Review Fix chats with The Art of Atari author Tim Lapetino, who discusses the inspiration for the book and why Atari continues to be one of the most important companies in video game history. Lapetino also discusses what makes him different from other video game writers as well as his next big project.
About Tim Lapetino:
Tim Lapetino has been a fan of Atari art since childhood. An award-winning Creative Director and graphic designer, his design and branding work have been published in more than a dozen books and magazines. He co-authored the design inspiration book Damn Good: Top Designers Discuss Their All-Time Favorite Projects and has written for HOW, Geek Monthly, RETRO, and other publications. He is the founder and Executive Director of the Museum of Video Game Art (MOVA) and is dedicated to chronicling the intersection of design and pop culture. He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids.
About The Art of Atari:
ATARI is one of the most recognized names in the world. Since its formation in 1972, the company pioneered hundreds of iconic titles including Asteroids, Centipede and Missile Command. In addition to hundreds of games created for arcades, home video systems, and computers, original artwork was specially commissioned to enhance the Atari experience, further enticing children and adults to embrace and enjoy the new era of electronic entertainment. ART OF ATARI is the first official collection of such artwork. Sourced from museums and private collections worldwide, this book spans over 40 years of the company’s unique illustrations used in packaging, advertisements, catalogs, and more.
ART OF ATARI includes behind-the-scenes details on how dozens of games featured within were conceived of, illustrated, approved (or rejected), and brought to life. Whether you’re a fan, collector, enthusiast, or new to the world of video games, this book offers the most complete collection of ATARI artwork ever produced.
For More on the Book, Click Here.
Review Fix: Why is the art of Atari so important to video game history?
Tim Lapetino: As a company, I think one of the most important things Atari did for the industry was to mold the nascent video game industry, specifically in the way that it handled marketing. The creatives at Atari really took the things they knew about design, branding, illustration, and marketing, and applied that knowledge to the problems they faced as a nascent industry. How would you sell these games in a retail environment? What does the packaging look like? How do you communicate the energy and excitement of something no one had ever really experienced at home? These were creative problems to solve that had very little to do with actually making the games, but they were crucial to the survival and development of the company, and also turned out to be critically important for the industry as a whole. You even see the shadows of those strategies today, more than 40 years later.
Review Fix: What inspired this book?
Lapetino: For me, this book began with trying to answer my own questions. I’m a creative director and graphic designer by trade, and I’ve spent years designing packaging, corporate identity programs and logos for companies of all different types and sizes. One of the most iconic logos of my childhood was the Atari logo, and it’s a design that has withstood fads, trends, and changes over the decades. It’s still essentially the same today. You can still walk into a Target in 2017 and buy a t-shirt with that logo on it. There’s something about the craft and iconic quality that has helped it to remain unchanged for decades. In the design world, we pay particular attention to the giants of logo design, and the stories of the creation of logos like the Nike swoosh and the Apple bite logo are mythical. But almost nothing was known about the Atari logo — basically, just the name of its designer, George Opperman. This book began as my quest to find out more about this man and to learn more about that logo. I found that he was instrumental in the creative life of Atari, and I kept digging in search of those stories.
I also wanted to find out more about those uncredited artists behind the Atari 2600 box artwork. Where did they get their inspiration? How did they think about the work? What were their stories, and how did they find the opportunities to be a part of what was the fastest growing company in American history at that point? I wanted to know. Whether it’s passion and vocation, I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process. I’m that guy who watches every single film commentary in my movie library because I think it’s instructive and inspiring to hear thoughtful people discuss their own work habits, stories, and process. So I began turning over rocks to track down some of the remaining Atari artists, to talk to them about their creative process, and the stories behind the work. I guess you could say I fell down the rabbit hole.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this book?
Lapetino: I learned that passion can take you a long way. I worked for years on this book as a side project, long before I had a publisher, just convinced in my own mind that this was a book that should be made, even when the odds looked long that it would ever see the light of day. There were a lot of practical, legal, and work-related hoops to jump through before this book could come to life. But in envisioning it, I didn’t look at market data or to fill a gap in a publishing portfolio — I made the book I wanted to see, and it turns out that it resonated with a whole lot of people. I think that sort of approach might be the only way to make something of lasting creative value. Saul Bass was one of the most accomplished designers of the 20th century and has designed dozens of lasting logos, as well as movie posters and other amazing work. I had a quote of his on a sticky note on my computer during the writing and research of this book, and I think it really encouraged me during the process. He said, “A modest amount of imagination with a great ability to persevere can produce an important work.” I really like that sentiment, and while I’m no Saul Bass, I think there’s some truth to what he said, and I tried to take it to heart as I chronicled the efforts and work of creative people at Atari who have flown under the radar.
Review Fix: What did you learn about Atari that you didn’t expect through this book?
Lapetino: I learned that there was a much more creativity at the company even beyond the making of the games. Even though some people view the initial launch of the company with Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney as its most groundbreaking and creative, I believe that the company really hit its stride in 1980-1982 when the 2600 saw its amazing success and Warner drove Atari to the top of its game.
Finally, I was surprised and excited to be able to dig into the industrial design aspect of Atari, where very few researchers or writers have gone, talking with designers like Regan Cheng, Barney Huang, and others. I had great conversations with Fred Thompson, the designer of the original 2600 console, and with Kevin McKinsey, who was responsible for the design of Atari’s iconic one-button joystick. I don’t think either of those guys have been given their share of the spotlight for their part in shaping Atari and video game history, so I’m proud to be the first writer to really cover that.
Review Fix: How did it feel to be a part of the recent Coleco Retro Expo?
Lapetino: It was a good experience. I appreciated the team they had running the event, and while they are still learning and getting their sea legs, they did a lot of things right. They treated the speakers well, and were open to feedback to make the show even better in the future. But no matter where I’m speaking, I always consider it a privilege to come out and tell people about the work I’ve done. I love hearing the stories of others, and seeing how these games and Atari have impacted a whole generation of people like me.
Review Fix: What’s your favorite Atari Box Art? Why?
Lapetino: It’s got to be something by Cliff Spohn — like Super Breakout or Surround. Or maybe Missile Command by George Opperman. Both of them were amazing illustrators, but they went beyond just the ability to render things well. Both of them had a keen design sense. Those are two separate skills, and it’s cool to see how they combined them for much more impressive work.
Review Fix: What do you think makes you different from other game writers?
Lapetino: Well, even though I have a writing background (a degree in print journalism), I’ve been working in the design industry for nearly 20 years. I’ve grown up practicing and appreciating design, and that has always existed side-by-side with my writing. I can’t really separate the words and images, and I think in both, whereas not every other writer can say that. Design is really the lens I use to see the world, and to me, that approach to writing and thinking is somewhat fresh, and it’s where I like to play — at that intersection of design and pop culture. Art of Atari obviously qualifies there.
Review Fix: What was it like to work with Dynamite?
Lapetino: Overall, it was great. It was a union that worked really well, and I really appreciate that they gave me the freedom to create the book I thought the world needed. It wasn’t done by committee, and they let me run with my vision. It’s all there up on the shelf, good or bad. That’s the kind of latitude I think every writer dreams of. But I was also glad to have some trusted collaborators who knew enough to tell me when my ideas were crap. I think every good creative person needs someone to be that gut check, especially when you get too close to the work. I’m fortunate to have plenty of those people around me.
Review Fix: Bottom line, why must someone buy this book?
Lapetino: If you grew up with Atari or vintage video games, this is a shot of nostalgia. If you’re an artist or a fan of great visual art, then there’s something there for you. If you’re curious about design or the history of the video game industry, I think this is something worth looking at.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Lapetino: Well, the success of Art of Atari has led to another book in our series with Dynamite, and I teamed up with Jason Adam (who designed Art of Atari), and my friend and journalist Steve Hendershot, to put together Undisputed Street Fighter, a book chronicling the history and visual side of Capcom’s fighting game franchise. I co-art directed the book and served as editor as well. It was a fun project, and very different than Art of Atari. I think we managed to put together something very different and fresh for a series of games that have been in the public eye for some time.
Also, I’m working on another project. It’s still in the development stages and has had a longer gestation cycle than Art of Atari. I’m researching and writing a book about the pioneering airbrush illustrator Arthur Radebaugh. He was a big deal in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, as a futurist and automotive illustrator. He even had a nationally syndicated Sunday comic strip called Closer Than We Think, unfurling his visions of the future — how we would be living in undersea cities, milkmen would have rocket packs, and our cars would be these streamlined vehicles of tomorrow. He has faded into obscurity, but I’m hoping to really chronicle his work and life. He did amazing illustration work for the auto industry, Coca-Cola, United, the Saturday Evening Post, and many others. He was talented, eccentric and amazing, and I think we can learn a lot about culture and art by looking at his legacy and what he has left behind. So, that’s ongoing, but I’m hoping to have some more concrete details on it this fall.
Review Fix: Where can people go for more information on you?
Lapetino: Since I seem constitutionally incapable of slowing down enough to work on my own personal website, people can find me on Twitter at @lapetino or on Facebook.