Speider Schneider August 5th, 2011

Getting It Wrong: Edward Fella

"I am interested in graphic design as art," Ed Fella says. "This is a kind of art practice that uses forms that come out of graphic design, decorative illustration, and lettering, all mixed together-forms that come out of Twentieth Century art, out of Miró and Picasso -- all of it has a genealogy and a certain look -- in the same way that artists today use comic books and graphic novels. I was an illustrator, so you see endless styles popping in and out of the books. The drawings are an unconscious discharge of all the styles and forms that I used as a commercial artist for 30 years -- that was my profession -- I did it every single day. So, my unconscious has all this stuff in it, and now, because I don't have to make meaning anymore, I can just use the techniques, like a machine that has long ago stopped making widgets, but the machine is still running. I'm still making stuff. I love the craft of it -- of carefully making some little thing."

Ed Fella: A Lesson In Being Truly Creative

Many articles and interviews have been done with Ed Fella. It wouldn’t do him justice to do another… at least not the same way others have done it. Mr. Fella is different, and not in a good way… or bad way. It depends on how you view design. A base of commercial art led him to create design that is the very destruction of design. It broke every rule and he knew it. The bad boy in me loves him for that because he chose to do it and keeps on doing it. Best of all, people in design worship him for it. My only sadness lay with his breaking the rules BECOMING the rules. Someone like Fella sets the high bar and eventually, it becomes the standard. Society, and certainly design, is too weird at times and eventually weirdness becomes the mundane. But the tribute to Fella is that he did it first and for many years while other designers failed to “get it.” The greatest thing that can be said is that he thumbed his nose at the rules and kept doing it until it was accepted and even touted as greatness by his detractors. Bastards! CalArts, where Mr. Fella teaches, lists his bio as: "Edward Fella is an artist and graphic designer whose work has had an important influence on contemporary typography here and in Europe. He practiced professionally as a commercial artist in Detroit for 30 years before receiving a master’s degree in Design from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987. He has since devoted his time to teaching and his own unique self-published work has appeared in many design publications and anthologies. In 1997 he received the Chrysler Award and in 1999 an honorary doctorate from CCS in Detroit. In 2007 he was recognized with a medal from AIGA. His work is in the National Design Museum and MOMA in New York. A recent monograph of his work, Letters on America, documents some of his extensive practice." I hope he laughs and prints that out to wipe himself with after each bowel movement he takes. Moreover, I hope those who believe hiring “young and cheap” choke on their own words when they say older designers have nothing to add to design. Mr. Fella was old and talented and set the tone many years ago that young and cheap designers now mimic. Take THAT Madison Ave! Idiosyncratic And Juxtaposing. Just looking at his work, one would think that he’s a lunatic. He forces contradiction yet still plays to the grid. Not because it’s there but because it serves his purpose to help pull the eye all over the place and still make pleasing, readable design. There is chaos and balance, existing side-by-side like identical Siamese twins – one good and the other evil.   His hand drawn type and inkblot icons are now Emigré font sets. Personally, I think it an insult to the man who hand rendered his own type to contradict the mainstream fonts of the time. Still, no innovation goes un-copied. No movement of rebellion is long lived as it often becomes commonplace with familiarity. The design world is always changing and eventually, Ed’s rebellion became the commerciality of later years. It is not the lines or placement or type usage of Ed’s that designers should admire and mimic – it’s the strength of conviction, the exploration, the dedication and the utter balls the size of church bells. When Crazy Becomes The Norm. Fella is quoted as saying, “anything can be made in anything” and “everything is possible.” That leaves little to no limitations in the creative process and Fella certainly saw no limitations in his work. His work is a forced contradiction and he revels in it. If red is the color a designer would use for a Valentine, Fella would no doubt use black or yellow. Considering Fella’s decades of work under strict control of both an ad agency and clients, someone of his creative talent… and needs, had a driving urge for a freer outlet or risk spontaneous combustion. One of Fella’s early sketchbooks contains some telling clippings. One is an advice column in which a young creative sadly wrote that he is depressed by numerous rejections and being told his work is, not “with it.” The columnist answered with a quote from Orson Wells. “I passionately hate the idea of being ‘with it.’ A true artist is always out of step with his time. He has to be.” Obviously that struck a cord with Fella. Either it inspired him or just legitimized his entrenched belief in his own design sensibilities. Another clipping within his sketchbook was a quote from Marcel Duchamp. “I force myself into contradiction to avoid following my own taste.” It was the strict guidelines of corporate design that forced Fella into his greatness and, I suspect, happiest place in his design career. He claimed to flourish with the erratic quality of cheap typesetting (before the years of the PC) and “quickie” offset printing. The arts community quickly grew to know and admire his work and because of the volunteer and low pay jobs associated with that community, he was able to control his own design decisions. By making grand images that were jumbles and unidentifiable, Fella’s work invited closer inspection of individual elements within the entire work. Fella referred to his work as stylistically “getting it wrong.” His work is raw and obsessive. It has power and spontaneity. Born from the knowledge of layout, typography, design and theory, he seems to have ended up getting it very, very right. (all images © Ed Fella) (rb)

Speider Schneider

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices. Follow him on Twitter @speider.


  1. What an excellent article and interview with Ed Fella. It’s inspiring to see his work and find out a bit more about a man that has had so much influence in our industry. Thank you, Speider.

    Will Sherwood

    1. Thanks, Will. Glad that the post inspired you to leave us a comment with your thoughts. Speider seems to be onto something with these designer showcases.

      Noupe Editorial Team

  2. Thank you for the kind words (and smart remarks !)…..I just want to not claim 2 of the images presented…. the first is the one with the black scribbles in the exploding letters that says “design, design” (sorry, I don’t know who did it ) …and the second is the yellow “student portfolio day” poster which was done by a student in tribute to my “style”…..I unfortunately don’t have his or her name, but it’s a beautiful job !

    1. Thanks, Ed! I deleted those two because they appeared under your name but they were suspect as files just tagged with your name (which happens on the web… grrrr!).

  3. I have no degree in arts. Reading this article made me realize things ( everything ) that cannot be taught at school. This article was so well put into words thus reading it will make you feel like you know the person (Ed Fella).

    I am thankful for Speider for showcasing different artist of our history. :D

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