Fellow Awards 2014 Interview: Melanie Doherty
Interviewed by Jeremy Mende

I met Melanie Doherty in 1997 when I was a recent MFA grad looking for work in San Francisco. I interviewed at several studios and somewhere along the way I interviewed at Melanie Doherty Design. I had seen Melanie’s work in the annuals but I was not aware of the breadth of her practice. She showed me a few projects and I was immediately impressed with how effortlessly she appeared to move from bespoke print projects, to national brand initiatives, to architectural signage, and back again to thoughtful cultural work. Melanie was also not the usual interviewer. She was very direct in reviewing my work and she was equally direct in terms of what she was looking for in a designer. She didn’t hire me, which was probably wise (MFA’s tend to be too self-absorbed), but about 3 years later we met again when I started teaching at CCA. Melanie’s same candor, clarity, and enthusiasm for the potential impact of design stood out and I found myself very much aligned with her perspectives on the broader cultural engagement that is part of being an aware designer. In the ensuing decade we have gotten to know each other much better and in that time she has given me two very valuable pieces of advice. The first was to accept the challenge of teaching thesis at CCA – a great experience where I grew as much as the students. The second piece of advice: when your gut tells you that you’ve outgrown the challenge in front of you, you have. The next step is to listen, and to go and find the next frontier that will renew you, creatively or otherwise. Looking at the work I have produced over the last five years, the projects that still matter to me are the ones that are a product of following this second piece of advice. In the event I didn’t say it before, thanks Melanie.

JM: You mentioned you came from a somewhat conservative family. Your mother was a homemaker and father owned a trucking company. What was it like to imagine a creative career coming from that background in the mid-1970’s?

MD: I knew I wanted to go to art school, but that was all. I wasn’t imaging a career in art or design. In reality I think our life choices are heavily influenced by our parents—either we’re rebelling against them or following their lead without even knowing it. I had no interest in being a stay-at-home Mom like my Mother, and my father’s idea for my future was to get me married and have my future husband work for his company. He built a successful business without an education, and didn’t think college was worthwhile—especially for young women. But in his free time, he was a craftsman. He loved nature and he painted landscapes and sculpted ducks to make decoys. So even though I was a smart kid and got good grades, my father related to my artistic talent. My parents never hung my report cards on the refrigerator, but they’d hang the pictures I drew in art class. That encouraged me and I moved toward what I got patted on the head for.

JM: Hartford Art School, where you first went to college, was known for conceptual art. How did that experience impact your early awareness of yourself and your creative aspirations?

MD: Oh God—I was in way over my head. From a small rural–suburban town to a conceptual art school, I had no idea what was going on. My classmates were painting with their breasts and making body parts out of canvas. Don’t forget it was 1978. It was during that first year of school that I began seriously thinking about a career, and I could not imagine how I would possibly make a living as a conceptual artist. I was learning that I was a very practical person.

JM: Ultimately you came west to study at CCA where you now teach. What brought you out here?

MD: During that year as a misfit in art school I received a catalog from CCAC in the mail. I remember flipping through the pages and seeing courses like “Poster Design”, “Letterpress”, and “Book Design.” It was my first exposure to the profession of graphic design and I immediately recognized it as what I wanted to do. My parents were dead set against me moving west—they associated San Francisco with Haight Ashbury, drugs, and the ’60s spirit of revolution. But I was determined to get out of my small town and to study graphic design. When they realized I would go with our without their blessing, they finally consented.

JM: What was CCA like back in the late 70’s?

MD: It was a very small design department, much scrappier than it is now. San Francisco was the place to be if you were a designer in the ‘70s, I didn’t even realize that when I came here. Designers like Jerry Reis, Michael Manwaring, Primo Angelli, John Casado—they were making their mark with a post-swiss, regional, folksy design style. And Michael Vanderbyl was taking off. He was a huge force in design and a big draw to the school. It was an exciting time to be a young designer.

In 1990 I started teaching at CCAC. We used to have our faculty meetings around the conference table at Michael Vanderbyl’s studio, all six or eight of us. There was, and still is, a strong sense of community at CCA, which I very much appreciate. Through teaching, I’m reminded of what excited me about design, which is important when you get bogged down with the quotidian realities of running a business. CCA has been a huge part of my life, and there are few places anywhere in the world where I feel so at home. I love walking into the building, there is always something interesting and inspiring going on.

JM: I know you worked initially for some local studios but what lead you to start your own shop?

MD: To tell you the truth, I started my own business when I was fired from my first job. The day I was let go, I was very upset. Michael Vanderbyl’s studio was across the street and I ran into his office in tears. He told me, very calmly, that I should start my own business. It seemed like such a huge jump, but he made it sound so easy and sensible. There weren’t that many choices at the time, really. The city was full of small boutique studios or advertising agencies. The only large studio was Landor, and at that time corporate design was kind of the anti-design. Our students now have so many exciting career choices. They can go to work for IDEO, Airbnb, Facebook. They have so many great options to be involved in very big, game-changing ideas.

JM: Your career has involved a wide variety of project types – small to large – boutique graphic design, high-profile architectural signage systems, retail branding, catalog work, an interest in reportage and fine-art photography, and now global social change initiatives. You seem to plan deliberate breaks as a way to get some distance, take stock, and develop the next personal and professional challenge. How did this begin, and is it a conscious part of how you have planned your career?

MD: Honestly, Jeremy, I think it was all a journey to find my niche, which I came to a little later than I would have liked. I tried different things, and when I got bored I moved on to something else. You’re a colleague, with a similar sized design studio, so you may perceive a lot of change in my choices. But to a non-designer, it looks like I’ve been doing the same thing all along. I wish I made bigger changes faster. I feel like I frequently got stuck.

JM: Several times you used the phrase “finding your niche”. I’m interpreting that as a background force that has driven you to try and stay aware of what truly drives you, beyond some of the aspirations that shape a typical graphic design career.

MD: I always tell my students to stay awake and be aware of their choices; to make choices with purpose and commitment. But I wasn’t always so awake. I often let my work choose me, rather than choosing it. At a certain point, however, I wasn’t happy as a designer anymore. I had a bigger studio, I was working on branding with large national retailers, and the work was very profitable. But it wasn’t satisfying. I wasn’t intellectually or emotionally engaged. It was then that I really set out looking for my niche. I closed my studio, and took almost a year off. I traveled a lot worked on my photography and other personal projects, and looked for signs of what to do next.

During that period I took on only one client, a non-profit, The Global Fund for Women. I never had time to work with non-profits when my studio was bigger. It didn’t hit me like a brick at first, but it felt right—kind of like when I saw the CCAC catalog. My clients at the Global Fund were focused on international issues and activism, and I learned a lot working with them. In my travels I’d seen a lot of poverty and injustice, and I appreciated the opportunity to work with an organization that was doing something about it. I was interested in those issues, but didn’t think I could weave them into a design career. When it was time to start working again, I thought I would just keep doing what I had been doing, but add a few non-profit clients to the mix to keep me happy. But the more I worked for human rights and social change, the less I wanted to do anything else.

JM: So, is this the niche you’ve been looking for

MD: Yes, I think it is. All of my clients are international social change organizations now. My office is much smaller, needless to say the fee structure is much different, but I love the work, and I love my clients. The issues they’re working on are so big, the challenges so great—disaster relief, humanitarian relief in conflict zones, violence against women, gender equality in education, literacy, nuclear non-proliferation, women’s rights, children’s rights, human rights. It puts design into perspective in a different way. And design is the medium I use to be engaged in the issues I’m interested in. It’s a very necessary part of an organization’s success—getting their mission out to the world—and as a designer, that’s what I can do for them.

JM: You and I have often discussed the potential limits of graphic design – how a designer can outgrow a particular way of working or project type, and then begin the search for the next frontier. You’ve talked about some of those times in your career and how you’ve navigated them. I’m also curious what advice would you give designers facing similar challenges?

MD: I think it’s a natural and healthy progression that we outgrow what we’ve done—even what we’ve loved doing in the past. We get restless and crave change. And that’s a good thing, otherwise there wouldn’t be much progress in the world. The only advice I would give other designers is the same advice I give myself: don’t cling to what you do just because it’s what you know. But I’ll be honest—I find that advice very difficult to follow. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all change careers three or four times in our lives, without having to worry about finances, responsibilities, commitments? I would love to be a foreign correspondent, an artist, a development worker in Africa… The changes we make in our design careers are usually small—more like fine-tuning, even though they might feel like big risks.

JM: I’ve heard you ask the question “Is this all there is?” as a way of challenging yourself to look for a richer experience. And in your career, this search has included moving your studio to Rome for four years, a year of travel and photographing in Africa and India, and dramatically changing your office’s focus. How will you continue to challenge yourself?

MD: I actually applied for a job this past year—with one of my non-profit clients, and it was not a design position. It would have been something completely different from what I do now, and I would have had to spend two-thirds of my time working in developing countries, which I would have loved doing. I didn’t get the job—but I was happy with myself for taking the risk.

Working with my clients, I’m exposed to so many engaging global issues. The next part of the puzzle for me is finding a way to get out of my studio, out from behind my computer, and into the world at large. In January, David (my boyfriend) and I took a trip to Sri Lanka, and while we were there I lead a workshop for one of my clients in Colombo, and David and I shot a video in a small, three-room school in a remote town. It was nirvana for me, the best that work and life can be. I want more of that—working directly with the people who are working hard to improve the circumstances of their communities. If I can get there with design as my catalyst, that would be great. Design has ultimately been a great career choice—it has allowed me to grow and change, and it has brought me to a very satisfying place. For the first time, however, I’m at a point in my life where I’m open to trying something completely different to get me where I want to go next.


Jeremy Mende is the founder of MendeDesign: a creative practice that balances commercial projects with visual research and public art. He has been recognized internationally for his work and currently has pieces in several collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. If questioned he will deny being a Modernist but will enthusiastically admit to a belief in beauty and its essential role in producing things of value and durability. An Associate Professor, Jeremy has been a member of the CCA design faculty since 2001. In that time he has taught classes in experimental typography, advanced visual design, critical theory, mythology, and design history. Most recently he was the 2010-11 Rome Prize winner in Design at the American Academy in Rome. Before his career as a designer, Jeremy skippered a mail packet off the coast of Nova Scotia.