Meet Design Director Emily McVarish

I came to design through typography as an extension of writing. Testing the role of visual form and material properties on the production of meaning and knowledge has been a continuous thread in my otherwise varied practice.

Present-Tense History

But my interest in design has never been limited to my own uses of it. I am inspired by design as a daily source of aesthetic experience, cultural meaning, and social possibility. Design grounds and surrounds us, making sense of the world and our place in it in ways that are as powerful as they are integral. So, when design reveals itself, it offers insights into the identities that distinguish us, as well as the conditions that connect us.

My interest in design as a cultural process and a social force led me to the study of history. In historical analysis, I found the contexts and effects of design thrown into stark relief. Coauthoring Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide with longtime friend and mentor Johanna Drucker allowed me to apply the perspectives afforded by history to a task whose importance I had come to appreciate through teaching: equipping students to see the sources and agency of their practice.

The point of departure for our book was a conviction that understanding the narratives and networks within which designed forms operate empowers designers to think broadly and aim effectively in the goals they set for their work. At CCA, design’s canvas is understood to be as large as the planet it affects, as diverse as the communities it engages, and as interwoven as the causes and effects of its trajectories.

Design & Media

One of the critical lenses we maintain in Graphic Design History highlights the impact of technological change and media shifts on the assumptions and capacities of design. As a conceptual practice, design is often evoked in isolation from its means of formation and realization. Yet to leave media out of our understanding of design’s practices is to forfeit a clear view of the strategic, innovative, and transformative possibilities of use . . .

Even as our ideas of what is real, possible, logical, or desirable are tacitly informed by the media in which we work, our ways of thinking, knowing, valuing, and working in turn shape the evolution of these media. In the dynamics that link technology with social organization and cultural movement, design occupies a position of particular sensitivity and influence.

Every design discipline has been transfigured and extended by recent generations of digital media. At the same time, with each wave of change, design has been instrumental to a broad cultural exploration and understanding of new media’s social potential. These developments continue to redraw the map that locates design disciplines in relation to one another and to other bodies of knowledge and realms of practice.

High-Stakes Play

In this context of formative engagement, the grouping of eight design programs within a single academic division offers great opportunities for collaboration, exchange, and experimentation. I am thrilled to be involved in the direction of CCA’s Design division at a time when students and faculty are trying on different design identities, piloting previously unimaginable career configurations, and sampling the scenarios of work, play, subjectivity, and collectivity that their models afford.

It takes lucidity and purpose to enter history as a maker. In preparing their future, design students at CCA draw on all the resources of a liberal arts education in an art school environment: critical thinking and risk-taking; verbal arts, visual literacy, and cultural competency; holistic approaches and iterative methods. CCA’s Design division is not only filled with ingenious makers and projectors it’s also surrounded by poets, critics, and artists whose example and insights challenge design to be as well-grounded and far-reaching as possible.

I can’t imagine a more exciting or important place to be.

Emily McVarish
Director of Design