Mookesh Patel: 2014 Urban Legend Award, Design

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In honor of the fifth annual Big Brain Awards, New Times is recognizing five Urban Legends, established creative pioneers who have made Phoenix a better, cooler place.

Leading up to the Big Brain Award announcement and Artopia on April 25, Jackalope Ranch, Chow Bella, and Up on the Sun will profile the legends. Up today: Mookesh Patel.

When Mookesh Patel was growing up in India, a career in graphic design was unheard of. There were only three choices when it came to work for young men.

"Medicine, medicine, medicine," he says with a laugh.

See also: Announcing the 2014 Big Brain Finalists

Raised by his maternal grandparents, he lived with an uncle who pushed him toward a career as a doctor. After two years in medical school (during which time he says he never cut open any animals for practice, choosing instead to draw the practicals so accurately his teachers didn't discover he wasn't participating until his sophomore year), he had had enough.

"I broke the news at our New Year's party. There was pin-drop silence," he says. "My uncle didn't say anything for about five minutes. At the end of those five minutes he said, 'Do what you want!' and got up and left the table. He was furious."

But Patel took that advice. He boarded a train the following day, headed first for architecture school and, when he realized the admissions deadline passed, then enrolled in the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, Gujarat -- the first of its kind in the country. He graduated in 1975, though he would return as a teacher only a few years later. That position eventually moved him to the United States in the mid-'80s, first to the prestigious Rhode Island Institute of Design for graduate school and then to the Valley for a job at Arizona State University.

His lengthy résumé grew to include consulting for Phoenix Art Museum and his alma maters. His work with both the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority, as an employed designer for Malcolm Grear Designers, and the government of India for a major traveling exhibition to Russia, "My Land, My People," sparked his interest in visual communication -- a departure from the commercial design, chiefly for area hotels, that made him successful in his first business ventures.

Part of his work with the Phoenix Art Museum consisted of designing collections of books related to exhibits. Book design, from cover to cover, quickly became a passion project. He continues creating for everything from academic papers to anthologies related to the field.

The designer will present his own paper, titled "What Does It Mean? Sense Making of Contemporary Information Transmission," in China this June, as information design is a topic he has recently become devoted to. Computer programs, like Excel, are useful in the data collection aspect, but lack accessibility. Through controlling what seem like marginal components, like color and typeface, one is able "to give a visual form to complicated data," he says. "[But] I love print more because I can control a lot of things."

The tenured professor, one of only two in ASU's Department of Visual Communication Design, found himself the subject of breaking news articles in 2009 when his office was the scene of the suicide of a graduate student. The harrowing event shook the College of Design, but Patel has never stopped teaching.

After 22 years in the field, the 61-year-old prefers teaching third-year and graduate students -- many of which have gone on to be prominent in the graphic design field. Now based in New York City, Danielle Gerard has worked on web designs for Steve Madden, while Lauren Weiss, part of Studio W Group in Los Angeles, has done product design for cosmetics company Arbonne Intl. and Coco's Restaurant & Bakery. And Justin Holloway, who graduated from the school in 2012, returned to ASU -- this time as a web designer for the School of Sustainability.

Those are the moments, as students near the end of their collegiate careers, when the creativity flourishes, Patel says. Students are directed on what to do up until that point, so when the opportunity for self-exploration through design presents itself (something with which he is personally familiar), well, the process is always rewarding.

Artopia will take place from 8 p.m. to midnight Friday, April 25, at Bentley Projects in downtown Phoenix. Tickets are $25 in advance and $35 the day of the event. See more at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bigbrainawards.

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