Research: AIGA | the professional association for design

Client: AIGA, the professional association for design

Project: Speaking and publication

In Brief: In addition to research and writing within the organizations national headquarters, wrote event reviews and fellow’s biographies for AIGA’s LA chapter and was asked to participate as a breakout speaker for the AIGA national conference, PIVOT.







John Coy, AIGA LA Fellow 2010

The career of 2010 AIGA/LA fellow, John Coy, is a story of transformation and transcendence shaped by his evolving relation to art, spirituality, philosophy and nature. In fact Coy frames his understanding of design in terms of ecology: “design and function are synonymous,” he says in a modification of Louis Sullivan’s tenet. “A leaf is beautiful not just because someone thought, ‘hey that’s neat,’ but because it functions.” He attributes this outlook specifically to the energy of Los Angeles, something that has influenced his work since he moved here from Chicago to attend Art Center College of Design in the 1960s. “I don’t think you can live in a place and not be affected by it. A sunset in California looks different from a sunset anywhere else; it gives you a certain type of freedom in the colors where you can pretty much go year round and play. ”

That mentality has pervaded Coy’s journey from his first job working for Ken Parkhurst and throughout many award-winning decades of his own private studio practice. And when the idea of play personified LA with the arrival of the 1984 Olympic games, he found himself amongst a group of prominent local designers brought together by Deborah Sussman to found AIGA/LA. “I think it just happened that at the time I was the young guy,” he tells. “There was Saul Bass, Jim Cross, Dave Goodman, April Greiman and Judy Skalski, among others, who were part of that too. I ended up getting elected the first president of the chapter, and my wife, who was working as my partner, became the second. The studio was getting a lot of accolades; it was a wonderful time, and a lot of work. I felt like a real hotshot. ”

Coy tried his hand at teaching in these early years at Otis, Cal Arts, Art Center, and Laguna College of Art and Design, but never took to the classroom environment. “I had a student once tell me, ‘You know, you’re a really great designer, but you’re not a very good teacher.’ And I was like, ‘you know, you’re right.’ Maybe I could do it better now because I’m coming at it from a different place, but it’s a really tough job. When you’re teaching you have to walk through the students’ experience, and that sharpens your own awareness. It made me understand that you can be a jerk about everything and think that you’re going to be the next whatever, but there are still things you have to learn.

“I felt like I was the best teacher when I had people in my studio, where it’s not like one person is the total expert and I learned as much from them as they did from me. Stefan Sagmeister came through my studio, I looked at him thinking ‘this guy is so talented.’ He has a great mind and a great spirit, and the world likes outrageous people who break the rules and do things that are not the way they are taught, or fine craftsmen who bring who they are into what they do. He just trusted that and went and did his thing.”

When reflecting on his own influences, Coy calls out Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff, and the “Michaels” in San Francisco [Cronin, Mabry, Manwaring, Schwab and Vanderbyl] as inspirational figures.  But closer to home for him were individuals like Ken Parkhurst, Doyald Young, Lou Danziger, and Deborah Sussman. “Steff Geissbuhler always inspired and delighted me,” Coy lauds. “I was also friendly with April Greiman and Jayme Odgers. Jayme worked with me at Ken Parkhurst’s studio. He was hip and a really talented artist—he still is—and I love what he has done over the years. ” However, he dismisses any implied hero worship toward his list. “Heroes help to guide and color and sharpen your awareness—help you to get into the mode—but then you step into your own kind of energy and let it go.”

As Coy channeled that mid-1980s Los Angeleno design energy, another influence began its rise to power: the personal computer. While the 512-kilobyte machines at the time were not yet the Goliaths we know today—“they were more of a toy,” Coy recalls—designers, including the then AIGA/LA president himself, struggled to adapt. “When I entered the design field we were still setting type in metal. We worked with wonderful and skilled typographers like Vernon Simpson and Ad Designers. In a few years we went from Linotype to Fototype and then all of a sudden we were setting type ourselves and responsible for all that knowledge. I really felt for the students at that time, because they had to master so much more than I did when I was in school. But we have to keep growing; it’s a huge task but somehow you’re able to do it. The new technology offers many new and wonderful possibilities, but you lose in the deal too. You can’t have everything.”

In this process of give and take, Coy cultivated a unique, yet mixed, relationship to the emerging technology. “I first started realizing that the Xerox machine was alive and it was working with you and designing with you. When the computer arrived it threw the whole industry into a shift and a lot of people dropped out. But it also opened doors that allow participation from the cosmic wonderland. It’s a dialog; a shared awareness with something that shows up on the screen—and eventually in a printed form. But it also can be very draining to sit there hour-after-hour. As you’re working you think it’s okay, but you really develop bad habits and after a while it will do you in. I knew that I needed to take care to get away.

“There was a period of time when I got divorced and a huge shift came into my life. I had to use that, so I just let everything go: I closed my studio, my house went away and I went down this spiritual path for 10 years to get back to nature and reconnect to the earth. It’s hard to do in this day and age. And when I first started down that direction people said, ‘you won’t make a living with that,’ but I didn’t have any regrets. Life is more than that, and I never stopped working as a designer, but I had to detach myself from the identity that comes with “being” a designer. I found that if you know who you are and follow your heart you will find the right path. You just have to be awake enough to get it—to see it.”

What Coy sees is a renewed importance in artistic sensibility. “I really developed a connection to the art world working with fine art masters like Robert Rauschenberg, Jonathan Borofsky, Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Serra. They taught me to look at things differently and see different things. It was a spiritual awareness—a connection to spirit—only it didn’t dawn on me at first since I didn’t have a spiritual upbringing. Now when I see this whole thing about training designers to be designers and fine art is treated as something else, I realize it all comes together eventually: the finest examples of design become art and the best art has a sense of design. Communication happens on many levels and beauty is a great communicator.”

In the last decade, Coy has worked to integrate this metaphysical beauty into his life as well as his practice. “Yoga and t’ai chi help me to stay active. And I also learned Vipassana meditation where it’s silent for like ten days and you don’t talk. That changed things for me too; it allowed me to be with myself and my sensibilities. I’m obsessed with trying to keep balance and have time with my family since I have a 6-year-old daughter now. My older kids are 40, 38, and 37, and to have a 6-year-old—wow, it’s an unexpected thing at my age.”

Coy was just as stunned (well, maybe slightly less so) to be named a 2010 fellow. “I’ve been so unconnected to AIGA and I thought, ‘that’s crazy.’ But there was a time that I was very connected and I guess they didn’t throw me away and I’m very thankful and surprised.” Moving forward he embarks on this new journey with the same compass that has guided him throughout his experiences. “It’s about service, and service is very important; you need to find out where you’re needed in life and put your heart and soul into it. I feel like I have to learn from what I didn’t do right the first time and see if I can do better the second.”

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