Polymath and iconoclast P. Scott Makela, who died suddenly on May 7 at age 39, seemed to be the pure embodiment of his time and place. He was a digitally-based designer whose highly charged graphics, film, and video work for such corporate and cultural clients as Nike, Sony Music, Warner Bros. Records, Propaganda Films, MCI, MTV, and Kodak pushed the boundaries of traditional design and perfectly expressed the excitement of new technology and global communications that characterizes the 1990s.
Design was both a religious and a sexual experience for Makela; his designs tapped into base emotions and elemental concepts. A typical Makela poster or composition reveals hierarchies of information. Juxtaposing bold typography with strong visual images, he created new levels of meaning from the raw materials of each assignment, going beyond what clients expected, to produce work uniquely his own.
Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Makela received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Minnesota, a BFA in 1985 in graphic design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and an MFA in 1991 from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where, with his wife, Laurie Haycock Makela, he served as co-chair of the 2-D design program from 1996 until his death.
Katherine McCoy, a mentor of Makela’s and former co-chair of the Cranbrook design program, describes his attraction to technology as inherent. “Scott was the most fearless of design students,” she recalls, “plunging head-first into each new technological opportunity and making it his own. His optimistic passion and inclusiveness led him to harness the power of digital media to animate everything from traditional print to a broad range of electronic communications that included motion and sound.”
Makela’s fascination with the potential of the computer began in art school, where he struggled to bend the machine to his will. Jan Jancourt, associate professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and a close friend, recalls Makela’s time at the school: “He was one of the first to really force the computer to go beyond the commercial norm of its capabilities. He spent hours and hours trying to push its limits, to make it do exactly what he wanted it to do.” According to Makela’s brother, Eric, Makela claimed to be the second person in the Twin Cities to purchase the first generation of the Macintosh Computer–very costly at the time–as soon as it became available.
It was his facility with computers that attracted the attention of graphic designer April Greiman, a visiting artist at MCAD during Makela’s undergraduate days. She encouraged him to visit California after graduation. And so, with no apparent hesitation, upon graduation Makela left immediately for Los Angeles with MCAD classmate Paul Knickelbine and set up a design practice, Makela+Knickelbine Design. “We went out there in a rusted-out Chevy with just $300 to our name,” says Knickelbine, a graphic designer now based near Milwaukee. “It wasn’t too long before things started to happen. We had every kind of client you could imagine: plastic surgeons, drycleaners, hardware stores, microbreweries, printers.”
Pretty soon, Makela began teaching at Otis-Parsons Institute of Design and at the California Institute of Arts. It was while teaching at Cal Arts that he met Laurie Haycock, whom he later married. “I was in charge of the graphic design program at Cal Arts when I hired Scott to teach a graphics class,” recalls Lorraine Wild, graphic designer and Cranbrook graduate. (Wild also hired Laurie.) “He was so ebullient and full of energy, so extraordinarily generous, even though he was only a few years out of undergraduate school himself. His willingness to explore new ideas, his interest in technology at an early stage of the computer age, and his forays into music were all really very exciting and of interest to students.” According to Wild, the Makelas would assign students a project that required them to engage the environment, to put themselves out on a limb by favoring personal expression over conventional graphic design refinement.
The late ’80s was a period of severe questioning of all graphic design, brought on by the advent of new technologies. Traditional designers were unwilling or afraid to use computers, decrying their tendency to compromise technique, while new-wave designers were quick to embrace the liberating, rule-breaking qualities of the machine. It was a perfect time for experimentation–and the perfect time for Makela.
I met him in 1989 at a transition point between his West Coast period and his student life further east at Cranbrook, where both he and Laurie completed their MFAs. We were both teaching in the design department at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design–he taught graphic design and I, design theory. I distinctly recall that after every conversation with him I would come away feeling a bit anxious. I didn’t know why this was so–I just knew that here was a man who exuded exceptional energy and light. His enthusiasm was contagious.
At first I thought it was a California thing, something picked up on the West Coast. Makela’s speech pattern was so rapid-fire that he had trouble getting complete sentences out, as if a completely phrased thought would die of boredom if allowed to hang in the air. New thoughts crowded out old ones as his brain hurried to get to the next interesting idea. But this was Makela’s way of inhabiting the territory before others got there.
This was his design approach as well: Layer upon layer of images and type are built up until the composite almost overwhelms you–to many people, the visual equivalent of speaking in tongues. However, in a Makela composition, all the layers have meaning. Makela worked hard to create a rich and complex message that relied as much on the emotional content of images as on the sense of words.
Despite their unconventional nature, Makela’s potent mixtures seem ideally suited to today’s commercial enterprises, especially in light of growing interest in e-commerce. And the name of his graphics and interactive media company–Words+Pictures for Business+Culture–perfectly expressed this trope in the dialectical shorthand he’d come to favor.
After graduate school at Cranbrook, Makela returned to Minneapolis so that Laurie could assume the duties of design director at the Walker Art Center. He once expressed to me his frustration at not getting any in-town clients, and at being the stay-at-home dad whose primary responsibilities were to take care of his and Laurie’s infant daughter, Carmela. (Being a father was something he accepted willingly and without regret–family meant a great deal to him. Besides Carmela, now 9, the Makelas have an infant son, Nikolai.) As with most men (and women) who are dependent on their spouses to carry the breadwinning load, Makela suffered the egodeflating experience of being cut off from professional contacts. But this quickly passed after he was commissioned by MCAD to design its new recruitment catalog. Perhaps more than any previous work, Makela’s provocative, controversial design opened the door for his subsequent client work and numerous invitations to lecture.
Makela’s approach to design was as a fine artist; each graphic problem was a unique solution or reflected his particular way of seeing. In recent years, he was most proud of his work on the Communications Theatre at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, a multimedia project that introduces visitors at a very experiential level to how the earth and its living creatures evolved.
Makela also designed animated title sequences for videos and films, including music videos for Miles Davis, 10,000 Maniacs, and Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” and, in collaboration with Jeffery Plansker and David Fincher, opening titles for Fincher’s films The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999).
The connections between print, film, video, music, and interface design were always present for Makela. He was adept at creating and producing original musical compositions, first through a progressive Christian rock group called Manasseh, for which he played bass and sang, and later, through a family-based effort, “post-industrial rock” music, called “AudioAfterBirth,” distributed through Emigre.
“Scott’s message,” says Katherine McCoy, “would seem to be that the more virtual and mediated our lives, the more hyper-physical we must be. The further his work moved into electronic media, the more it seemed the natural expression of his forceful physicality. The body, its parts and processes–including his, his wife’s, his daughter’s–provided him with powerful imagery. He found meaning in physicality and poetry in biological processes, even those that many might find distasteful or shocking or just too personal.
“All of living informed his work and his enthusiasm compelled him to use it all as raw material for his subject matter, embracing the moment and hyper-conscious. Horrible or beautiful, but never neutral. Always in overdrive.”