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Nancy Skolos

Translating Musical Events Into Visual Imagery


Degree | MFA, Graphic Design, 1979
School | Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut


In the run up to our Thesis Book Project, Design Observer is publishing excerpts and images from thesis projects past.

We started with our own Jessica Helfand’s thesis and will posting one each week through the spring. Today: RISD interim dean Nancy Skolos’ 1979 thesis, Translating Musical Events Into Visual Imagery.




My thesis book, Translating Musical Events Into Visual Imagery, was the result of a lifetime interest in music (including a devastating rejection from music school), a fantastic freelance project (designing a season’s worth of Yale Symphony posters), and (perhaps most importantly) a desperate need to spend time with my boyfriend, Tom Wedell.


My advisor was Alvin Eisenman and we were required to make at least two copies of our thesis book—one for the library and one for ourselves. In 1979 xerography was the most cutting-edge technology and Alvin saw to it that we had a state-of-the-art machine and knew how to adjust the contrast on our halftone photostats to make the best photo reproductions.

The book was divided into two parts: a survey of quintessential historic examples and an in-depth documentation of the process involved for each of the eight posters in the Yale Symphony series. The cover was a cropped piece of one of the posters, wrapped around front and back with a completely inappropriate, yet trendy, Japanese binding. I used coated paper so the powdery matte ink had a textural effect on the surface. It’s taken thirty-six years, but the ink has begun to separate from the paper and fade from the pages.


The best part of the project was working with Wedell. He had graduated with an MFA in photography from Cranbrook, where I was an undergraduate in design under the McCoys. After graduation, he landed a full-time job teaching graphic design at the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which was later absorbed into UMass Dartmouth. Swain was two and a half hours away, meaning (sadly)—after two years of uninterrupted romance at Cranbrook—we could only see each other on weekends. Since both of us loved to work and both of us loved to see each other we decided to try to work together on weekends.




Collaborating with Tom was magical. He had so many tricks up his sleeve. For the first poster we made puppet-like letters that could be moved up and down from their baselines like musical notes while exposing them onto a poster-size piece of Kodalith film that was then printed on a blueprint machine. For the Firebird Suite we projected feathers in a 4x5 negative carrier onto high-contrast photo paper and then cropped and enlarged them to make giant fiery flames. For Mahler’s Titan Symphony we transformed a rubber ball into a monumental planet.

There was no end to the fun (and there still isn’t).