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Heller: You spent the better
part of a generation at Cranbrook overseeing a hothouse for design
experimentation—everything from typography to imagery. Whatever one
calls it today—PoMo, deconstruction, or new wave—the work that emerged
from Cranbrook was unique for its time and defined the design of the
times. Before we talk about today's hothouses, or lack thereof, how do
you feel that particular moment in design history has impacted this
particular practice of design?
McCoy: Any design always lives within a historical context, a
continuum of development. Everything that has come before this moment
impacts current practice, intentionally or inadvertently. So Cranbrook’s
“hothouse experiments” are embedded in what goes on today. They're part
of the knowledge base for today's practice.
But the extent that those experiments affect today's work is open for
discussion. We weren't working in a vacuum at Cranbrook. We were part of
a whole environment of writing, thinking, discussing and publishing
that was going on in the U.S. and Europe in graphic design and also
architecture and industrial design. This all took place over a long
time. I was at Cranbrook for 24 years and our work and influences went
through a lot of changes. In fact, there were several distinct periods
of experimentation. You were kind enough to invite me to speak about
this at one of your “Modernism & Eclecticism: A History of Graphic
Design” conferences in the mid-1990s.
Heller: How have those changes, those experiments, morphed into today’s practice?
McCoy: Designers all work off past influences. For instance,
I’ve been reviewing a number of web design firms' work as part of a
consulting project. What you describe as “PoMo”, “Deconstruction” and
“New Wave” are embedded in all these studios' design forms. Are these
designers aware of the sources of the forms that they use everyday? The
best of these designers could probably write insightful essays analyzing
their antecedents and influences and how they build on them. But other
designers probably don't have a clue where their forms are coming from.
Many simply apply a catalog of derivative visual moves that they absorb
from the media that surrounds us all. In fact, we all do that to some
extent, either intentionally or inadvertently—we live in a visually
charged atmosphere, it is in the air we breathe.
Heller: So much Cranbrook design was built on the foundation of
literary theory. In a blog someone recently suggested that “design
theory,” which was taken to be post structuralism and deconstruction,
had played itself out and was therefore no longer useful. Would you
McCoy: I don’t think any design theory can “play itself out.”
An architectural theorist once told me that much of the physics theory
that takes astronauts to the moon is obsolete, or at least has been
eclipsed by newer theoretical work. But it STILL gets us to the moon.
Think of the theory that we have in communications design, from color
theory to semiotics and rhetoric. Even though there might not be
astounding new work produced off of Josef Albers’ or Faber Birren’s
color theories, we still teach them and they provide extremely valuable
frameworks for working with color.
Theory doesn’t just catalyze the current moment’s new work. Each theory
eventually joins the bedrock foundation of our discipline, and every new
movement stands on its shoulders. Graphic design won’t be a true
profession until we finally understand the full role of theory.
Heller: Okay, but, along those lines, is the same intensity of
experimental work being done today? I would say no. But I'd also say I
may be jaded by the past. Do you believe that experimentation—testing
the boundaries, developing new forms, creating new ideas—is alive and
McCoy: Previous avenues of experimentation have cooled off—or
rather, I would say that those territories of inquiry have been widely
explored and many “results” have been documented, disseminated and
absorbed into design's body of knowledge.
Today, I think there is just as much exciting new work being done. The
explorations are different now—as they should be. It is a different time
with different influences. To identify where today's groundbreaking
work is going on, we need to ask what the new conditions are. New work
comes from new conditions—social, political, intellectual, economic and
For me, most of the important new work builds off technological
innovation. Much of the new theory is in response to new technology.
Although there is a good deal of experimentation with form, it’s not
about defying conventions and disobeying the rules of refinement as in
previous work. “New wave,” “postmodern” and “deconstruction” experiments
were shocking, often deliberately so, and created controversy. (I still
find those terms unsatisfactory, although I don’t have any suggestions
for better terminology?)
Heller: So the visceral shock of the new is old hat?
McCoy: The significant new work isn’t calculated to be
shocking, and it doesn’t seem to outrage design traditionalists—although
it may baffle many of the less technologically adept. It doesn’t “test
boundaries” because the boundaries have vanished, vaporized by
technological change. There are no rules to break because there are no
rules yet. Instead, experiments search for and propose paradigms to
guide us as we design in these new communications media.
Designers are exploring motion and sound, and interaction with the
audience. Much of the experimentation is more conceptual. “Experience
design” explores how to connect with audiences in time-based nonphysical
media and interactive communications spaces. Although there are lots of
juicy formal experiments that are more sensual than print could ever
be—a great movie title washes over us and transports us with its
multi-sensory spectacle and story—there is also a lot of very
serious-minded experimentation that involves information theory,
cognitive psychology, ethnography, code-writing and heavy-duty
Heller: I agree that technology is the major stimulus – it
always has been from the days of Guttenberg to digital media. What then
are these innovations producing?
McCoy: Digital technology and time-based media give graphic
design interactivity, motion and sound, and employ vast amounts of
imagery, both still and moving. One major change is how typography has
come to life. We are seeing wonderful examples of time-based typography
telling narratives through both verbal and visual means. Our 35-year
effort to integrate the verbal and visual—type and image—is now possible
through software innovations and a wide range of media channels from
broadcast graphics and movie titles to exhibitions, websites and
software interfaces. It’s a media soup that blends and crosses all
Heller: Does this imply that to do meaningfully adventurous work, print is no longer the medium?
McCoy: Good question. Yes, today there is probably less
ground-breaking work in print than in digital multimedia. But there are
some really great cross-overs and influences between digital and print. I
see digital multimedia ideas and sensibilities influencing print—for
instance, Elevator’s VH1 media kit uses lenticular technology to make a
hand-held “print” piece behave and feel like a movie narrative.
I believe that interactive electronic media will up the ante for print
design. Audiences are getting hooked on digital media’s interactivity
and will expect to be in the driver’s seat in all forms of
communications. Of course, a lot of print media already incorporates
many interactive elements—for instance, you can read a news magazine in
any order you want, surf through the departments, and read to your
preference of depth. But print media can be more interactive and I think
we will see designers taking electronic interactive strategies into the
physicality of print increasingly.
Also, communications programs often require a wide variety of media
channels. There are really rich examples out there of ideas that
originate in one media being reinterpreted wonderfully into other media,
Heller: When Cranbrook was at its peak, youth culture
demanded a break from the status quo. Is this the same now? Is the
current academic, and ultimately, client-driven environment inviting
experiments of any kind?
McCoy: I don't think youth culture was much on our minds at
Cranbrook. The students weren't that young—Cranbrook is a graduate
school and most of our students were 25 to 35 years old. Much of the
published design work executed by our students was for cultural
institutions with mature audiences. But Cranbrook experimentation
probably influenced a lot of the commercial/professional design projects
for younger audiences. I recall Campbell Ewald, Chevrolet's advertising
agency, asking Ed Fella c1976 to design their car catalog in “that New
Wave style” in hopes that Chevrolet would appeal to a younger market.
And David Carson sought out Cranbrook students' experimental fonts for
use in his youth-culture publications.
Electronic gaming enabled and disseminated by the Internet is a
youth-culture phenomena that is adding energy and ideas to design now. I
see it's influence in really interesting work by Elliott Earls at
Cranbrook (www.theapolloprogram.com) and Rafael Fajardo at University of
But clients of all kinds demand time-based and interactive design,
including E-commerce, all kinds of corporate communications, trade
shows, entertainment media, cultural and educational institutions. Much
of it is quite edgy.
Heller: I agree that Earls has long moved in fascinating
directions—wedding design, art, and performance—that push authorial
boundaries. But does this have appeal, or relevance, outside an insular
vanguard or followers thereof?
McCoy: Hindsight will tell–it is still on the edge and is not
exhibited through conventional channels. At this point it’s known only
within a subculture, as it always is with the avant garde. I am guessing
that there is a significant new communications avenue developing in
this arena that we will understand better in coming years as it finds
its way into mainstream applications.
Heller: Have we reached a dead-end or merely a cul de sac in how far graphic design and typography can go?
McCoy: Absolutely not! Digital technology and time-based media
give graphic design interactivity, motion, sound and access to vast
amounts of imagery. Typography has come to life. The theory, methods and
formal skills we must impart to students in graphic design
undergraduate education have doubled or tripled.
We have a serious exploration ahead of us before we begin to get our
arms around this vast new territory. Design needs new theories to
understand all these new possibilities, new methods to guide our
processes, and the possibilities for formal experimentation are wide
open. And we need a new name – graphic design just doesn't begin to
describe communications design in this digital soup.
We also need new media venues to "publish" design experimentation, since
print media does not reproduce or describe most of this work very well.
The content of our established professional magazines may not be
accurately reflecting the experimentation that is out there. We are
seeing Internet sites begin to fill this role, creating some interesting
subcultures. Matt Owen's Volume One (www.volumeone.com ) and Elliott
Earls’ Apollo Program are early examples. "VOICE" is another aspect of
this phenomena, of course.
Heller: Is there a venue like Cranbrook, whether a school,
workshop, or Samizdat somewhere, that is percolating with this
experimentation? How and where is this happening?
McCoy: I think it’s happening everywhere in more places
than one could name. Communications design is VERY decentralized now.
It used to happen in key locations one could list. In Europe in the
early 20th century – the Bauhaus, Russian and Holland; then Ulm, Zurich
and Basle. In New York for 25 years. In the 1970s Cranbrook and other
locations proved that it could happen in more remote locations – in
California and even the Midwest! Now it can happen at the South Pole,
thanks to satellites and the Internet.
Heller: Have you seen or experienced design that gives you the same rush as you got when the Cranbrookians were initially producing?
McCoy: Hmmm . . . the initial rush. Always a great thing. I
have to say that at Cranbrook it usually took a bit of hindsight to let
the dust settle before it became clear what significant innovation had
actually been produced. I learned not to judge too quickly, in the crit
or the semester-end review. On the other hand, I do recall crits where I
was just amazed as the students pinned their pieces to the crit room
wall. Yes, I do see work that excites me and points to new directions.
Most often I see it in the digital realm, in time-based media and on the
web. Almost always it involves motion and sound.
Heller: Motion and sound are indeed exciting (albeit still
novel), but to end our discussion give me two examples of work that you
believe will, or should, be a paradigm for the next “big” thing?
McCoy: There is fresh work all over the Web, where it’s
quite affordable to “publish.” Because it is decentralized with no
“official” hierarchies, I hesitate to name anyone or any one project as a
paradigm of practice. There are so many people and schools (and even
little kids) experimenting—a lot of collaboration and much of it crosses
professional boundaries. Many are graphic designers, but also
industrial designers and architects are physicalizing digital media and
challenging audiences to interact and participate. Summer Powell and
Liisa Salonen of Elevator (www.elevatoraccess.com) are graphic designers
that collaborate with all kinds of designers. Check out “Techtoos”,
their technological tattoos. Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger of
Antenna (antennadesign.com) apply their industrial and interaction
design expertise to interactive installations, including “Cherry
Blossom” at the Cooper Hewitt. Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture of
Asymptote (www.asymptote.net) and Mikon Van Gastel at Imaginary Forces
(www.imaginaryforces.com) are doing important work. Some of these
projects are self-published proposals, some are gallery installations,
but a significant amount of ground-breaking work is for mainstream
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series initiated as part
of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark conversations about the
past, present and future of design within the design community and
Section: Inspiration -
critique, culture, technology
Students: As you prepare your portfolio for review at Ink & Pixels, keep these portfolio tips in mind so you can be set for success.
Because in-house designers regularly collaborate with different departments, they can develop a well-rounded view of needs and opportunities within their organization. By applying their unique design thinking skills to non-design problems, in-house designers have the ability to effect positive change from within.
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