Designer Spotlight: Eric Thoelke


Where do you work, and what is your title?
President and Executive Creative Director at TOKY.

How long have you been in the design industry?
34 years.

How did you end up in your field?
I’ve been creating graphic design since the third grade, when I won a school poster contest (“THE DRUG LOOPHOLE” with a picture of a hangman’s noose), so it was a toss up between graphic design and architecture. I went to college to become an architect, with emphasis on big picture urban planning aspects. I’ve always liked the design of the system more than the design of the specific tactics. I like to think about the largest possible outcomes, and then turn the execution of the details over to experts in executing the tactical design components. That’s what I still do as the brand strategist at TOKY; I create the brand planning, and have a wonderful team of designers who design the identities, the print collateral, advertising and online projects that bring the idea to life.

Tell us about one of your most memorable projects.
We recently rebranded The Phillips Collection in Washington DC, America’s first museum of modern art. We worked closely with everyone from the executive director and her curatorial staff to the development office, and developed the brand position, messaging, and brand strategy that would make them more successful. Then we built a great brand identity on top of that foundational work. TOKY presented three concepts for the brand identity to them, and they were all fabulous. The Phillips’ board of directors had a hard time choosing, but we got the right one through. The colors in the logo change based on the works in the Phillips collection, and the identity is now widely used in animations, print, web, you name it. It’s a thrill to go into a gift shop in a beautiful storied museum in DC and see your brand for sale on umbrellas, books and posters.

What is your favorite place in St. Louis to find inspiration?
I drive around a lot. I find it very therapeutic to always be in motion. I sort of go into a zone of zen, where my brain floats off and talks to the quiet parts of my mind where the cool ideas are hiding.

Who is your design hero?
Kit Hinrichs, for his invention of a holistic and unique design language based on a singular insight into how modern audiences actually read. It’s the last time a graphic designer created such an all-encompassing design philosophy, and it’s massively impactful on how we still design today.

Do you have favorite music for fueling your creativity?
I listen to a lot of Electelane, Stereolab and Chemical Brothers when I need to focus on a looming deadline; and horn concertos by Telemann and Hyden when I need to think in long, unrestricted thought-strings. And I wear headphones without listening to anything when I just need to signal that I need some alone time in our open, egalitarian office.

Tell us about a design-related book, essay, film, video or other form of media that’s important to you.
I love the fossil record of Communication Arts. I have every issue of CA dating back to 1976, when I was a junior in high school. I remember getting into CA for the first time 20 years ago, and thinking that I’d finally been able to etch my name on the walls of graphic design history. I still get excited when we get work in CA, and being selected as a judge of the Design Annual in 2014 was a huge thrill.

How important is it to know what other designers are doing in your industry?
Graphic design today is way too cannibalistic. The availability of massive amounts of design executions from around the world, all online, has made trends pop up and burn out with greater rapidity than ever. That’s not a good thing for anyone. Graphic designers need to learn to find inspiration outside of our little pool of ideas. Where’s the weirdness? The regional flavors that we once had? The iconoclast who just plays outside the system? The Internet has made the outsider into next week’s flash in the pan.

What advice do you have for an up-and-coming designer?
Save your money, start your own business, buy real estate.

Design in St. Louis is just a tiny piece in a world of possibilities. Get out and explore everything — and then come back and talk to us. Bring the world back to us inside your mind.

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