed a collection of art books that Rem pored through. His earliest influences were Harlem Renaissance artists like Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley. “I was attracted to the graphic shapes of Aaron Douglas’s figures and the bright vibrant colors of Archibald Motley’s work, especially that deep, cobalt blue that appeared in many of his paintings,” he says.
But as a high school senior, Rem looked out at the road ahead and found it foggy. “I was even questioning whether or not I wanted to go to college. My mother, of course, put an end to that nonsense,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing today if it wasn’t for my mother.”
Laurel sat her son down and discussed his proclivity for drawing and building. First stop: fine art. Rem pushed back. “’No mom, fine art is a gamble.’ I wasn’t prepared to put myself through that,” he recalls. They moved on to architecture, “which kind of interested me,” Rem says. The artistic part appealed to him, but he didn’t enjoy math in school. And the whole idea of “designing bathrooms for 20 years” before maybe achieving Frank Gehry-type freedom was a non-starter for Rem.
The aha! moment came when Laurel suggested commercial art (now called graphic design). “I could go into advertising, become a magazine art director or even do movie titling,” he says. “Once I had direction I became extremely dedicated to my craft. My mother saw something in me that I simply did not or could not see. A creative director’s job is to help solve a problem through visualization, story telling and clear, concise direction to the team,” he says. Perhaps that’s what Laurel saw.
Rem’s internship at the Norfolk-based Virginian-Pilot newspaper during his senior year at Hampton University was a snapshot for the A. Duplessis Time Capsule:
Rem’s Virginian-Pilot Boss: “We’d like you to consider a job within our department.”
Rem: “I want to go to New York.”
Duplessis declined the offer of what would be a dream job for many undergrad design students to, instead, enter the design masters program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Once there, he took on work redesigning identities for area restaurants, taught swim lessons at the Park Slope YMCA and ran the department’s computer lab to help pay his tuition.
After grad school, Duplessis landed jobs at hot spots like GQ and Spin magazines. His career took off in 2000 when, as design director at GQ, he commissioned the typeface called “GQ Gotham.” Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones created Gotham with input from Duplessis and his team. Today, Gotham is one of the most recognized typefaces in the world, used by Coca-Cola, Nike and as the official typeface for the Obama campaigns.
As he moved on to the Times, Duplessis’s personal persona prophetically began to resemble the Apple signature style: clean head; unadorned, buttoned-up white shirt.
Duplessis was design director of the Times — "responsible for the entire look and feel of the magazine.” He and his team often collaborated with some of the world's top writers, photographers, fine artists and illustrators. They were named “Design Team of the Year” by the Art Directors Club for three consecutive years.
In 2011, Duplessis co-produced “Touch of Evil,” a video gallery of George Clooney, Viola Davis, Brad Pitt and other top actors portraying stylized villains. I watched that video online more than once, recognizing how unusual it was to eavesdrop on a succession of solitary freaks; their portrayals depended on the acting, makeup, shot and direction, without a larger story or protagonist to shape the action. “Touch of Evil” won the Emmy in the “New Approaches to News & Documentary Programming: Arts, Lifestyle & Culture” category.
In 2009, Duplessis re-designed the print IRAAA journal and capped the new format with a new nameplate in solid, angular, block letters. While the stout “A”s evoke impressions of ancient Egyptian pyramids, the overall feel is futuristic—the kind of dichotomy Sun Ra symbolized.
At Apple, Duplessis is “part of the entire process, from helping to shape the story to directing the work to a place that meets [their] needs.” His job entails “making sure that we tell a consistent story” across multiple platforms, worldwide. How to do that without forsaking sleep and having eyes in the back of his head? Duplessis doesn’t say.
I wondered if he agrees with the design prophecy of John Maeda, another recent East-Coast-to-Silicon-Valley design/thinker transplant. Maeda has brought staying power to STEAM (STEM +Arts), most significantly as the president of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Now Design Partner at angel venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, Maeda says, "I firmly believe that art and design will transform our economy in the 21st century the way that science and technology did in the last century."
Rem isn’t signing on to a profound transformation, but he agrees that the arts will have a lot more influence in culture than ever before. “The digital landscape has flattened the world, especially within social media. Look at Instagram. All of a sudden you have all of these amateur photographers—people are sharing their art. That’s just a small example. "Suddenly it’s become an extremely visual world, these are very exciting times.”
We delve into discussion about Duplessis’s favorites among his Times cover designs and other award-winning work. I tell him how the images affect me: I can’t not look. Duplessis’s portraiture —Seinfeld, Frank Ocean, Samuel Jackson — is seldom pretty and is often raw, like emotion.
Duplessis’s “Price of Stolen Childhood”—so opposite from the others it’s the same. The visual effect of frosted glass speaks to the obliterating aspects of child pornography on one of its victims. Again, I stare.
It’s “the stickiness factor.” The covers attract like that.
“My goal was to do more than just art direct a visual,” he says. “I wanted the viewer/reader to really engage with the art, study it and hope it communicates in an interesting and dynamic way.”
For the “College Issue” Times Magazine cover, I get the messy, but why the soft pastels? Duplessis was looking for something “Not too cliché or letter jacket."
What does a college bulletin board look like at the end of the year?
“Everything’s been ripped off, but there’s still bits of paper and staples that have been left behind. I wanted to capture that feeling."
His team went the full route, designing fictional posters like a car-for-sale ad. “All by hand,” Duplessis says. “No Photoshop involved. How do students get others’ attention so they can sell their stuff? We went to Kinkos for the colorful paper stock and printing.” Rem had fun.
I’m digging Duplessis’s Ron Paul flag illustration from Wired. There’s one line, different from the others: “Internet genius.” What? “Paul’s campaign paved the way for Barack Obama’s by reaching people through the Internet,” Duplessis says. The flag uses numbers and symbols familiar to coders, and the flag symbol "speaks to politics." The design won an American Illustration Annual Award.
Embrace what you love
…and figure out how to make a career of it. When we get talking about African American people and art—and art careers—Duplessis’s sentences tumble out so fast I feel like I just met his caffeinated twin brother.
What do you want to tell black people, I ask.
“I would say one thing in particular: Parents, if your child is showing a real passion and interest for the arts—if your child likes to create and it’s hard to get the pencil out of their hand—you have to encourage that. Not only when they’re young but when they get older, too.” Duplessis is cold serious about getting parents off the dime about arts careers.
He urges parents to “educate themselves on where the creative world is now and what it means to be a graphic designer. Many parents insist their children follow traditional careers like accounting, engineering and medicine, but there are many paths. Potential careers under the design umbrella are numerous, especially on the digital front, some demanding $150–200k in the first year. A lot of people don’t know that.” We’ve heard the “embrace your passion” mantra, but Duplessis adds, critically, “and earn a living doing it."
For his Touré Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness book review cover, Duplessis created a brown- and beige-toned Pantone chart to express the broad spectrum of African American complexions and the occupations they represent — e.g., equestrian, marine biologist, park ranger, and, well okay, but you probably can't earn a living from it: Dead head.
Rem Duplessis, who comes from a family of service-oriented educators, arts patrons and spiritual mystics, thrives in this work environment, embracing what he loves.
“Ideas come from everywhere,” he says. “Sometimes I find inspiration just walking down the street.” And so when time rolled back around to design the annual "Year in Ideas" NYT issue, Rem was ready. But when the topic is touchy, like the article on the exchange of a massive group Palestinian prisoners for a single Israeli prisoner, a clever visual trope may not be appropriate. For the prisoner swap story, Duplessis decided to just lay it out there: show the lone Israeli at the bottom of a page filled with the 1,027 Palestinians whose exchange sealed the deal.
And now he’s infusing that inspiration into artfully pitching what devotees claim are the best products in the world. Seems like an easy sell, right? But marketing has to reach an exceedingly high bar, alongside that of Apple’s engineers and Team Jony Ive.
Tony Fadell, who led teams at Apple that created the iPod and iPhone (and went on to found Nest, a forward-thinking company that creates products for a smart home) was next in the Fall 2014 line-up of Charlie Rose interviews with current and former Apple employees. Fadell told Rose about how he learned to design a “product experience” at Apple: “How it’s marketed. How it’s sold in retail. How once you buy it…how you unbox it. Then from there, installing and configuring it, and then using it, servicing it. All of those things amount to a product experience,” Fadell explains in the interview. It’s different at Apple than anywhere else.
Think of Duplessis’s role as that of a producer, bringing all of the pieces together into a complete package that speaks to us, the consumers. He is well suited to the daunting task.
“I am having fun. I wanted a new challenge. Man, did I find it.”
IRAAA contributing writer Toni Wynn often covers STEM + art topics. She also is principal of Word-Burning Stove, a consulting firm specializing in writing exhibition text for museums.