The College of Arts & Letters is mourning the loss of retired Professor Joe Kuszai, who taught Graphic Design courses at Michigan State University for 50 years.
Kuszai passed away on February 12, 2019, surrounded by family at his home in East Lansing. He was 86 years old.
Recruited to develop a Graphic Design program at Michigan State University, Kuszai joined the faculty at MSU in 1965 and headed the Graphic Design program for more than 25 years. Visual literacy and design curricula were his main teaching interests, and his primary research area was in documenting WPA (Works Progress Administration) murals.
Kuszai was known as an innovative educator, an evangelist of process-oriented design education, and an early adopter of technology in instruction as well as in design. In 1984, the same year the first Macintosh personal computer was introduced to the public, Kuszai sent a proposal to Apple that resulted in the establishment of the first Mac lab at a major university.
“I can say without exaggeration that as a Professor of Graphic Design at Michigan State University for 50 years, Joe touched thousands of lives,” said Chris Corneal, Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design. “His impact on the design community spread exponentially with each passing year as he educated, mentored, and inspired each subsequent generation of young aspiring graphic designers and visual artists and urged them to go out into the world and make their marks. As these young designers became leaders in the field, as Senior Art Directors, Creative Directors, and even Principles of their own firms, they in turn took up the mantle of mentorship of the next generation of designers and spread stories of the gentle giant of graphic design at MSU and the lessons he had imparted to them.
“Mention Joe’s name to any former Kuszai student and be prepared to hear a story. Every Kuszai student has a favorite story to tell about Joe. He may no longer be with us, but in this way, Joe’s influence will live on. He will be missed, but not forgotten.”
I can say without exaggeration that as a Professor of Graphic Design at Michigan State University for 50 years, Joe touched thousands of lives.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR CHRIS CORNEAL
At Kuszai’s retirement party in April 2015, which was held at MSU’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, many of his former students came back to campus, traveling from across the country. Those in attendance said that Kuszai had a huge impact on the university and on them.
“Joe had a remarkable gift to make all of us believe that we could make an impact in the world through design; that we didn’t need to sit quietly in the background while important decisions were getting made by others. He always reminded us that good design isgood business,” said alumnus Sam Landers, who received a BFA in Studio Art in 1982. “Joe left an indelible mark on us. He recognized that his time with us was limited – Joe constantly challenged us, frustrated us, even got us angry, but he never criticized our failures. In particular, I will be forever indebted to him for helping to shape a young, impressionable mind and instilling the belief that pursuing design is a worthy and meaningful endeavor.”
Alumna Ellen Bruss, who received a BFA in Studio Art with a concentration in Graphic Design in 1982, also reflected on the important impact Kuszai had on her career: “Joe’s legacy was that he truly understood design and the value of it. He made sure we learned the fundamentals of design but also understood the practical realities of a career in the field,” she said. “He was always there for us to talk to, expected a lot from us, and was an amazing mentor who will be never forgotten. I credit him for my being where I am in my career today.”
Joe’s legacy was that he truly understood design and the value of it. He was always there for us to talk to, expected a lot from us, and was an amazing mentor who will be never forgotten. I credit him for my being where I am in my career today.
ELLEN BRUSS, ALUMNA, BFA IN STUDIO ART 1982
Alumnus Dennis Pace, BA American Studies 1973, who never had Kuszai as a professor, called him “the most influential individual in my education and later in my career and my life.” Pace went on to say that his story was not unique as students found Kuszai from across the university and beyond because “his teaching and mentoring were boundless; his wisdom and kindness endless.”
“Joe counseled me out of a rudderless grad program and found me my first job outside of academia,” Pace said. “He connected me with brilliant minds and lifelong friends. He was a sounding board and inspirational mentor as I started a business. And I was just one of hundreds: teachers and university leaders, Disney Imagineers, and Hollywood filmmakers, designers and marketers, artists and entrepreneurs, who went on to solve creative problems and envision a better world through the demanding and exuberant ethos that Joe instilled in us.”
One other way in which Kuszai and his wife Shirley, who preceded him in death in May 2017, have made an impact on MSU students is by creating the Joe and Shirley Kuszai Endowed Scholarship in Graphic Design at Michigan State University.
“Their act of generosity will benefit students in graphic design far into the future, extending his already extraordinary track record of service to our university community,” said Karin Zitzewitz, Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design.
Prior to MSU, Kuszai served as an Associate Art Director at Columbia Records, where he did record cover and sleeve design and was mentored by Bob Cato, who is perhaps the most successful creative director in the record cover industry. He also served as Art Director at Clarke and Way printers, Harcourt Publishing, and other major New York City studios. He did design work and typography for Greenwich Village publishers, photography at Look Magazine, and did printing for artists as various as Richard Avedon and Leonard Baskin.
After high school, Kuszai enlisted in the United States Air Force, serving primarily in Nome, Alaska, where he worked on aircraft during the Korean War. In Fall 1955, he enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design on the G.I. Bill.
Joe had a remarkable gift to make all of us believe that we could make an impact in the world through design; that we didn’t need to sit quietly in the background while important decisions were getting made by others.
SAM LANDERS, ALUMNUS, BFA IN STUDIO ART 1982
Kuszai received a BFA in Graphic Design in 1959 from Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Graphic Design in 1961 from Yale University. He studied with many of the pioneers of graphic design, including Paul Rand, Bradbury Thompson, Norman Ives, Alvin Eisenman, and Herbert Matter.
He is survived by two daughters, a son, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren, two brothers, and two sisters.
“We are saddened by the loss of Professor Kuszai, a leader and innovator in his field who transformed the lives of many students and colleagues throughout his 50-year career here at MSU,” said Christopher P. Long, Dean of the College of Arts & Letters. “On behalf of the College, I wish to express our condolences to his family and friends.”
Memorial and Donations
A memorial is being planned for March 2019 in East Lansing. Arrangements are being made through Skinner Funeral Homes. In lieu of flowers, the family respectfully requests support be made to the Joe and Shirley Kuszai Endowed Scholarship in Graphic Design at Michigan State University.