An Interview with Mr. Keedy

By Michael Dooley

This interview was first published in 1994 in Emigre #30.

Michael Dooley: Judging from past issues of Emigre in which you were mentioned, it appears that the proper way to refer to you is “Mr. Keedy.” Is that correct?

Mr. Keedy: Yeah. I started doing that a long time ago, for design credits. It actually came about because I was thinking about the idea that graphic design was originally an anonymous profession until the “Grand Era,” when designers began to consider themselves worthy of recognition. (Steven Heller wrote a nice piece about this in the Lift and Separate catalog.) Then you had people like Paul Rand sign their work in imitation of fine artists except that, unlike Picasso or Matisse, they would use their first and last name. For me, using just your last name seemed pretentious but including your first name seemed a bit forward or overly friendly. Designers don’t actually know most of the people who see their work. I don’t feel like I am on a first-name basis with the whole world. Mostly, I like the fact that “Mr.” is about formality and respect, while also having a cheesy commercial connotation like Mr. Clean, Mr. Frosty, etc. and the teacher thing, Mr. Chipps. The “Mr.” designation is a really “loaded” signifier in our culture.

MD: Do you consider your work to be pretentious?

MrK: [laughs] Sometimes, probably. Yeah, I suppose.

MD: What about Lushus?

MrK: That typeface was done in a very specific context. It was done for Fuse magazine, and Phil Baines was the editor of this particular issue. It was to address a particular idea about the Industrial Revolution and exuberance. So I designed it to answer that brief. It was like an assignment. If you read my essay that went with it, and if you read the essay Phil Baines wrote and saw it in the context of the Fuse typefaces, you would understand completely what it was about.

But of course most people didn’t do that. Instead, what happened was that they just saw it in this Dutch book and said “God, what an ugly typeface.” I, of course, as a type designer, don’t have any control over what people actually do with it, nor would I want that kind of control. Actually I thought the Best Book design looked pretty good, but I tend to think most things set in one of my typefaces look good.

The weird thing about Heller’s “Cult of the Ugly” article for Eye is that he talked about me as if he were showing my work, which he wasn’t. He probably mentioned me as a representative of this kind of work, because I’m the director of the design program at CalArts.

That’s the other thing that happens: you just get lumped in as if you’re all the same, when in fact you’re not. It happens at Cranbrook, it happens everywhere. When I was a student at Cranbrook, I didn’t consider what I was doing the same as what my classmates were doing. And I know the students at CalArts don’t consider their work as being all the same, either.

MD: Steve has written quite a bit about graphic design over the years and is actively involved with many aspects of it. Do you really believe he was out of his league in this instance?

MrK: Yes, definitely. His area of expertise is really the past. He usually writes fairly well about history because he does his homework or he has some one do his homework for him. Sometimes he writes what are basically book reports, which aren’t very in-depth and offer very little insight or fresh perspective, and when it comes to contemporary work, he hasn’t done his research. Obviously, he illustrated the “Ugly” essay with stuff that just came across his desk. Had he bothered to do the research, as he does with his historical essays, he could have given a very good and insightful critique. But what he gave instead was very glib. You can no longer make these quick and easy calls. Simple ideas of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, are just not useful.

But, although I am critical of some of Heller’s writing, I am glad that he has done so much of it, and I certainly hope he continues to do more. Which is a lot more than I can say for the hundreds of design academics across the country that sit on their tenured asses and never write.

Unfortunately, most of the criticism that CalArts, Cranbrook, and Emigre get, is really dumb. The critics don’t have the patience or the intellectual tools. They don’t want to get it; it’s not even being critiqued in context. And that’s what I find really frustrating. I think much of the work is interesting and deserving of thoughtful criticism, particularly from outside the group producing it. But right now, it’s just become a battle: the older generation versus the younger generation.

At the AIGA conference in Miami the general “vibe” I was picking up was that Rudy VanderLans, David Carson, Ed Fella, Jeff Keedy, or - a handful of five or six people - are perpetrating this hoax on graphic design and diverting it away from its original (classical) path - which is ridiculous. But they think there are a few of us foisting this stuff off on our students, as though our students come in saying, “We want to study Paul Rand” and we’re saying “No, no, you must do weird typefaces on the Mac and screw them all up.” There are designers who actually think like that; it’s kind of pathetic. In fact, exactly the opposite’s happening. The students are coming in on computers right on day one, wanting to do all kinds of crap, and we’re saying “No, no, you have to know about history, and you have to think about the culture you are functioning in, etc.”

But it works well for the older designers to think the way they do, because it means they get the last word. That’s something each generation always does, you know: “Everything went to hell after me.”

MD: Obviously, a generation gap exists, but do you think part of the debate is one of street-smarts versus academia?

MrK: Yeah, of course. We have a situation now where you have people with MFAs getting jobs from people who may have had some graphic arts training, but little academic training, design or otherwise. So that creates a huge gap in how people define their relationship to their practice and that creates tension.

MD: What, specifically, do you think Steve is missing in his overview?

MrK: Heller’s biggest mistake is the biggest mistake a lot of his pals - the good old boy network in New York - make. They believe in this Paul Rand notion of timelessness and decontextualization, that there’s a kind of supra-design that is appropriate and “good” for all cultures at all times in all places. Which is baloney, especially nowadays. They look at something that Allen Hori, a young gay Asian-American, is doing in a graduate school experiment, and try to understand that as equivalent to something a 55-year-old New York Jew did for a corporate identity. It’s apples and oranges. And they keep doing that all the time. They repeat the “form follows function” mantra, while completely ignoring context.

MD: So this debate is a multicultural issue?

MrK: I think that’s part of it. American graphic design was very much defined by European Modernism, so that became the yardstick of what’s good. The clash between that ideology and American eclecticism has gotten much more complex, where we find there are many, many audiences to address. And for some people, this is too much to grasp. You can no longer simply assume you know the rules by which all things are judged.

So, in that sense, it is a multicultural issue. You could also use the term “multi-audience,” because it also has much to do with the different avenues open for design along the information superhighway, from limited edition letter press books to CD-ROM. It doesn’t seem sensible to have one overarching ideology that’s going to cover the whole gamut.

MD: In what sense is the “ugly” question also a coastal issue?

MrK: Part of the problem is that design publications are usually based in New York, and the bias is very strong. Even when they do the occasional piece on West Coast designers, it’s done with the point of view that it’s outside of the canon.

For example, the Eye magazine issue on American graphic design (#8, Volume 2, 1993) edited by Steven Heller, featured only writers and designers on the East Coast. I wrote a letter, which was published in Eye #10, in which I said: “The issue on American design was unusually inclusive for Steven Heller. It included a Canadian (an honorary American?) and a design office in Boston. Usually Heller doesn’t acknowledge anything past the Hudson River, unless, of course, he is talking about ugly work, then it’s everything on the other side of the Hudson River. Please inform your European readers that there is new and interesting work being done in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But you’ll probably have to get someone besides Heller to tell them about it.” But Rick Poynor deleted that paragraph.

MD: Why was it left out?

MrK: I don’t know. Knowing Poynor, he probably thought it was just too personal. He’s a good editor - he publishes material that’s controversial and thoughtful, that stirs things up a bit - but he does have a tendency to be heavy-handed. He wants to “save you from yourself.” He doesn’t want you to say anything you’ll regret later.

MD: How did Steve react to your comments?

MrK: He faxed a response that said something like, “I’m sending a message in a bottle across the Hudson River to you.” I don’t think it bothered him. I was being a smart ass, and he was giving it right back, and that was the end of it.

MD: Do you find, now that you’ve talked with Steve, that he has less reservations about your work?

MrK: Yeah. It’s like with most things: the more you find out, the more sympathetic you become. The biggest danger to him is that he’s actually going to get to know these people and what they’re doing and realize, in fact, that he doesn’t have a problem with it.

MD: Why do you say “danger?"

MrK: Because he’d no longer be able to make those glib statements once he got to “know the enemy,” as it were. He enjoys this adversarial position. It makes it fun for him.

MD: Do you see a danger if this “ugly” code, this language, is adopted by the mainstream?

MrK: Ugly and beautiful have always been mainstream ideas. What the mainstream does, it just does. I don’t know how you could, or why you would want to control it.

There was the idea in Heller’s article that it’s okay for a few people to do this work because they understand it and they will be a “blip in the continuum of graphic design history.” But he doesn’t want a bunch of people imitating them with “style without substance” because that will “diminish all design.” That way of thinking about the evolution of style in culture - as a controlled linear progression of mostly “great white men” is too simplistic.

Now we have the older generation of designers wishing this would be over, like a bad dream, and we’ll all throw our computers away and go back to the European Modernist (classical) ideal of what’s good and bad. Then on the other hand, you have the younger designers who know clearly that this is not going to happen. But they don’t know what is going to happen, nor are they eager to posit an agenda as to what they think should happen. I think there’s a lot of trepidation on the part of the younger generation, given the current situation.

It’s a difficult moment now but I hope we’re at the beginning of the complete breakdown of the idea that one particular ideology should reign supreme for the whole design community. There’s going to be a bit more of this “tit for tat” going on for awhile, but I think this marks the end of the situation as a problem to be solved. We’re easing into a point where the designosaurs are going to at best, give in, and maybe be a little more generous toward the younger generation, or at worst, go into a bitter retirement.

And what will happen - or, at least what I hope will happen - is that everything will be allowed. There’ll still be the classicist, there’ll be the experimentalist, the this, and the that. And, they’ll begin to sort themselves out according to mutual interest - and support each other, rather than wage this senseless battle for superiority.