Allison King: Phoenix’s Midcentury Modern Maven

An educator at heart, Alison King has been helping young adults and seasoned professionals evolve to reach their fullest potential as designers for more than 23 years. And although most know Allison as a professor of design and history (she is currently an assistant professor of graphic design and advertising at Grand Canyon State University), she is also the founder of Modern Phoenix and Ligature Arts LLC.

Modern Phoenix is an organization dedicated to helping others understand Phoenix’s architectural design history with a heavy emphasis on the midcentury modern movement. The organization also hosts an annual home tour during Modern Phoenix Week, of which Allison is the curator of. 

As if she wasn’t busy enough, Allison began Ligature Arts LLC to independently pursue her passion for calligraphy, lettering, illustration, font design and research-based writing about Arizona’s design culture. You can find her most recent writing in Phoenix Home & Garden Magazine, the Modern Phoenix Neighborhood Network, or in her second book titled Making Architecture, which is to be published this month.

As you can see, design infiltrates almost every aspect of Allison’s life, which is one of the many reasons she was selected as a keynote speaker for this year’s Evolve Design Conference. And with the conference mere days away, what better time than to learn a bit more about her?

Tell us about a project or accomplishments from the past 10 years that had a major impact on your life or career.

In 2013, I was honored with the American Express Aspire Award for Historic Preservation, which is pretty much like an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This was in recognition of my work as a researcher, designer, and activist through ModernPhoenix.net. Preservation work is unending, usually anonymous and often thankless. The recognition helped me realize that my avocation as a researcher and event planner was impacting people’s lives just as much as my vocation as a teacher was.

What is your favorite color, and why?

It’s really hard to beat black, but that’s not really a color. Dusty blue agave green. It’s a beautiful color compatible with our desert climate.

What keeps you going when you’re focused on a project? Is there a particular saying or song that gets you moving?

First things first –– it’s easy to get pulled off track by distractions, but developing a strong order of operations helps prioritize what needs to get done before everything else. In other words, eat your vegetables.

When its crunch time, I keep a single sticky note of all my pressing tasks next to my workstation so that I have constant, visible accountability of what I’ve accomplished and what’s left to be done. You can’t close windows on a sticky note. When work is light, I lose the sticky to give myself the freedom to follow my passion of the day.

I also use social accountability, which is one part of what some might also call manifesting. If I want to make myself get something done, I’ll put it out on Instagram or tell a friend that I’m planning on doing it. Writing or speaking my intentions aloud makes them more likely to actually happen. Even if the friend doesn’t actively hold me accountable I still feel obliged. When you put your wishes out into the universe, often the resources arrive to help you accomplish them.

What’s your superpower, or one you wish you had?

I can typically detect whether or not a design element is misaligned by one pixel. It’s super annoying for everyone, but you’re welcome.

What design or career advice would you give to your younger self?

I’ve always been a hustler and got a very early start, so it’s honestly hard to say. I was proactive in my youth but I wonder if I’d been even more ambitious what would have happened.

I grew up in the pre-digital era, so all I have of my early travels are memories and a few rolls of film. So take lots of photographs and draw lots of sketches and collect lots of ephemera. You never know what inspired you one day will come in handy a decade or two later.

If you were given the opportunity to see into the future, what would you want to know?

I would like to know whether all of our social activism today will make one lick of difference in advancing the human race.

How do you think design impacts your everyday life? The community?

Design gives me so much pleasure. I know it gives others pleasure, too. We are literally born dying –– if nobody takes care of us we will die. Our most fundamental job as humans is to reduce each other’s suffering and remove barriers to growth. At the most basic level, this could mean packaging food with less waste or providing shelter with an economy of materials. If it ends up being a mural that elicits delight for decades or a UX touchpoint that reduces friction while ordering groceries for just a moment, that’s also important.

If you hadn’t ended up in the career you are in, what do you think you’d be doing?

I have a knack for journalism. If I lost my eyesight entirely I would have probably found great happiness as a writer.

To see Allison’s keynote “The Art of Transformation” or perhaps inquire more about her love of all things midcentury modern, be sure to stop by PHXDW’s Evolve Design Conference on Oct. 12 and 13.

Breanne Krager