Dugald Stermer Wanted to Change the World
By Peter Richardson
Posted on Dec 4, 2011
[Photo of a Ramparts cover by SPJ
Dugald Stermer told the Society of Publication Designers
that this cover, which shows four of Ramparts' top
employees burning their actual draft cards, was his
Dugald Stermer, illustrator and visionary art director of
Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker,
died last Friday after a long illness. He was 74.
Stermer started at Ramparts in 1964, when it was a
2-year-old Catholic literary quarterly that resembled, in
his words, "the poetry annual of a Midwestern girls
school." But as Ramparts began running more controversial
content, Stermer transformed its look and earned the
respect of publisher Warren Hinckle and editor Robert
Scheer. Between 1966 and 1968, the three produced a
magazine that, according to The New York Times, restored
the lapsed institution of muckraking, put showmanship back
into journalism and gave radicalism a commercial
Stermer's art direction was a critical part of that
achievement. Ramparts became the first "radical slick" by
combining blockbuster investigative stories with high
production values, including color, photographs and glossy
paper. That combination supercharged the magazine's
circulation and heightened its impact. When the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr. came upon a 1967 Ramparts photo
essay called "The Children of Vietnam," which documented
the civilian casualties of U.S. bombing in Vietnam, he
immediately decided to come out against the war. King
wasn't the only one affected by that piece; Stermer later
said that laying it out was "just about the nastiest job
I've ever had."
Stermer left Ramparts in 1970, and the magazine folded in
1975. But Stermer's influence in the magazine world lives
on--most obviously at Rolling Stone, which was founded by
Ramparts alumni Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason in 1967.
With Stermer's blessing, Wenner lifted design elements
from Ramparts, and some still appear prominently on the
cover of Rolling Stone.
Born in 1936, Stermer grew up in Los Angeles. "I was a
beach boy, your basic '40s and '50s kid," he later said.
"I liked playing cowboys and drawing pictures." In his
youth, he was something of a hood. "My image was surly,
leather-jacketed, the white T-shirt with rolled up
sleeves, the Levi's hanging low. A nasty little teenager
who worked in a gas station, so I was greasy on top of all
But a high school teacher noticed Stermer's talent as a
cartoonist and encouraged him to attend college. He
studied art at UCLA and worked for two years in a Los
Angeles design shop before joining a Houston firm.
In Texas, Stermer met San Francisco advertising guru
Howard Gossage, who was helping Hinckle juice up Ramparts.
Stermer had no magazine experience, but Gossage arranged
for an interview. Stermer learned that founding publisher
Edward Keating had enough credit for only two more issues.
But Stermer didn't want to design corporate reports
forever, so he packed his young family into his Volkswagen
bus and headed for the Bay Area. He soon became a key
player at the magazine.
"I was pretty intransigent about what I did, a 'my way or
the highway' sort of thing," he recalled. "I learned early
that the person who gets there earliest and leaves latest
makes all the decisions. Any territory you could defend
His easygoing manner and workhorse habits tempered
Hinckle's extravagance and short-attention span. Like
Hinckle, Stermer was a rebel, not a radical, and that
quality helped keep the magazine from descending into
For Stermer, the fact that Ramparts was located in
California was crucial. Because the magazine wasn't based
in New York, it was never expected to succeed. For this
reason, Gossage said later, the Ramparts staff was like a
troupe of dancing bears: Their technique was less
important than the fact that they could dance at all. But
those low expectations allowed Stermer to innovate, and he
made the most of his liberty.
Stermer didn't read magazines or the alternative press, so
he had no preconceptions of what Ramparts should look
like. Mostly he was guided by his UCLA professor's dictum
that the best design is never noticed. To emphasize the
magazine's message rather than its look, Stermer set every
line of type--the captions as well as the text--in Times
Roman. Drawing on local styles, especially those developed
by San Francisco printers Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, he
produced an elegant design that grounded the magazine's
explosive stories and irreverent tone.
"It was a conscious choice to just use one typeface, and
make the design very simple," he said in 2009. "It had
nothing to do with budgets, although we never had any
money. ... I wanted the magazine, page-to-page,
issue-to-issue, to feel like chapters of a book, and,
considering our content, to look credible."
At its peak, Ramparts received the prestigious George Polk
Award for excellence in magazine reporting. More
established magazines began to emulate Stermer's approach,
and Esquire tried to hire him. But he declined the offer,
which would have paid him well but diminished his artistic
Stermer left Ramparts when its new editors, David Horowitz
and Peter Collier, ousted Robert Scheer. (Hinckle had
already left to found Scanlan's magazine, where he first
matched Hunter S. Thompson with illustrator Ralph
Stermer pursued a freelance career, first as a magazine
designer and then as an illustrator. He drew a wildlife
series for the Los Angeles Times; worked on campaigns for
Levi's, the Iams Company, the San Diego Zoo, Jaguar Cars
Ltd., BMW and Nike; and created editorial illustrations
for Time, Esquire, The New York Times, The New Yorker, GQ
and Rolling Stone. He designed the Olympic medals for the
1984 Games in Los Angeles, and the State Department
commissioned him to design the 2009 Earth Day poster. In
1986, he was the subject of a solo exhibition and
retrospective at the California Academy of Sciences, and
he gave the keynote addresses at the International
Conference of Natural Science Illustrators in 2000 and the
International Conference of Medical Illustrators in 2001.
Stermer taught illustration for many years at the
California College of the Arts, where he was a
distinguished professor and chaired his department. He was
appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission in 1997 and
served on the Delancey Street Foundation's board of
directors for more than 30 years. (The foundation is a
residential self-help organization for former substance
abusers, ex-convicts and the homeless.) He was the author
of four books: "The Art of Revolution" (1970) with Susan
Sontag, "Vanishing Creatures" (1981), "Vanishing Flora"
(1995) and "Birds & Bees" (1995).
In a 2010 interview, Stermer was asked about his career.
"As Howard Gossage used to say, 'The only fit work for an
adult is to change the world.' He said it straight-faced,
and while other people might laugh, I always have that in
the back of my mind," Stermer said. "I don't walk around
with my heart on my sleeve, but I do feel that using our
abilities to make things better is a pretty good way of
spending a life."
Peter Richardson is the author of "A Bomb in Every Issue:
How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed
America." It was an Editor's Choice at The New York Times
and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.
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