Architecture & Design

Cal Nez: Design for the Diné

Navajo Nation Fair poster, 1989, design by Cal Nez Design, courtesy

Cal Nez designs for his people. Oh, he can design for anyone – he always has and will – but work for Native Americans has kept him so busy throughout his long career that he hardly has had time to look around for other clients.

“I opened up my studio so I could do work for anybody,” he says. “But as it began to evolve, I was literally the first kid on the Navajo Nation to come by with graphic design. I established the graphic design headlines for the Yellow Pages for the Navajo Nation. They weren’t exactly sure what that was. Rather than just doing drawings and handing them off to the printer I said I was a one-man shop — give me the whole thing.” For 15 years Cal Nez Design was the only graphic company for the Navajo Nation.  (Now, he says, there are about 20 Navajo graphic design companies. “It’s the fastest-growing industry.”) There was so much work coming in from there and from other tribes that he quit maintaining other clients. “Last year I did work for the Utah Museum of Natural History,|3| I did work for political campaigns . . . the library system, some government work, but most of my work has been in Navajo and Native American tribes.”

Graphic design for the Navajo Nation by Cal Nez

And he doesn’t doubt the excellence of his work, which is manifest. “My position has always been that I can compete with the world’s best. In 1987 in the National Institute of Graphic Arts there was a national competition and I went toe-to-toe with Milton Glaser and Saul Bass and my logo was the only one to show that year. The way I began to view myself is that here is a Native American who sees the contemporary aspect of art and design and commercial art and I understand that, I know what it is and I’m going to give that service to the Native people and the Native people deserve equally as good work as any other company. Any major corporation would pay billions of dollars to graphic design companies of the likes of Saul Bass so I started giving that knowledge [to Native Americans] and it’s been a win-win — I could feed my family,” he says.

A Navajo of the Tachiinii Clan born for the Tanaszanii Clan originally from Tocito, N.M., Nez was raised by his grandparents from infancy. He spoke only Navajo until forced to enter the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School operated in nearby Sanostee, N.M., when he was 6. It was a militaristic place that he says stole his childhood. But that is where he started drawing. An early pencil sketch of Abraham Lincoln netted him a dollar from a teacher. “I was so proud,” he remembers.

As a Navajo, Nez says, “my life’s agenda is based on the fact that the people who raised me, who nurtured me, were untouched by white society. The traditional aspect of my life was that they wanted me to learn the ways of the people, to learn the ways to survive at a very young age. Probably because grandma was motivated to make sure that we all survived,” he recalls. “When I was about 8 years old the Navajo people would work picking potatoes in Colorado. That’s where my mom and dad went. And this tragic thing happened. My mom died and my dad went to prison and never came back.” He, his two sisters and small brother were essentially orphaned. “Grandma said that all she had to offer me was the tradition. And Grandpa [a medicine man] always tried to bring the Navajo spiritual aspect of it into my life. That’s something that’s still very sacred to me,” Nez says.

His grandparents offered him his first taste of running a business. He recalls his grandmother telling him, “I’m going to give you this cow and you take care of it and then you go in there and you sell it. And with the money you make off of that you can help yourself.” When he was 13 or 14, he sold his cows for around $3,000 one year – a fortune to them. And his grandmother became his banker as he purchased food and clothing through the year for himself and his siblings. He herded animals for two seasons and learned that “if you have a product and a service and if you dedicate your time to it you can benefit from that. And what I’m doing today as a graphic designer dates back to that. My product and my service is my art and I do the same thing.”

A young Cal Nez when he started his own design company.

In 1973 he left the Navajo reservation for Utah through the LDS Church’s Indian Placement Program, something he had researched and wanted very much to do. He lived with Carlita and Keith Hilton, grandparents of Salt Lake City artist Duncan Hilton, who credits Nez with inspiring him to become an artist when he was about 6 years old.

“He would take requests from the kids and draw any Halloween decoration you could think of. It was amazing to watch him work. He was so quick. At first it would look like a bunch of stray ink lines and then within a matter of seconds his drawings would transform into very believable Frankensteins, vampires, Jack O’ Lanterns. . . . They were far better than any decorations you could buy. It came so naturally to him; he was an alchemist with paper, canvas or any other art medium,” Hilton says.

Nez graduated from South High School where he studied art under Ken Baxter as well as graphic design, joined the wrestling team and worked on the newspaper. He was a Sterling Scholar for the visual arts. He attended Utah State University where he studied, among other things, painting under Harrison Groutage.

He originally wanted to be an illustrator. His first job was with Jack Lyon at Magazine Printing where he saw everything from paste-up to color separation and there decided to become a graphic designer. After working for Ted Nagata Graphic Design Inc. (where he says he really got his education) and Smith and Clarkson Design, Nez determined to start his own company.

He is married to Yolanda Franciso-Nez, Coordinator of the Office of Diversity and Human Rights for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and a former staffer for Mayor Rocky Anderson. They have three grown children. Though they live in Sandy, they are still closely connected to the Navajo Nation, where they make frequent visits.

Cal Nez’s design for Utah and Salt Lake City


Nez takes pride in being a Navajo person bridging the gap between cultures. Nez’s studio has worked on projects for the Eastman Kodak Co.; Amoco Oil Co.; AT&T; Universal Card; Smithsonian Institute/National Museum of the American Indian; Office of the President of the United States – National Republican Party; Klamath Tribe; Mike Leavitt for Governor Campaign; Navajo Tribal Utility Authority; O.C. Tanner Co.; Utah Department of Workforce Services and others. He designed the Salt Lake City Pin and Mayor’s Pin for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

One of the longest-running Navajo-owned businesses in the country, for 25 years Cal Nez Design has produced brochures, annual reports, product literature, exhibits, posters, advertisements, calendars, flyers, and packaging as well as doing illustration, photography, art direction, copywriting, printing, and fabrication supervision.

Navajo Nation Fair poster, 1990, design by Cal Nez Design, courtesy

Several of his iconic posters for the Navajo Nation Fair are known internationally. These and his past posters for the 24th of July Native American Celebration in the Park (which he founded, along with the corresponding Intertribal Powwow in Liberty Park, see to the right) have sold out on his website. A new one is out this year.

He feels a strong civic responsibility as well. Last year at this time Nez was in Arizona for the launch of the Navajo Chamber of Commerce, of which he was the co-founder and serves as president. “We hope to create a nation where a business owner can thrive and contribute to the positive economic destiny of our people,” he told the Navajo Times. “We can do it. We have it in our spirit and our heart. We were self-sufficient, self-reliant before 1492. We have always had it within us. We need to resurrect that entrepreneurial spirit.” He also founded the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.

In May a shift occurred in Nez’s career. His artwork was selected as the official 2013 Gallup Ceremonial poster over that of two Navajo legends, Jim Abeita  and Calvin Toddy. It’s a very big deal. “All the famous artists got their start there,” Nez says. “That Gallup Ceremonial is like the pinnacle of what you can do in the art world.” Entering the competition was a last-minute decision. He painted all night and in the car on the way to Gallup, N.M. “It is a collage of what I call the Gallup Ceremonial experience. It has a bull rider, the New Mexico state flag in the background. It’s very contemporary, very artsy.” Now he has a show of his paintings coming up in Gallup in August. He wants to get away from the usual images of Indians in feathers and show Natives in business clothes, fishing and on skateboards. “That’s the people of today. And they deserve as much attention as the people in their traditional outfits.”

Nez doesn’t see much difference between illustration and fine art. He says the studies he does in his mind getting ready for this show are very similar to what he does in graphic design. “Art communicates something. Now you are communicating to a different set of people.”

Cal Nez working in his studio, courtesy


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1 reply »

  1. Great article. Cal is such a talented young man and honored to know him and his sisters. They are a wonderful family.

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