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Office Hours with Eric Karnes

October 30, 2017

The son of a painter and a special-education teacher, Graphic Design Professor Eric Karnes grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied Graphic Design at Maryland Institute College of Art, where he worked with Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Phillips and developed an abiding love for all things typographic. After graduating, Eric spent time at well-known design and advertising firms like Pentagram and the Martin Agency, to name a few, where he managed projects for a wide range of corporate and institutional clients. Since 2013, he has run a small identity design and branding studio with friend and colleague Christine Coffey, but Eric is best known for the intricate posters he designs under the moniker of the Karnes Poster Company. As a counterpoint to his professional work, Eric has taught design and typography since 2006.

Eric's work has been recognized by organizations and publications such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Society of Publication Designers, German Society for Book Arts, American Advertising Federation, Art Directors Club, Type Directors Club, Communication Arts, Graphis, Print Magazine, and the Village Voice. In addition, his drawing of a puffin won the coveted blue ribbon at the 1995 Dumbarton Middle School art fair. Go DMS Lions!


OM: Tell me about your early years in this field – what attracted you to teaching?

EK: Upon graduation from college, I did the usual route, punching the clock at various design studios. Like many of my colleagues, I sort of fell into teaching. In 2007, the graphic design program at Maryland Institute College of Art needed someone to teach a Typography course. My name was floated and I received an unexpected phone call. After confirming that they didn’t have me confused with someone older and more qualified, I jumped at the opportunity. It was important to me to give back and I quickly found that I loved the challenges of the classroom.

What formative interests did you have in your childhood and/or high school years that are still with you today?

When I was a kid I was always drawing. But that’s probably a pretty common answer amongst faculty in a design college, right? I think more unusually, I’ve always been fascinated by the form of letters. According to my parents, at around three years old, I became obsessed with street signs and would constantly point them out from my car seat. My dad made me these full-sized paper mock-ups–Stop, Yield, and a few of our local street names, but my favorite was One Way. I would spend hours tracing them and re-drawing them at different scales. So completely unbeknownst to me, I was copying the Highway Gothic typeface as a toddler. 

What questions are you still working on answering?

Oh, man. Everything. What’s that line? ‘When you stop learning, you die.’ How’s that for an upbeat answer? Seriously though, in addition to a passion for form and typography, I’m drawn to graphic design because it’s always about something else. You’re constantly tasked with communicating information that’s unfamiliar to you. So every project becomes a crash course in that content.

What are you involved in that is outside of your field or practice?

I read a lot of history -- looking back, I was probably destined to go into the visual arts in some capacity. But if that hadn’t been the case (and if I were a better writer), I would have been a historian. I’m endlessly fascinated by the past. And as cliché as it may sound, I feel strongly that a solid understanding of history is necessary for a responsible and empathetic democracy. On a lighter note, I’m a pretty mediocre golfer and I can recite the Lemon Tree episode of The Simpsons entirely from memory—which is irresistible to the ladies, let me tell you.

Has your role as a professor been different from what you expected?

Yes and no. I had been teaching off and on for five years before I took my first full-time faculty position, so the experience of being in the classroom was somewhat familiar to me. I think what surprised me was the complexity of building a truly coherent curriculum.

When you began college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?

The signs were there, but at the time I was—like most 17-year-olds–completely clueless. My father is a painter and like every rebellious teenager, I was determined to go a different way. My last two years in high school, I became heavily involved with the high school newspaper, eventually becoming editor and getting accepted to the journalism school at the University of Maryland. But once there, it became clear pretty quickly that journalism was not my passion. What really interested me about newspapers was the visual organization of the information. Essentially, the design of the thing–the typography, the visual hierarchy, the composition. These things fascinated me. So, I dropped out after my freshman year, worked as a prep cook the next year to make money, and applied for the first available fall semester at Maryland Institute College of Art.

What advice would you give to graduating seniors? Incoming Freshmen?

That you’re never finished. A few years back, a group of seniors made me a pin that read, “it’s getting there.” Which is apparently my most common line when shown something for critique. But I’m completely serious and it applies to so many things in life. Keep looking, keep thinking, keep making, keep evaluating. And stay off Pinterest. 

Tell us about your work – what is hidden? What is in plain sight?

I don’t know. I’ve always been hesitant to define my work too concretely, because the reality of making things–unique things–is that it’s a messy and often unplanned process. And once you reflexively define your work, it’s already moving in another direction. There’s the old Jasper Johns line which I’m going to butcher, but it goes something like: ‘You do something, then you do something to it, then you do something else to it, and pretty soon you’ve got something.’ That’s certainly a cheeky oversimplification, but I think there’s a blunt truth to it. But, at the risk of seeming evasive, one theme that runs through my work is an interest in process–the way form is built. I like things that have a subtly unfinished quality to them, like they’ve been captured in the process of being made.

What does your work mean to you? Do you think this differs from what it means to others?

I hope it means something different to others. That’s what I strive for, because that’s the definition of great art, isn’t it? There’s an interview with the songwriter Guy Clark in which he’s asked what makes a great song. And he has this wonderful answer: “A great song has holes.” What he means is that a great song—and I think this goes for all great art–has an openness about it. If a piece is too closed off, if its meaning is too defined, then there is no opportunity for the viewer to relate to it. We find meaning in things that allow us to project our own memories, emotions, and values onto them. In graphic design, where there is a defined message that needs to be communicated, it’s a balancing act. But even so, I always strive for some ambiguity.