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Before Design: Iowa

An Excerpt from “Pencil to Mouse, Forty Years of Graphic Design” by Kerry Grady

Muscatine Iowa (Left) , Young Kerry Grady (Right)

To know where I grew up you would not be inclined to think that my destiny was to become a graphic designer. Muscatine, Iowa, a charming place that rests on the banks of the Mississippi River, wholesome and friendly, not sophisticated, is my hometown. It’s the place of self-made millionaires, the former President of the World Bank, the home of America’s second oldest hamburger franchise, and the former pearl button and muskmelon capital of the world. Muscatine is where small town life is idealized in Norman Rockwell portraits of ballpark patriotism, barbershop wisdom and a flag-draped main street where there is little interest in world affairs or the arts, foreign films or fine cuisine, or stepping out beyond one’s comfort zone – a world far away from the Windy City. Not that there is anything wrong with a simple lifestyle, if that is what one chooses, but for me, I was prone to push the boundaries and step into the unknown.

In Muscatine, Iowa, I received a lot of attention because I could do artistic things, which led me to believe that a creative career was a possibility and something that I should look into. To my recollection, no one thought that my life’s path would lead to design. My family and friends predicted that I would be a famous artist because I could draw better than most, or that I would become an advertising executive because of what they learned from watching vintage TV sitcoms.

The way I found the way to design was accidental. By nature, I’m curious. I’m an experiential learner, meaning I absorb what I hear, taste, feel and most of all, see. Having a good sense of self, but not knowing exactly which way to go, I looked past the notion of being a fine artist because I lack the discipline to focus on one thing, and I was convinced that becoming an art teacher wouldn’t be challenging. To be truthful, I eliminated those options because I wanted to make money. For a few years, I considered becoming an editorial cartoonist. I’ve always enjoyed a good comic and the idea of blending a political topic with humor and illustration to influence opinion aligned with both sides of my brain. In fact, I was the editorial cartoonist for the University of Illinois newspaper for four years, which was fun and challenging, and it helped pay the bills.

During my high school years, my mother worked for a furniture manufacturer. She mentioned that there was a product designer there named John Quirk, who was interested in my career choice. John offered to meet with me to have a conversation and provide some guidance. So, we met and I shared with him the things that I like to do and the things that I did not feel compelled to do professionally. John suggested that I pursue graphic design and consider his alma mater, The University of Illinois. I took his advice and I drove to the university to learn more about its graphic design program. That same day, I made the decision to take a chance. It was a gut-decision that took me into unchartered waters, and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

A few months later, there I was in Champaign, Illinois, on my own without a familiar shoulder to lean on. Like every other student, I took my list of textbooks to the local bookstore to stock-up on what was required reading for the first semester. On my list was Emil Ruder’s “Typographie: A Manual for Design.” I had never seen anything like it – square proportions, black and white, beautifully designed. I sat on the floor of the bookstore leafing through the pages, and before long I was hooked. That book changed everything for me. I still have it today.

At the beginning of my career, I was fortunate to have met the designers that I admired most – Armin Hoffman, Joseph Müller Brockman, Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff, and John Massey. What stays with me, is that while each designer was accomplished and unique, they were inherently interesting at a basic human level – smart, curious, funny, and authentic. I’m convinced that they would have been just as successful and happy in life if they had chosen to be a teacher, plumber, shoemaker, doctor, or musician.

While these iconic designers came from different backgrounds, they shared a degree of modesty and common sense that was familiar to the Iowa-side of me. Iowans are not impressed with “showy” people. Design is not understood by, or essential to most Iowans that I know. Not to say that it isn’t appreciated when presented in the right way. You see, growing up in a small town teaches you that no one person is better than another. Small town people care about mutual respect, hard work and personal responsibility.

When I visit family, I’m quite aware that my standard black turtleneck, designer jeans and German sports car is a distraction from the day-to-day, simple, democratic culture of my childhood. And I must say that when I’m there, it’s good to be home. The trouble is, that once you understand that good design elevates the quality of life, you can’t go back to a small town mentality.

When I’m designing, I strive to bridge the sophistication of an urban aesthetic with small town simplicity. I think that is what good design is all about. Simplicity is difficult to accomplish. However, design that is perfectly simple, free from extraneous details, is beautiful.

To get a full copy of “Pencil to Mouse, Forty Years of Graphic Design” by Kerry Grady, follow the link

Thumbnail image used is “Stone City, Iowa” by Grant Wood. Painting, 1930, 76.8×101.6 cm
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