The Unexpected Work of McRay Magleby

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What is the power of the unexpected?

Posters. We walk by them all the time. In schools, in coffeehouses, and on street corners, the poster is a common but potentially powerful design medium. Can a poster that communicates fairly straightforward information push you to act differently? What elements are needed to create such an effect?

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There are many poster masters, but in the world of American poster design, McRay Magleby is a legend that many might not be familiar with. A teacher at the University of Utah and BYU for thirty-six years, he retired in 1996. Over that time span, McRay created posters that moved past the ordinary. During his career, he was commissioned to do several cultural events (i.e., the Cultural Olympiad poster for the 2002 Olympics and US Postage Stamps), but his initial claim to fame was his brilliant poster design for call-for-registration posters at BYU.

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McRay started silk screening because he felt that the silkscreen medium was “so mouthwatering compared to offset.” Soon he was being sought after nationally by big clients with open minds for his iconic style and clever design. So what was it that moved people to desire his posters and steal them from campus, making them so scarce one can barely find them on the Internet? Why is his Waves of Peace poster considered by many to be the greatest poster ever created? (The poster, which shows a rising wave breaking into doves, was designed to honor the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.)

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MacRay himself says it the best:

“Creativity is the act of bringing into existence that which is unknown, uncommon, or unexpected. Being creative is risky; however, where the risks are great, the rewards are greater! To be creative, you need to be comfortable feeling lost and in deep trouble. You need to enjoy absurd, contradictory, outrageous possibilities. You need to be a lover of exploring uncharted territory, and, most of all, you need enough self-confidence to fail.”

McCray took a mundane registration poster and made it simple, iconic, and memorable — he took the everyday ordinary and made it extraordinary. He captured complex issues and made them beautiful through design, copy, and production. In doing so, he created unexpected responses for his observers. And it’s the unexpected that continues to bring us back for more.