Columns / Insights

Playing with Dimensions

Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell
How did you two first meet?

Thomas Wedell: We met on the first day of school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Nancy was beginning her first year as a junior in the BFA design program, and I was starting my second year of graduate studies in photography. I spotted Nancy clutching her suitcase on Academy Way, and because she looked so completely frightened, I felt compelled to go over and offer some comfort by telling her, “Cheer up, it will get worse!” With the design and photo departments in close proximity and me collaborating a lot with design students, our paths continued to cross. By November of that year, we had become an item.

How did you first get the idea to work together—to merge your backgrounds in photography and design?

Nancy Skolos: We didn’t begin collaborating on design projects until we left Cranbrook. We went on separate paths as I attended graduate school at Yale University, and Tom taught graphic design at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Our schedules were so busy, we could really only see each other on weekends. Since we both loved to work and our time was so limited, we decided to spend that time working together. One of the first projects we worked on was a freelance assignment I had received to do concert posters for the Yale Symphony Orchestra. The challenge of presenting music through graphic design was a conceptual problem that we were both very excited to take on. Merging the photography with design was magical because it illustrated music in a very sensate way. We got into a routine of producing a poster within a weekend’s time.

I spotted Nancy clutching her suitcase on Academy Way, and because she looked so completely frightened, I felt compelled to go over and offer some comfort by telling her, ‘Cheer up, it will get worse!’”


How do you incorporate collage into your work process? What do you hope to extract from collage?

Wedell: The whole collage way of working developed gradually. Back before the digital revolution in design, we worked with paste-up techniques in order to produce our design projects. This resulted in a multitude of scraps of cut paper scattered at the edges of the drawing board and stacked in flat file drawers that were usually much more interesting to us than our design project.

The idea of letting go of preconceived notions through collage is something we began using in our teaching when we did a workshop on graphic form at Yale. We invented an exercise where we brought many cut-up copies of Domus magazine and asked the students to try to piece them together, looking at structure—large versus small, text versus image—and using it as a tool to free their minds without thinking about content. It is a way of working backwards, starting from structure and developing content by seeing what harmonizes for a particular kind of content. Since then, we keep several notebooks of these types of collages and refer back to them when starting ideas for a new project.

Skolos: It is a great way to begin a project without having to stare at a blank sheet of paper. It teaches students to zone out in a sense and think about all of the potential a design can have.

Why does layering 3-D and 2-D—or flattening 3-D into 2-D—appeal to you as visual storytellers?

Skolos: Layering 3-D and 2-D visuals began for us through experiments with varying how photographic images and vector graphics could be combined. Allowing for overlapping, completely separated or partially revealed segments in pieces creates illusionary spaces that allow the viewer to skate on or sink into the surface of the poster. By creating a 3-D model and realizing how the optics of a camera could change that object, and by mixing in the graphic elements, we realized the potential for combining symbols within a picture plane. Through our experimental combinations of 2-D and 3-D elements, we began to see unexpected narratives. Because we like to specifically direct our audience to a message, we started creating structures that we then photographed.

Wedell: Photography has so many associations with reality, but in a new frame, a photograph can be anything. It’s really fun to challenge the viewer to contemplate what is going on, to discover the intricacies of what is being injected into the piece. For example, our 2015 Lyceum Fellowship poster uses an image of the Empire State Building that we created by combing both bird’s-eye and elevation views at the same time. We did this by distorting the Illustrator drawings in the computer and altering the final arrangement through the use of wide-angle photography. The stripes are very flat, but the structure was photographed in a way that revealed dimension. Many people probably don’t even realize that we had photographed a paper model!

You were both recently honored with the AIGA Medal, in part for your distinctive poster designs. Why are you drawn to creating posters?

Skolos: Nothing is more exciting to us than the purely abstract problem of a flat picture plane. Working on a poster is the closest thing a graphic designer gets to doing a painting, and we love being able to present large 2-D representations. Scale also plays a part in the attraction. We always work with 90.5-by-128-centimeter posters, and that scale allows for multiple levels of viewing—from far off, midrange and close up—presenting the opportunity for different levels of discovery.

How do you choose a typeface so it doesn’t overpower the image, and vice versa?

Skolos: In our opinion, it goes both ways—sometimes it’s good if type overpowers an image, or it can be good for an image to overpower the type. Other times, you need to match the personalities of the image and the typeface so they work together.

Wedell: In 2006, we wrote a book called Type, Image, Message: A Graphic Design Layout Workshop for Rockport Publishers in only nine months. In the book, we explore four categories of the integration of these two elements to create persuasive, effective design pieces:

1) Separation: Type and image stay independent, intentionally and visually separated on different layers.

2) Fusion: Seen as a bit more poetic, where two things merge. The type becomes part of the image through optics or filtering.

3) Fragmentation: The type and image agitate each other, like a weather pattern or a freeze-frame image.

4) Inversion: Type as image or image as type, when letters form an image or vice versa.

Sometimes, we might incorporate all four categories in a single poster.

Skolos: While we have been using these methods for years, it had never been expressly articulated, and since doing so, the book has become a great tool for our teaching as well. The process of writing the book itself was a unique experience for us as it was the first time we wrote something together. Due to the deadline, we needed to find ways to be most efficient. Rather than completely dividing up the writing, we would each begin writing a section, then exchange files to review each other’s work and provide additional perspective, adding or subtracting information as needed. Then we would switch back to respond to the edits and arrive at the finished product. Interestingly, while designing, I tend to be more mathematical and analytical in perspective, and Tom more intuitive. In our writing, we found the opposite to be true.

What advice do you like to give to your design students at the Rhode Island School of Design​?

Skolos: Students are interested in everything. We try to give them the tools to figure out what they want to do, and one way of doing that is to ask them: What are you trying to accomplish in the near-term? And how does that play into your future goals as a person or a designer?

Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell diminish the boundaries between graphic design and photography, creating collaged three-dimensional images influenced by modern painting, technology and architecture. The two met as students at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Wedell was completing his graduate work after undergraduate study at the University of Michigan and Skolos was one of a few undergraduates in the interdisciplinary design department. She went on to receive her graduate degree in graphic design at Yale University.

The studio’s work came into its own during the 1980s; past clients include Kloss Video Corporation, Boston Acoustics and Digital Equipment Corporation. Their work has gone on to receive numerous awards, including gold, silver and bronze prizes in the Warsaw, Lahti and Toyama poster biennials and triennials. Their posters are also included in the graphic design collections of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, among many others. In addition to their studio work and teaching, Skolos and Wedell have authored two books: Type, Image, Message: A Graphic Design Layout Workshop, published by Rockport Publishers in 2006, and Graphic Design Process: From Problem to Solution 20 Case Studies, published by Laurence King Publishing in 2012 and distributed by Chronicle Books in the United States, and in five other countries and languages.

Skolos is an elected member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and an AIGA Boston Fellow. Both have been awarded the AIGA Medal. Today, they live in their home/studio halfway between Boston and Providence, balancing their commitments to their professional practice and teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Skolos is the dean of architecture and design and Wedell is a senior critic in the graphic design department.

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