by design

A case for the generalist

In Communication Design we often discuss whether we’re doing the right thing in education our students to be “generalists” rather than in some very targeted specialization the way some art philosophies dictate. But, I think I’ve got it resolved in my mind now…we’re doing the right thing. This era of specialization that the world is in often means people have blinders on: they’ve learned to do one thing and one thing only. While they may do this one thing well, they’re not broadly educated.

The industrial history of the United States abounds with stories where the brakeman ascends to become the president of the railroad or the linotype operator goes on to become the managing editor. These people could think in addition to doing their early skill; when the opportunity arose to advance, they were able to take advantage of it. They weren’t so locked in to their original skill that they couldn’t see beyond today. With the current trends toward extreme specialization, are those examples relegated to the past?

I think not, as long as there are schools that believe in a broad educational background with a significant amount of general education credits so that one is not just trained in an area but instead broadly educated.

What if the exact job description you hoped to get isn’t available to you upon graduation? Without your abilities to think, to adapt, to change your plans, you’d be lost. The illustrator who finds that she must do design work in addition to the illustration jobs; the designer who finds that it’s really advertising that can best use his talents; the art ed graduate who finds a rare business opportunity in buying a boutique; the B.F.A. General student who finds his real challenge is in college teaching. This cross-discipline thinking is to be commended and is quite impossible had specialization set in and done its job too effectively to constrict lateral thought and movement. We’re doing the right thing. Specialize later if you wish, but being a generalist in college will be an asset for your future.

-John K. Landis

Print Peppermint

I have been teaching at KU for more than 17 years. One class that i have consistently taught has been Print Media Production. Anyone that has taken that class with me can attest to my LOVE of paper, ink and all things printed. I could spend hours geeking out over paper, fawning over different print processes and fan-girling over printed special effects.

When I worked full time as an Art Director, my favorite part of the job was going on a press check. The point in the project when the final design is complete, approved by the client and the next step is to copy it thousands or even millions of times for the world to see. The smell of fresh ink, the rhythmic sound of the offset press, the cool mist in the air to keep the paper at the perfect humidity and the repetitive output of the design that you created as it piles up at the end of the press is an intoxicating experience.

I think the real reason I love to teach PMP is it give me a reason to hoard paper samples, printed promotions and beautiful examples of printed materials. The only thing better than collecting paper goodness is sharing paper goodness. Exciting and inspiring students by sitting around a table passing dozens of paper treasures, while explaining the intricacies of texture and the magic of special effects such as metallic ink and spot varnish is a hallmark of my course. I think the magic happens when the students can touch and feel the paper and examine the processes up close.

In the world of COVID, I was struck with a dilemma on how to teach this class online in a way that would continue to foster the love of paper an ink. Without the hands-on component, the information may be boring or at best a bit cold and detached. I began to reach out to paper companies and printers and asked them to send samples to support student learning and engagement. I was overjoyed when boxes of paper swatch books and printed samples started to arrive at my home.

While searching the web for printers that would be willing to send samples. I came across Print Peppermint, a fun online print service with quirky illustrations as part of their brand. I sent an email with the request and quickly got a response from the founder Austin Terrill. Austin offered not only to send a multitude of printed samples but also provided a link to their online videos and offered to be a guest lecturer for the class.

I was super excited that the printing gods heard my call and led my web browser to Print Peppermint. Austin hooked me up with a teacher sample pack and provided almost 200 samples for me to share with students in the class. When the samples arrived at my house, I was almost giddy reviewing the high-quality assortment of paper treasure. The samples included various paper stocks, finishes, effects and printing techniques. They ranged from professional and polished to fun and funky. I could not wait to get the samples in the hands of the students.

Very happy to report that with the help of Print Peppermint and other vendors, I was able to provide individual packs of print media morsels to each and every student enrolled in my class for the “rona” semester. Although the zoom classes are not ideal, the students still got to experience the tactile qualities of premium paper and dazzling special effects. They discovered the beauty of a rosette pattern under a printer’s loupe and transformed a sheet of paper into a 16-page booklet with only a couple of folds. Whether we are face to face in a classroom or socially distant because of a global pandemic, I hope that my love of ink and paper offsets to my students and gives them new appreciation for the beautiful world of print.

Looking for a truly great print partner who loves ink and paper as much as I do? check out

-By Vicki Meloney


Communication Design Senior Poster Workshop

On view in the Sharadin Art Building Atrium
October 26–November 8, 2020
Open to the public

Where’s the “At ease!” command?

In my first years of college, I took ROTC, in those days mandatory for male students at Land Grant institutions. I recall the marching drills and inspections we had every Tuesday at noon on the parade field. There was tension in the air as we walked, lockstep, within perfectly aligned ranks. And then we presented for inspection or rifles, old M-1’s from the Second World War. In addition, pants had to be pressed, shoes shined, and collar brass gleaming in the noonday sun.

But then, when all this pageantry was nearly over, our company commander would shout, “At ease!” What a relief…we could relax a bit, standing without the stiff tension of marching or being inspected.

Before I came into teaching, the design office for which I worked billed at different hourly rates depending upon the function’s degree of mental or emotional tension…a higher dollar figure for client contact, creative thinking, copywriting, and design, and a lower figure for doing comps and mechanicals. After wracking my brain to come up with an idea and a tense meeting to sell the client, I used to enjoy the relatively relaxing work of a traditional mechanical. But, with today’s Macintosh-based work, there’s a merging of various design and production duties and less distinction between “Attention” and “At ease.”

I will admit, though, when compared to the front lines of client contact or intense creative thinking’s earshot range of constant enemy fire, sitting at the Mac, while not exactly rest and relaxation, lets me lean back and see how the war is going, and provides chances to undo bad battlefield decisions I may’ve made.

-John K. Landis

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of…


I’ve mused how the lowly pencil can be revealing of what kind of quality its user produces. If the pencil gets sharpened shorter and shorter while the eraser stays long and square, it means the user doesn’t have many mistakes to correct. While, of course, a pencil that’s still too long, yet has its eraser worn down to nothing would imply very little is produced before it must be corrected by erasing!

I’ve often told my Communication Design seniors, about to embark upon their professional careers, that there’ll not always be immediate supervisors who’ll control their accuracy and quality: they’ll be their own quality control. Add the pressure many jobs have to work quickly, and you often have a climate that bends toward compromising the accuracy and quality in order to get the job done fast. And, think about the education profession where there’s much autonomy and the product is only as good as the chooses to make it each year.

The Japanese, who learned U.S. lessons about quality control after the Second World War, find that workers favorably identifying with the product they produce can help immeasurably to create an accurate and quality item with zero defects. We in art professions should have little difficulty identifying with our products!

Ah, speed and accuracy. Good goals to attain whether you’re on the pit crew at Indy or in the bullpen in Philly. Strive to have your pencils get short while their erasers stay long.

The Old School Tie

Rich Tu speaks to KUCD students

Rich Tu is a first generation Filipino-American and award-winning artist residing in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Vice President of Digital Design for MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo at ViacomCBS. On Thursday October 15th, he spoke to Kutztown students about his work and the creative industry. Rich reminded us all “don’t forget the stuff that you love” while sharing his sneaker collection, basketball knowledge, and long-time love for music and pop culture. He lets his personal work get rebuilt and recycled into professional projects and works on what he loves. Rich was incredibly generous with his time and allowed students to ask questions about his creative process and work with clients in the industry. Overall, it was a great night filled with genuine kindness and endless passion for art and design.

Watch the recording:

High tech, high touch?

A real transition is in the making for me. This is the first issue of By Design ever created on a Macintosh. Letting go of the traditional ways is not easy, so I’ve created only the body copy on the Mac. I know PageMaker the best; and I’m not sufficiently satisfied with my abilities to control kerning on the screen, so I’ve still reverted back to setting heads in Stymie Bold on our Varityper Comp/Set 3510.

In starting my current Production Processes class on a desktop publishing assignment after ten full weeks of traditional mechanicals with T-square, triangle, and X-acto, I asked them to philosophically discuss several statements about computers and art. One statement said “It is important to learn to design (and do production) by traditional means first, before you work on computers.”

Everyone agreed.

Now, a few philosophical questions for you…Psychologists tells us that the more we get high tech, the more we need high touch. Should students set “foundry type” (simulating the way metal type used to set up) the cut it up by X-acto to kern and improve letterfit before they manipulate it electronically on a computer screen? I think the answer is “yes.” I adopted this assignment, developed by David Bullock, for the first time last fall in my own Typography class. Can the beginning student in the graphic arts “get the feel” of type without ever touching individual letters…like indicating them on a rough or tight comp? Perhaps not. Can you proofread copy on the screen as easily as printing out and reading a hard copy? I know I cannot. Will my production classes always do some assignments by T-square and triangle before moving to electronic means? Yes, most likely.

The more I feel comfortable with this additive new medium, the more I will convert some aspects of my own design work to it. But, I’m still going to do some work by traditional means both now and (probably…) in the future. I like touching artwork; and I’ll always make sure my students have the opportunity to do it, too.

-John K. Landis

Work In Progress

Art Educators listen to guest speakers as part of Dr. Julia Hovanec’s course; Extending Literacy: Visual Thinking & Learning in Art & Beyond Workshop at Sharadin Art Building, July 18, 2019.

A few months ago, I had a particularly bad case of twenty-four-hour virus…you know, the kind during which you feel so vile you can’t understand why you don’t just die. In my dark mood I visualized my death, a small headline in a local paper “K. U. prof dies suddenly,” but I especially reflected upon everything that would be left undone if I really did die…

The lunch dishes weren’t washed. They lay strewn about the kitchen, too far from the sink full of soapy water to keep food from hardening on plate and pot and making it doubly difficult for my survivor to clean. There was a manuscript for a magazine article in my typewriter; the power was on and the carriage was even set at an indent tab, waiting for the beginning of my next paragraph which would never come. I was on sabbatical and taking nine graduate credits. Three professors would wonder what happened to me—I’d be a phantom to them, like I call some of my undergraduate students when they just disappear from class. A blister-pack cassette able for my specialty audio producer client in Washington would be deserted midway through production. My wife, nineteen-year-old daughter, and thirteen-year-old son would have to divide up chores of collecting trash, bringing in mail, and replacing a dead smoke detector battery. The family dog would not even have his late afternoon ball throw that he lives for each day. My life was a series of works, however humble, in the process of progressing towards goals.

I’ve been particularly conscious of the process of art as opposed to the finished product. When I returned from sabbatical, I began teaching a course in Visual Thinking, during which finished products are minimal or nil, but the successful process of how to think is the goal.

Life is a continuing process: a trying, doing, striving, failing, succeeding. As sorry as I felt for Olympics participants who traveled all that distance to end up in 32nd place, having made the Olympic team should’ve been enough (yes, I know, try telling the 4th place finisher that!). But perhaps more important was just the fact that they participated in the sport of Alpine skiing or luge or boxing or swimming.

Once in a while, back off from believing you are judged by your achievements. The very word implies a conclusion, a finality. Enjoy the process along the way. The greed of today often suggests we should achieve the goal by any means possible; but remember the legendary advice that it’s far better to compete, getting dusty and bloodied in the arena, and lose the contest, than to sit in the stands and watch.

I guess it’s evident that I recovered. There was no obit, the article got typed, I finished my courses and even the dishes. But I decided when I do go through the pearly gates, it’s going to be at speed. I want to be make blurred action on the negative so that you’d have to set your camera at a high shutter speed to stop me. I want to be fully involved in the process of whatever I’m doing, and that’ll make my life a successful product.

-John K. Landis

It Just Wouldn’t Work, No Matter What He Did.

The high tech laser printer wouldn’t put any image whatsoever on the left end of a #10 envelope, even though the second semester senior ran it through time and again.

Everything on the screen showed all systems normal…positioning was well within live area, the envelope was fed into the right tray properly and a new bottle of toner awaited whatever images would be demanded.

So, he came to me, first asking if I knew what was wrong (no, I didn’t even know laser printers could print on converted envelopes without jamming), and if I knew of any other place that could print his self-promo logo on the end of an envelope, one for this Wednesday’s class an about 49 others for use in resume mailings for a job search.

Several calls to trusted service bureaus produced nothing. Screen process printing was a considered option (he had Serigraphy this semester), but we both knew nine point type would plug the screen after just three or four prints. Photocopying on a piece similar colored paper to be pieced on seemed…well, pieced on.

And, he just wouldn’t go away. It was as if he sensed I had some solution I hadn’t yet given him. It was one of those times I just wished I could hear the successful bottom line to the problem in a few weeks when I’d be looking at a handsome comp and hearing how he had resolved it on his own and learned a tremendous amount in doing so.

Finally, a light came on in my brain when he said he needed that small production run in addition to the supercomp. Letterpress—the oldest form of printing, whereby a raised, backward-reading plate can print on a smooth surface—sounded like a solution. I sent him to an Allentown printer who still ran letterpress jobs on an ancient platen press. Custom photoengraving, a zinc plate mounted type-high on a block of pine, could lay its image on the envelopes, one for supercomp needed in class, and 49 others to invest in job-getting. And, letterpress would make a reasonably low unit cost for the very small printing run.

The moral of the story…? Sometimes you need to know when to pick up a pencil or an X-Acto knife instead of a mouse. And, as a late 20th Century visual problem solver, you sometimes need to step back 100 years instead of the usual and expected forward.

-John K. Landis

Virus causes festering creativity

By Ann Lemon

As my graduate school professors constantly reminded us, designers are “artists, first.” Our intuitive response to life is to observe it, imagine it, and record it visually.

Around the world artists, musicians, writers, illustrators and designers are responding to and documenting the Covid-19 pandemic. These artifacts are accumulating as a collective journal and will become part of our American (global) historical record.

I wanted to give our students in Historical Survey of Graphic Design (B) a chance to process and express their thoughts, opinions and emotions about the crisis we are all living through.

For their final assignment I asked students to collect facts from credible, scientific sources such as the C.D.C. and W.H.O., and identify a favorite specific piece of design discussed in the course. They then replicated their chosen artist’s style to create a poster that deals with some aspect of the pandemic.

The practice of trying to dissect and match a designer’s style (I call it “match the hatch” – as in fly fishing) gets students to discern small differences in typography, color, and other design elements, and discover the principles used by their predecessors. Dissecting and then replicating the elements of another designer’s work expands our design vocabulary.

I believe that if a student REALLY understands and identifies with the work of just one or two artists they hadn’t heard of before this class – really deeply integrates them into their consciousness – the course is a success.

A designer friend says she will never forget the exact place she was sitting in a classroom when she first saw the work of William Morris. I still remember the student project I did as an undergraduate, about Alexey Brodovitch. To this day, when I come across his work, or a reference to it in a contemporary piece, I feel like he is “my” guy.

The resulting posters delighted and amazed me. I honestly did not expect this level of ingenuity and creativity. Some of them are funny, some are deeply insightful, others convey important facts in surprising ways.

I hope that by “standing on the shoulders” of these design giants, these students will never forget the spring of 2020, or the artist they learned about in the middle of the strangest semester in history.

See if you can identify their references!