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The 1960s Revolutions: Race, Sex, Culture, and Design Education

Guest Editorial by Katie Varrati and Derrick Schultz

Upheaval and revolution dominated the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement bubbled over into riots and assassinations; feminism pushed for equal rights at home, the office, and the world; and anti-Vietnam protests and the Hippie counterculture challenged and changed the previous lifestyle of a majority of Americans.

But less known to historians, the 1960s was a time when a small group of American graphic design students were taught how to think, design, and give back to their community in a revolutionary way in Kansas City, Missouri — probably not the first city that comes to mind when you think of revolutionary design.

Rob Roy Kelly graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art in 1952 and moved onto the burgeoning Yale graduate program. There, he fell for the teachings of Josef Albers and began to develop his own views on design education. He returned to MSA, where he established the first undergraduate program titled “Graphic Design” and then moved onto KCAI, where he had more control to develop a new kind of design program. He invited graduates from Basel’s Kunst Gewerbeschule (where Armin Hoffmann was developing his own educational revolution) to join his faculty and develop a hybrid program of American and Swiss foundations. He was a catalyst for change, employing team teaching techniques, designing for Kansas City community programs, and developing close student/teacher interaction (faculty studios were located next to the student studios, and there are many accounts of both spending late nights side by side). He encouraged faculty transitions into other schools, causing this hybrid form of American and Swiss design ideas to disperse throughout the US.

On March 10th, the Kansas City Art Institute held Another 60s Revolution: The Rob Roy Kelly Years at KCAI . What began as an article in Print magazine had developed into a day of celebration, reflection, and another education lesson for current students (this time, history replacing type and image). Katherine McCoy, quite the design educator herself, asked prominent faculty during that period, former students, and a few special guests to discuss the RRK years at KCAI: what the world was like at the time, how design education developed, and where they hope to see it go in the future.

Katherine McCoy opened the event with a summary of her research into the RRK years at KCAI. Though only midway through her research, she had amassed a substantial amount of information through personal interviews and a previous panel discussion at a Philadelphia AIGA event. The research ran from the pedagogical to the personal, weaving both personal stories and class objectives into a rich picture of the time in American design education.

Gordon Salchow, a student under Kelly at MSA and at Yale’s graduate program after Kelly, was one of his first hires at KCAI in 1965. He recounted personal moments with Kelly, a few humorous stories, and a description of his own education. Only a few years after beginning to teach at KCAI, he left to begin the Graphic Design program at the University of Cincinnati. There he combined Basel-trained personnel, Kelly’s methodology, and his own to create a program that remains well regarded. (Interestingly enough, his daughter Kelly — the name is of no coincidence — now teaches at KCAI, following her father’s and namesake’s footsteps.)

Inge Druckrey, the first faculty member arriving from Basel, discussed how RRK’s open approach gave her free reign to develop her own projects and �create lesson plans. that mirrored Swiss methodology while meeting the needs of a new American student culture. Druckrey’s interest with letterforms is evident (she mentioned she is researching its history in education — dating back to the early 1900’s in Switzerland — in the preparation of a book). From her initial work at Basel to her classes in Philadelphia, her work showed her evolution from naive student to capable professor. Her subsequent teaching at RISD, Yale, and University of the Arts show how her simple forms and typography classes begun at Basel have developed into something distinctly different with American students.

Hans Allemann, another Basel graduate, arrived in Kansas City in 1967. His joke about landing on the moon was pretty spot on — Kansas (and America) was very different than his native Switzerland. A few weeks into one of his first courses at KCAI, the students asked to do something completely different from his instruction. He relinquished control, but eventually faculty and students compromised on a new assignment — a real hybridization in learning. Now teaching at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and designing professionally at Allemann, Almquist, and Jones, his teachings show how the American and Swiss blend has made something completely new, both in learning process and finished work.

Roger Remington, Rochester Institute of Technology professor and friend of Kelly’s, showed a brief collection of his work (Unfortunately, perhaps Kelly’s most known influence in design today is his seminal book on wood type, 100 Wood Type Alphabets in which Remington was involved). Remington, along with RIT students, recently developed a website of Kelly’s writings. Kelly, a faculty member at RIT a few years after his departure from KCAI, left his writings to the school because he believed young educators should have instant access to the writings so that they can continue a curriculum of progressive graphic design.

A short panel discussion followed, led by McCoy. Rob Roy Kelly’s legacy as an educator and friend above all else became apparent. A few alumnifrom the program shared their own stories. Remington acknowledged that many current students of design were in the audience and a short discussion on current education topics ensued. It should be of no surprise that all the schools influenced or developed by Kelly and his KCAI faculty (of which RIT, University of Cincinnati, and the University of the Arts are to name a few) have become highly regarded programs. What began at KCAI was just the beginning of a lifetime of design education for the people at Another 60s Revolution symposium; and their subsequent programs gained from their earlier experiences.

To many not in attendance, this symposium may have seemed like a fitting close to the end of an era. All of those involved in RRK’s program, however, saw this as a fittingtribute to the man and a steady progression of design education. While a few moments were emotionally charged, even the few tears from friends, family, and colleagues were in thanks for Rob Roy Kelly’s undying support for design and its future. Of the hundreds (possibly even a thousand) design programs in the country, it is hard to imagine that it may not have been the same without one school in Kansas City. He may not be as world-changing as Martin Luther King or Betty Friedan, but Rob Roy Kelly may have created graphic design’s Woodstock — and we’re just now beginning to see its full effect.

Katie and Derrick are both Juniors at the University of Cincinnati, majoring in Graphic Design.

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ARCHIVE ID 2562 FILED UNDER Design Academics
PUBLISHED ON Mar.23.2006 BY Speak Up
Joshua’s comment is:

i keep hearing and reading about the revolutionary design schools from the bauhaus to the bauhaus of chicago, to the school of basel under hofmann to the black mountain college, from herbert bayer to paul rand, from moholy-nagy to albers. Where the hell is the revolutionary design school today?

I hearded of cooper union but it seams so academic and really elitist, MICA seams quite good too, but nothing appears to go higher than those previsous schoosls' ankles. So where are the progressive, open-minded, highly pedagogical schools that teach graphic design nowadays?

I keep dreaming that some unknown revolutionary schools exists or will exist soon, am i wrong?

On Mar.25.2006 at 12:45 PM
gregor’s comment is:

We're in different times Joshua - schools don't make revolutions or revolutionary designers - schools are a refection of the culture we're in.

There is no artsitic or political avante-garde, or even opposition, at the moment. Design is the mouthpiece of commerce. T'ain't nothin' radical about that.

The Bauhaus, Constructivists, and so on down the list existed in charged Political eras. It's a pretty flat landscape now.

On Mar.25.2006 at 07:33 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Try googling "revolution": there are 375,000 entries. Though I agree with Gregor, but this is more than flat landscaping.

What's changed is the speed of assimilation of original/radical/positive ideas into the Matrix of Blah... there ARE individuals doing amazing things out there and I don't think it's a "school of design" with a name or a place. But then I'm rather isolated these days. What do I freaking know about design with a capital "D"? Maybe someone else here - an instructor - knows differently?

On Mar.26.2006 at 09:04 AM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Certainly there were some places that seemed to be the source of some sort of revolt just a few years back. I know that the late ’80s/early ’90s is ancient history for some but Cranbrook and CalArts come to mind. Unlike the early 20C, the latter 20C saw whatever seemed useful in that aesthetic revolution quickly absorbed by other institutions. It might have seemed then that CalArts and ArtCenter represented polar opposites but soon Pasadena imported CalArtian typefaces (and even Valencian designers) to promote itself. (Los Angeles was just a microcosm of this happening all over the world.) Whatever sense of rebellion lurked behind the forms was reduced enough to be insufficient justification.

The process for the formal absorption of, say, the Bauhaus, was much slower with socialist-modernist-internationalist-utopian forms developing as liberal-modernist-internationalist-utopian and finally capitalist-modernist-internationalist-utopian—the stuff that the Cranbrook CalArts revolt rose up against. The absorption of the ’teens took sixty years. The ’90s process took more like six.

The latter decade also saw schools, like graphic design practice, resist then embrace technological change and a design education change in attitude toward technology that dwarfed the Bauhaus’ came so fast that it’s hard to remember that the current condition wasn’t always the case.

There may be room for a new revolutionary school if you’re talking about some structural approach to education. Art schools and universities are fairly conservative at least in the sense of being high inertia. They have to keep things within the expectations of boards of regents and accrediting institutions. If, however, you mean a revolution of knowledge or style, the limiting factor is faculty becoming aware. If the changes are well publicized then this time it might take sixty minutes (or no more than a couple of semesters.)

Is there some revolutionary approach to graphic design that is being ignored by the academy?

On Mar.26.2006 at 01:31 PM
gregor’s comment is:


The speed of assimilitaion into the cultural mainstream is certainly a factor, but what I would say is that at the moment there is no new work specifically tied - stylistically - to any social theory or change agent, which is what the historical avant-garde was inextricably linked to: social change.

While I'll admit that I'm looking at fewer student portfolios these days, some do cross my desk, ranging from grads coming out of regional schools in the Northwest to Portfolio Center grads. The most interesting work isn't a stylistic rupture (which would be akin to a 'school of design'), but a conceptual rupture that's not style dependent. In all cases where I've seen this is in students coming out Western Washington Universtity.

I have seen some amazing work that addresses social responsibility in design, and a conceptual process that looks at the entire design lifecycle: from concept to fabrication, including (in a print project for example), the materials used in executing a concept. Realistically, in the present climate, there is little, real world application of the design results of these student projects. Rather, what comes out of it is the students learning how to look at an isolated project from multiple perpectives and developing strong conceptual skills.

There are, of course, a multitude of quasi design movements attempting to apply a social theory to ground their activities - that include the No Logo protagonsists among others - but I'll empahsize that fact that there is no substantial social theory or oppositional change agent driving a stylistic rupture in the design vernacular. That won't always be the case, but for the moment it is - although that does not make it a closed book.

On Mar.26.2006 at 02:11 PM
Jason L.’s comment is:

I agree with Gregor's idea that there is no stylistic tie to a social theory, as there was on the front end of the 20th century. But there is some advancement in the structural approach, that Gunnar mentioned, happening at places like NC State.

I had the pleasure to meet with Meredith Davis a couple weeks ago, and the groundwork they are laying there in their masters and doctoral programs is inspiring. The focus is on research in the design field and not portfolio building. So, it doesn't touch us all directly in the consumer world. The program is looking at design as it effects all our behavior, and getting beyond the poster and the logo as design's solution to social change. If you have the chance, you should read her essays on design education. I wish I could tell you an easy way to get to them. She does have a book that's out of print, but I've seen it floating on Amazon.

On Mar.27.2006 at 08:20 AM
tyler’s comment is:

i think the notion of new structural approaches to design does have some merit, and as jason said above, i do feel like this is working, at least at the graduate level, here at ncsu. the three semesters leading up to the thesis semester are arranged topically instead of being driven by form or technology. we look at design in light of cognition, culture (looking at globalization this year), and new information environments/narrative. the topics are open-ended enough to allow for shifts in pedagogical approach over time.

what i find interesting about this structural shift is that it considers design within the context of several larger issues, so form and concepts arise out of the subject matter being addressed -- the structure engenders open formal exploration. many of us in the studio are interested in (at least while in school) design that is more in the service of social, cultural, or educational needs/institutions, and we are free to explore that. i believe that comes through in the undergrad coursework here as well.

on that note, there does seem to be a growing interest in design in the public realm, and outside of the service of commerce. several of us attended the education conference in philadelphia last summer, where there were multiple breakout sessions about public and cultural projects that created links between academia and the community. i know many schools have at least one course in their curriculum now that address design responsibility -- the one i introduced at kansas city art institute is called 'visual advocacy' and is now in its third year as a required part of the curriculum.

while this is only a 'tendency' right now and any sort of visual language tied to larger social/political theory is still absent, i am personally interested in furthering this tendency, because i feel a need for design to re-assert itself as something larger and more important than 'commercial art'.

i definitely disagree with gregor when he says that 'schools are a reflection of the culture we're in'. schools, just like any other element of culture, have just as much power to act as to reflect. instructors play a huge role in shaping students' outlook and attitude about design and many other topics they encounter during their education. schools can certainly be, and have been, a breeding ground for revoluationary ideas.

On Mar.28.2006 at 01:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> Where the hell is the revolutionary design school today?

> schools are a refection of the culture we're in.

I don't think there is a single "revolutionary" design school today, because there is no need for it. At least not yet. Design schools these days, specially at the undergrad level, are most concerned with giving students the skills and tools to become profficient designers, which is what the profession is asking for. While many job positions declare they are looking for a young designer that can think creatively and conceptually what they really respond to is a nice-looking portfolio from a young designer that will be able to get on the computer and do as instructed and do it well. This seems to be working for the past five years, and design schools are surely not in the mood to revolt against that. Which institution doesn't want good job placement for their graduates? If the market demands this, why revolt against it?

On the other hand, I think that schools that exploit the current DIY/Entrepreneurial/Can-do spirit of the times are the ones that stand out, and while not revolutionary per se, they are better preparing students to take advantage of the lovey-love that business people and regular people are feeling towards words like design and innovation. A graduate program like SVA's encourages authorship and the creation of a marketable and sellable product, service or idea (and we all know how well that can pan out for some) that prepares designers to be more proactive and agressive based on a design education. MICA is another good example of a graduate program that encourages thinking over doing. And I'm sure there are other programs that get less attention that are equally good.

Also the current lukewarm appreciation (in contrast to the hot-hot-hot appreciation in the early 90s) of places like CalArts, Cranbrook and even Fabrica in Italy, speaks to the level of comfort that the visual manifestation from these institutions has achieved in the mainstream. That, or it simply has become boring. And far from revolutionary.

A design education revolution might be on the way, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

On Mar.29.2006 at 08:56 AM