5 Design Legends That Switched Gears in the Middle of Their Careers

Conventional wisdom is that the design world doesn’t generally reward dabblers. We often hear romanticized versions of career paths that depend on years and years of perfecting a specific craft. 

Of course, mastery is found by deliberately practicing and improving. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have license to switch gears when needed.

Reality is messy and our lives often wander a bit as we explore our path, and the greats were no exception. Below we explore five of the legends in graphic design and highlight how they changed gears in their career. 

Muriel Cooper

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MIT Press logo; “Information Landscape,” MIT Media Lab’s Visible Language Workshop, 1994

Muriel Cooper had two design careers: first as a print designer and second as a groundbreaking digital designer. Beginning in 1952, she worked for MIT’s Office of Publications and eventually became art director for MIT Press. She designed classic books, such as Hans Wingler’s Bauhaus and the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas (authors Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour hated what she did, but many graphic designers loved it).

Cooper took her first computer class at MIT in 1967, and it bewildered her. However, she could see the computer’s potential in the creative process, and soon began the second phase of her career: applying her design skills to computer screens. With Ron MacNeil, Cooper cofounded the research group Visible Language Workshop in 1975, which later became part of MIT’s Media Lab. Cooper didn’t write code; she was the designer and the thinker. She encouraged her students to use technology to present well-designed information.

Cooper presented the group’s research at the influential TED5 (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 1994. For the first time, computer graphics were shown in three transparent dimensions, which moved, changed sizes, and shifted focus, instead of the standard Windows interface of opaque panels stacked like cards. She made a big impact: Even Microsoft founder Bill Gates was interested in her work. Unfortunately, she died suddenly soon after, but her legacy in interactive design continues.

Michael Vanderbyl

California Public Radio poster, 1979; Teknion showroom in Chicago

California Public Radio poster, 1979; Teknion showroom in Chicago

Graphic design isn’t all that Michael Vanderbyl does—he also designs furniture, showrooms, and products—but graphic design informs everything he does. He proves that if you can design, you can design anything.

Vanderbyl started his design firm in San Francisco in 1973. His early graphic design work combined simple typography with playful postmodern elements like pastel palettes, diagonals, textures, and patterns. His 1979 poster for California Public Radio is a perfect example, with its clean horizontal lines, symbolic geometric shapes enhancing a silhouette of a face, and a repeating scribble representing radio waves. The design was simple, yet warm and expressive.

Vanderbyl was always intrigued by three-dimensional work (even though he was once told he wasn’t smart enough to be an architect). When one of his major clients didn’t have the budget to hire an architect, Vanderbyl stepped in to design a product showroom. His graphic-design background led the way, as he looked at the project like a life-size brochure, with an emphasis not on the space, but on the products. Vanderbyl’s product-oriented solution stood out, and he gained more work designing showrooms.

Vanderbyl was, until recently, Dean of Design at his alma mater, California College of the Arts. He is a fan of self-doubt, as it means one is still learning as a designer.

Ed Fella

Lecture poster; Lettering for The New York Times Book Review, 1999

Lecture poster; Lettering for The New York Times Book Review, 1999

“Do something you haven’t done before,” Ed Fella would tell his students. It’s great advice for expanding one’s horizons, and it also describes Fella’s career.

For almost 30 years, Fella worked in commercial design in Detroit, growing frustrated all the while by the lack of personal expression in his work. At age 47, he quit and went to graduate school at Cranbrook, where Katherine and Michael McCoy’s innovative design program enabled him to explore and ask questions without real-world limitations.

After Cranbrook, Fella moved west to teach at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and his design work was anything but commercial. He collaged pieces of found imagery with hand-drawn type, creating designs influenced by Dada and Surrealism. He traveled cross-country every summer, photographing quirky signs along the way. Many graphic designers take such photos, but Fella incorporated that vernacular into his work in a meaningful way: one that breaks the rules and appreciates everyday beauty. In an age of computer-generated design, Fella works entirely by hand.

Although he retired from teaching in 2013, Fella’s influence in formal exploration and in expressive and playful typography will continue through the students he taught over 25 years. He always encouraged his students to be curious about the world, to understand history, and to participate in design discourse, saying, “It’s all the difference between an amateur and a professional, a hack and a master!” 

Stefan Sagmeister

 Lou Reed Set the Twilight Reeling poster,
 1996; part of The Happy Show installation at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA

Lou Reed Set the Twilight Reeling poster,
 1996; part of The Happy Show installation at Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA

Stefan Sagmeister doesn’t see a new project as just another job; he sees an opportunity to create something magnificent. He pushes beyond the functional to develop designs that consistently provoke a reaction.

When Sagmeister launched his own studio in 1993, he wanted to focus on design for music. Business was slow, so he designed a CD for a friend’s band (which was called H.P. Zinker), with a special red jewel box that concealed a “secret” image on the inside cover. The design trick worked: Major record labels noticed Sagmeister’s innovative package, and he went on to design for top artists, including Lou Reed, Pat Metheny, David Byrne, and the Rolling Stones.

 As music downloads became more common, CD packaging jobs dwindled, forcing Sagmeister to rethink his business. He began looking for ways to incorporate meaning into his work, and took a yearlong sabbatical to explore and experiment. He returned refreshed and inspired, and he continues to regularly schedule extended time off. He recently created an art exhibition called The Happy Show, where visitors can “enter his mind” in the pursuit of happiness.

In 2012 Sagmeister added Jessica Walsh as his partner and the two continue pushing boundaries and balancing commercial projects with self-directed work.

John Maeda

Time Paint software for Macintosh, 1994; Exhibition poster for Ginza Graphic Gallery, 2002

Time Paint software for Macintosh, 1994; Exhibition poster for Ginza Graphic Gallery, 2002

John Maeda was a computer science grad student at MIT on his way to becoming a user interface designer. Then he read Thoughts on Design, by Paul Rand—an experience that shifted the course of Maeda’s career.

Maeda took a humbling message from Rand’s book: Understanding the computer did not necessarily make one a good designer. Encouraged by his professor Muriel Cooper, Maeda decided to study graphic design in Japan, where he added traditional design skills and concepts to his knowledge of computers. 

Maeda then returned to MIT to teach, and founded the Aesthetics and Computation Group at the Media Lab. It was there that Maeda, who as a child excelled at both math and art (though his father only bragged about the math part), explored the area where design and technology meet. For Maeda, the computer is a tool and a medium. Through the Media Lab, Maeda created digital experiences like The Reactive Square, in which shapes responded to sound, and Time Paint, a time-based program of flying colors. His Design by Numbers project (no longer active), encouraged designers and artists to learn computer programming.

In his quest to educate, Maeda writes books, too: The Laws of Simplicity outlines his hopes that technology will simplify, rather than complicate, our lives. In 2008, Maeda became president of Rhode Island School of Design. As an educator, he considers creative thinking equally important as technical capability in developing the leaders of tomorrow. To the emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) throughout the country’s educational system, Maeda proposes adding an A for Art, to create STEAM. His goal? Not to make the world more high-tech, but to make it more humane.

Portions excerpted from “Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design” by John Clifford. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press. 

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John Clifford

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John Clifford is the author of Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design, and is the creative director of NYC design firm Think Studio, focusing on identity, digital, publishing, and print design. He also teaches at Parsons School of Design.
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