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Cover layout by David Wills, Oz 28 (1970)
Cover of Oz 28 (1970); layout by David Wills.
This issue led to the UK's longest obscene publication trial.

David Wills Interview

Whole Earth graphic designer & paster-upper

by Robert Horvitz, 27 & 31 March 2018

"I have a lust for adventure, I guess."


RH: David, why did you move from England to California? When you write in your blog about your British life, you describe it with such fondness.

DW: I have a lust for adventure, I guess. I'd been working on various underground magazines including Oz, whose editors were sentenced to jail in a huge press freedom trial. They got off on appeal but at the time it looked like the bottom fell out of my work in London. Coincidentally, I was in a relationship with Pamela Polland, a songster with Columbia Records, who moved to Mill Valley around then to work on an album. Columbia arranged for me to fly out to stay with her and I really didn't have any idea that I would stay for 45 years.

RH: So you moved from "Swinging London" to a similar scene in California?

COYOTE button
COYOTE ("Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics") button

DW: It was partly thanks to John Goodchild, one of Oz's designers. He also worked on the Straight Arrow books published by Rolling Stone. Through him I started working for Rolling Stone in their advertising department. It was like being back in an ad agency though so I found other work, like helping Margo St. James with COYOTE, her campaign to de-criminalize prostitution. I designed her logo and we started the Hookers' Balls, which became the high point of the San Francisco scene from '75 to '80. I designed posters, a newspaper, and worked as an event director on the first ball. Interestingly enough, like what you're doing with these interviews about Whole Earth, I'm working with a group trying to put together a movie about Druid Heights where I lived with Margo and other interesting characters including Alan Watts and the lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow. I guess I fell naturally into the hippy life. Most of my time is spent painting now, but I've also been working for 24 years on a process to turn garbage and coal into nonpolluting electricity and diesel fuel. Whole Earth inspired that. I lost my house and all my money in the start up, researching the chemistry in my basement, but we are now finding success.

RH: When and how did you get involved with Whole Earth?

DW: I can't exactly remember what year it was, but it was probably '73 or '74, most likely '74. I was out with some friends who were hang-gliding in South San Francisco. I was with Kim Von Temsky, who owns a third of the island of Maui, and I got talking with a woman who told me that the guy she was with was Stewart Brand. So when he came and sat back down with us I said, "Hi! I understand you had something to do with the Whole Earth Catalog." And he said, "Yes, I started it." So we had a conversation and he invited me to come round and show him my portfolio, which I did, and from that I started working, probably on the Whole Earth Epilog. Then I worked on issue one of CoEvolution Quarterly. I designed the logo for CoEvolution as well as the logo, cover and type style for the Next Whole Earth Catalog. I worked for Stewart on and off as a freelancer - it was a mixed experience I must say. When he asked me to work on J. Baldwin's Soft Tech book, I said I wouldn't do it but suggested Kathleen O'Neill who wanted to do it. She and I were working together, sharing a studio above T-Lautrec Litho, the firm that printed Bill Graham's posters. So she went to work for Stewart, and I followed along fairly quickly, working full time on I guess it would have been Space Colonies, I really don't remember. But I was working there on the understanding that I would not be working directly with Stewart but with O'Neill as art director. When I left Whole Earth I worked freelance with Lloyd Kahn on his Shelter books. Lloyd and Stewart both had very peculiar ideas about graphic design that made it awkward to design for them. They both had set ideas about graphics that took a while to overcome.

Cover of CoEvolution Quarterly #1
Cover of CoEvolution Quarterly #1 (spring 1974).
Logo by David Wills, cover art by Arthur Okamura

RH: What was peculiar about their ideas?

DW: They're both from the pre-TV era. They lived in a world of words that were the be-all and end-all of their ideas and neither was interested in the potential for presenting ideas graphically.

RH: You're criticising them as nonvisual but isn't that contradicted by Stewart's insight about the importance of the whole Earth image?

DW: Well, there's no logic to it. I'm not saying he was blind, it's just that there is a modern awareness of how graphics communicate that both Stewart and Lloyd didn't have. It's not to say that Stewart isn't a brilliant graphic designer either. I was at the DeYoung Museum show about "1967" and there was something in the show that Stewart designed and it was very cleverly graphic and simple.

RH: But why do you say working for Whole Earth was a mixed experience?

DW: Mainly because I had a very unhappy experience working on CoEvolution Quarterly with Stewart's magazine manager, who insisted on having the most dull, conventional design you could possibly imagine.

RH: I pulled out the first issue of CoEv before this interview and you're right. The page design is tragically bland. I didn't notice that at the time because the content was so good.

DW: Andrew Fleugelman insisted that I do nothing at all creative, so I had a problem with him. He reduced me to just doing paste-up. But I also found Stewart oddly conservative and we did not work well together. So in subsequent years, when I worked for him I always worked through Kathleen O'Neill.

RH: How did you meet Kathleen?

DW: I met Kathleen and Jonathan Evelegh through Shady Grove.

RH: What's that?

DW: Shady Grove was a very hip rock and roll palace in a store front that is now the extension to Gus's Grocery on Haight Street at Ashbury. I lived around the corner in the club's safe house and all my roommates worked at the club. I designed the flyers and calendar.

RH: Your work at Whole Earth was mainly as a designer?

DW: Yes, that's what I am, a graphic designer. But I did also write some things [e.g. the NWEC's art supplies section] and I had a small role in developing Anne Herbert's most famous quote, which I'll tell you about when you ask.

RH: Well, let's get to that now.

DW: I've got a lot to say about Anne since we lived together for quite some time.

RH: Were you lovers?

DW: No, just good friends.

RH: How did you meet?

DW: It would have been through Space Colonies, New Games, or some other Whole Earth venture. I have to check what was being worked on at that time. But the beginning of "random acts of kindness" took place with Kathleen O'Neill and Anne Herbert in the office, which you probably gathered by now was a library. I was at one end and Kathleen was at the other, and we were having a loud discussion about how most popular sayings were negative. As we were getting to the end of the conversation I yelled out "Random acts!" - knowing that the cliché response would be "of violence." But Kathleen yelled out "...of kindness!" Then Kathleen and Anne went to lunch at Mama's Cafe in Mill Valley. At that time a very funny waitress worked there, full of sarcasm and droll wit, and they started a conversation with her, mentioning "random acts of kindness" and Anne added "senseless acts of beauty." Anne then wrote it in some way that's in the Next Whole Earth Catalog. I don't have a copy of that book so I haven't been able to look for it yet. I told Jonathan to look for it but he's been rather slack. He also has a childhood scrapbook that I inherited from Anne. She told me to throw it away because it wasn't of any use, even though she intended to make it the basis for a Rising Sun Newsletter in her blog. In fact it was a scrapbook she had had as a kid and she expanded it as she got older. Some of the things in it included letters from her parents. Her mum was kind of supportive but her dad said, "You are not a writer, there's no way you can make a living being a poet, find something useful to do" and other dispiriting phrases. That suggests why she tried to stay as far away from him as possible, even at the end of her life when her mother might have welcomed her back home. Jonathan has this scrapbook and all sorts of other texts that Anne left in the basement in my house in the Haight.

Cover of the Next Whole Earth Catalog
Cover of the Next Whole Earth Catalog (1980)
Anne was a good friend. She helped alot with the editing of my blog. I'd failed English Language 0-level [high School level in the UK] when I was 24 or so, so I was insecure about my abilities as a writer, even though I'd been published. Anne would proofread and advise. She helped me mostly by making me believe I could write. She'd come by to nibble and chat at my apartment on the third floor of 534 Ashbury, and around 2005 she moved into the building's basement. She would come up three flights of wooden stairs and chat about street stuff and days gone by at Whole Earth while I cooked. I fed her quite frequently. She would come upstairs and then not offer to help with any washing up, but that didn't trouble me because she was good company. My fellow tenants in the building did not know she lived there. She had a section curtained off in the basement and all her furniture was books. She made walls from stacks of books and towards the end of her stay she slept on a bed of books. She collected discarded books on her journeys around San Francisco. There were about three thousand books down there, a totally random collection. I cleared out the basement when I got evicted and gave a lot of the books to Google. As a street-walking bag-lady Anne was a pro. Any time I was out and about, it was possible to come across the odd, stooped, light brown presence of Anne shuffling along, head down, thinking good thoughts. When she recognized me she'd smile, stand up straighter, look me in eye and we'd chat. She was by no means the crazy bag lady she appeared to be. She moved out after I was evicted in 2012 or so. The last time we chatted was in the Park branch of the San Francisco Library. She was in the biography section and, as always, had her head down and appeared to be just a street person. But as soon as she recognized me, she perked up and became the Anne Herbert we all knew at Whole Earth - sharp, witty and on the ball. She said she was living with two nice women in the Mission. I don't know who they were, but I'm fairly certain she knew them from earlier in her life.

RH: Do you have any understanding of why she changed from working as a Whole Earth editor to being a street person?

DW: Well, I think it's simple. She didn't have much money and that's the way she coped. She lived on the street and shied from any social contact at all unless it was somebody she knew from before. If anyone she didn't know spoke to her, she would ignore them. That was her modus, for self protection. But I really do believe it was an act, because of the way she was able to transition so quickly back into her old middle class respectable self as she was standing in front of you.

RH: But why did she shy away from social contact? Lack of money can't explain that because you can socialize for free. Your description of her as looking like a street person but being the same old Anne inside suggests something more complex. Maybe she just wanted to see society from the outside.

DW: It was more than an act. She was living it. There's no doubt that she really was a street person.

RH: Did she socialise with other street people?

DW: I doubt it very very very much. I doubt if she spoke to anybody unless she had to.

RH: Do you know if her death was due to cancer? In her blog she made no reference to being ill or death being imminent, even in the final entry.

DW: I'm fairly certain that it was cancer, but only because of what I was told by other people and because of what was known about DES babies.

RH: David, I'm going to have to cut this off because it's dinner time here and my wife is starving. Do you have any final thoughts on Whole Earth and your experience with it?

DW: It was a wonderful experience. I wouldn't exchange it for anything. The people I met there are incredible and I'm still in touch with alot of them.

Responses from Kathleen O'Neill, Jonathan Evelegh and Joseph Herbert (Anne's brother) follow this photograph:

David Willis, second from the left
David Wills, second from the left, standing with Lloyd Kahn, second from the right, and others involved in a 2014 Shelter book production.

Kathleen O'Neill responds: "There are some very different memories of what happened in the past. It's really not true that Random Acts of Kindness came about that way, though that may have been the way David first heard it. Anne came up with 'random kindness' as an antidote to 'random violence' during some of the long discussions about the problems of violence and where it comes from that she and I shared. I thought that the phrase 'senseless acts of cruelty' might be changed as well. She and I together came up with 'senseless acts of beauty.'

"I believe Anne chose to live without a job because she believed jobs to be the real enemy of contemplation. She would just as soon spend time with her own mind as waste her time with minds in a lower plane of thought."

Jonathan Evelegh responds: "It is not news that individual memories of particular events from long ago will differ from person to person. Memories are the denim of the mind. They fade, get stretched out of shape, shrunk to fit, embroidered, ripped, torn, and frayed. Like an old pair of jeans, they become very personal... The first time I could find Anne's famous phrase in print was not in the Next Whole Earth Catalog, but on page 80 of the Winter 1983 CQ, #40, edited by Art Kleiner. In his intro to "It's Easier To Stop A Slow-Moving Vehicle Than It Is A Runaway Horse. Safer, Too," Art writes, "This call to alarms is taken from Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty, a book by CQ regular Anne Herbert which will be published by Barn Owl Books..." I worked on the book and recall that we had it substantially finished by summer 1985. It has long been a perplexing question to me why it was aborted...

"None of this, of course, directly addresses the various versions of how the phrase came about from David Wills, Kathleen O'Neill, Anne herself, or other sources. However, I think the dating here is solid. It is my personal recollection that the phrase was 'in the air' in 1983 and may well have appeared on a bumper sticker or a yet-to-be discovered Rising Sun Neighborhood Newsletter at that time. Unfortunately, I cannot find the evidence.

"When word of Anne's death slowly, very slowly, percolated out, I was shocked - as were others. Sure, lots of people I've known have died both recently and in the '80s from AIDS, but Anne was perhaps the closest from a formative experience of my life and the only way I can describe her life and death is tragic."

Joseph Herbert responds: "Some of what was stated in the interview seems to ring true to me. Anne developing a persona to inhabit for her own ends is pretty believable... From the little I was able to get from a person at the rehabilitation hospital where she died and the entry on her death certificate, she did die of cancer. And it was a re-occurrence of cancer (neoplasm) at that. She was a DES baby and that was no doubt a contributor. My mother had several miscarriages and, at the time, DES was the indicated treatment. Of course, it was a time bomb for Anne.

"My parents are both dead now (2005 and 2010) and there was never a resolution of the hard feelings with Anne. Mother was sinking into dementia when Father died. That precluded a reconnection that might have otherwise happened... [Anne's] propensity for living in basements and casually with friends meant she left no paper trail of her existence... I see now that the only way I could have found her is by walking the streets of SF or Berkeley and having a really great piece of luck..."