Michael Rock

Michael Rock is a founding partner and Executive Creative of Director of 2×4 Studio located in New York. He attended Union College, where he received a BA in Humanities, and later attended the Rhode Island School of Design to obtain a MFA in Graphic Design. Rock’s career consisted of him teaching as an adjunct professor of Graphic Design at the Rhode Island School of Design after he graduated and him current teaching at Yale’s School of Art. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his work, such as the Rome Prize in Design and the National Design Award (Yale). Rock is multi-talented and is a literary scholar as well as a designer.

He founded 2×4 studio along with colleagues, Georgina Stout and Susan Sellers. 2×2 Studio was established in 1994 as a global design consultancy. The studio’s intent is to focus their work on “brand strategy for cultural and commercial clients who value the power of design” and to “identify and clarify core institutional values and create innovative, experiential, participatory and visually-dynamic ways to engage key audiences worldwide” (About).

Michael Rock is interesting as a designer because of his background in humanities. Unlike other designers who studied design both in their undergrad and graduate years, Rock studied literature and modern poetry. His love for stories and the way they were presented, sparked his interest in graphic design and want to explore the forms that a story takes. To him, writing and design is simultaneous. Design is an elaborated form of writing as you are conveying content through the words and typography and other elements one may find on a page.

Rock looks past content or the what and focuses on the how or why something is the way it is. He is intent oriented and likes to dive deep into the history of the things. Within the design world, he is known to question the standard and to give his opinion. Rock strives to keep his designs relevant and reflective of the present culture. He purposefully chooses each choice he makes to add to the reality or story he his creating. This is important in the design world as he constantly cycles through and reflects on the past and present to see where they join or diverge. Rock is a critic of graphic design and advocates it’s importance in the field. Rock has stated that, “design criticism is everywhere, underpinning all institutional activity—design education, history, publishing and professional associations” (Poynor). With this thought in mind, he reinforces the importance of intent in designs and how one interacts with the implied intent.

Though Michael Rock is known for his work with Prada, Kanye West, Nike, Harvard, Yale, Barneys New York, and other notable brands, institutions, and people, he is mostly acclaimed for his writing. He has written many published essays that defines design criticism and provides an open dialogue of societal shifts. The books titled, It Is What It Is and Multiple Signatures, provide a collection of 20th century graphic design and exploring visual and design culture. Rock blends the literary attributes of an author with the implications of a designer to have the user rethink about the present and to see how systems intertwine. He genuinely believes that a designer is a translator of ideas and/or content, a performer of the form content should take, and a director of how the design should be implemented and the direction it should take.

As a designer, Michael Rock is metaphorical and literal. Metaphorical best describes Rock because he loves to write and speak using metaphors or analogies. In his interview with Debbie Millman on his book, Multiple Signatures, he is very symbolic when he answers a question. He mentions throughout that the role of a designer is to perform and construct realities for the user. He further mentions that our ideas as fiction are directive and helps to dictate what a brand will do and how they would present themselves and the same is true in our everyday lives (Millman). On the other hand, Rock is literal in that he states explicitly how he feels and thinks. Within the same interview, his essay “Fuck Content” was referenced as he dismissed content to highlight the importance of the form that content takes. He emphasizes that form has a language of itself and a depth to it that is worthwhile in considering (Millman). Rock as a designer is a duality, as he merges his backgrounds to provide a foundation to his career and the work he is able to accomplish.

Continuing with his interview with Debbie Millman, one learns that Rock’s favorite genre is fiction and poetry. He constantly references poems within his essays to explain his perspective and reasoning behind his thoughts. His essay, “Designer as Author,” he provides an example of an Chinese poem and how its translation changed because of the word choices that the translator decided to make and the lost of the visual that the Chinese characters had in conveying it’s content successfully (Rock). The vast pools of past history and the evolution of graphic communication has deeply shaped his life and actions as he cross references them to make sense of the systems in place today. In his interview, he references Vatican City in making the point that they were one of the first propagate their material and signatures in expanding their brand, of sorts. They distributed design manuals of how to print their work and how to distribute material and the same can be seen today (Millman). These small nuances and commonalities of the worlds past is what I think drives Michael Rock to do what he does and thinks the ways he does. He is nothing more than purposeful and playful with all he does as he always reflects and reconsiders. He stated, “design is about creating a whole mood, or whole feeling , or whole atmosphere around something.” I truly think that this is his mission through his work and that he actively tries to create common feelings and atmospheres.


Poynor, Rick, and Michael Rock. “What Is This Thing Called Graphic Design Criticism?” 2×4, 7 Jan. 2019, 2×4.org/ideas/1995/what-is-this-thing-called-graphic-design-criticism/.

Rock, Michael. “Designer as Author.” 2×4, 7 Jan. 2019, 2×4.org/ideas/1996/designer-as-author/.

“About.” 2×4, 2×4.org/about/.

Yale University School of Art: Michael Rock, art.yale.edu/MichaelRock.

Millman, Debbie. “Design Observer.” Design Observer, 7 Aug. 2013, designobserver.com/feature/michael-rock/37964. Accessed 2019.