My Road to Creativity, 16: Assistant Professor, Tenure:

Over the course of the last four years, my meditation practice was lost. I hadn’t picked up a book other than design books and periodicals since I started grad school. Thus, my anxiety level was at an all time high. And now I was facing tenure and promotion. I liked being at ISU. I was close to my two kids. My wife’s work and friends were there. What if I was refused. I didn’t want to thing about it. I was a nervous wreck.

With the help from the Department Chairperson and my mentor, I put together my documents for promotion and tenure which turned out to be  a very large document . . . about two ionches thick. It surprised and amazed me how much I had already done my short career as a professor. I was quite impressed. I hoped the tenure committees would be. 

There were two ways to be recognized enough to receive promotion and tenure, one was research, in the design teaching profession, that would consist of a large body of creative work that would be locally and nationally recognized, all that and service such as committee work. My design work was not that extensive. While I had done some free lance work as well as my silk screening, some of which I had entered into juried shows of which I had several pieces that received local awards and one that received a national award, but that was not enough to show that I was a hot shot innovative designer.

Teaching was by far my strongest suit. My student reviews were by now were very good. I had restructured syllabi for several courses and had developed three new ones: Advanced Typography, Environmental Graphics, and Publication Design, the later which was done in conjuction with the Meredith Corporation in Des Moines. I had served on both the Department on Art and Design Curriculum Committee as well as the College Curriculum Committee.  

Along with all this, I had begun to teach Honors Seminars through the University Honors Program that met once a week for an hour, and which offered nice stipends. The topic of the seminar could be on any topic the professor wanted to offer and with approval from the Honors Committee.

The stipend helped subsidize my screen printing and later on, my first computer, a Macintosh with a graphics interface, a small built in screen, and a mouse. It had a small black and white monitor and very little memory and all file storage was on floppy disks. The operating system was even on a floppy that had to be inserted and loaded each and every time I booted it up. But, it was the first computer that one was able to create images with a mouse. It was primitive and crude by today’s standards, but was innovative at the time. The output was by means of a dot matrix printer that rendered the output with ragged choppy edges. The text was the same, very ragged. One designer even created a new typeface called “Dot Matrix”, as I recall.

Screen printing inks were toxic, both to handle and to breath, so I did some research into using water based inks. They didn’t work quite in the same manner and I wrote a paper on the differences and how I was able to adjust. The problem was at that time, there were no publications or outlets to share what I was finding.

One of my major coups was I was able to leverage my having met Wolfgang Weingart into getting him as a guest lecturer at the University for three days in 1984. 

I had served on two graduate committees. I had mentored several students that had received national awards. 

As it turned out, my portfolio of teaching and service got me promotion to associate professor with tenure in 1991. 

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.