Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream

Dorothy and Otis Shepard were groundbreaking modernist graphic designers and illustrators, whose work, particularly in the 1930s and 40s, but also well into the 1960s, helped define the look of American billboards, advertisements, sports teams, and much more. Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel have compiled Dorothy and Otis: Designing the American Dream, an astonishing visual life of this husband and wife team, thanks to a treasure trove of photographs, artwork, sketches, and diaries compiled by Dorothy before her death in 2000 and passed along by her son and granddaughter. Hathaway is an accomplished illustrator and art director in his own right (I’ve worked with him on many projects over the years), and he brings that multi-disciplinary approach to compiling this book.

Dorothy and Otis is rich in both visuals and biographical detail. The Shepards, singularly and together, designed and illustrated a series of billboards for Wrigley’s chewing gum in the 1930s and 40s. Otis Shepard later became the defacto creative director for the Chicago Cubs baseball team (they were owned by Wrigley), designing program covers, logos, and even uniforms. His cover illustrations for the Cubs programs and yearbooks are probably his most well-known work, striking graphically modern images that pop off the pages.

cubs-1950-prog(Above): Chicago Cubs program designed and illustrated by Otis Shepard, 1950

The Shepards were also heavily involved in the design and marketing of Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California in the 1930s (the island was also owned by Wrigley head P.K. Wrigley). They designed buildings, signage, promotional materials, even uniforms for the postal workers and bus drivers as they brought their vision of modernist design to an entire community. The stylish couple mingled with movie stars and pro athletes on the island, and generally lived a lifestyle that Dorothy described as “the closest thing we’d get to paradise.”

For all the biographical information in Dorothy and Otis, this is primarily a visual book. It’s loaded with glorious reproductions of artwork, sketches, photographs, and Cubs program covers. It’s a true graphic delight, and a wonderful look at a much too overlooked pair of creative talents.

Author Norman Hathaway shares some background on Dorothy and Otis Shepard:

How did you discover the Shepards?
Norman Hathaway: That was actually a very circuitous process. For decades when you bought a Paasche airbrush it came with a how-to booklet, and within it was an illustration by Shep [Otis Shepard] that really hooked me. The credit mentioned the Wrigley Co., so I finally learned his name. I used to forage through the old design annuals from the 30s and I noticed he was about the only American designer that was featured in European design journals like Gebrauchsgrapik.


(Above): Chicago Cubs program designed and illustrated by Otis Shepard, 1968

Why aren’t they much better known?
Norman Hathaway: Three reasons:
1) Too early. Their peak period was the 20s and 30s, and that’s a bit too early for most American design history.
2) Location. They primarily worked in California and Chicago. Both towns have been passed over by historians.
3) The sectors they worked for. Most early American design history focuses on publishing or advertising. The Shepards worked for the billboard industry, which has no history of crediting creators. So even if you’re interested in the work, there’s no way of attributing a billboard to its designer. The same goes for the environmental design and packaging work the Shepards produced.

How did Dorothy and Otis work together?
Norman Hathaway: They primarily just did their own individual projects. Dorothy did all the hand lettering on Shep’s work until he went to work for Wrigley’s as she was so good at it. They had so much work to do for Catalina island that Shep would provide layouts for some pieces which Dorothy would then execute herself or oversee another designer. All that while they both juggled work for freelance clients and Wrigley.

cubs-1953(Above): Chicago Cubs program designed and illustrated by Otis Shepard, 1953

You talk in the book about how unusual it was at that time for a woman like Dorothy Shepard to play such an important role in graphic design.
Norman Hathaway: She was just so far ahead out of the gate! She had enough self confidence and awareness of how talented she was, that she was able to ignore the prevailing attitudes and deterrents and just got on with her work. I like that Dorothy’s work was a little harder and geometric than Shep’s. Her Catalina sign system is fantastic.Very graphic and embodied with humor. She was also a brilliant draftsman, which was rare back then as well. There are a lot of life drawings and portraits that didn’t make it into the book, that are so strong.

Were they primarily airbrush artists?
Norman Hathaway: Otis used the airbrush more than Dorothy, though she used it for her Pabst billboard campaign. They were both quite adept at different styles though. Many people consider Shep an airbrush artist, but it sells him a bit short. I think since his most famous work was done for Wrigley’s which utilized it, he’s been typecast as one.

Those Cubs programs covers are incredibly hip and modern looking. How did they compare to other contemporary sports programs?
Norman Hathaway: Nothing else came within miles of it. Those programs are just beautiful and once you see what other teams were doing they become that much more impressive. Shep’s designs were extremely modern, particularly within the context of professional sports. Most were still doing quasi-Victorian looking designs or bog standard stuff that looked it was knocked together by the printer. In retrospect I feel Shep was the greatest baseball artist of that period. He was so skilled at posing all his figures that it really showed what a good understanding of the sport he had.

Dorothy and Otis is available at the link below.