Katherine McCoy : Thoughts on Design Writing
April 19, 2015 § 3 Comments
Women’s History Month 2015
Date of Visit: March 4, 2015
McCoy + McCoy
High Ground Design
Buena Vista, Colorado
Katherine McCoy is an internationally renowned graphic designer, design theoretician and educator. A few of her many accolades include the Medal of the AIGA, Election to the Alliance Graphique International and (jointly with husband Michael McCoy) the first ever Design Mind Award from the Smithsonian National Design Museum. She has held positions in the graduate design programs at Cranbrook Academy of Art and Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design; and has been the Hall Distinguished Professor at Kansas City Art Institute and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art in London. Some of her past positions include president of the Industrial Design Society of America, president of the American Center for Design, vice president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and chair of the Design Arts Fellowships Panel for the National Endowment of the Arts.
McCoy’s influence on the world of design is significant, when she speaks or writes other design professionals take notice. She has produced a considerable body of writing that records her (sometimes controversial) opinions. We contacted her and asked her to share her thoughts on the development of design writing in the United States as well as her personal approach to the practice.
Arriving at High Ground
The drive to the McCoy’s’ studio/residence took us south along Colorado’s route US 285—a classic western vista of open plains spreading outward to meet the snow-covered Rockies. Our directions specified a particular highway mile marker but we easily spotted the McCoy compound, a cluster of roof lines clearly visible but blending with the surrounding National Forest of high elevation ponderosa and pinyon pine. Our vehicle scrambled up the steep, twisting driveway where the occupants, Katherine and Michael McCoy, greeted us. The couple had been my professors at Cranbrook Academy of Art four decades earlier so no introductions were necessary.
Their rural dwelling is peppered with icons of the American west: wrought iron artifacts, Arts and Crafts furniture, antique taxidermy heads, Navajo blankets, and collections of copper and pottery. Interspersed are more contemporary design accents of lamps, molded chairs and tables in bright plastic compounds. Surrounding all are commanding views of the terrain—the San Isabel National Forest shown to its advantage from their perch at 8,500 feet.
The Impetus for Design Writing
We settled down to talk in a glass-walled room that gathered welcome warmth from the early March sun. It seemed logical to begin by asking when she first became aware of design writing. McCoy recalled that there was not much available to her while in school, “Writing was not something that (US) graphic designers did. They really didn’t read or write, they just made things. It was all about self-expression and there was very little theory or history.” Indeed, if one looks back at writing produced by our domestic graphic arts industry during that era we find it dominated by autobiographies dedicated to the magic dust, egos and techniques of advertising (i.e. William Bernbach’s A Technique for Producing Ideas, 1965, Leo Burnett’s Communications of an Advertising Man, 1961 or David Ogilvy’s Blood, Brains and Beer, 1978).
Design writing was primarily coming from Europe, exported to the US in books promulgating the formulas of Swiss Design, layout and typography. McCoy’s first exposure to these authors, including Josef Müller-Brockmann, Emil Ruder, Karl Gerstner, and Armin Hofmann, happened in the library of the corporate design firm, Unimark International, her first employer after college. Those designers and their theories of design would shape McCoy’s work for the following decade.I was curious if she was involved in Unimark’s leading edge design publication, Dot Zero. Her answer was “No, I was only a junior designer of 21!” But the articles in Dot Zero, chosen by its editorial board, Herbert Bayer, Mildred Constantine, Massimo Vignelli and Jay Doblin, certainly influenced the young designer and she was able to collect all five issues. She especially recalled one particular article, Visual/Verbal Rhetoric by Gui Bonsiepe (Dot Zero 2) as a great example of emerging design theory.  Unfortunately, the quarterly Dot Zero ceased to exist after only five issues.
Initiating Writing, History, Theory and Criticism at Cranbrook
Writing was an invaluable tool when McCoy and husband Michael became co-chairs of the Design Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1971. While seeking avenues to publicize the program and restore its once dynamic reputation, the couple discovered that editors of design periodicals were “dying for content and willing to showcase our teaching approach and student work. Back then editors were very proactive, encouraging us to make suggestions of what we’d like to write about.”
Apart from some newly launched magazines and the aforementioned European books there was a distinct lack of literature from the nascent field of design, a serious disadvantage for McCoy as a teacher and a professional. “There was really only George Nelson’s Problems of Design (1979), Paul Rand’s Thoughts on Design (1951) and Victor Papanek Design for the Real Word Human Ecology and Social Change (1971). As Massimo [Vignelli] pointed out, the three important areas of writing in any discipline are history, theory and criticism. More mature professions such as architecture or fine art have centuries of writing covering those areas but the absence of a similar body of work in graphic design relegated our young field to an amateur status.”
“There were no graphic design history books yet. Phillip Meggs‘ ground breaking History of Graphic Design would not be published until 1983.” To instill an appreciation of design history into the department she introduced a project requiring her students to research a designer and then produce a poster of images and text to help educate their classmates on their topic.
In 1975, McCoy initiated a design journal, Projects and Processes, with co-editor and co-designer (then Cranbrook student) Lorraine Wild. “That was an early realization that I liked writing about design.” The publication was distributed through an extensive mailing list compiled from “museums, magazines, art schools, undergrad and grad programs, design offices, alumnae— virtually anyone who wrote or contacted the us with an interest in design.”
“Another early student writing project was our trip posters. During the early years we would pack up the entire department (16 people) into a Winnebago and drive to places like Yale, RISD, Boston or Philadelphia to visit schools and design offices.” She laughs, “Today that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen! Afterwards the class used 3 by 5 cards to write impressions, quotes or topics to make a glossary of our trip. One student would design the poster incorporating the text and images. Ed Fella designed the first and I did the editing, writing and typography. That poster has had some recent recognition. Apparently Andrew Blauvelt at the Walker Art Center will be including it in an exhibition he is curating for fall 2015, Hippie Modernism, the Struggle for Utopia.”
Writing became increasingly integral to the curriculum during McCoy’s tenure at Cranbrook. She required her students to develop extensive written statements and bibliographies to substantiate their visual design projects. Introducing design criticism was a bit more difficult. “The whole idea of design criticism was considered impolite (in the 1970s). Organizations, such as the IDSA (the Industrial Design Society of America) felt that design awards were wrong and elitist at that time.” However, by 1990, McCoy was comfortable with critique, perhaps after so many departmental critique sessions! She has written about her philosophy of critique “Nothing is sacred, everything is available for question and criticism. That occasionally makes for uncomfortable moments, but it also ensures that the Design Department continues to grow, to resist formula and dogma.” 
Uncomfortable moments became more public as McCoy explored areas outside the Swiss Modernist design dogma. Her influences came from all directions but much of it from writing; at first Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown’s Postmodernist theories, semiotics and later, Post-structuralism and Deconstruction from French literary movements. Katherine explained her new work, “Coming out of literary theory, visual phenomena are analyzed as language encoded for meaning. Meanings are deconstructed, exposing the dynamics of power and the manipulation of meaning.”  She visually expressed her new theories on posters advertising various art departments at Cranbrook.
She brought these explorations to her students who embraced them without hesitation. One particular design class earned notoriety, good and bad, from a project that merged French literary theory with typographic composition. In a special issue of Visible Language the students designed eight essays in which they “attacked the assumptions of the text design much as the authors attacked language” . The students visually interpreted the content “by systematically disintegrating the essays by expanding the spaces between lines and words and pushing the footnotes into the space normally reserved for the main text.”  The student’s rejection of linearly arranged content generated tremendous controversy in the design world. Venerated Modernist Massimo Vignelli abhorred the new work, classifying Cranbrook as one of the “most dangerous design schools in the world.” 
The publication precipitated a flurry of writing to defend and explain the work. Katherine, the primary spokesperson, wrote long essays about the evolution of the field and the need for graphic design to differentiate in the new world of computer graphics. “This new work is smart and cerebral, challenging its audience to slow down and read carefully in a world of fast forward and instant replay, USA Today and sound bites. The emphasis is on audience interpretation and the construction of meaning, beyond raw data to the reception of messages. This direction seems aligned to our times and technology, as we enter an era of communications revolution and complex global pluralism. Desktop publishing is placing the production of low-end print communications in the hands of office workers and paraprofessionals. Even the simplest corporate report is now typeset and formatted, raising the visual expectations of our audiences. To distinguish high-end graphic communications from the vast output of desktop publishing, a new demand for highly personal, interpretive and eccentric design expressions is surfacing.” 
Perhaps one of the best critiques of McCoy’s experiments was Ellen Lupton’s, The Academy of Deconstructed Design, in Eye Magazine. Lupton lucidly explains the various evolutions of Cranbrook Design in a greater context.
By the early 1990s the McCoys’ jointly authored, Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, to document the work produced in the Cranbrook studios during the 1980s and “probably sealed the reputation of the school” .
McCoy’s Personal Writing Mission
McCoy described her evolution in writing. “My design writing evolved naturally out of a desire to express my opinions to a larger audience. Everyone that designs should have an opinion about design. You start to have opinions if you are at all interested or informed. Then it is natural to write them down for others to read.”
Like most writers, McCoy has always been an avid reader. As a life-long Christian Scientist she is accustomed to a self-disciplined practice of studying the weekly lesson and the solo introspection that her faith requires. “Christian Science definitely has a problem-solving aspect to it. It’s a great method for those who want to get their heads straight about life or to resolve problems.”
We reflected a bit on the notion of McCoy as a design missionary. “During my college years there was a big cultural shift, a revolution of sorts, in the environmental movement. Our required readings included major environmental manifestos. That late ‘60s period was all about revolution and a missionary zeal of finding a better way of doing things. Design, especially when I surfaced at the beginning of Swiss design’s arrival in the United States, was all very mission-like. The Swiss had a mission and Unimark certainly had a missionary zeal. I guess that sort of connected to my religious background. I was an idealist about life and problem solving. I still feel that way. We can always make it better.” She paused and chuckled to herself, “I always want to make things better.”
McCoy keeps a specific audience in mind when she writes—other designers and design educators. Her writing has been described as “cogent, jargon free, and clear” but she still faces the same challenges as any author.  “At first the design writing scene was fairly low-key but now it has become more intimidating. I always imagine one of my most respected design writers looking over my shoulder, Andrew Blauvelt, Meredith Davis, Michael Bierut or Ellen Lupton. It’s important to focus on the quality of the writing along with the content.”
Despite many years of writing behind her, she still finds the whole process “really, really hard work. Of course, things got a lot easier with the computer. Editing is key, I love working with a good editor. If you want to learn how to write well, work with a good editor. I was lucky to have a great editor at IDSA, Kristina Goodrich.”
A slightly different editing experience presented itself during a project for public television in the 1980’s. “I worked as the associate producer and content consultant on an independent documentary, Future Wave: Japan Design. I found film editing to be an invaluable lesson: cutting the footage and putting it together, trying to figure out the key points and choosing the interviewees’ key comments. Every word must count within the parameters of a given amount of time. Film is such a great discipline to make you get to the point.”
Women in Design Writing
We diverged for a few minutes to a slightly different topic, the lack of women in design history literature before the mid-20th century. I mentioned that whenever a new design history survey appears it seems that most of the research is gleaned from previous historians, none of who included any information about women in the field—perpetuating the myth that the profession was entirely men before the 20th century.
McCoy agreed, “True there has been much written about women in design since the late 1980’s; but before that only a few.” Exclusion has not been a problem for her—she is in all of the significant design history texts. However, she is certainly cognizant of what might have been, a career minimized as a ‘partner’ to her designer husband. Although their names are inseparable in the design world, the McCoy’s work diverged into hers (2D) and his (3D), giving each a clear identity.
Earlier women design partners were not so fortunate and if their contributions were noted at all it was a mere footnote to their partners: Lily Reich (with Mies van der Rohe), Charlotte Perriand (with Le Corbusier) Aino Aalto (Alvar Altor) Ray Eames (Charles Eames) etc. “In the early 1970s, when the Museum of Modern Art did the exhibition ‘The work of Charles and Ray Eames,’ no one knew who Ray was and we wondered if Charles had a brother.” Massimo Vignelli corrected his own history by writing Designed by Lella, a tribute to his wife and design partner. “Fifty years ago, it was standard practice that the head of the office was the man and the woman partner had a subordinate role. At best, the woman’s creative input and professional influence was only vaguely accepted; often her contributions were dismissed and sometimes even forgotten.” (Kudos to Mr. Vignelli for putting his book on line with free access.) 
One woman that has made it into design history textbooks is Cipe Pineless (1908-1991), credited as “the first independent female art director.” McCoy confided that they were once roommates at an early AIGA event. She could not avoid noticing that despite editing many of the most glamorous fashion magazines of her time, Ms. Pineles dressed for bed (like anyone of good Austrian background) in practical flannel nightgowns. Unfortunately, passing encounters in the female lodging were the extent of their interaction.
Another woman we touched upon was Beatrice Warde (1900–1996), known to typography students for her essay The Crystal Goblet, to letterpress printers for This is a Printing Office, and to design historians for her writings on true origin of Garamond. Warde and Nicolete Gray (1911-1997) (Lettering as Drawing among others), both elegant and intelligent authors, were the first women writing history and criticism in the graphic arts field.
We mused a bit on how to get women into the canons of graphic design, especially as men write the majority of the books. I felt that Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, did not seize the opportunity to break the mold but McCoy was more cautious. “You know according to theories of Deconstruction there is no such thing as neutral facts. You should look to the work of authors such as Patricia Limerick, who are involved in the New Western History Movement. Those researchers reject the established histories as the total truth and investigate the contributions of under-recognized communities. That said, there are such things as facts in history. We do need those, as well as interpretation and critique.”McCoy is encouraged by how far design writing has progressed since she entered the field. After a first wave of self-educated pioneers there are now graduate level programs educating professional design writers. “I am so pleased that there are programs dealing with design writing. There have been two great women speakers at High Ground who are at the forefront of educating the next generation of design writers and critics. Sue Yelavich (a Cranbrook alum) is the Director of the MA in Design Studies at The New School. Her counterpart, Alice Twemlow, is co-chair at the School of Visual Arts, another notable program. (Both of them are great writers themselves) The programs appear to focus on solid criticism and interpretation.”
Writing Now + Projects @ High Ground
McCoy was clearly ready to talk about the present, her writing projects, her on-going design practice and various other activities. She put down the needlepoint she’d been working during our chat (based on a favorite Pueblo pot) and brought out some printed samples.
McCoy has two writing projects in progress. One concentrates on Herbert Bayer, an artist/designer/architect who started out at the Bauhaus but settled in Aspen in 1946. “Walter Paepcke, the founder of modern Aspen, lured Bayer to Colorado, commissioning him to design materials for Aspen’s cultural events and ski resort. Bayer was very prolific; the work was unlike his earlier work in Germany and New York City. Much of it is still unseen. Bayer is far more recognized for his paintings, architecture and landscape work.” The Denver Art Museum’s Bayer Collection preserves his archive, and there are some Bayer collectors in Colorado, affording McCoy great access to Bayer resources.
A second book project relates to the annual Aspen Design Conference, a now defunct but once much acclaimed event. This project developed out of a presentation made at the McCoy’s annual “mini conference without an audience” held at High Ground. (High Ground Tools and Strategies for Design) “We invite a group of important design thinkers and writers to make a 7-minute rant or presentation about their current interest. It is a way of taking stock on what has been on their mind that year; it is not a portfolio show and tell. After each speaker there is a 15-minute session for questions and comments.”
A few years back McCoy shared her Aspen Modernism research at a session of High Ground and the group “strongly encouraged me to continue, so I pretty much had to pursue the project.” Because there is no consolidated archive of the conference in Aspen McCoy has traveled to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the University of Chicago Library, the University of Illinois Chicago Library and several other archives. “Archival research could get to be habit-forming. Archives are a whole alternative universe – so serene and organized.” She researched 50 years of promotional material and information about the designers who participated in the conference. An avid researcher and library fan, she noted, “I’ve always thought that if I wasn’t a designer I would be a librarian.” The book is now at the book proposal stage.We moved next to the hurdles of getting a book into print. “The whole process of getting a book published is almost like dating…Does he/she really like me/my book? It’s like a slow dance back and forth over long periods of time. You have to work with people on good faith that your material will be handled properly and that the book will actually come to be published.”
There is the lure of self-publishing but McCoy isn’t enthusiastic about that possibility. “There is a credibility that comes when a publishing house invests in a book. Editors. Fact checking. Longevity. I would want my work on the shelf of a library, in hard copy, a tangible object that will persist.”
The topic of web writing came up. (After all, we were recording this discussion as part of a blog!) McCoy feels that “So far web publishing has not been attractive to me. A lot of work online is not vetted… And it’s very ephemeral. How long does a blog last? Only as long as someone pays for it’s posting.”
McCoy’s Design Practice Today
McCoy continues her graphic design practice. Most of her work is civic-minded, still spreading the mission of design for a better world. She recently served on the brandColorado team appointed by Colorado’s governor to develop a coherent brand identity for the state. She also participates on university art and design accreditation teams for the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and consults on post-secondary design curricula.
She is in the midst of several projects for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management; print work, trails maps, interpretive kiosks, environmental information. Much of it is concerned with relaying information that dictates a structured visual presentation. There is a certain irony in that, she noted, “It’s sort of funny that I, the person blamed for ruining graphic design with experimental self-expressive work in the 80’s and 90’s, winds up intensely involved in information design.”
There are other lesser-known but important dimensions to Katherine McCoy. She became a mother while I was a student at Cranbrook. The baby, Annie, was a fixture in our critiques and department events but design was not a career choice for the daughter of the famous designers. She found her own mission—finding ground water as a hydrogeologist in the parched Southwest.
There are the pastimes McCoy adores; Textiles (sewing, quilting and needlepoint), figure skating and growing spectacular specimens of cactus and succulents. Her Best Novice Cactus 2014 prize at the annual Colorado Cactus & Succulent Show propelled her into the Expert Category.
We ended our visit with a tour of High Ground’s well-equipped conference center and Katherine’s cactus and succulent greenhouse. Other than replenishing supplies the couple would never have to leave their mountain roost, however they also maintain a loft in Denver – “our urban outpost.”
It was time for us to get back to Breckenridge to rejoin the rest of our party. My companion for the day, Cynthia Solis, rode shotgun as we made our way up the Hoosier Pass. Crossing over the Continental Divide at 11,500 feet, we encountered heavy snow squalls, forcing us to creep behind a convoy of salt trucks. It afforded us a window of time in which to transition back to the world of ski vacations and hot spring spas on the other side.
Thanks to Ed Fella for providing the Cranbrook Trip poster art.
Footnotes + Links
 Gui Bonsiepe’s article, first seen in the Journal of the Ulm School of Design. You may read this article on line at this link Hyperlink
 Lorraine Wild invented the term Hippie Modernism
 Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, Rizzoli International, New York, 1990, with essays by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, Katherine & Michael McCoy, Daralice Bowles, Lorraine Wild, Neils Diffrient and Roy Slade.
 McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.
 Lorraine Wild, Cranbrook Design:The New Discourse, p.33.
 Lupton, Ellen. Deconstruction and Graphic Design, Hyperlink
 Harper, Laurel. Radical Graphics/Graphic Radicals. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1999. 65. Print.
 McCoy, Katherine, ‘American Graphic Design Expression: The Evolution of American Typography’, Design Quarterly 149, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 3-22.
  Wild, Lorraine, Katherine McCoy: 1999 AIGA MEDAL. Hyperlink
 Vignelli, Massimo, Designed By Lella. Hyperlink
 (Shown left) Women in Graphic Design, 1890-2012. Hyperlink
(Shown right) And She Told 2 Friends, as international exhibit of graphic design by women, Kali Nikitas, Michael Mendelson Books, Chicago, 1996.
 Image Source: 1. Mildred Constantine addressing the audience at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, 196- / Max Yavno, photographer. Mildred Constantine papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Hyperlink 2. Paul Rand Hyperlink
A list of Katherine McCoy’s essays resides on this archive. Hyperlink
Writings on Katherine McCoy Hyperlink