A Q&A with Birdwell logo designer Mike Salisbury
by Jamie Brisick
Mike Salisbury is an art director and a creative director. His work spans decades and covers a massive range: Rolling Stone, Surfing, Surfer, Playboy, L’Oreal, Levi’s, Hasbro, Suzuki, Honda. He has created album covers for Michael Jackson, George Harrison, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rickie Lee Jones, Ry Cooder, and Ike and Tina Turner. He has taught design, advertising, illustration, and photography at UCLA, Chouinard, Otis Art Institute, and Art Center. I caught up with him on a recent Fat Tuesday at Danny’s, a bar/comfort food eatery in Venice Beach, not far from Mike’s home. He wore black jeans, black T-shirt, and black flight jacket. He was upbeat and playful, sipping a glass of Chardonnay. He laughed easily—and at the present-day surf world.
Tell me about designing the Birdwell logo.
Well, one of the things I did when I worked at Surfer was draw. This was in ’64. I wrote and created ads. From Surfer I got up to this agency in the Balboa Hotel, right by the ferry. And Birdwell just called and said, “Do you want to do a logo for us?” So I went out to Santa Ana, met with the family, met with ‘Ol’ Man Birdwell,’ drew the character, cut all the type out of Zip-a-tone, and he loved it! I had two colors to work with– red and black – so I picked that for the pattern for the trunks to be representative of Birdwell. The reason for executing the Birdwell logo with the cartoon and that lettering was because it was authentic and “wholesome,” with the lettering style of John Severson and Rick Griffin and myself (inspired by Ben Shahn), and our art that was the iconography of surf, broadcast to the world by Surfer magazine. ‘Ol’ man Birdwell’ came to me for that. And I gave him a mascot—a living logo.
What was the vibe like in surf culture at that time?
Birdwell had a better image, a more handmade, tailored image than the stuff you could buy commercially, which was at the time led by OP. Katin came along later. Surfing was huge then. That was at the point where everyone thought it had almost gone too far. I did a lot of surfing by myself—at Malibu and Rincon. But it was kind of like how it is now with all these boards by Costco, and pop-outs—just too much. The point is to say that Birdwell was the real thing. Birdwell felt like custom-made trunks—it had that feeling and that look.
You’ve had a long life making art.
Yes. I sort of learned and taught myself everything. I really hated team sports, ‘cause I didn’t like being yelled at all the time. I’ll figure it out on my own. So I was in wrestling in junior high, and swimming, and track and field all the way through high school. And then surfing and motocross came. I’ll figure it out. I’ll watch how it works. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. I’ll figure it out on my own. So basically that’s also what I’ve done in my life. I figure out how it is and what it takes to get this done and make things happen. If you do it this way it depends on you. I just kept instilling that in me: I’ll figure it out on my own. Surfing is just you and the wave.
You instilled this from a very young age.
Yes. I’ve been making art since I was a little kid, taking pictures since I was a little kid. When I was about six or seven I sold greeting cards door to door to win a camera. I thought, Who’s going to say no to a little blue-eyed, blond-haired kid? I’ve always drawn. The thing about drawing was that it was a good way to get attention from girls. My family moved a lot. I went to like four or five schools in one year. So I had to figure out how I was going to get along with people. I drew for all the annuals in junior high. Then I sent John Severson (founder of Surfer) some cartoons. He ended up hiring me, and I did all this work for Surfer. There was an incredible amount of opportunity in Southern California during the time that I grew up. Things were just exploding.
High points of your career?
I created the whole black-and-white look for Michael Jackson for Off The Wall. I did the 501 branding for Levi’s. I did Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Arc. I did 300 movies. What about now? What are your days like? Now I’m writing scripts. I’ve got two shows I’m working on for TV.
No. Too crowded.