My Road to Creativity, 15: Assistant Professor, Tenure Track:

After the four weeks of being in Europe at the design workshop and in Basel, I was energized to get back to teaching. I had three studios: beginning sophomore level and junior level symbology, possibly sophomore typography . . . it’s hard to remember. At that time we had three or four sections of required studio offerings each semester. All studio classes were in sequence so if a student missed one, he or she would have to wait a year to take it. It wasn’t a perfect system but it was the best we could do with so many sections and limited faculty. 

That fall, the person I was filling in for resigned and the position was needed to be filled permanently. I was urged to apply for it and I did as well as other positions at other schools. I was invited to interview at two other schools as well as Iowa State. I had an offer from Texas Christian and was offered the position at ISU. I elected for Iowa State and was hired as a tenure track Assistant Professor. Somehow, that validated some of what I had given up when I started this adventure three years ago.

Those first years, I had some very good students and some that were not so good. Being so new to teaching, I found it difficult to grade the projects. I tried giving detailed analyses for the grade I arrived at but that wasn’t good enough. It all seemed sort of ambiguous. I constantly had to defend my decisions and received many less that stellar teacher reviews. 

There were no guidebooks or any textbooks on graphic design at that time so I found that I had to make it up as we went along. I worked at creating a syllabus for each studio to give more detail on what was expected and how each project would be graded, designing a matrix that should be self explanatory. And it worked to the degree that the students seemed to be more accepting of  the poor grades that some received, plus it helped considerably that I didn’t have to write out such detailed reports. My student reviews improved.

I also found that so many of the students struggled with what I experienced in suffering from a lack of creativity. I was asked time and time again, “What did I want?” for a given project. My answer was, “Good design.” One thing occurred to me was that the K through twelve years of education did nothing to enhance if not just squelch any creative juices these kids might have once had. I had no idea how to enhance that lost creativity.

The way I learned design was with projects that were simply projects without any major focus other than that they were projects to be completed.  I began to research the elements and principles of design more in depth and started creating projects that would focus on maybe one or two aspects of these elements and principles. The students seemed to understand more clearly what was expected and what they were actually learning. My reviews improved.

During the summers, I continued attending design workshops offered through Kent State at their campus in Kent, Ohio. These workshops were three weeks long and were taught by well known professionals from both the United States and Europe. The workshops were accredited and I was woking towards earning a Master of Fine Arts which was the terminal degree for the studio arts which I would most likely need to continue teaching at a college or university. 

I gained a great deal from these workshops, but the one that really blew me away was the last one I went to in 1987 with Bruno Monguzzi. He was one of the instructors in Rapperswil and I was excited to have him again. He was a designer and teacher in Lugano, Switzerland, the Italian speaking region. He talked about the psychology of visual perception, something that opened an entirely new dimension to my understanding of design. I hung on everything he said or the work he showed. Somehow, everything I had worked on and learned these last years began to jell together and I was finally beginning to understand design: proportion, contrast, information hierarchy, tension, to name a few.

Monguzzi was educated as a designer in the Swiss tradition as I was. One thing I learned as gospel was to only ever use one typeface in a design, preferably a san-serif face such as Helvetica. Monguzzi had no problem mixing serif and san-serif faces and his work he shared with us opened another new world of  possibilities for me.

I thought Monguzzi was brilliant. Then it occurred to me that he was a teacher. While all the other designers who taught at the workshop were outstanding designers, they weren’t teachers. I saw there was a definite difference. I even went so far as to ask him if I could come to Lugano for a semester to work with him. He was flattered, but said that he taught in the Italian language and did I understand or know Italian? I admitted I didn’t and the learning curve for Italian was more that I wanted right then. So I settled for what I gleaned from him in the three weeks.

As the final project for this session, after I returned home, I designed and printed a poster for this workshop. It received several awards. It is still one of my best works.

All this transpired over several years as I grew as a teacher. In the meantime, I had remarried and had settled into my life. But my three years as associate professor were coming to an end and I  was due to go up for tenure. 

My Road to Creativity, 14: Basel, Switzerland:

Basel is a historical industrial town that spanned both sides of the Rhine River on the northwest corner of the country with Germany to the northeast and France to the east. 

My friend met me at the train and we took a street trolley back to her place. I marveled at the city, similar to but different from the small town of Rapperswil and the frantic banking, fashion conscious Zurich. The city carried the wonderful old European architectural styles, but its industrial roots were obvious as it appeared, as a whole, more down to earth. 

She lived in small apartment in an older working neighborhood. I found out the next day that hardly anyone one there spoke english after she went to her classes and I was in my own and went into a small shop to get some meat and cheese for lunch. 

“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” I asked and received a shake of the head from the young woman behind the counter, who held up a finger and left for a moment returning with what was likely her mother and a younger brother.

“American?” the older woman asked with a big eyed smile. I nodded and smiled back. Apparently Americans did not frequent this part of Basel. With everyone watching and using advanced charades, I made my order and paid not having a clue if I got the right change back. I smiled and said “Danke Shoen, backed towards the door with an “Auf Wiedersehen.” and left.

My friend, being occupied in studio all day, I roamed the streets of old Basel, had coffee on a patio watching people passing by, ending up at an art museum whose collection spanned medieval art up to cubism and modern art. I spent most of the afternoon there looking at and being impressed by all the art. Outside the museum was a dynamic sculpture garden with whimsical little devices that whirled and twirled and shot water into the air and at each other. Later, I met my friend for dinner and called it a day.

The next day I got  tour of the Basel Kunstgewerbeschule, a stark concrete edifice lacking very much warmth, but was vibrant with the student work I saw. She showed me of some of the projects she was working on, one of which was to create one hundred different images or symbols of a singular object. When she showed me her sketchbook, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I thought about giving that project to a group of sophomores at ISU and figured I’d be laughed at for being so audacious. But they did it here.  

That night we were invited to dinner at Wolfgang Weingart’s apartment. It was like I was going to meet the most amazing impressive designer of the time. He was innovative and was pushing the limits of Swiss graphic design.  He was both emulated and criticized in the many articles written about him and his work. But, non the less, I was getting to meet a legend.

His small apartment was nondescript unlike the several designer houses I had been in when in Rapperswil. He was gracious and low key, happy to meet a design professor from America. His girl friend was American, also studying design at the school. We shared wine and food and some talk of design. He shared his philosophy of design and his appreciation of the historic Swiss Style, but thought it needed to be challenged and given a newer more modern approach. His education was in the traditional Swiss Style that dominated the present universal standards of visual communication, but he felt that it was time to push those strict parameters and he was doing that through his personal design and in his teaching.

 The evening was over early, we thanked them for their graciousness, bid our good-byes and left. I felt like I had met a rock star.

The next day I left for Luxembourg for a night and left the following day for home. I had a lot to think about.

My Road to Creativity, 13: Rapperswil, Switzerland:

I left from Cedar Rapids, to Chicago, then overnight on Icelandic Air to Luxembourg. After a nice airline dinner and a cognac, It was a long night of intermittent uncomfortable sleep and I arrived the next morning in a jet lagged sleepy haze. I hadn’t yet discovered sleep aids. 

The guy that I sat next to had rented a car and offered me a ride into the city. I found my hostel, a small room with a sink, a communal bathroom down the hall, and the communal shower in the basement. 

I spent two days in Luxembourg walking around and exploring. Some folks spoke English, but most spoke only French or German. The architecture was completely different from what I was used to, much of it was built maybe centuries ago. There were posters everywhere. For me, it was a visual dream.

The two nights I was there, I noticed a mint green motorcycle with a rider in matching leathers cruising the streets as I walked around the downtown. When I returned, the green clad rider was still going. It was interesting.

I took the train through northern France to Zurich, then a commuter train to the town of Rapperswil, located on the northern shore of Lake Zurich, a fairytale Swiss town of centuries old buildings. My hotel was built in the sixteen hundreds, all updated with modern, functional rooms with austere basic furnishings. 

There was an old schloss (castle) on the top of the hill about two city blocks from my hotel with a clock tower and an ancient bell the sounded out on every hour, ten bells at ten o’clock, eleven bells at eleven o’clock, twelve bells at twelve o’clock and so on all day and all night long. I wasn’t sleeping all that well to begin with and with the bells all night long, getting sleep was almost impossible.

I found most of the shop owners spoke english except for the Italian pizza place at the end of the street by the castle where I had to use charades to order their delicious pizza. Most lunches were bought in the butcher shop and the cheese shop with delicious fresh bread from the bakery often eaten in the park with some of the other students.

The three weeks of the workshop were amazing with the three well known designers and, sadly, the only two names I can remember were Fritz Gottschalk and Reudi Ruegg , both Swiss. The other was English.

Of course there were projects. It was interesting working without all the goodies I was used to, there were no t-squares, triangles, exacto knives, copy machines, dummy type. All I had were a drawing pad, pen, pencil and a triangle I found at the stationary shop.

For one project, I deconstructed the castle. I had my camera and did a series of black and white shots which were developed at the stationary shop. I discovered that, for the most part, the castle was all based on the golden mean, the Fibonacci sequence. It was well received from the instructors. I was starting to understand how to see things more clearly as design shapes. However, I couldn’t get my head around what to do with this discovery.

It was fun just to sit around and listen to these guys talk about their design philosophies and their individual approach to visual communication and design. All us parochial Americans were fascinated by the fact that there were four different languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (a variation of ancient Latin spoken in the eastern part of the country). If a publication was to be nationwide, it was required that it be in all four languages presenting issues none of us had ever thought of.

We visited Fritz Gottschalk’s house for drinks and snacks one afternoon. The architecture was modern with concrete walls and copious glass looking out into gardens and courtyards. The inside was stark with modern abstract art and a state of the art kitchen. The stereo was all top of the line. There was nothing in that house like furnishings or appliances that did not reflect the overall design concept that Gottschalk had his house. As hard edged as it was, it felt warm, inviting and comfortable, like everything was particulary placed and organized to add to the ambience. Nothing more, nothing less than what made it all that it was.

We visited various places through the area. I particularly loved the Klee Museum in Bern. Then there was the poster museum in Zurich, a short train ride from Rapperswil. Then there was the old architecture everywhere we went. The cities were wonderful Thee were underground jazz clubs, great food, and small shops of every conceivable thing you might need or want. There were no major food markets or malls. Switzerland was immaculately clean and tidy. Some locals we visited with explained that there were a lot of people in a small country so everyone took care to respect themselves, their property, their community and everyone else. If someone was out of line, they would be asked to shape up by the community at large. It was an interesting concept we could all learn from.

One weekend four of us rented a car and did a road trip to Innsbruck Austria, discovering the no-speed-limit autobahns. An interesting note, upon leaving Switzerland, things became less tidy. There were junk yards, the highways were lined with tall grasses and weeds, a big departure from the orderliness of the Swiss.

The workshop was over and the three weeks that had sped by were inspirational and added a lot to my design vocabulary, but, when all was said and done, it did not give me any new creative edge but only further frustration in, that what I saw, I couldn’t seem to emulate with my own work. I still had not found the elusive formula for creating great design. I kept on finding out how hard it was to move from my left brain thinking of predictable and methodical building construction to right brain creativity.

But biggest thing that remained with me more than anything was that these three designers lived design, their life was design, everything around them was design. They were creative geniuses in my book. Two dimensional, three dimensional exhibit, and even stage set design all intermingled with the symbolism and the amazing typographic design, all of which both energized and frightened me. I wanted to be like these guys. But, as energized as I was, I left the workshop frustrated.

The next day I took the train to Basil to see my friend. She met me at the station and went to her tiny apartment where I crashed on the couch and slept without that damned castle bell chiming every hour day and night. 

My Road to Creativity, 12: Assistant Professor:

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little un-nerving to step into a design studio with twenty dubious students. I was given a syllabus for each of the three studios I was teaching and dove in. My major professor had become a friend and mentor and, thankfully, was there to guide me in that first while.

As a teacher, I was expected to do research or some sort of design work of my own choosing. There was little chance for any free lance work in Ames  so I began to design and silk screen posters for different events in the Design College. It gave me a chance to initiate and do my own design. I had learned to silk screen in grad school and liked the process. However, I still stumbled with creating anything grteat and some were better than others. Whatever, it kept me actively exploring and designing. I was not what I considered to be a great image maker so my posters tended to be more typographic with bold abstract shapes moreso than any actual recognizable images.

After a year of teaching basic design, typography, and symbology studios, I finished out the year although my student evaluations left something to be desired. The students challenged me as a newbie. I had dealt with much tougher clients and sub-contractors in my construction days and wasn’t cowed, but I was scared to death, hoping it didn’t show. It did and the students smelled blood. I struggled on and I believe, in spite of everything, I imparted good design information and skills whether they knew it or not.

Having only a one year contract, I had put together a teaching vitae and was ready to send it out for teaching positions at other schoolslate that winter but I was offered another year at Iowa State and accepted. 

Earlier that spring, my mentor suggested that I consider doing a three week design workshop in Switzerland that was offered through Kent State University to further my education and add to my resume. I got the information on the workshop and with the money I had saved that year of teaching and penny pinching, I could manage to afford the trip and workshop tuition. I decided to go. The University travel agent set me up with all my flights and other travel arrangements. I got my passport. I had only flown four times before when I was in the Navy and never international. But my excitement overcame any nervousness.

I contacted my friend who was in Basil and would meet her after the three week workshop in Rapperswil, just west of Zurich on the shores of Lake Zurich. I left for four weeks in Switzerland in mid-June. 

My Road to Creativity, 9: Graduate School

There were only three of us in the master’s program so our studio classes consisted of  independent study assignments which required me to do research into both present day and historical design styles, most which were based on the Swiss Design, a rigid but elegant system dating back from pre-world war two. 

After the first world war, Europe changed, cultural norms and politics were shattered from previous centuries of monarchial rule to democratic societies. New art forms emerged challenging the rigid rules of the elite, new poetry and prose from new writers emerged, all changing forever how one would see and understand the world. Russian designers like el Lizzitsky and Rodchenko, influenced by the Marxists created a new hard edged design dynamic.

The Swiss in their neutral, structured society, took all this and formulated it into what was known as Swiss Design which was hard edge, moving away from the more artistic posters such as Frenchman, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

I found all this exciting and absorbed anything I could find on this time period, all of which was limited at that time. There was no internet or scholarly tomes on history of graphic design. What information existed took digging through what journals and books I could find in the library. I loved the research but when it came to doing actual design, I clutched. It grabbed me in the chest like a huge clamp to where I could hardly breath. 

The pressure was too much for me. I worked day and night sketching ideas I found sad and banal. Eventually, suffering through creative agony, I would shamefully show and discuss my work with my major professor who encouraged me and directed me towards solutions that turned out to be rather good. I started to grow and gain some confidence.

On the other hand, my two other graduate school colleagues seemed to come up with great solutions with ease. I felt intimidated but forged ahead, feeding off of them and all my research.

Spring quarter came to an end and I presented my work with the others. I felt like a failure compared to what they had done, but I received good grades and moved on. I continued my studies through the summer doing more independent studies and attending a design conference in Chicago, hoping some great enlightenment might rub off on me. 

I bought new Nikon FM camera and began photographing everything I could find that I saw as good design. I hung those photos in my workspace, trying to understand what it was that I saw in them as good design. I waded through what periodicals I could find. While I started to see and understand good design, when it came to doing it, I still froze and creating my own design solutions was like pulling teeth.

In construction work, I knew how to put a building together. There was a logical method to all the aspects of understanding the foundation, the structure, scheduling, and so on. It was formulaic in many ways. I was looking for a formula for design and there was none. There were basic principles and understanding, but there was no cut and dried formula. It took creativity in thinking and in action. I was struggling now as I did as an undergraduate.

Running and meditation had become spotty and after a while, totally disappeared from my schedule. All I did was immerse myself in work, work, and more work. I rarely got home to see my family. There was singular goal for me, become a designer, a good designer. However with everything else slipping away, I still managed to still keep up with writing in my journal. But I had read nary a novel or anything. nothing other than design tomes, 

Fall quarter came and I was given a teaching assistantship along with a shared office in the Design Center which held the departments of Architecture, Landscape Design, Urban Design, and Art and Design which was the umbrella for Graphic Design, Art and Crafts, and Interior Design. Along with an office, I would receive a small monthly stipend. 

The stipend was a blessing as my savings were being eaten away. The last few years in my construction job had been bountiful in terms of earning money, I earned a lot of money. My wife was still working and I was living a meager existence, but still, outgo was greater than income and any money I could earn was a blessing.

The young woman in the program and I were tapped to develop and teach a foundations course for freshmen. She was a brilliant artist while I had had the basic understanding of the gritty foundations and together we created what we thought was a good syllabus for the quarter. It was a great experience. We each had a section of twenty students. We sat in on each other’s studios and shared our thoughts and ideas. We had a successful quarter. I found that I loved teaching and the experience fueled my design juices. 

I was loving academia. The University was a giant bastion of knowledge, engineering, agriculture, science, and, of course, design. It was like I was absorbing knowledge by osmosis, just by being here. There was a dynamic energy I felt deep down in my very being.

But now with a teaching schedule taking up a goodly part of my time, I had to work even longer hours. I never made it home anymore. It was hard, but I was more determined than ever to succeed.

But by the end of fall quarter, I was run down exhausted, and a mess after spending so many nights trying to get all my work finished. I hadn’t had a decent nights sleep in forever. I got a bad cold and cough, but I completed my work and went to bed for a week. Not very welcome at home anymore, I was alone and miserable.