Tom Effler and his 1977 Comic Panels Translation Series
Way back in 2008, at a US design educators conference, I took part in a “PechaKucha” event with several fellow educators. I profiled a retired colleague from my institution and showed examples of their students’ work from the 1980s. Toward the end of my allotted time, I asserted that the history of design education programs, and specifically their defining faculty members, is just as valid as the history of those who primarily practiced in the profession. That statement led to conversations where, as one might expect, other educators voiced their support.
For those that may be unsure about this idea, please consider that many practitioners have also taught part-time—the education/practice “divide” may not be as great as in some other fields. As well, several early graphic design pioneers were well-known educators.
Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder were faculty members at the Basel school. Their respective books from the 1960s, Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice and Typography: A Manual of Design, were highly influential in the development of the profession. We should note that both books not only included examples of the authors’ work but also examples of their students’ work to further illustrate the approaches each championed.
It’s in the above context that the protagonist of our story, Tom Effler, Emeritus Professor of Graphic Design at Ohio’s Miami University, active from 1978 to 2012 (and this writer’s professor), comes into view.
Effler entered the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture and Art in 1967. He and his cohort were the first to encounter Gordon Salchow’s new graphic design program and its dramatic shift in curriculum. Salchow had previously taught at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he had worked with Rob Roy Kelly, the founder of the two of the earliest US graphic design programs in the late-1950s and early-1960s.
Effler became familiar at that time with Hofmann’s and Ruder’s books and work, along with those of Josef Müller-Brockmann and many others. He later dove into sources on comics and illustration, including A History of the Comic Strip and The Penguin Book of Comics (both from 1971). After graduating in 1972, Effler was drafted and served in the US Army. He was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, which turned out to be a convenient place to become even more familiar with contemporary European design. He was also able to explore some of the European and UK schools on Salchow’s list of approved graduate programs that he routinely shared with students.
In 1975, Effler began the MFA program at Indiana University, also on Salchow’s list. He worked there with professors Tom Coleman, Tim Mayer, and Joe Godlewski, all of whom impacted Effler’s personal design development. He became further immersed in Basel principles, along with the “new wave” and “postmodern” design approaches emerging at that time. In his final year of study, he began developing what would become his Comic Panels Translation Series MFA project, completed in 1977.
It’s important to understand that the mid-70s to the mid-80s was a transitional time for graphic design. Those practicing or studying will recall producing work via photomechanical methods, using tools such as inks, plaka, brushes, ruling pens, masking films, graphic arts cameras, and phototypesetting.
The recent film, Graphic Means, produced by Portland State University faculty member Briar Levitt, is a trip down memory lane for those who were there and a window to the past for those too young to know. Things changed quickly, of course, with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and Aldus Pagemaker in 1985, when professional-level design tools first came to the desktop computer.
It was also a time of experimentation with visual approaches, where more playful and complex forms emerged in reaction to the relative simplicity of earlier modernist design. Philp Meggs’ first edition of A History of Graphic Design appeared in 1983, and the section on “Post-Modernism” documented the work of well-known designers such as Rosmarie Tissi, Siegfried Odermatt, Steff Geisbuhler, Wolfgang Weingart, April Grieman with Jayme Odgers, and Kenneth Hiebert. One of the best know examples of this era is perhaps William Longhauser’s Michael Graves poster, also produced in 1983. It appeared too late for Meggs’ first edition but was published widely afterward.
Effler worked for the on-campus PBS station during his final year and produced a variety of television “broadcast graphics.” Along with the design of film titles, they were precursors to today’s motion graphics. The Comic Panels Translation Series synthesized the various subjects that Effler had been studying and learning from. He drew from his appreciation of historical newspaper comics, settling on twelve panels from classic strips for his subject matter. He also worked in the horizontal format required for broadcast graphics, though the eventual outcome was produced in print media. Finally, Effler translated the source materials with a playful, energetic, and somewhat “Swiss Pop” graphic approach that took full advantage of the interplay of positive and negative spaces.
The final result was a small edition of a portfolio featuring twelve prints, each photo-silkscreened in black ink on color cover stock, along with another print compiling the historical comic panels for reference. Effler produced his original artwork using tech and ruling pens, with black and white plaka on Crescent 201 illustration board. He then created film positives with a graphic arts process camera, producing photo-silkscreens to print the final sets. The video included here provides scans of the final prints presented with the original comic panel sources so that the viewer can make easy comparisons.
It may amaze designers who’ve worked solely with digital media that you can create such involved compositions with physical materials. As there was no “undo” available, mistakes often resulted in starting over. The process of achieving precise results was tedious and time-consuming, but for the designers of that period, it was the only viable option and evidence of a designer who had clearly mastered the existing tools of the trade.
He exhibited his project, along with the work of a handful of other MFA students, at the IU museum gallery in 1977. Effler then became a design faculty member at Miami University in 1978, where he and his colleagues set up a photo-silkscreen lab for their and their students’ use. He would go on to serve as the director of the Graphic Design program at Miami as well as the department chairperson. Effler continued to teach and practice, adopting digital design tools like the rest of us, until his retirement in 2012.
The Comic Panels Translation Series acts as a graphic time capsule that allows us to view the results of an approach specific to that era. The quality of Effler’s work holds up well to current standards while also being refreshingly free of the tropes of much of today’s digital design. It also suggests that as we continue to embrace new design technologies, there is still much to value from past perspectives.
Paul J. Nini is a Professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. He has served as a member of AIGA’s Design Educators Community steering committee and as an advisory board member for AIGA’s Dialectic journal. A collection of his academic writing can be found on Medium.