DESIGN | From a black “White Knight” to a plugged-in Che Guevara, CVA exhibit showcases 50 years of “Communication Arts”


The Leaders of Design Series flies under the radar of many creative cognoscenti. Hosted by St. Paul’s College of Visual Arts in partnership with AIGA, the series features design-world crème de la crème through lectures and exhibitions.

Not that plenty of people don’t attend the lecture and show—they do. But a program of such noteworthy excellence deserves more attention from across the disciplines at both the lecture and show. Now in its fifth year, the Design Series’s 2009 guest speaker was Patrick Coyne, editor and designer of Communication Arts magazine (CA). The corresponding CVA exhibition titled 59 to 09: 5 Decades of Design Publications and Awards spells out through graphic image and text (what else?) the sign of the times—for 50 years—with the expected avant-garde vision and panache for which the publication is known.

Coyne, an articulate speaker in his Minnesota History Center lecture, addressed the history and philosophy of CA. Founded by his parents in 1959, the publication has been a magnet and a watershed for both theory and practice in the field of visual communication. Dedicated to the best, CA showcases the industry’s warhorses as well as new blood through its renowned competitions and designer profiles. When asked his impression of the college at the gallery reception the night following his lecture, Coyne responded, “I was very impressed with the caliber of questions from the CVA students. I’ve only recently heard of this school. But it is obvious by the questions, the education is very good, thoughtful and well-rounded.”

The 59 to 09 exhibition provides a graphic overview of CA through poster-size reproductions of noteworthy publication covers, individual publications and a fascinating timeline of CA‘s 50 years in business. It is informative and a vision into our cultural past as CA‘s graphic history is paired with social and political events of the day. The magazine becomes a record of how we dressed, worked, traveled, socialized—well, simply lived—over five tumultuous decades, and is testimony to how the realm of visual communication echoes global events including wars, assassinations, political events, fashion, cultural upheavals, and consumer obsessions. It is informative to see some projects appear timeless and fresh while others are definitely a product of their times and will always be associated with those times.

“Our intent with the timeline was to provide a brief overview of the evolution of creativity in visual communications and its relationship to society, culture and technology,” says Coyne. “While it was never intended as a comprehensive history, we included projects and campaigns that were either noted as influential in our magazine, other published sources or by individual creatives.”

Also notable is a large Graphic Design Genealogy chart that links firms and their influence from San Francisco and Seattle to Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. The night of the opening, there was a fair amount of grumbling as to Minneapolis’s representation in the national scheme of things. This was settled by a huge pin-up chart in the reception room, where anyone could write in their own ideas about graphic design genealogy.

Coyne acknowledges the subjective nature of his choices for the timeline. “Our selection, of course, is open to debate as each creative professional will certainly cite different projects as having an influence on their careers.”

A few of the exhibition highlights are the August 1959 inaugural Communication Arts Magazine cover by designer Lloyd Pierce and the September 1966 White Knight cover advertising the cleanser AJAX. The model for the cover photo of an African-American man in the white knight suit was Calvin Brown, Bill Cosby’s I Spy stand-in, and was taken by Peter James Samerjan. The 1991 May/June cover Frog Spurn, a book illustration by James Marsh, proffered an environmental message and was one of the most popular CA covers ever. More visually riveting is the May/June 2006 Che Guevara cover, depicting the revolutionary in a palette of graphic black and marigold orange, which caused an uproar. Wearing a beret with the swoosh Nike logo and plugged in with the iconic white headset of an iPod, this 2006 Che overloaded the magazine with both positive and negative responses. The issue generated more newsstand sales than any issue in recent history.

If you are interested in design and its power of communication, take a trip to CVA by October 17. 59 to 09: 5 Decades of Design Publications and Awards will remind you of the graphic richness and craziness of life.

Previous CVA Leaders of Design lecturers included Minneapolis’s own Blu Dot, the New York Times‘s venerable art director Steven Hiller, multi-disciplinary designer Michael Vanderby, and innovative Larsen Design, of both Minneapolis and San Francisco.