Book List of the Week

Michael Rock’s Book List: The Visual Presentation of Language

By Steve Kroeter August 5, 2013
Michael Rock, graphic designer: 2x4 (New York)
View Michael Rock’s Book List

Michael Rock, founding partner of the graphic design studio 2x4, talks to Designers & Books about how graphic design is like literature (and vice versa), how to turn a Jennifer Egan novel into a schematic diagram, designer-client relationships, and teaching. He is the author and designer of the recently published book Multiple Signatures (2013, Rizzoli), which challenges many of the standard ways of thinking about graphic design.



Designers & Books: How did you go from studying English literature at Union College to studying graphic design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)? What’s the connection between the two fields?

Cover of Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users by Michael Rock, 2013 (Rizzoli)

Michael Rock: At college I was looking specifically at early modern poetry, especially the work of the Imagiste movement. I was interested, too, in the way that Ezra Pound used Chinese poetry as a model for some of his work. At the time I was also involved with a sound performance piece called “ec(LIPS)e” that featured overlapping spoken word recitation by three men, three women, and a child. At the same time I was studying painting with the artist Arnie Bittleman who had studied with Josef Albers at Yale. He astutely recommended I look into graphic design as a way to unify my interest in the visual presentation of language.

I spent a summer working with Thomas Ockerse at RISD, who was also heavily involved in Concrete Poetry, and was drawn to the dynamic of the studio, the work, and the potential.

For me, graphic design has always been an elaborate form of writing so the connection was very fluid (though I might not have said that at the time!).

D&B: You’ve been quoted saying things that suggest that your approach to teaching incorporates a lot from your interest in literature. How do your design students react to this?

MR: I am not sure there are direct parallels, but I do believe in being literate, being a close reader, paying attention to voice, genre, reference, thinking about narrative structure, etc. These are all things I learn from being a reader that have a direct parallel with being a designer.

D&B: In your book list comment on Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, you say that it is “an extremely designed book.” And you say you asked your students to diagram the book. Can you explain?

Student diagram of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad for a class taught by Michael Rock

MR: A Visit from the Goon Squad is almost diagrammatic in the way it reshuffles the chronological narrative and interlocks the plot elements. It’s both intricate and finely wrought. Egan also adopts a collage method where in she moves between various genres and tenses (and even includes a chapter written in PowerPoint).

D&B: While it’s not on your book list, you’ve written about John Berger’s Ways of Seeing? What is the importance of that book to you?

Left: Mobile App for SO-IL’s “Pole Dance” for MoMA/PS 1 Young Architects Program. Right: “Ways of Seeing,” illustration by Peter Arkle.  From Multiple Signatures

MR: I love that book for its blunt format and direct relationship between the text and image. I had written a longer essay on Ways of Seeing a few years back. Its starts off with this:


“While the digital may be destabilizing print, it is interesting to consider the reverse scenario: print stabilizing digital. Ways of Seeing was a four-part BBC television series written by critic John Berger. Shortly after it aired Berger and designer Richard Hollis produced a printed version of the series—a slim paperback only 127 x 203mm, 166 pages, B+W ink on uncoated paper—published by Pelican Books, an imprint dedicated to education. The essay text starts on the cover giving the book both a certain modesty (less pages) and an urgency (read it now!). The entire text is in bold sans serif broken down into short paragraphs coupled with visual examples. Reflecting its origin as a tele-visual experience, the text and images work simultaneously, one leveraging the other. There are five text-and-image essays on everything from renaissance nudes to modern advertising. But Berger also adds two entirely visual essays: a series of examples that by the power of selection and juxtaposition alone makes his thesis. In so doing he presages the development of the playlist as a predominant contemporary form and creates one of the first pre-digital books.”


“Lagos: How it Works” by Rem Koolhaas and Harvard Project on the City. From Multiple Signatures

D&B: You are director of the Graphic Architecture Project (GAP) at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Can you describe the program and what are you attempting to accomplish with it?

MR: It’s not a program but what is called a “lab” at Columbia, which really means just classes organized around my interests. The point of GAP, as its known, is to look at everything “in, on, around, and about” architecture; in other words all of the things that are designed that aren’t architecture. What is interesting to me is not how graphic design services architecture but how much of architecture is actually graphic design. So I am interested in the physical form of drawings, diagrams, presentations, renderings, etc.

D&B: In her essay entitled “Words About Architecture” Denise Scott Brown says: “About graphic designers, with one significant exception, the less said the better.” Do you have a sense of where she’s coming from? You work with a lot of architects. What accounts for the architect/graphic designer tension that her comment represents?

Interior pages from Multiple Signatures, “Talking Over—Susan Sellars, Georgie Stout, and Michael Rock”

MR: I have a sense that some architects of that generation just felt they could do it better. But I am really curious about her one exception!

D&B: What have you learned from operating inside the world of fashion, as in your work for Miuccia Prada?

MR: I find that fashion and graphic design are very similar. Both are a kind of “value added” discipline—taking conventional forms and twisting them into something new.

D&B: You worked on the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin W. Martin House in Buffalo and created a visitor center to tell the story of Wright’s career. What is there in his story for contemporary designers to pay attention to?

MR: I wrote a short film for that project that serves as an introduction to the visit. The point I tried to get at in that was a certain contradiction that comes with the designer/client relationship. Wright made a big deal about how he was at the service of Martin, but the house is clearly all Wright. I think it's a great example about how as designers we speak though our clients.

D&B: The RISD website gives the cost per year for an undergraduate there as now $61,454. That’s about a quarter of a million dollars for four years. For aspiring graphic designers, do you think this is a pathway that pays out—educationally and financially?

MR: It’s one pathway, but the path to becoming a designer is increasingly multivalent and I think we will see, increasingly, the education of a designer will be fragmented.

D&B: You inscribed my copy of Multiple Signatures with the words, “another design book.” It’s obviously much more than that. What are you hoping its impact will be?

MR: I hope it will be taken as a serious effort. I take design seriously and I wanted to write a book that reflected that.

Iconographic wallpaper portrait of Mies van der Rohe designed for ITT McCormick Tribune Campus Center, which is now part of the permanent collection of MoMA. From Multiple Signatures (Rizzoli)


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