Go to Whole Earth Collection Index

Kathleen O'Neill and Anne Herbert in 1982
Photo by Don Ryan published in CQ 26, winter 1982

 

 

 

Interview with Kathleen O'Neill

Whole Earth graphic designer

by Robert Horvitz, 21 February 2018

"Whole Earth had always had an edge-of-the-cliff feel to it..."


 

RH: Kathleen, what's your background?

KO: I grew up in Wisconsin, went to the University of Wisconsin for 3 semesters, then went to Canada with a draft resistor, a war protestor, and spent 3 years in Canada. Then went to England and spent 3 years there. When I came back, did a trip across the States and discovered San Francisco and decided that's where I wanted to be. So I went back to school in Madison for 2 years to get an associate degree in graphics, then came back out to the west coast in 1976.

RH: And started working then as a graphic designer?

KO: Yes.

RH: What were you doing before Whole Earth?

KO: I was a freelancer so it was mostly small projects. There was an organisation - San Francisco Women in Advertising - I did their newsletter for a while. Most of the rest were one-off projects. But I was working with a fellow who had worked for Whole Earth before, David Wills. They called him to see if he wanted to work on JB's book Soft-Tech, but he wasn't interested so he mentioned my name. I went and did a little interview with Stewart Brand and got hired. And then after Soft-Tech finished, Stewart asked me to stay on.

RH: This was 1978?

KO: We started working on Soft-Tech about 8 or 9 months before it was published so that would have been 1977.

RH: When you came in, did you diagnose what was wrong with the design of the magazines or have ideas about what you wanted to change?

Cover of J. Baldwin's Soft-Tech
Cover of Soft-Tech (1978)

KO: Well I found alot of the text dense and difficult to read. There was nothing really wrong with the format, except it was very set. There weren't alot of different ways of doing things, especially in the articles. We were set in the page size and paper, we weren't going to change those. So I started stretching how we handled visuals a little further. In JB's book I got a little more into having boxed sidebars, and those spilled over into the magazine. It wasn't until we switched to computers in the office that we rethought the paper and page size. Stewart Brand had very strong ideas about ways he thought things should be presented. But we both agreed the most important thing was getting the information really clear and available to people. I always felt strongly about that. I wanted people to be able to read and understand and know which parts went with which parts on the page, how the illustrations related to the text, and not try for whizz-bang fancy stuff.

RH: You mentioned that this was before computers so you were producing page layouts with wax, razor knives, paper and rubber cement?

KO: We never did rubber cement! That's a bad thing. One of the things I loved about Whole Earth is that we were all wax. We had a Selectric typewriter, and all the type was set on clay-coated paper so it stayed nice and sharp. It was interesting that when we were closing down publication and going through old drawers, those paste-ups were in much better shape than the more recent ones where the type was photoset. Those browned out over the years while the old clay-coated paper was standing up like new!

RH: Does that mean the original paste-up pages are still in the archive?

KO: When we went through the big container that we had, everything was not thrown away. I assume some of them went to Stanford but not all the paste-ups were saved.

RH: How was the transition from paper paste-ups to computer generated layouts handled? Was it your decision to migrate, or Stewart's or the printers'?

KO: It was just something that evolved. We were given computers really early. We had some of the first Macintoshes.

RH: Given to you by Apple?

KO: Yes. So we just started playing around with those. I did some MacDraw illustrations. Then when they started making some actual design programs, we were given beta copies of PageMaker and early copies of Photoshop. So it was more of a gentle move in. For a long time we were pasting up computer printouts. I think it was for the Millenium Catalog we actually looked into programs for producing catalogs, but we found that you had to have a rigidly formatted book for that to work. The Whole Earth Catalogs were so free-form that it was hard to use that kind of program. We did start using the computer to print out text, and as PageMaker evolved, to design pages. But we never set up a real computer database. In fact, for the Next Whole Earth Catalog we didn't use a computer at all. After that came out was when we started going more into using the computer.

RH: Do you have a favorite thing that you worked on for Whole Earth?

Kathleen O'Neill's paintings on cover of Anne Herbert's issue of CoEvolution
Kathleen O'Neill's paintings on the cover
of Anne Herbert's issue of CoEvolution (No. 28, 1980)

KO: I enjoyed working on everything. The Next Whole Earth Catalog was a real wonder to work on. It was a fabulous group of people and we got to see so much material and try out some different things. We actually did go elsewhere to use a larger computer to do some of the cover work. They were just starting to be able to do things like color fades on graphics as a service. And I was very proud of Anne Herbert's issue of CoEvolution [No. 28, winter 1980] where she used a couple of my paintings on the cover. That issue had more of my design in it than usual. Sometimes Stewart Brand had very specific ideas, but often he just let me go ahead and change things to see if I could make it better and if he thought it was more successful, too.

RH: Did you have disagreements with him about design matters?

KO: Sometimes, but in general we worked really well together. I tended to be a bit wilder and designier than he was. As you can see from his later books, he tends to be more regimented. That's how you do big books - by being regimented in the way you think about them. He was the one who kept all the organisational overview together. He always had final say on everything. He was the general.

RH: You stayed with Whole Earth until the end?

KO: I was there all the time it was on Gate Five Road. And then it shut down. Then Peter Warshall took it over and did another year or year and a half with an English fellow whose name I'm forgetting that designed it [Jon Goodchild]. It was not the same as the Whole Earth Review, and even less like earlier issues. It took on more of Peter's aspect when he took it over. It still had reviews and stuff but I had moved on and wasn't paying much attention to it at that point.

RH: Did you sense that the end was coming?

KO: Not exactly. It was a bit sudden when it finally happened but Whole Earth had always had an edge-of-the-cliff feel to it because we never made that much money and I always kept doing a certain amount of outside work. Whole Earth was only part-time for me - unless we were producing a Catalog, then we'd go onto full time. But when we were doing the magazine, it was 6 weeks on and 6 weeks off, which I actually really loved.

RH: There was a conflict as I remember between Anne Herbert and Crumb about the cover he did for the "Factory" issue of CoEv, the one with the swastikas on the worker's eyes?

KO: Right, but it wasn't just Anne. We had a huge blowback on that. There were a couple of Crumb covers that got us into alot of trouble. There was the girl plowing up the earth...

R. Crumb's Factory cover
R. Crumb's "Factory" cover

RH: The dancing peasant girl?

KO: Yeah. We got lots of letters from people upset by both of those covers, and I think Anne, just being really verbal and really good about talking about things, came to the fore talking about the swastika issue. I myself seemed to miss all those things. I always liked R. Crumb and being an artist, nudity never bothered me, and symbols to me were just symbols, and not reality. So I was always amazed that people would get so upset about it.

RH: Could I ask you more about Anne? Did you work closely with her?

KO: Yes. We were actually very good friends, so we also socialised together outside the workplace.

RH: Could you describe her for people who didn't know her?

KO: She was tall and blonde and good looking although she didn't think so at all. She was quite ungainly. She wasn't comfortable in her body. She was definitely in her mind all the time, an intellectual. She was very funny and incredibly thoughtful, trying to understand how the world had gotten so violent and unforgiving. Her father was a minister, although she was estranged from him, so she had a strong Christian background but wasn't a church-goer at that point even though the precepts of Christianity were very deep in her. She worked at Whole Earth full time during the catalogs and then before she left she was made assistant editor to Stewart so that made her a full timer.

RH: What happened at the end? Was there a conflict or did she get some better offer? Why did she leave?

KO: She really wanted to spend all her time thinking and writing. She started drifting away from the magazine and also started stepping outside of society. She stopped showing up for things and started sleeping outside. She had problems with money. She really didn't want to go the 9-to-5 route and she was so much in her mind that other things just didn't matter to her. She didn't care if she had nice clothes anymore, or if she knew where she was going to be living next week. By the time she started living like that we weren't seeing each other much. She started being a bit overly needy as a friend and I couldn't really supply those things for her.

RH: Would you say that she was still sane?

KO: I would, yes. The last time I looked there was still a blog of hers online ["Peace and Love and Noticing the Details"; final entry dated June 2012] and she was writing in the way that she always wrote, which is not straight forward but always deeply felt and deeply thought out. She died about 3 years ago. It came as a surprise to us. I think it was her sister that contacted Stewart or somebody else in the loop, to let us know she had died. I assume it was from cancer. She was in a medical facility at the end. I know that her mother had taken that drug they gave to prevent miscarriages before they found that alot of the children got cancer [DES]. She didn't have other physical problems but cancer was something she worried about because she knew her mother had been given that drug. But I hadn't seen her in years by that point. I heard that she was much more of a street person by then, in San Francisco and in the East Bay, too, where she had alot of friends. The medical place that she was in when she died was in the East Bay.

RH: That facility was for cancer, not for drug addiction or psychological problems?

KO: She was never into drugs at all. I don't think that she ever smoked marijuana. She didn't drink. So it was never drug problems with her. It was more just being so mental. Like religious people in the past: what they wanted to follow was the higher spiritual calling and not just the forces of the body. And that's where I always felt she was, into the spiritual connection.

RH: Do you have any ideas how we can recognise her contribution to the publications at the Whole Earth Celebration in October?

KO: Well, I think it should definitely be something about her writing. And it would also be a good thing to reconnect her with "random kindness and senseless acts of beauty." Because there was a fellow that was working real hard to pry that away from her and make it his, but it was Anne's totally. But like I say, so much of her was her writing, that was the most important thing to her. Reading, presenting some of that would be the best.

Cover of Anne Herbert's book Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty
Cover of Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty
by Anne Herbert, M. Paloma Pavel and Mayumi Oda (New Village Press, 1994, 2014)

RH: So after Whole Earth she focussed on blogging rather than trying to get a book together? I believe she produced a book with a Japanese illustrator. Do you happen to know that person?

KO: No, but at one point there was a book we were working on for Random House [Rising Sun Neighborhood]. Actually, alot of it got pasted up and then it all kind of fell apart. We took her to a psychiatrist because we felt she had had some kind of separation between the world and her self and we were trying to help bring her back more to the world. We weren't totally successful in that.

RH: How did that separation manifest itself?

KO: She would pick up the mail for Whole Earth, then she would take it back to her apartment and it started piling up there. And then also she took some of her roommates' checks and cashed them. Money's always involved in these situations. My impression was that if she wanted to continue being an editor at Whole Earth, that was definitely a possibility. But she was not really interested in that.

RH: I see. So it wasn't to the point where she was Stewart's assistant and he was dissatisfied with her work and said...

KO: No, never that I knew of.

RH: So you left when the magazine vacated Gate Five Road and Peter Warshall took over with a different designer - that explains why his issues look different - and you went out looking for other work?

KO: When they started, Peter asked me to send in a resume if I was interested. But I had just started working up at the Point Reyes Light, which was a weekly newspaper out of Point Reyes serving west Marin, and I was having a really good time working there. It was pretty close to where I was living and it served the community I was involved in. I was much more interested in becoming part of this new community that I just discovered, rather than trying to go back and recreate one that was never going to be like it was. The people involved in [the revived Whole Earth] were quite different. It just felt like taking a step backwards rather than forwards.

RH: You're still with Point Reyes?

KO: No, I'm retired right now, but I keep my hand in a little bit with the Hearsay News, which is a little broadside that comes out locally. I've been doing alot more painting over the years. I'm lucky to have figured out a situation where I don't really have to go into a job all the time.

RH: Kathleen, I'm out of questions. Was there something I should have asked but wasn't clever enough to have thought of, that you were prepared to give a good answer to?

Kathleen O'Neill
Kathleen O'Neill, 2017

KO: [Laughs] I told you I wasn't much of a talker! The thing I always loved about Whole Earth was that we had these people coming through who could tell endlessly fascinating stories, like JB and Peter Warshall, and Anne and Stephanie Mills. I could just sit there and take it all in. It was innovative. Things always happened in an interesting way. I loved working there. It was like the most wonderful place to be, with loads of smart people in the middle of a library. I always loved books and reading so it was a really special place. I was sorry to see it discontinue.

RH: Why do you think it ended?

KO: I think Stewart Brand started losing interest. He started seeing the particular things that he wanted to do in a stronger light than keeping the magazine going. And I think he felt weighed upon by the responsibility of having people working for him. And there was nobody else who was really willing to stand up and make it continue.

RH: Well, to me it looked like Kevin had alot of enthusiasm, and Howard, too, but maybe they weren't able to make it continue.

KO: They had alot of enthusiasm for the editorial side, but I don't think they were as good as Stewart was at keeping an organisation going. They weren't interested so much in how you run a small business, and Stewart was. For example, they let the lunchtime volleyball games slip. Stewart was really into that so we hardly ever had to have meetings. Because we'd go out onto the volleyball court and during those two games important information would get passed around. Any animosities would come out and get resolved. It took me a while to see it because I wasn't a sports-minded person but then I realised it wasn't just playing sports. There was a lot of maintenance work that happened during those games, besides invigorating us for the afternoon.