The Daily Heller: Eli Kince’s Rosetta Stone of Design

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I will always be indebted to designer, author, painter and Fashion Institute of Technology Associate Professor Eli Kince for giving me a hallelujah awakening that changed the way I think about and understand the integral properties of graphic design. His long out-of-print book, Visual Puns in Design: The Pun Used as a Communications Tool (Watson Guptil, 1982), revealed the quintessential instrument for design ideation. Published one year before A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs (Watson Guptil, 1983—another revelatory volume for me), Visual Puns provided the theoretical, practical and historical basis for how I write about design to this day.

Elvin Elias Lee Kince did not invent the visual pun in graphic design, yet this book defined the term and celebrated the method of conceiving ideas with two or more meanings that yield a single layered message. The verbal pun has been dubbed the lowest form of humor, but Kince vindicated its prominence as the tool for synthesizing complex visual and typographic design ideas. In his book, Kince provided a Rosetta Stone for understanding how the pun functions.

I do not believe that Kince received the recognition he deserves for writing Visual Puns, which is long out of print and hard to find today.

In addition to showing the extent to which logo, identity and conceptual designers in general are dependent on the pun, Kince’s book was among the early analytical, theoretical and philosophical academic design texts that have since grown into a publishing genre. I know of at least 10 other books, including a few of my own, that argue for visual puns as the foundation of contemporary design language. Yet all roads lead back to Kince, whose place in design history has been underappreciated in the current discourse.

So I sought him out recently in order to learn more about the book and his own career as a designer and artist. Through email, I asked him: Why did he decide upon this theme for his Yale University design thesis? Brad Thompson, a master of the visual pun, wrote the foreword—was Thompson his inspiration? What was the process for getting this book published? Why was it not revised and republished?

I ultimately peppered Kince with so many questions that his response was to write a condensed autobiography that is such an interesting read that I present it verbatim below …

By Elvin Elias Lee Kince, 2021

I am not sure how to answer your email briefly. I guess I will start with the beginning of my college life. 

I was being consoled by a friend as we sat on a street-side curb in Cleveland, Ohio, one sun-drenched afternoon. I was distraught because a bottle of milk I had bought for my daughter had slipped out of its handle and broken. The Lawson store manager would not refund the money nor replace the product. He said that he believed that I drank the milk, and then I broke the strap to get a free bottle of milk. I did not have enough money to buy another bottle, and I was penniless, and I felt worthless. I was on the verge of hopelessness, but I was trying to figure out how to provide for my daughter. 

I remember sitting there, tears welling up in my eyes, and feeling sorry for myself. Somehow, maybe due to traffic or a gust of wind, a sheet of wind-tossed paper flipped around the corner and skipped above the street surface towards us. As it started to dart past us, I reflexively and absentmindedly stamped on it—more of a distraction than a purposeful intent.

It turned out to be an advertisement for the Pell Grant, a government program that is usually awarded only to undergraduate students who displayed exceptional financial needs. My friend and I fit that description precisely at that time. We applied, and within five months we received grants, and we choose to attend Bowling Green State University. It seemed that I was college-bound, and bound to be the first in my family to go to college. It was so much better than the Steel Mill factory job option that I had initially accepted as my fate. I spent three years at BGSU, where I majored in accounting. I remember that I wanted to study art-related subjects, but it was also clear that I had to support my daughter. 

To help pay the bills, I used to draw portraits on the street, and I sold posters I made at performances of the singers and singing groups like Marvin Gaye, The Ojays, the Four Tops, and others. 

After I destroyed my middle finger on my left hand in a steel and die factory accident during my third year, I decided to transfer to the University of Cincinnati. I heard they had a work-study program that allowed students to work in their discipline for two semesters and go to school for two semesters. I thought that would be a safer way to support myself and my daughter and possibly find an art-related career. I initially went to UC for the work-study in Interior Design, which I did for my first summer in Cincinnati. 

But one day, towards the end of the summer, I saw students working with typography in the Commercial Arts Program. I was excited about what they were doing, and I applied to the program. Gordon Salchow, the department chair, interviewed me and my brown paper bag portfolio of drawings, posters and photos of me drawing portraits in the streets. He accepted me into the program, which soon became known as Graphic Design. 

Over the next four years, I learned a lot about designing from Gordon Salchow, Inge Druckery and others. And before I knew it, the final semester had arrived, and the question of “What’s next?” came with it. 

I remember Gordon asking me what I was going to do once I graduated. I told him that I wanted to go to Switzerland to study under Matthew Carter, and because I thought America was too racist towards Black people for me to get fair opportunities.

Salchow suggested I try applying to top American graduate schools first, and either way, I could still go to Switzerland later. He gave me the names of three prominent graduate school programs. However, once I received the applications, I immediately rejected one because the design was awful. I applied to the other two schools. The two remaining schools interviewed me and appeared interested in having me join their programs. One school offered me a full scholarship, room and board, and a financial stipend. They gave me one day, 24 hours, to accept their offer.

I remember asking the Chair of the second school’s design program his honest opinion on what I should do. He called Yale, and he said that the Yale Graduate Program told him that they put me on a “hold” list. I remember he took me for a stroll in the campus garden outside his office and advised me to hold out for Yale. He said I might even learn more from his school’s program, but the name would serve me much more in the long run if I got into the Yale University program. 

I took his advice and held out for Yale, and then I waited for months to find out if it was the right decision. I can still remember the explosive relief of stress and energy when I opened the letter and read the great news that Yale accepted me into the master’s program. 

Now that I was in the program, the old familiar challenge piped up. How was I going to pay for my college expenses? I was able to get some financial aid, and eventually, I worked out a deal to do work for the university. I created posters for the Fire Marshall, such as the “crawl” posters. I also created dining hall posters for the food services during this period. 

During my second year at Yale, I spent months of work on my thesis on the U.S. highway signage system before Alvin Eisenman, the department chair, said he thought I was too pragmatic. He said that he was concerned that my thesis would lock me into a particular and limited career path. He suggested that we review my portfolio to see if we could find another option or direction on my work.  

We noticed that I used a lot of play in my solutions, and we decided that I should pursue analyzing what I had been doing with humor and play in my previous design work. 

This direction became more and more exciting to me as I looked into humor and play in literature, fine arts and graphic design throughout history. I was blessed to have magnificent professors who inspired me beyond dreams that I never dared to have before that time. They were brilliant, concerned, articulate and dedicated to creating great designs and supporting the growth of their students.

I was impressed with and excited by Bradbury Thompson’s print work and book designs, Paul Rand’s RCA Morse code ad and his IBM designs, Armin Hoffmann’s William Tell poster, and more. I remember that I finally learned how to “see” during a simple typography project with Dorothea Hoffmann. This vastly improved optical ability allowed me to break down what I saw into verbal concepts visually. 

It was like, all of a sudden, I kept finding hidden jewels on full public display, in book covers, posters and logomarks, shouting “Look At Me!”, “What About Me?”, forcing me to review and analyze them and their communication mode. I remember falling in love, over and over again, with so many images. 

During my research of various forms of humor, including literary, I observed a correlation between verbal puns and the work that I was naturally drawn to and creating. 

I noticed that I was attracted to work that was visual and meaningfully manipulative. 

Eventually, I was able to separate the visual work into categories much like verbal puns. I established the works as visual puns and sought to explain how and why they worked. 

The publishing of my thesis was encouraged by James Craig, a mentor who worked at Watson-Guptil. I pitched the idea, and they accepted it. I was assigned an editor to work with, Susan Davis, who was a tremendous help and guidance in getting written approvals of the images for the book. I co-designed the book with Bob Fillie, and Watson-Guptil did the rest. 

I often thought about doing a second edition, especially after the book slowly started receiving comments and mentions in various writings, articles and books. I was proud of the accomplishment and the acceptance of the works and I thought, This must be what other people felt when they wrote the books I read. But I also think that writing the book also set me in a mindset to review what I learned and to explain it. Which led me to becoming a professor, where I could direct support others. The direct feedback from the students was very satisfying. Also my evolution as a professor and sort of a coach for the students has constantly changed and consolidated ideals and lessons. The simpler lessons became compound.

Also, after a decade or so of working and teaching as a graphic designer, I started to collect samples of works that I liked and thought would go into a second edition. But as the content of the internet grew, so did the options. So much so, that I slowly started to put it aside as I worked on my art shows, artworks and poetry. I also spent 20 years researching and writing a book I self-published titled I Remember Daddy: A True Fiction. The book was written as a long narrative poem in a design style that was influenced by Bradbury Thompson, who was one of my graphic design professors at Yale. He taught me that by breaking lines of copy where they make the most sense, that books can be designed without punctuation. That’s interesting.

However, now I think it would be great to do the second edition, since design has changed since I first wrote the book.