25 Years After P. Scott Makela’s Death, A Former Student Revisits the Idiosyncratic Designer

Posted inFeatured Design History

This guest post was written by Anne Galperin, an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Design at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she teaches courses in design research and history and relaxes by sorting pied type.

With a body of work throughout the 1990s that enthusiastically and provocatively amalgamated dualities—word/image, real/virtual, hand/machine, past/future—American graphic, type, and multimedia designer P. Scott Makela established his reputation as a creator of postmodern visual languages outside normative graphic design. While designers of different generations, mindsets, and training disagreed acutely (and sometimes quite nastily) about what graphic design was and what, how, and to whom it should communicate, Makela was his own kind of designer. An enduring inspiration was weighty, machined stuff—the primordial analog output of industrial production, which he frequently rebuilt into dimensional letterforms, married to meaning, and presented in a succinct, unambiguous single punch. “Actually,” Makela said, “I find 2D type a backward transformation from 3D, a 2D way of describing 3D events.” Revisiting his work and philosophy is an opportunity to appreciate his prowess in reconstituting meaning and breathing life into language. I interviewed Makela in the spring of 1997 as part of my MFA Thesis at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Our exchange, below, is lightly edited and condensed. 

I think of 3D type as your signature style. 

Well, I think that it has been for the last three or four years. I’ve really never gotten tired of the mass it creates and the ability to create [the appearance of metal] alloys. I’ve always been interested in this idea of alloys. It wasn’t specifically “Oh, I want to look at 3D type because it was on a Metallica or heavy metal cover.” It really was more because of growing up in a household with manufacturing and aluminum extrusions. 

So it was about material?

Yeah. It was about material and the way it was formed and the way it was extruded out of machining tools. I grew up in a household where all these pieces were around, and I grew up with these pieces and these forms. By the other token, 3D type has become such a popular mode of trying to get people’s attention, even more so recently, that actually I’m struggling with trying another strategy because it has begun to lose meaning. Like Dead History loses meaning after it’s out.

What was the first piece you did using 3D typography?

The first piece I did officially, a printed piece using 3D typography, was the Mohawk piece, Rethinking Design, and it was the “Do Nothing” article I did with Tucker Viemeister. Before 3D programs were available, I started to use a program called Pixar RenderMan[1987], which was the old animation special effects engine for creating shapes. I tried to form typefaces using that. 

Mohawk Paper Mills promotion “Re-thinking Design,” copyright 1992, pages 14-23, Tucker Viemeister and P. Scott Makela’s collaboration “On Doing Nothing.” Scans of the original, courtesy the author.

So you and the software grew up together? 

Yeah, and then when certain fonts were available, I’d import them into that environment and create new possibilities. That was the advent of what was called Pixar Typestry[1990]. The software became a real basis for the way I would do things. Most of the stuff I’d do would actually be by default; when you moved the object, it became a cheap effect. I became interested in looking at things head-on. That style became a boilerplate.

While cruising around the grocery store, I noticed three genres of 3D type on products. It’s interesting; each medium has a different way of using it, connoting different things. 3D type is used on junk food for kids, household chemicals, and dog food. On television, I noticed that it’s used in sports, news, and toy commercials and often to imply technology, speed, or power. I found it cheesy. What’s your definition of cheesy when It comes to 3D type?

I think cheesy is newscasts. I’m so enamored of this thing, floating, hanging …

It’s slightly menacing, which I like.

I look at Stanley Kubrick films and realize what I really like about his direct use of models, like in 2001, was feeling that weight and that gravity. I’m interested in that gravity.

Title sequence from Fight Club (1999), designed by P. Scott Makela.

When you’re using 3D type, what do you feel it means?

When I think of how I use 3D type and how I used these floating planetoids, I think of them as giving me the opportunity to have XYZ coordinates. Instead of an implied depth of field, having the object appear as a real 3D object with some of the shadows it throws on the surfaces allows for a natural photographic depth. At the same time, it has the effect of being very modern. I like it when it’s not clear whether it’s a 3D rendering on the computer or a photograph. Some other designers have worked with a pixelated quality. I’m interested in how it feels when it’s burnished, really brushed and direct. It’s about implying depth. I’m interested in small, massive chunks. I don’t have a lot of language in my work. [I have] A simple language. I find it interesting to create dynamics within that equation.

So you think of type as having a back, a top, and sides?

Yeah. Absolutely. And what’s behind, because there’s a thickness and depth to the actual object, at least to me. I see it through my eyes, and that’s a problem.


I see language in the way that I’d like to read it, and it’s about reducing. When I was a student here years ago[1989-1991], Michael Hall, the head of Sculpture, had a really big effect on me during my reviews. He talked about reducing and isolating the work. I still had a lot of extraneous asteroids floating around, which didn’t solidify the message. So, for me, it became about (attaining) focus and isolation.

How influenced were you by Pop Art?

One of the biggest influences in my becoming a graphic designer was the work of Ed Ruscha. He was one of the California Pop artists, but he went beyond that because he wasn’t borrowing from commercial culture as much as from pedestrian strip mall culture—almost a lack of style. Ruscha brought language to life with his thick, floaty words. He and John Baldassari had the biggest impression on me. In the last five years, I’d say Lawrence Weiner. 

The Minneapolis College of Art and Design 1993-1995 catalog, designed by P. Scott Makela;
Courtesy the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Is there a message in the work?

The overall message in all my work is simply levitating directness in front of you. The language in the work is formed by the message or problem I’m solving at that time, but its delivery vehicle is about putting the message in front of someone and letting It levitate with a certain degree of weight. That’s the formal message. That’s the formal container.

Is the type hollow or solid?

I’d like to think the type is solid (laughter). It’s definitely die-cast solid without a hollow core. And remember, alloys contain mixtures of metals.

To me, [even] if it casts a shadow, it’s not necessarily 3D. It has to have substance as an object, and your work and Glaser’s stuff are there, even though they’re hand-rendered and funky. 

Peter Max, as well. 

And Ji Byol Lee in New York, whose stuff is done in Adobe Dimension. He rotated Univers. It has a top and a bottom and a front and a back. I look at the range of stuff, and they’re all different vernaculars. You said something about moving away from it or redeveloping it.

Here’s the thing. The way 3D type was used, was part of the 70s vernacular. The airbrushed type that was always the standard art house solution had a masculine quality. Now, with post-rave culture, 3D type has become everyday and accessible, just like how Photoshop has become, so it has become a convention now, a new vernacular. Part of my struggle now is to keep defining my work. First, when we’re designers, we can make our work about constantly jumping ahead as if that’s the only impetus for making it. You’re trying continually to refine something. That’s why it’s still interesting to me to go into those three-dimensional (programs) and try to create hybrids, which are a kind of shaving-off of skin. There are so many people doing the 3D type thing right out of the box with Pixar that I can’t help but feel that my own work is reduced if I don’t move onto a new plane of seeing how I can add more weight, more mass, even if it’s implied or more psychological rather than becoming structural or formal. 

I know people have talked about looking at the interior of typography, and I haven’t seen that exploration done successfully. It’s like the first time you saw a ceiling in a film was in Citizen Kane. So this is the thing to explore. Legibility on the outside of the word isn’t even an issue. I think it’s [3D type] supremely legible, but to go to the inside of the word, legibility is not going to be the same thing.

Yeah. We’re going to [learn to] recognize new shapes.

All you can do is look at the inversion, the concave part of a letter. If you look at the upper inside corner of the slab [serif] on an “I” it will look like the inside of a metal bird box or like you’re stuck inside a heating vent. So it’s really difficult formally to move forward. It’s why I’m now trying to concentrate on a psychological mass of something that’s implied. And that might be about a mysterious billowing like Freddy Krueger with the stretching face emerging from behind a very black surface. There are ways to interpret inflation. It’s interesting that you mention it because I’m not as interested in super-chiseled letters that feel like you’re not sure if they’re filled with liquid or if they’re solid. Pneumatics. Air. Fluid. Hydraulics. 

I was talking to Ji about this because when I look at his forms, I’m not sure what they’re made of. Plastic? Metal? They could be ceramic; it’s twirled around in that way. He said they can be made out of anything – even chocolate; he doesn’t care, it’s fine with him.

Let me say this: I think it’s a downer to be labeled as the 3D-type guy. When we went to London and visited Vaughan Oliver, he said, ooh, the 3D guy, 3D, 3D. It’s funny, but my work has never been about fine details; it’s been about the macro chunks. And that mechanism, up to now, has been successful for me. This is a strong communication of this idea; it is a strong way to present this text. But now, I feel that I’m at a crossroads in moving forward because I’d like to leave everything behind—but it’s easier said than done. I still find myself trying to refine some of those things that I barely started to scratch the surface of. And unfortunately, or fortunately, people are researching the same areas. Maybe that’s the reason to go on even stronger and continue to refine it. I don’t know.

Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson – Scream (1995) Director: Mark Romanek Production: Tom Foden Design/Typography: P. Scott Makela.

On one hand, everybody makes work that really characterizes and showcases their interests and affinities. And to say, “I have to make a change,” if there’s still appeal, I’d say go with your interests. Because everyone’s identifiable. Vaughan’s work is identifiable, too.

But also, it [an investigation] takes 10-15-20 years, like with a painter. But as time becomes more modern and people move to the next. Do the enema paint on the wall … make little plastic dolls with penis noses … so, it’s also about the shock of the new, being able to relate to what the new is. When Ruscha’s work came out, peo­ple couldn’t figure out if it was commercial signage or an actual painting. The question is: is it a painting?

The other thing about making “new” is about making “uncomfortable.” Have you done things with this style of type that have made you uncomfortable? Have there been shocks?

The biggest shock is when something is incredibly ugly because, to get to something beautiful to my inner eye, I usually have to go through some ugly things—like I showed you some of the Sweater things. There’s a fine line between what I might do and what a 13-year-old might do in his bedroom or what Mondo 2000 looks like. It’s wanting to slum a little bit. So there’s definitely a wanting to enjoy part of that slumming. I don’t know if that’s a good answer.

What was that Pixar-generated form that was gray and dimensional?

That was Summer’s (Summer Powell, Cranbrook 1997) font pumped into 3D. It became this floating monolith that made me think of those young ravers looking up at this floating thing in front of the speakers. We talked about it. It reminded me of 70s Led Zeppelin covers when they had these monoliths, and we all sat around the table looking at these things. So that was our idea. A new god. A floating, again, a levitation. Whenever something’s floating above you, you’d better take notice. To bring 3D type to life, that industrial quality is attention­-getting because it sticks out into the atmosphere from the surface. And that’s another thing, formally, that I can’t resist.

A Walker Art Center Fall promotion circa 1992 -1996. Scans of the original, courtesy the author

For more, listen to Debbie Millman’s 2020 interview with Laurie Haycock Makela on Design Matters Live; they discuss her revolutionary typography days at Cranbrook with Scott Makela, surviving two brain hemorrhages, and arriving at “the project of a lifetime.”