Katherine McCoy

Katherine McCoy, born in Illinois on October 12th, 1945, is an American graphic designer in the industrial design field. In the early stages of her career, she chose to study Industrial Design at Michigan State after discovering the field on a family trip to the Museum of Modern Art at the New York’s World Fair. She graduated from Michigan State in 1967, and went on to work at Unimark International with prominent American Modernist graphic designers such as Herbert Bayer, Jay Doblin, and Massimo Vignelli. McCoy’s early career is filled with experience from various companies and in various fields within graphic design. McCoy left Unimark shortly after beginning and pursued a position at the Chrysler Corporation, where she worked at the corporate identity offices for a little over a year. After this, McCoy joined Omnigraphics, a Boston based design firm. Here, she was able to work on several projects for MIT press alongside designer Muriel Cooper. Proceeding this, McCoy moved on to a Detroit advertising studio, Designers and Partners. At Designers and Partners, McCoy had the opportunity to work with designer, illustrator, and cartoonist Edward Fella. Although McCoy did not particularly enjoy working at Designer and Partners – mostly due to her belief that advertising and design ethics were not compatible – the work she did and the connections she made were very significant to her later career. From Designer and Partners, McCoy worked at several other firms including the Xerox Education Group, until she founded her own firm, McCoy & McCoy Inc. with her husband in 1971.

After gaining years of expertise, McCoy decided to pursue a different route. In 1971, she was appointed the co-chair of the Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate design program where she led the graphic design program. McCoy’s work in this program was influenced by her work at Unimark, where her exposure to Swiss typography helped her to reinvent the program with social and cultural activism related work. She based the program on self evaluation, experimentation, and independence for her students. In the program, she included 2D and 3D design, and gave her students an interdisciplinary approach to graphic design. She also included semiotics, deconstruction, literary theory, and poststructuralism into the program. By allowing her students to develop their own deadlines, vision, and voice in design, McCoy reinvented the the landscape of design education at the Cranbrook Academy. With a lack of deadlines and assignments and finals, outside of weekly critiques and end of semester self evaluations, students could focus on the history and theory of their chosen field, as well as experimental studio work. They were also encouraged to do client projects, in which they designed something for a client who was interested in their work. This was often on grant funding from the McCoys, who students had a chance to work directly with. This style of education, while controversial, allowed students to break the daily norms of design practice and focus on individualism and creativity. Although the basis of the school was in studio work and a minimalist structure, they had strayed away from this style – it was McCoy who helped to bring them back to their roots. Many famous students, such as Lorraine Wild, Edward Fella, Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell, P. Scott Makela, Andrew Blauvelt, Lucille Tenazas, Meredith Davis and Patrick Whitney, graduated from McCoy’s program.

McCoy also developed many projects for the Cranbrook Academy community. She made quarterly magazines, departmental posters, museum exhibitions, and art catalogs. One of the most influential works she produced was the Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse book, published through Rizzoli International Publications. This book, which McCoy developed with a team of 2D students at Cranbrook Academy, documented the work that was done at Cranbrook during the 1980s. This book showed the main ideas of the school, as well as sealing it’s reputation. The book showed the visual qualities of the work students at Cranbrook were doing under the instruction of McCoy. These works showcased the highly creative interpretation of theory that was shown in the students’ work, which took a higher priority than professionalism or the desire to fit into the norms of graphic design.

In 1995, Katherine McCoy left the Cranbrook Academy. She had worked there for 24 years. Her and her husband Michael moved to Chicago. Katherine McCoy took a position at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design. McCoy spent fall semesters teaching senior students in lecture and seminars. Here, she focused on “theoretical and methodological issues, particularly on audience-centered communications, and the teaching and practice of graphic design within the context of new media”2It was here that McCoy taught until 2004, in which she retired from a career in education.

From the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, McCoy now consults in communication design. In addition to this, she consults on design curriculum planning at the Kansas City Art Institute, as well as post-professional design education. She is also still a partner at McCoy and McCoy, as well as a partner at High Ground Tools and Strategies for Design. High Ground Tools and Strategies for Design is “a series of workshops created by Katherine and her husband, Michael McCoy for other professional designers to work in their studio”2. The workshops help to foster a vision for design, as well as expanding design skills and methods. It helps designers to question assumptions within their work and redefine the nature of design. Katherine McCoy is currently 72 years old, and is still working to this day.

Over the course of her life, Katherine McCoy has won numerous awards for her outstanding work in the field. In 1984, 1988, and 1991 McCoy won the United States Presidential Design Award. Also in 1991 and in 1999, she earned the AIGA medal, which is the highest form of recognition in the field of graphic design. In 1994, she won the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design. In 2004, she earned an Honorary Doctorate from Kansas City Art Institute. By 2005, she had won the Design Minds Award by the Smithsonian Museum’s National Design Awards. At this point in time, Katherine McCoy has won over ten awards and titles for her work in education in graphic design as well as her graphic design work.

Katherine McCoy is an important influencer in the field of graphic design due to her work within education in the field. Throughout her life, McCoy continued to make strides in the field of graphic design with her work, however her ultimate effect on the field was with her work in education and with the Cranbrook Academy. By pushing for an education system that focused on experimentation and theory rather than assignments, deadlines, and final works, McCoy influenced a generation of graphic designers. She encouraged her students to push the bounds of graphic design and focus less on professionalism and more on theorycrafting, creative interpretations, and innovation. McCoy focused on a way of education with conceptual methodology, which allows for students within graphic design to experiment with their own style while still being within the bounds of graphic design. Her background in industrial graphic design gave her the theory behind graphic design that allowed her work to be groundbreaking, and she pushed for other students to have the same education that will help their work to be groundbreaking as well. Katherine McCoy’s focus on changing the style of graphic design education influenced the entire field of graphic design and helped her to gain the reputation she has today.



  1. HIGH GROUND : About High Ground, www.highgrounddesign.com/about/about.htm.
  2. “Katherine McCoy | Biography, Designs and Facts.” Famous Graphic Designers, www.famousgraphicdesigners.org/katherine-mccoy.
  3. Biography by Lorraine Wild  March 01. “1999 AIGA Medalist: Katherine McCoy.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design, www.aiga.org/medalist-katherinemccoy.
  4. Pictures: “Katherine McCoy, USA.” Homepage – AGI, a-g-i.org/user/katherinemccoy/view/projects/.