Interview: Nancy Skolos

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Nancy Skolos is a designer and educator currently serving as full time faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design and active partner in the office of Skolos Wedell. She has a BFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and an MFA from Yale University. She is an award winning designer and warmest of warm-hearted souls. When not looking out for the many young wanderers at RISD, Nancy can be found actively working on some amazing design work with her partner, Mr. Tom Wedell. Many here at the Hug, at one point or another, have had the great fortune to take part in one of her classes. Recently, we have been very fortunate to have had the chance to talk to her for a little bit about her work, process and a little bit about life.

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First off, thank you for participating Nancy. Many of us are big fans of your work and of you! You are a very kind and generous person. We thank you for allowing us to pry a bit and find out some things we have always wanted to know about you and your process.

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GraphicHug: From what we can decipher, there is a very formal element in your process. Can you speak to this? There is a strong sense and appreciation of form. Does form drive the project? Is it the end all? Or does it come later on in the process? What I mean is that you guys often come up with a theme for a poster and I wonder if it begins with visualization first? Than later, other things?

Nancy Skolos: Form is definitely one of our primary interests and many times we begin our process by looking through collages and sketchbooks we have kept to see if there are any arresting forms that might fit with the subject at hand. We also brainstorm from the concept side, making lists, and thought maps  to develop the projects from both ends of the form/meaning spectrum simultaneously. I do think form is the end all and I know this isn’t a popular view at this moment in design history. Because form took center stage in the late 80s and for much of the 90s, designers are looking for new ways to define their role. Many people associate form with a lack of intellectual rigor.

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GH: Much of your work can safely be dubbed extremely complex. One can get pleasantly lost in them for quite some time. Is this an intentional design maneuver? Can you speak to complexity in your work?

NS: We enjoy the process of making the work so maybe it is just self indulgence on our part. We don’t want the project to end so we just keep working on it — much like a composer doing a theme and variations or a fugue.

GH: Do you feel that the existing set of tools we use as a designer facilitates this complexity? Or takes away from it? Had you your choice, would you wish any other way to design?

NS: Speaking for Tom and me, I think that our work would look the way it does regardless of the tools available because we have never let the limitations of tools stand in our way. I would like to explore more time-based design and also try to learn some programming just to see where that might lead. I’m actually very good at math and I love logic and arranging things in a proportional way. Tom, being a photographer first, works more in “real time” so is very comfortable with letting things unfold as they are arranged in the photo studio. The tension between our two ways of working makes the work even more complex.

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GH: It seems there is a heavy roll of photography in your work. In some ways, this adds to the complexity. Can you describe how photography fits into your process? Do you begin with a photo? Do you plan a photo? Do you plan everything simultaneously?

NS: I think the photographic aspect of our collaboration is what I am the most proud of. First because it shows how much we trust each other. And second because it is amazing to employ photography as a way of associating “reality” with symbolism.

GH: There seems to be an interesting dynamic between you and Tom. From what I know, Tom is the photographer and you are the designer. Does this make things easier? Can you lend us some incite into your process? And what it means to design as the two of you? Or do you tend to design as one? Let us know more about what you guys are planning ahead in the future.

NS: When we first started collaborating (many years ago) we defined our roles more specifically. I was the graphic designer, and he was the photographer. We avoided arguments because I had ultimate veto power on typographic and design issues and he had veto power on the image. This evolved though many stages. In the beginning, Tom would make the photo, and I would fit the type into whatever space was leftover. Gradually we learned to leave room for the type. Finally we realized that the photo couldn’t be finished but only half finished so there could be something left for the type to do and we could plan the type into the photo to some degree. Now it is pretty seamless with planning from the beginning–almost too easy. Not as many unexpected things happen.

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GH: It seems your work takes on another dimension when not using photography. I’m particularly fond of your work in the few instances when it is flat, totally two-dimensional and absent of any photography. I realize, this perhaps is due to financial restraints on a project but I am curious as to how your process differs when limiting yourself to a stricter definition of two dimensions.

NS: In the late 90s we had a show in Tokyo. I remember one of my favorite designers, Koichi Sato said, “Your work is so American?” This really surprised me because usually people think our work looks European. So I asked him what did he mean “American.” He said, “Hollywood, you know, Hitchcock.” Then I understood that he was referring to the cinematic quality of the work. He said that in Japan they don’t like to render things so realistically in three-dimensions because that is considered to be “fact,” and with flatter work, there is more room for fiction. Maybe that’s why you like the flat work too. I find it more difficult to make something simple. I should force myself to do it more often.

GH: You seem to balance the roles of active practitioner and active educator quite well. Can you speak to this a little bit? Do these two modes of design, influence or affect each other? What roles do you prefer, and if you had your choice, and had to pick one, which one would it be?

NS: I was a practicing roughly 100 hours a week for many years. In 1989, I was asked to come to RISD to teach an elective in Poster Design. Teaching didn’t come easily to me because I work  intuitively. It has taken me years to understand the importance of slowing down to clearly articulate ideas. This has been invaluable to my own creative process. Rather than slow my intuition, it has fueled my brain and my own curiosity. Now that I am on the full-time faculty, the hours devoted to teaching take a big chunk out of the time I can give to my practice, but I can concentrate on projects with extended timeframes that don’t require daily client hand-holding.

GH: Wow, you’re a living testament to the 10,000 hour rule! As an educator, what is one thing you wish all your students take away from an interaction/class with you? Do you have a leitmotif that structures your educational philosophy?

NS: My philosophy is that teaching is a partnership between the student(s) and the teacher. Both have to be beyond passionate about the subject and all of its intricacies. If that is there, everything else falls into place. My goal is to support the students’ level of interest and inspire them to refuel it themselves as they go on in life. To keep their design practice as much like school as possible.

GH: You have a pretty interesting mixture of experiences all bound in one. Cranbrook, Yale, RISD. Can you speak to all three places and if and how they have formed the current incarnation of the Nancy that we know today?

NS: Before Cranbrook, I studied Industrial Design at University of Cincinnati for two years. We spent a lot of time in the wood shop sanding and lacquering and were graded mostly on craftsmanship. So that got me started with a strong work ethic and attention to detail. At Cranbrook, were encouraged to find our own way, to experiment, to read and to be inventive and think about what the future potential of design was — not just stylistically, but how it could solve problems. I went to Yale because I felt I needed some hard core traditional graphic design education which I got in spades. In some ways it felt like running into a brick wall. I could go on for pages but it was a very disconnected series of experiences. RISD is my favorite school of course — because it has such a coherent train of thought — an almost poetic curriculum, and so many dedicated faculty. I have learned more teaching one class at RISD than in all six years of my former education. Of course, that is partly because I’m a better student now myself.

GH: We, at Graphic Hug, have an unhealthy fascination for the future. We are curious what it holds in a number of capacities. Having seen graphic design through the lens of education and professional practice over the years, what do you see in the coming future for graphic design? Is there something for us to look forward to?

NS: There is so much to look forward to. What could be better for Graphic Design than an era that depends on information, networks, and communication? The possibilities are endless. You can invent what graphic design is anyway you want to. You are no longer just the person who picks the typeface, margins, and paper stock. You figure out what the content is, who you want to share it with and how you want to parse it out. Even the poster is making a comeback as an online downloadable medium.

GH: What does the future hold for Skolos-Wedell? Is the present what you had planned? Or has it been a finding process?

NS: I have to admit that I never had a plan. I let my career take me where it wanted to go. I don’t think that’s the best way to operate but it was just what happened to me. The present is nothing like what I had planned since I never planned anything. I was always too busy to plan. We are having our 30th wedding anniversary this year and  I figure that we have at least 30 more years to create work. It will be stronger work because we know what we are doing more than we did 30 years ago. I hope the best is yet to come.

GH: You have what is quite possibly the most huggable demeanor of demeanors. We actually are huge fans of this very calming presence and wonder if that comes into or influences your work at all. Or how that affects your interactions with clients and students? Can you speak to this for a little bit?

NS: I wish that my demeanor was more reflected in my work but the work is more a reaction to the zeitgeist and the design problems. I do think that my calm personality helped me convince clients that my crazy work was less threatening. As far as teaching goes, I suspect it is more of a liability than an asset. For the most part students want to be kicked in the butt. I keep forgetting to do that.

GH: If you could hug anything now, what would it be?

NS: Graphic Hug!

GH: Oh my! Blush. Far too kind, far too kind! Okay, thank you very much Nancy. You have been, as always, very fabulous. We appreciate your time and your thoughtful answers. Say hi to Tom and the cats and we hope to see you again in the not too distant!

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Comments (10)

  1. Truly truly truly inspiring. Thanks Nancy!

  2. Great interview. Not to be cheesy, but that does make me miss RISD GD.

  3. Amazing work….this interview is truly inspirational.

  4. Mark Muggeridge

    This work is SO derivative of 80’s Vaughan Oliver and Studio Dumbar it is is bordering blatant rip off, yet somehow they are made out to be some kind of great designer _ would you know something original if it was staring at you in the face _ think not – who is next to get ripped off?
    I think Yale and Cranbrook ???? Spare us-please.

  5. Perusing the Skolos-Wendell site, it seems Skolos’ aesthetic predates the public emergence of Vaughn Oliver’s or Studio Dumbar’s work (all due respect to each). Besides, If one had the foresight to highjack Mr. Oliver’s ideas, ( based on the only way to see his work in the 80’s was maybe a handful of fairly obscure album covers residing in the local independent record store) then kudos to them. Before the internet, we didn’t always immediately know what was happening in other scenes around the globe. imagine that.

    Anyhow. It is very nice to see this kind of work re-emerge some 20 years on. The craftsmanship in each piece, considering a lot of this is pre-macintosh, is simply stunning. bring on more early 90’s cranbrook please!

  6. Yes. Agreed. Amazing work. And very inspirational. @Mark – I am not so sure I see what you are saying? Derivative? Blatant rip off? I don’t really see that. If anything, they may both be guilty of heavy collaborations with photographers. But this would then be the case with a great many designers then and now. I may be under several biases here as I am a big fan of the Skolos-Wedell output. But I am also a big fan of Olivers as well. And I think both do things the way they do them. Yes some similarities can be seen. But I think that goes across the board for that time and place. You could say this about any number of designers then and now. Vaughan Oliver was a fantastic typographer. But I’d even venture to say that his use of type shows more levels of restraint than some of the work we see here from Skolos-Wedell. I’d say through the years, Nancy’s type movements are bolder, bigger, and a bit more expressive. But there really is no right or wrong here. For I am an admirer of both methods. And, this, like many things, is my totally skewed opinion. This is a great body of work that in my opinion continues to define its own voice.

  7. @ Mark — I strongly agree with Jory on this one. It is soo easy to draw these comparisons and jump to accusatory statements seeing this work in the vacuum that is the present-day internet. But before this was a world where these creators were completely separated and crafting beautiful work in their independent worlds. I beg people to have a little perspective and sense of history on this one.

  8. Dungjai Pungauthaikan

    I have two copies of the red Digital Media ’05. You know it’s HOT when a poster still looks amazing even though it is simply printed ink jet on canson.

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