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  • April 26, 2012

Thank you, Hillman Curtis.

When I learned of Hillman Curtis’ passing last week I tried to impart to someone unfamiliar with his work why, having never met him, he meant so much to Decorative Illustration my development as a designer and (former) animator. He taught me how to respect the audience, I told her. He taught me how to justify, how to edit.

Above all else, he taught me restraint.

As a young designer a few months into my first design job (it would be generous to call what I was doing at the time “design,” or even a job, unless the world was in serious want of 45° arrows), discovering hillmancurtisinc was a watershed moment that would challenge everything I thought I knew about designing for the web. The experience was revelatory—Curtis’ meaningful and well-mannered animation illustrated a fluency marked by restraint found infrequently among Flash designers, let alone myself. I would spend the better part of six years studying and emulating his work, frame by frame, margin to margin. Restraint is among the most difficult skills to master as a designer, and if I’ve managed to learn a bit of it at all I owe Hillman Curtis a very heartfelt handshake and a thank you. I’m sad I’ll never have that opportunity.

His contribution to our discipline—and I use that word to describe both our practice and a design imperative—will likely be best remembered by the Artist Series he directed after stepping back from the celebrated work that would inspire a thousand careers like mine. It’s a special kind of artist that devotes much time and energy to documenting the wisdom of other creators. If there’s a single lesson anyone in our competitive industry can learn from Curtis’ career arc—outside of courage and reinvention, which, for me, he has no parallel—it is to resist your natural impulse to keep for yourself what you’ve uncovered through all your hard work and sacrifice and accident…. And instead, just give it away.

Make each other better.

It speaks to Hillman Curtis’ enduring influence that my story is not uncommon, and is shared by many . More touching tributes have been written by others, many of whom considered Hillman Curtis a friend. These amazing people were gracious enough to share their thoughts here:

Hillman offered me studio space when I didn’t have any. He was a generous, kind-hearted, soft-spoken man—unpretentious, humble, first to acknowledge other people’s contributions. What he seemed to be as a public persona he was in person. There was no sham, no pretense, no ego, no big show—just Hillman. His message—“be prepared to reinvent yourself”—was and is empowering. I miss him, and I’m angry he was taken from us.

Jeffrey Zeldman, Happy Cog Founder

Hillman — generous filmmaker, teacher, designer, bicyclist, Brooklynite — has touched the lives of so many that our exchange is but one. Yet at one point, I am grateful to have shared some space with him. We talked one day of gifts. He revealed he had a gift to bring people together.

I’d always thought how lovely to be on the receiving end of those bringing-togethers, those serendipitous intersections. The playful, the curious, the driven, the learners, the humble, the magical — they all passed through the studio. And too, how lovely it was just to know and intersect with a person with such an enormous breadth of gifts.

Liz Danzico, UX Consultant and Chair, MFA Interaction Design at SVA; Read Liz’s full tribute to Hillman Curtis on Bobulate

I followed Hillman’s work when I was first getting started in design. He stood out as a voice and style all his own; you could plainly see that this guy was in a whole different class. And after I had read his stunning book, MTIV: Process, Inspiration and Practice for the New Media Designer, I wanted to be just like him. If not for Hillman’s work, I wouldn’t be the designer I am today.

Later when I moved to NY I ended up living in the same neighborhood as Hillman. I’m honored to have counted myself among his friends, and further to have had the opportunity to collaborate on a few of his projects. I always looked forward to running into him on the street and talking at length about bikes and cameras and what we were each obsessed with at that moment. He was generous with his time and endlessly curious about bringing beauty to the world.

His influence will be felt for many years to come. I didn’t get to know him half as much as I wish, but even now I look up to him as a creative force, an inspiration, and as kind-hearted a guy as they come. He will be missed.

Jason Santa Maria, Typekit Creative Director and A Book Apart Co-Founder

I learned Flash in 1997. I thought I was pretty good at it, until I came across Hillman Curtis’ Flash Web Design three years later. Incredibly impressed at how much more excellent someone else could be, I sent Hillman an email. I made a website—in Flash, of course—that had an admission ticket with his name Photoshopped onto it. Clicking it animated the ticket out and in flew my portfolio. I told him I was still a student, and that I’d love to work for him someday. I don’t remember his words verbatim, but he said my portfolio looked good—a polite lie—and that I had an internship with him waiting if ever moved to New York. Swoon.

That was the first time I had ever sent someone famous an email. And he responded. And he was nice. It gave me the confidence to continue reaching out to people I respected. A small moment that shaped a huge part of my career.

Thank you, Hillman Curtis. The world has lost one more great man.

Dan Mall, Superfriendly Founder; This post first appeared on Dan’s website, on April 20, 2012.

Hillman Curtis reinvented what a ‘design hero’ was for me. The print, logo, and type designers I studied in school were ‘historical’ and that created a sense of detachment. All of that changed with the web. Self publishing provided Mr. Curtis an immediate voice and footprint in our fledgling industry. It destroyed my notion of graphic design ‘history.’ Instead, I was witnessing it in real-time.

When his influential book Flash Web Design hit our shelves, it was pored over by myself and my colleagues. We admired the deft mixing of traditional media in the vector based application and attempted to mimic his techniques whenever possible. Consequently, he made it feel safe for us to experiment with the medium. While he was incredibly inventive with Flash, that wasn’t the hallmark of his work. We were oblivious to the fact that first and foremost, Mr. Curtis was a fantastic storyteller.

Chris Cashdollar, Happy Cog Creative Director

Back in 1997, when I was 28 years old and earned a “web designer” title for the first time at an insurance company in Seattle, I was working on an e-commerce initiative to enable people to buy auto insurance online. Sexy stuff. While I was feverishly designing and coding table-based layouts, the dot-com boom was rumbling outside my cubicle. As a result, management was noticing this Internet thing may have legs after all.

In order to gain some inspiration, I frequently visited At one point, I held a screening in a conference room for my colleagues and my bosses, essentially showing every Flash piece Hillman ever created. I knew that what I was showing wouldn’t necessarily effect how I designed a form asking people to input their VIN, but that didn’t matter. I wanted them to know what was possible. I wanted them to understand that the web could be used for powerfully communicating emotion just as well as it could facilitate business transactions. It was eye opening for them, and it fundamentally changed my thinking when approaching designing for the web.

Greg Hoy, Happy Cog President

Hillman was truly an anchor and a spokesman for web designers when our industry needed it the most, during the post-dot com era. I loved that his work embraced content and brought it to the forefront instead of hiding it behind bogus Flash elements. His work was simple and to the point, but never lacked creativity. I know he moved on to other types of creative work, but he’s still a pillar of our community and it really sucks that he won’t be around in twenty years to see the results of his legacy.

Greg Storey, Happy Cog President

The first time I saw Hillman Curtis’ work on the web, I was in awe. He opened my eyes to the idea of the web as a canvas for making beautiful things. It’s not just that I was inspired by his work, but I got legitimately excited about the possibilities before me.

Brian Warren Happy Cog Senior Designer

Early in my career, I found myself with a band that had broken up and a pretty much useless film degree. Hillman Curtis’ work and his writing instantly became a touchstone for me as a young designer. He blazed a trail from art school, to rock and roll, to design. Not only did he create his own path through reinvention, he did so with dignity and grace. Hillman taught us to put ‘your heart into everything you do.’ In more vulnerable terms, he taught us to put love in everything. Love your work. Love your colleagues. Love your community.

Hillman Curtis is still a touchstone for me—to make sure I love what I do, because life can be brutally short.

Kevin Sharon, Happy Cog Design Director

RIP Hillman Curtis.

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