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Local graphic artist bags five awards

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Art and science go together like cream and sugar in coffee — at least in Elizabeth C. Johnston’s attic studio on Longmont’s historic west side.

Under that steeply pitched roof, she lives and runs her company Lizzardbrand Inc., the design company credited with five awards for creating the Highlights 2002 annual report for the Boulder-based University Corp. for Atmospheric Research and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

To present the report’s 36 pages of facts, figures and hard science as eye candy, Johnston, 42, said she twirled text lines, rounded page corners and dabbled in bursting colors.

“But it doesn’t really matter if you understand the design,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter if your audience understands it. What matters is that it gets attention.”

An anonymous panel of judges at the Society for Technical Communication in Arlington, Va., recently recognized the report for both design and overall excellence, according to Lucy Warner, UCAR’s director of communication.

“It’s aimed at a broad audience, not just the ‘in’ crowd — scientists and Washington people,” she said. “It’s not dry. It’s lively.”

Each of the four consecutive UCAR annual reports Johnston has designed has picked up national and international kudos, according to Warner.

“She never stops playing with the design,” Warner said.

Despite the availability of UCAR’s in-house design team, the organization continues hiring Johnston for its flagship publication.

“She looks at the whole picture — and the details,” said Carlye Calvin, a UCAR staff photographer who also contributed to the award-winning report.

Though Johnston is all business on project — she calls herself the “Estimate Queen” for her accuracy in bidding jobs — she is all artist, too. She paints her toenails purple, works shoeless and doodles love notes on the napkins she drops into her boyfriend’s sack lunches.

Yet she is not a prima donna.

“This is not fine art,” she said. “This is visual problem-solving. So it’s easy to take my ego out of it.”

She also insists that the mystery behind top-notch artistic output is overrated.

“I ask the client to give me a list of ‘knowns’ about their needs, and I just stick to it during the design process,” she said.

The practicality of setting clear parameters and having fun within them has helped her attract both hefty government contracts and little fish such as Gerry Leary, a blind Boulder man who trusted her to design marketing materials for his new coffee-roasting business, the Unseen Bean.

It is ironic, she said, that the economic downturn has curtailed job orders this year.

“That’s the very time when they most need it,” she said. “All large businesses started as small ones.”

Hers included.

Johnston initially dabbled in design by creating comic books at age 8 with the recycled pin-hole track printer paper her mother, a secretary, would bring home from work.

“I would mimic things on TV,” she said. For instance, she titled one girl-adventure comic book, “Jeannie on Glaucamoora Street,” as a spin-off of the sitcom pioneer “I Dream of Jeannie.”

By age 14, the Boulder resident dropped the fanciful, frame-by-frame storytelling to earn money drawing display signs for a now-defunct local stereo shop.

Johnston graduated from Fairview High School in 1978 and immediately enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Mo. Five years later, she left — just before graduating — when her financial aid evaporated.

Since the mid-1980s, Johnston has nevertheless launched three design businesses — she sold her 51 percent share in the Boulder-based Visual Science just last fall — and also worked for 10 years as the University of Colorado’s first staff art director for the four-campus system.

“Failure is not an option,” she said of today’s challenging business climate. “This is the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only thing I have ever wanted to do — other than cooking and gardening.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.