“I always say that I don’t have big ideas, I just have lots of little ones that fill the same amount of time,” explains London artist Kate Moross. “I much prefer to take things a little bit at a time and change things that way. I think change is lots of small steps, not necessarily always the big things.” This small-idea ethos has helped Kate forge a genre-defying career as a graphic artist: she founded the London design agency Studio Moross in 2012, started the vinyl label Isomorph Records, and penned the DIY guide Make Your Own Luck. Her work has spanned from music videos to designing the tour visuals for One Direction. “I very much don’t conform to what most people think of what a graphic designer would be,” Kate confesses.
Kate has recently joined University of the Underground, an institution dedicated to reimagining the rules of countercultures for the 21st century. Kate will be a guest tutor for the university this autumn, and here she speaks to Ted Gioia on the challenges of design education, unconventional creativity, and pushing the outer limits of the imagination.
How did you become a designer and start your studio?
I kind of fell into it because I really like drawing and just sort of found my way in the music scene doing posters and flyers as an illustrator. Then I went professional. But I found it quite boring, found I wasn’t really challenged or didn’t get to use my mind. I was just sort of a hand for people. So I started Studio Moross five years ago to enable me to do more art direction, more design, and to collaborate with people to find new ways to do things.
What do you think is important to teach young design students that’s being missed in standard education practice?
A sense of a reality. [Laughs.] There’s this sort of fantasy that exists within academia that you float through these courses and maybe when you come out the other end you’ll be ready for the real world. But usually that isn’t the case. I think you don’t really learn about systems whether that’s technological, governmental, scientific or whatever institutions exist around you. You don’t learn how to interact with them. You don’t learn how to talk them. You don’t know how to change them or work with them.
How has design helped you forge your own identity?
Well, I very much don’t conform what most people think of what a graphic designer would be. First of all, when I started I was very young. I got a lot of backlash online for being young and also probably for being a girl. Now, I identify as being non-binary, so I live in a kind of middle ground between the two master genders. I’m interested in a world from that perspective: looking at design and design interaction through the eyes of different genders. So for example, I’m constantly battling peoples and businesses who don’t have a third or fourth or fifth box for when you sign up for something and have to enter your gender. That’s something of a small battle I’m fighting every day.
I find that there’s so many different types of expression that those things aren’t necessarily grouped into sub-cultures or counter-cultures anymore. I think people fall into different groups but don’t necessarily have one [category] that they identify as – I think that’s more modern generally than just being like “I only like punk music. Or I only hang out with gay people.” I don’t think people are defined like that anymore.
How have you seen graphic design spark social action?
As designers we are asked to create a lot of the ways society interacts with institutions. Within that space, there’s a lot of interesting work. I recently saw a piece of work at Design Indaba by Arjun Harrison-Mann, where he created an online platform for people who weren’t able to make it to protests to protest online, particularly for people who are less able who couldn’t physically attend protests. Like I said, it’s not necessarily the kind of work that I do, but it’s definitely the kind of work that I enjoy.
What over-exposed term idea in design do you think needs to be challenged?
I get sick of so many things in design. I think I hate the homogenisation of design – like how everything is looking the same – but at the same time I hate people that get too caught up on people copying each other. So there’s that weird conflict where I would never promote people copying or indiscriminately referencing trends in design, but at the same time anyone that goes “Oh my god, they stole my design!” I would just be like uh eye-roll. Get over it. It’s 2017. You don’t own this typeface, you don’t own this colour, you don’t own this approach. I just hope the software that we use and the tools we use to create design evolve so that we can start to not be limited by them.
We have this fear of handing over control to machines, especially in the creative process. Do you feel there is an alternative view of machines?
The machine as collaborator. Yeah, I think that computers can be a collaborator in the creative process. I think that the more we are left alone to make decisions, the more that we will make the same decision. The opportunity to have someone or something else contributing that isn’t necessarily going to make obvious decisions I think, at least for me, kind of solves the problem of idea generation or inspiration.
I like this idea that someone will suggest things to me or will just change my work in a way that maybe will make it more interesting. I kind of do that in my own work: I will randomly change an entire document from a three-colour document to a four-colour one. I like those happy accidents. I’ve learned to embrace them rather than avoid them.
The University of the Underground is a new interdisciplinary creative postgraduate university hosted in subterranean spaces across the globe that’s dedicated to the design of experiences which support power shift in institutions. To learn more about the University of the Underground, click here.