Creative Research Statement
When I was 8 years old, my father took me to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. At that time, I had no idea what was happening on the screen. I was both fascinated and frightened by the apes in the opening scene, and puzzled when the black slab appeared from nowhere in their midst. As the movie progressed I was at times bored, mesmerized, or completely spellbound. But there was one scene that captured my attention like nothing I had ever seen before and that is the now-famous Stargate Sequence where one of the astronauts travels in time through a vortex of light and color. On a panoramic screen (yes, it was curved) the colors and the intensity of the music exploded in my mind and right there and then I knew that I wanted to be involved, somehow, in making images, on a screen, but of course, I had no idea how this would or could even happen. As I grew older and continued to paint, read, write, and play music, I often wondered, in the back of my mind, how all these disparate passions could be distilled into a cohesive whole. It wasn’t until I began to study graphic design as an undergraduate at the National College of Art & Design, in Dublin, Ireland, that I began to realize that perhaps graphic design held the key to combining and utilizing my passions.
After I emigrated to the US in 1984, I began working in various design studios and agencies in Philadelphia, and it was around 1986 that I first came in contact with a Mac computer. It wasn’t the black obelisk of Kubrick’s 2001, but it certainly would become the portal through which I could combine design, image-making, writing, movement, sound, and play. Of course, at the time, the abilities of the Mac computer were in its infancy and in retrospect quite crude by comparison to today but the germ had been planted and I wholeheartedly pursued the integration of design with technology and kept an open mind as to what direction(s) it might lead me.
Today, I can look back and see how that pivotal moment implanted in me a desire to be creative, combine my many interests, but also at the heart of it to tell stories, which is, of course, what Kubrick was doing constantly — he was primarily interested in storytelling. Of course, I’m not a filmmaker but a graphic designer but I am incredibly fortunate to have lived through a paradigm shift in the field of graphic design, where the options on what one can create have expanded exponentially. And that shift is still happening today, and I’m sure will continue to evolve with the evolution of current AI and its eventual successor, AGI.
There are four primary threads that weave themselves throughout all my work, educating, coding, and/or technology, typography, and writing.
My interest in using design as a means of communication for educating audiences has been there from the start of my career. More often than not, this involves the distillation of complex material into content that is understood by a wide range of people and institutions. This educating can be in many forms: for example, creating posters for social issues such as gun control or the importance of voting. Similarly, it can be enlightening audiences about underrepresented mid-century modern designers from Portugal. This core value of using design for educating viewers and audiences is also evident in projects like Type Specimens, which not only was an opportunity to introduce audiences to a fascinating aspect of the museum’s collection, as well as imparting knowledge to future generations of young children who visit the museum on school tours. The same can be said for my work on the Irish Famine Memorial project that continues to educate thousands of visitors each year to the Memorial park about a crucial time in Ireland’s long history of oppression, starvation, and the impact of colonialism on its culture and society.
The use of coding and technology has also been central to my design practice. At this stage, I see design, coding, and technology as inseparable. As you will see in the Design for Exhibition and Performance section, the interplay of code, technology, and design is critical to the realization of these projects. And while I appreciate the quiet time that goes into coding, what engages me most is when the surprises happen, as they invariably will, and something behaves other than what you intended, you are open to it, that’s an added beneficial outcome.
Typography, of course, is intrinsic to being a designer. It is the backbone that runs through design and informs much of what I create. This is why book covers, posters, type design, and design for screen captivate me so much because each of them is an opportunity to utilize typography in some fashion.
And the last thread is writing, a fundamental component of design, which, I believe, has become even more vital in recent years. As you will see on this site, I’ve written essays on design, but writing (and reading, of course) runs through much of the work here and in my teaching (as well as emphasizing the other threads mentioned here: educating, coding and/or technology, and typography). I endeavor to impart to my students just how important it is to be comfortable writing, and how crucial it is when it comes to educating an audience.
Lastly, I want to talk a little about collaboration. I co-founded the studio, 21xdesign, in 1997, with my wife and business partner, Patricia McElroy. Everything that passes through this studio must pass our approval, regardless of our roles in specific projects. Of course, the work you see on this site is not everything we have ever worked on, as I curated the projects that I felt best exemplified the kind of work that I’m most passionate about.
In those intervening years, many designers have also worked in our small studio as interns, freelancers, and full-time staff. We always envisioned the studio as being a creative space that would allow us to move in many directions, tackle different kinds of design, and pursue our varied interests while collaborating on most of the projects that work their way through the studio. It’s a collaborative space, a learning space, both for us and the designers and students who work here, and we never truly rest on our laurels. Design is collaborative by nature, and our studio is no exception. Throughout this site, you will see listings of all the individuals we have had the pleasure of collaborating with over the years. These collaborations are what makes design a living, vibrant entity. We never stop learning, and in so doing, I pass on that beginner’s mind to my students because they too, in truth, will never stop learning in this profession either.