At RISD in the ‘70’s, what I called the Swiss Miss style prevailed. Serious theories from the Bauhaus via Basel. Semiotics. Among other peculiar assignments was a concrete book (as in concrete poetry) and I was immediately aware that in this department I had been catapulted into an even more rarified artistic environment that “Fine” Art might have offered. “Univers” was the only acceptable typeface, and then there were the grids. Grids everywhere! No pictures allowed, unless they were grainy black and white photos. And certainly no illustrations! Here’s a word I’ll hate forever: “conceptual.” I think it means “un-stupid.” Design turned out to be even more snobbish and existential than painting. I longed for a down-to-earth project, like designing a new candy bar or something. Besides, I missed drawing.
So I transferred to the Illustration department. There, luckily, I met Mahler Ryder, a teacher who encouraged every possible kind of artwork, up to and including things that looked kind of like graphic design. I feel sad because he died so young. Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Warhol and Ed Ruscha were among my influences. My theory will always be this: look for the passionate teachers. It doesn’t matter what they teach. Of course the other Illustration professors encouraged me to return to the Graphic Design department, since every single piece I produced included typography, and they didn’t think that was Illustration, really. Uh, okay. I was young and insecure. Now I’m old and insecure. It’s ever so much much better.
I decided to transfer back into Graphic Design.
They wouldn’t let me back in the department, unless I took a whole extra year. Clearly, Graphic Design is a very Serious Thing. It was a Big Deal. The Big Choice of Major had become such an issue, such a source of contention that for me the fun of making art was nearly gone forever.
Here’s the absolute worst thing you can say to the head of a Graphic Design department:
“Oh, Come On! It’s only graphic design! It’s not like engineering! A building’s not going to fall on somebody’s head or something because I missed half a Semester!”
The Head said “Now we won’t let you back at all.”
I was effectively kicked out of Graphic Design. There was nowhere to go but Painting, where no one was minding the store anyway and I had time for a few Graphic Design electives. Thank God for the late Michael Glass. He was the teacher responsible for my own acceptance of the possibility of a lighthearted and tolerant world, where illustration and design and painting could live in Peace and Harmony Together. I brought drawing into my design work, and type into my drawings, and I’ve done that ever since, with happy results. My whole lifetime it’s been a tough sell, but what gets through can be something complete, something my own, and not a little picture in a box set into somebody’s else’s badly-designed text.