Michael Bierut | Profiles

Remembering Gordon

Like raising a child or running a restaurant, teaching is something that a lot of people think is a lot easier than it really is. Every student who’s sat in a classroom begins to develop a theory about what makes a good teacher. But, inevitably, this theory reflects only the student’s point of view. What it ignores is the unique dynamic that takes hold the moment a class begins.

When I was in design school, I sometimes imagined what would happen if one day I was asked to teach. I knew exactly how I’d be: warm, accessible, friendly, encouraging. Not given to stern critiques, but instead a fountain of constructive advice, delivered in the gentle voice of an ally or collaborator rather than an authority figure. My classes would be fun. I’d be more like a friend than a teacher, really.

In other words, I wanted to be exactly the opposite of the best teacher I ever had, Gordon Salchow.


I entered the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture and Art in the fall of 1975. First year students were required to declare their concentrations upon admission. Mine was graphic design. So in the fall quarter, barely three months from my high school graduations, I was plunged into rigorous foundation studies: drawing, color, simple typography exercises. I was eager to please. My teachers were demanding. Some were nice. Some were eccentric. But I liked them all, worked hard for their approval, and I got it. But awaiting us all was the real test: a teacher we would meet in our sophomore year.

Gordon Salchow had arrived in Cincinnati to head the department of graphic design eight years before I got there. That may as well have been a lifetime to me as a freshman; perhaps it seemed that way to him as well. Over that period of time he had made a program that met his own exacting standards, introducing rigor, intensity and worldliness to a place that still bore the traces of a provincial vocational school. We had seen him in the halls, expressionless, sometimes holding an unlit cigar or, oddly, a can of TAB diet soda. At department gatherings he would materialize, deliver a few oracular remarks, and disappear. We didn’t know much about him, but we were scared of him nonetheless. At least I was. He would teach our core second year design class, Visual Aesthetics.

Rumors about Salchow began to circulate in whispers among my classmates. He gave cryptic assignments that were sphinx-like in their inscrutability. He said things in critique sessions that made students burst into tears. He lived in a featureless white box. (As is often the case, most of these rumors had some roots in truth: the Salchow house, for instance, while not exactly a box, was by far the most modern structure in its Clifton neighborhood. And students did cry in his critiques. In my experience, a few cry in any good critique.)

On the first day of class we were talking excitedly in the studio. Then silence fell over the room: Gordon Salchow had arrived. He briefly described his goals for the class, which probably wouldn’t seem esoteric to me today; at the time I remember listening in hushed and mystified awe. Then he explained something we hadn’t heard. He was taking a sabbatical after the first quarter. So his goal would be to compress a year’s worth of teaching into three months, a series of exercises that would culminate in a single project: The Cube.

I can’t remember, forty years later, precisely how Salchow described this assignment. What I do remember is my sense of complete confusion. The object was to build a cube, 12 inches square on each side, and then…what? Transform it, somehow, through the application of form and color. Somehow. Many of our assignments up to that point had been abstract, but I was always able to figure out what the professor wanted and faithfully deliver it. In this case I didn’t have a clue. If you’re eager to please, there’s only one thing worse than not knowing the answer: it’s not understanding the question.

Now I realize this was exactly the point. With a feeling of helplessness, I began my work. There were no rules, no guides, no answers. There was just the simple world of a six-sided form and my own imagination. Add a color here, take one way there. Change a straight line to a curve, a triangle to a circle, move things around and then back again, hour after hour. There was no solution to discover, just the task of building my powers of observation, attending to detail, and mastering the elements of my craft. Through it all Salchow seem to guide me and the rest of the class without giving away a single trick. It was the hardest and most pleasurable work I had ever done. I was a different designer when I finished.

It would be a long time before I understood the lessons of this class. And when I was invited to teach twenty years later, my assignments were the opposite: hardheaded, explicit, leaving nothing to doubt. I couldn’t bear to subject my students to the discomfort of ambiguity, remembering how unpleasant I had found it myself. In the classroom, I was the friendliest of mentors, an easygoing coach, eager — as usual — to please. What hard work it is to be a good teacher! And, as I eventually realized, what a bad teacher I was.


It’s remarkable how different people can interpret the same thing in different ways. One of my favorite dramatic devices, one that I never tire of in movies or in books, is the revelatory shift to a new point of view. You see a series of events transpire through the eyes of one person, and then you see the same events through the eyes of another.

Sitting in his classroom, worrying about what he’d say about my work, and then wondering what he meant by what he did say, I was too obsessed with my own fortunes to imagine that Gordon Salchow had an inner life of his own. But he did, and it is on display in the book he published at the end of his long career, About Design: Insights + Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts. In it, you see the world of teaching through his eyes. To a large degree it was his highly-developed self-awareness that made him such an effective teacher. It was remarkable to relive these formative moments of my own life through another person’s experience.

Precise, thoughtful, and serious, Gordon did the hard work. He made each of us understand that we were important to him. When I graduated in 1980 it seemed he had been teaching forever. He would go on to teach for another thirty years.

“Assignments can be too complicated but never too simple,” he writes. Reading that, I thought of my struggles with The Cube, that seemingly simple problem that changed my life. And I was reminded of something I learned from another mentor, my first boss after I graduated, Massimo Vignelli, who once described the difference between complication and complexity. A love affair that’s complex is wonderful, he said, but a love affair that’s complicated is a disaster.

Gordon Salchow had a lifelong love affair with teaching. His devotion was simple. The results have been complex. I am grateful to have been his student. He died on October 4, at the age of 78.


This essay was adapted from the introduction to About Design by Gordon Salchow.

Posted in: Obituaries

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