Reputations: Katherine McCoy
After Cranbrook: Katherine McCoy on the way ahead
“The complexity I’m interested in is complexity of meaning. I’m not so much interested in the layers of form as the layers of meaning”
Katherine McCoy was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1945. She studied industrial design at Michigan State University before joining Unimark International in 1967. She went on to work at Chrysler Corporation and Omnigraphics, Inc. In 1971, McCoy became co-chair, with her husband Mike McCoy, of the design department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, which they continued to direct until 1995. By the 1980s, their sometimes controversial programme had established itself as one of the most innovative in American design education, producing a stream of graduates who have gone on to make their own mark in the profession. Their company, McCoy & McCoy, has worked in two- and three- dimensional projects for Formica, Xerox, Unisys, MIT Press, Philips, Tobu Stores Tokyo and other clients. McCoy is a past president and fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America and an elected member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. She is president of the American Center for Design and recently completed a term as vice-president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. She served on the Design Arts Policy Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts and chaired the Design Arts Fellowships Grant Panel. In 1994, the McCoys were jointly awarded a Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design. “Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse,” an exhibition of work by McCoy, her students and graduates, travelled to New York and Tokyo in 1991. She has written widely about design and education, and her teaching methodology has featured in many international publications, including Eye (no. 3 vol. 1).
Rick Poynor: What attracted you to design?
Katherine McCoy: I wanted to be an architect, but this was the early 1960s and the male high-school counsellor said, “Oh, you wouldn’t like architecture, it has too much math. You should be an interior decorator.” Industrial design was the university course that covered interior design. When I got in I discovered this whole discussion of problem-solving. For the first project we had to do 50 thumbnail sketches before we could go any further – 50 alternative concepts! – and I thought, “This is the way I want to approach my life. This is the way I think about life.” It was so natural after trying other directions and thinking I was an artist, and the high school teacher trying to turn me into a painter.
RP: How did you make the move from industrial design to graphic design?
KM: I’m really grateful that I have a foundation in industrial design because graphic design still isn’t taught with much conceptual methodology other than the “Aha!” method of intuition: have your brainstorm, get the idea and then turn it into form. Industrial design has so much more method to it. I discovered typography in the course of industrial design. I took one graphic design course at university, but it was a really weak programme: ten weeks of Chancery Italic calligraphy. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but I began to develop a love for typeforms.
I graduated with an industrial design portfolio that included some interiors and graphic design. My first job was with Unimark International, which was fortunate because it was interdisciplinary and that is what I wanted. The bulk of our work was corporate identity and I learned graphic design from several graphic designers in Unimark. It wasn’t the ideal training because there was no formal structure, but it was very valuable because the designers were so good. I found I had a natural affinity for the logic of grids. Unimark was dedicated to what they called European design. Basically, they were bringing Swiss graphic design to the US, based on rationality and systems, objectivity, clarity, all those things inherited from the Bauhaus. It felt right with my earlier attraction to problem-solving. It was the way I wanted to see the world.
RP: You became co-chair at Cranbrook with Mike McCoy after just five years of this. Did you have an early ambition to teach?
KM: No, I never wanted to teach. The subject came up every once in a while – Mike would bring it up – and I was sure I didn’t want to do it. The position at Cranbrook really just fell into our laps. It was something you could never have thought out, or planned for. On the other hand, when I look back on it, both Mike and I began having students in the studios where we were each working. Working for Chrysler Corporation after Unimark, I had a friend who would keep bringing his design work over to me, and I’d keep slapping his hand: “No! You used too many point sizes here, you violated the grid there!” It was relatively easy to teach graphic design because there were these nice rules. So it was fairly natural to start teaching and I do find I always have an urge to teach. Even with ice-skating, which is an enthusiasm of mine, I find myself teaching people who just know a little less than me.
RP: What kept you at Cranbrook for such a long time – 24 years?
KM: That’s a long time, for sure, but at this point I could never see myself not teaching, because you learn so much! I’m totally convinced that the teacher learns the most! So that’s my motivation for teaching – it is almost self-interest. It is so stimulating, it challenges you to grow.
Why stay at Cranbrook for so long? Because it is such a flexible situation. At Cranbrook a department chair is everything from teacher to janitor to alumni relations director. There is no one to argue with about philosophical direction. If you want change, you can change. The only real requirement from the administration is that you attract good students and produce strong graduates who find their way in the profession. So we have turned a lot of corners over the years. We kept getting interested in new things and the programme kept growing. It wasn’t just from changes that we made, but also from new directions initiated by the students. They kept evolving and becoming interested in new things, so it was constantly changing.
RP: Why are you leaving now, given that it turned out so well?
KM: The cost of all that teaching freedom at Cranbrook is that it is a very intense, demanding situation for nine and a half months of the year. I have experienced whatever revelations come from being in charge, being responsible for a whole programme. In that sense there is nothing left to prove to myself. I would now like to teach in a place where someone will just hand me some terrific students, and drop into a stimulating programme, while being more free to do other things. I would like to write more and have more time for personal work at our “electronic cottage” in Colorado. We are planning to teach at Chicago’s Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology for one semester a year. This could be seen as a change of environment for us, since many have characterised Cranbrook as the art of design and ID as the science of design. But the commonality we see is the cultural function of design – the cultural human factors of objects and communications.
RP: What sort of students has Cranbrook attracted over the years, and what are they looking for when they come to you?
KM: One of the first things we felt we needed to do when we began teaching at Cranbrook was to define what we had to offer and, in a sense, define our market to attract the kind of students we wanted. I really enjoy working with mature students in their mid-twenties and early thirties – we have also had some very mature students! – with some professional experience. A strong undergraduate foundation in design is good but, on the other hand, some of our most interesting students come from very different backgrounds and found their way into design informally, on the job, and are now looking for a more structured experience to focus their design work.
We insist that students be absolutely motivated and dedicated to their work, with a lot of initiative. The most important thing is not to know, but to know how to know. We also get very polished professionals who feel as if they have reached a plateau in their work. They have learnt a role and they are practising it, but they want to look inside as well as outside to find a personal voice and vision.
RP: In the 1980s theoretical ideas assumed considerable importance at the Academy. How did that come about?
KM: We always encourage students to read. It is an unstructured programme so we have never had courses with official reading lists. Instead, because of the personal nature of each student’s programme, they independently construct their own focus. We have an ongoing department bibliography, and it has been a long-term project of mine to expand it and keep it as current as possible. It all comes back to my early interest in problem-solving. Part of the students’ goal for the two years is to develop their own conceptual strategies as designers. We encourage them to capitalise on their strengths, to become aware of their natural abilities, but also to incorporate external methods for conceptualising. We are continually looking for additional theories. Semiotics was always something we discussed – not as a major focus, as at Rhode Island School of Design – but trying to make sure the students understood the fundamentals and its potential as a design tool. Also, in the 1970s we brought the structured planning processes developed at Illinois Institute of Technology into the design department.
The department is fortunate to have a really good fine art photography programme next door to us in the same building, where they are also very interested in visual theory. Fine art photography was the first field to apply post-structuralism to visual media, such as the idea that you can read a photograph and decode it. I think a lot of these ideas have been communicated informally by talk between roommates, in studio romances and hanging around each other’s studios.
In the mid to late 1970s there was a move away from minimalism, but it was mainly a formal investigation influenced by people like Weingart and April Greiman. It was not so much a questioning of the conceptual foundations of Modernism as a questioning of its formal expression. By the early 1980s that seemed to be pretty thoroughly explored. Every new group asks itself: “What’s the contribution we’re going to make?” There were a couple of itchy years when students were searching for new approaches and finding little things here or there that didn’t quite come to fruition. But the next direction really began to emerge with the class Jeffrey Keedy was in, around 1984 – a group of avid theory hunters! That class and several in succession, including the class Edward Fella was in, very aggressively searched out and explored post-structuralist theories and philosophy. For a while it seemed like the theory-of-the-week club – structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, phenomenology, critical theory, reception theory, hermeneutics, lettrism, Venturi vernacularism, post-modern art theory – but gradually the ideas were sifted through, assimilated, and the most applicable began to emerge.
RP: I have been told that you resisted some of those ideas at first.
KM: Yes, and I still do! Isn’t that appropriate? Because post-structuralism is all about resistance. The excitement of discovery leads to great enthusiasm and the nature of the lot of these post-structuralist writers is to question all the fundamental values of culture. Frankly, I wasn’t ready to remake my value system completely and I do think that there have been a couple of useful contributions among all those dead white men. I wasn’t sure how all of this was going to fit, plus I was searching for the forms it would take. There is a recent quote of Jeff Keedy’s where he says that I kept asking, “But what does it look like? What does this mean in terms of design? How do you make it work as a design tool?”
RP: One of your graduates, Andrew Blauvelt, made a comment recently in Emigre, which I would like to hear your views on. He talked about graphic design as symptom and cure. “We had the cure in Modernism. In the other camp, graphic design as symptom, we have Cranbrook.” Do you agree with this analysis?
KM: It does seem that graphic design should reflect its cultural milieu if it is honest to its time and its audiences. Designers are responsible for a significant part of our society’s cultural production, so I think we have a responsibility to produce culturally current work. If a designer takes a nihilistic view of the cacophony of modern life, then I suppose confused complexity would be an honest expression, although that certainly is not my view.
One thing I would like to point out is that a lot of work coming out of Cranbrook is not formally complex. If you look at the New Discourse book some of the work has only three elements to it. That is not, to me, formally complex design. Most people think of Cranbrook as only doing layered work, but a lot of this goes back to the pre-post-structuralist period – the “high formalism” – although certainly Allen Hori’s work, for instance, continues to be very complex and layered. But the complexity I’m interested in is complexity of meaning. I’m not so much interested in the layers of form as the layers of meaning. The first reading is the ostensible first layer of objective meaning. But what is the second? The third? If you were to live with a poster in your dining room for the next three months, what would you continue to find as you spent more time with it? I think this approach fits modern society because the contemporary world is subtle and complex. Simple black and white dualisms no longer work. Graphic design that tries to make things simple is not doing anybody any real benefit. Society needs to understand how to deal with the subtlety, complexity and contradiction in contemporary life. I also think it is possible and necessary to have both complexity and intelligibility in graphic design.
RP: To say, “This is the primary information layer, but there are other layers too,” is to create a meaningful hierarchy and imply a degree of resolution. There is a fundamental difference, though, between what you’re saying and the student who says: “The world is confusing and impossible to make sense and I’m going to reflect this confusion in my work.”
KM: I do believe that the rationalism and objectivity of the Modernist tradition have an important place in the design process. The informational content of a message must be ordered into comprehensible hierarchies, typically the first layer of reading. I teach a method of message analysis in our first graphic sequence project and it is always there in my own work. I think a lot of people assume that because a piece is formally complex, the information will be difficult to penetrate. But if you look closely at a lot of the more pragmatic student printed work, I think you will find that the first layer of content is quite direct and well ordered.
On the other hand, sometimes students assume that there is meaning inherent in complexity itself – if it is obscure, it must be profound. I have a big problem with that.
RP: What is your concern about the “deconstructionist” label that Cranbrook and other recent work have attracted?
KM: Deconstruction is a term originally used by only a few French theorists. When you add that “ist” to it, then it is reduced to a faddish term. “Deconstructionist” now seems to mean forms deconstructed or taken apart, disassemblage. One of the regrettable things about the term is that people who haven’t read about it very deeply conclude that it is just about form and, more than that, that it is about the disassembling of visual language. That is part of the process, but I am interested in the idea of deconstructing the relationship of written and visual language to understand the dynamics and intentions in communication. Analysis is breaking down existing things to understand what is happening. The second half of it is: what do you learn from that? How can you build from there, as a proactive, synthetic strategy? Student experiments search for signposts in their conceptual processes to create new methods of communication. I am interested in discovering new options for our audiences such as the idea of encouraging the participation of the audience, opening up meaning so that they can be involved in the construction of meaning and make individual interpretations. This is one strategy for turning the analytical process into a synthetic process.
RP: Is it possible to produce a genuinely probing contemporary graphic design without addressing theory in some way?
KM: Yes and no. Even the most intuitive designers are influenced by the thinking of their professional milieu. These theories become absorbed by the mainstream so quickly that all these ideas are potential resources. I think of design as a pluralistic activity. Having started out with the big ideology of High Modernism, and seeing the limitations of one theory for all messages and audiences, I am now interested in the more modest idea of looking for pragmatic tools so that each designer can develop an effective personal process. Every designer is an individual. The idea of a designer swallowing any one method whole and then becoming that is not right or honest. We each should try to find our own best method of working, a synthesis of many different methods combined with out native talents and inclinations.
A lot of people feel that there is a certain pretension in theory and I probably felt that too, early on. There is an idea that the people involved in theory are poseurs and are trying to make graphic design more than it really is. None of us really understands what theory is very well. It would be useful for us to look at other fields to see the role theory plays in assembling a body of knowledge, structuring it, and guiding professional practice. Another thing one hears frequently when explaining a little theory to a group of designers is, “Well, I knew that anyway.” In a way that is exactly right. That is the whole point of theory – theory explains phenomena and dynamics that exist out there. You might have known instinctively that a piece of graphic design is successful, but theory helps to explain why it is successful – or unsuccessful – and hopefully the theory can also translate into some sort of a guiding strategy as well.
RP: Do you see much evidence that more theoretical approaches to design are being applied intelligently within the American mainstream?
KM: Some theoretical strategies are finding their way into professional work. Maybe the most prevalent is the opening up of meaning through multivalent shifting symbols and language – constructive ambiguity – for more active audience interpretation. I am thinking of the Time Warner annual reports and the Burton snowboard graphics in entertainment and youth-oriented markets. Of course, there is always the issue of appropriateness; opening up meaning and multiple interpretations might not be appropriate for certain types of communication problems – a stop sign, for instance! An earlier example would be Venturi’s ideas about the encoded power of commercial vernacular styles. We see post-modern eclecticism all over, but much of that demonstrates the downside of the dissemination of theoretical ideas. So often only the visual look of the theory gets appropriated and not the underlying ideas.
RP: What are your personal criteria for evaluating the quality of a design?
KM: That is a really crucial point. That is half the challenge for each student who comes to our programme – to develop a personal set of standards for judging design. Actually, that is one of the things I felt most uncomfortable about with the first use of deconstructive theory: the rejection of dominant paradigms. Does that mean that everything is OK? That there are no valid standards? I have come to think that a different view of standards is needed, something each designer needs to define themselves. Every graphic work has relative degrees of success and failure; each designer must define their their own criteria for evaluating relative success and failure.
RP: The logic of that might be that everyone arrives at such a radically different value system that there could be no conversation. Can any form of consensus be reached?
KM: Certainly that is the crucial question for a contemporary multicultural democratic society. As much as I believe in pluralism, I am also convinced of the necessity for consensus. In design, it is possible to have a conversation because we really aren’t all that different; we share a common history and communicate intensely. Occasionally you will find a piece of graphic design that is so clearly successful that everybody can agree on its quality, regardless of their biases.
RP: How would you characterise that quality?
KM: Resonance, an instinctive recognition and response from a viewer/reader. The resonance I am thinking of is resonance within our audience. I think it has to do with some sort of interaction with individual experiences and value systems. Of course, that is more and more difficult to do in these days of highly segmented multicultural audiences.
RP: Graphic design is in a time of real transition. How are things going to change for graphic designers in the next few years?
KM: I think the process of professionalisation is continuing. Some basic theories and methodologies are being codified, offering alternatives to the intuitive “Aha!” method. The educational level of our schools is improving. Many graduates are coming out of graphic design programmes with something closer to a true education these days. On the other hand, the refusal to consider accreditation and educational standards is a big threat in the US. Every other design field has these, but not graphic design. I hope that will change as the older generation, which feels it would stifle creativity, moves out of the picture. Another problem is that graphic design is a cash-cow for universities. There are great numbers of students interested in graphic design now, and market forces are hurting educational quality. There are over 1,000 schools in the US, maybe 2,000, that say they teach graphic design. Of all these, there are maybe 30 good schools.
There has been an immense growth and improvement in professionalism in the last 15 years. Professional practice as we know it will continue to improve conceptually to the point where design is seen as a strategic process in business and society, operating on a higher level in the business hierarchy. On the other hand, there is a media revolution and an aggressive new area is developing: dynamic multimedia, design digitally produced and digitally delivered as well. It is more than a subset of graphic design, because it involves time, motion and interactivity.
RP: Is the average graphic designer necessarily the right person to do that kind of work?
KM: They might not be, at least for the moment, since multimedia is so new and no one is an expert. But the tools we have now are not sufficient to really understand non-linear interactivity. We need to know so much more about cognitive psychology, about orientation and navigation, as well as our other visual communications tools. I would like to think that a new field might come out of these two areas. It will still be about visual communications, but it will be a much greater intellectual and conceptual challenge than graphic design has been up to now. Multimedia is not just another subset in the school programme, like editorial design, typeface design and so on. It is much more demanding technically and will probably require a masters degree.
RP: What are your goals post-Cranbrook?
KM: I would like to draw on our ongoing experiments in form and strategy to develop some modest theoretical structures specifically for visual communications, which can then be taught. I want to do more graphic design work too, and write and/or design books. I have some other informal interests that will not replace design, but are important to me to develop further: figure-skating, ceramics and history of the American West. Figure-skating and ceramics both have a lot to do with design. With ceramics, there is a physicality and immediate response from the clay as it takes form. Its instant gratification is a wonderful counterpoint to design’s abstractions and planning.
Figure-skating makes a really interesting analogy to issues of form and style. In figure-skating there are a set number of moves, like in ballet. Ballet is all constructed, a system, and there is some of that in figure-skating. Then there is the physics of it. The better form you have the more power you have and the less effort you must expend. You maximise your input as you refine your form. In graphic design, the Bauhaus taught us to distrust form and style as superficial. But taken on a deeper level, might it not be possible that, just as in athletics, the more form and style are developed and refined, the more communicative power is possible?
First published in Eye no. 16 vol. 4, 1995