top of page

Ellen McFadden

Ellen McFadden is an artist, designer, teacher and wife of designer/typographer Irwin McFadden. Below are a collection of images, graphics, letters and writings from a variety of sources, including Ellen's own blog posts (reproduced with permission).


If you have more to add to this entry, or a recommendation on who we should feature on Portland Design History, please reach out to:

Photo by Christopher Dibble, Portland Monthly.

About Ellen McFadden, from a recent PNCA event

Born in 1928 in Portland, Ellen McFadden has been working in design her entire life, both as an instructor and as a freelance graphic designer in the Northwest and Iowa. Coming of age during the time when WWII veterans were returning from the war, she attended the Museum Art School in the post-war years and took classes with Doug Lynch and Lloyd Reynolds, among others. At the time she also set up a “cubby-hole” office in downtown where she did pre-press mechanicals for other designers and free-lance calligraphy. Influenced in the early 1960s by Constructivist and New Graphic Design movements in Europe, she and her husband, Irwin McFadden, assimilated new styles and typefaces into their own practice at a time when clients were more comfortable with traditional approaches. Today, she works full-time on paintings that incorporate pattern and vibrant color, their titles alluding to the Northwest geography and native tribes that are so ingrained in her personal history, one that she tends to dismiss by ending a conversation with “now back to the drawing board.” She is equally matter-of-fact when describing her work: “I see the two dimensional surface as the basis for tension and interaction with shape and the four outside edges. Color is a part of that interaction. Perhaps that vision comes from my years of graphic design, working with a defined two dimensional space and its restrictions.”

Ellen McFadden graduated from the Museum Art School (now PNCA) in 1949. She has shown her work most recently at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books, Hoffman Gallery, Wieden & Kennedy Gallery, and Portland International Airport. She was recently profiled in Portland Monthly.


Museum Art School, 1946

By Mary Ellen McFadden, published on her blog 07/23/2008

WWII was over at long last and I went on to the Portland Art Museum art school where a whole new world opened up for myself and a class full of young veterans just out of wartime military and newly enrolled on the GI bill. It was the fall of 1946 and my first year of full-time study in art school.

I had been living and working in Ouzinkie, Alaska and had an offer to teach school at Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering sea with O.C. and Ruth Connelly, an Alaskan man and wife teaching team, but I turned it down and accepted a one-year scholarship at the Portland Art Museum art school. In those early days, being a high school graduate would qualify you to teach the first three grades in remote areas of Alaska, still a territory. I often thought about that job offer on a very remote Bering Sea island, but I found out later that the military used the area as a chemical dump and many of the islanders died of cancer as a result.

As I remember, the following faculty were full-time instructors in 1947. Bill Givler was dean and taught composition, Mike Russo painting, drawing and art history, Charles Voohries, Louie Bunce and Lucia Wiley drawing and painting, Jack McLarty painting and lithography, Fred Littman sculpture and Leta Kennedy design and ceramics.

The part-time instructors were Conklin, architectural drawing (his class was the most difficult of any that I struggled through at the Art Museum school), Douglas Lynch advertising art and later, Lloyd Reynolds  taught calligraphy and Irwin McFadden advertising art and lettering. The term graphic design did not exist at that time, it was simply called commercial art. Lloyd Reynolds was professor of Art at Reed college, renowned for his calligraphy, Douglas Lynch was art director for Jantzen and Irwin McFadden had his own freelance design office.

Life drawing class, taken twice a week during high school, had been a part of my schedule so I was fairly used to the models in Charles Voohries life drawing class but I did have trouble with his smoking Italian cigars as he leaned over to correct my work.

The class rooms were crowded and it seemed that everyone, including the instructors, smoked. It became so bad that a life model fainted one day and afterwards there was a restriction on any smoking during that particular class.

Some of the Art Museum students’ names that I remember were;  Bennett Welch, Elton Bennett, Jack Lucas, Bob Gallaher, Frank Jones, Mary Ellen Erhardt, Alan Mapes, Milton Wilson, George Johanson and Manuel Izquierdo. Several students had wartime military service and some had seen severe action. Bennett Welch would have attacks of malaria and huddle on top of one of the classroom heaters. Jim Hansen, another veteran and Ruth Sato, a sansei who had been forced to live in a Japanese internment camp throughout WWII, enrolled as students in 1947. Mark Norrander and Joe Erceg, (both became graphic designers after military service) enrolled later as I remember.


Freelance Years 1956/63

By Mary Ellen McFadden, published on her blog 09/24/2008

Freelancing meant covering a wide range of skills in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I did calligraphy, production work for established designers, and eventually developed my own freelance design projects. There were no computers to work with, I did all of my preliminary sketches on tablets with colored pencils, I then created mockups (called comps) of projected designs to present to a client, and finally, did precise mechanicals for both my projects and other designers whose layouts I followed. I also did my own billing and bookkeeping. It was a routine that almost all freelance designers followed in those days, at least when you first started out.

The first project where I was able to design all aspects of a catalog, letterhead, business card and other printed material 1962. A daring, new approach to graphic design in the Portland, Oregon 1960’s. Hastings Business School was set in a display face based on the newly introduced Helvetica and the text was set in Helvetica, Linotype.

I was deeply influenced by a new publication that Irwin McFadden, Joe Erceg and I had all subscribed to in 1960 called New Graphic Design, a design magazine just published in Switzerland. It was my first exposure to avant-garde European design and I was stunned. Helvetica was just coming on the type market at that time and you could only find it locally in cast type ordered from a type house or printing plant in 8, 10 and 12 point, machine set, but usually no larger sizes. New Graphic Design was my first real exposure to Helvetica, although the mast-head was not specifically set in it.

After a design was approved by the client, we very carefully wrote detailed instructions on the typewritten manuscript (called marking copy) that was given to us by the client, directions for setting type, column width, point size, word spacing and leading (depending on the typeface). We also had to know if the typefaces that we chose were available locally/regionally.

Every foundry had its own version of a typeface, usually in a limited set of sizes, and we had to work with that set of characters per pica information. The procedure was called character counting. We then determined how much space the type characters would take up in a certain space. That was called copyfitting and was a critical step before we sent the marked-up manuscript off to the typesetter.

If there were typos in the galley proofs (set type images on sheets of paper), we had to correct them with proof-readers marks and send them back to the typesetter to be corrected.  We then pasted up the final proof (called a  repro) in a mechanical. Everything had to be perfect at that point because a plate for the printing press was made from the image of the final mechanical, also called a paste-up.

An invitation designed for a Mike Russo exhibition of paintings. Mike had a very limited budget so the cheapest, rough paperstock was chosen, calligraphy for the text instead of expensive cast type, a san-serif display face for his name, printed in a single color. Low cost design and printing.


By Mary Ellen McFadden, published on her blog 9/27/08

I studied calligraphy for many years with professor Lloyd Reynolds at the Portland Museum

Art School and Reed college in both day and night classes and I also attended just about every event that he organized while I was living in Portland. He introduced me to the work of Alfred Fairbank, Arnold Bank, Father Catish (whom I met at one of his lectures in Portland) Ray DeBoll, and Edward Johnson. I carried Johnston’s Writing, Illuminating and Lettering around with me for years. Many of my early assignments were for calligraphed certificates.

But my husband and I were becoming aware of the Constructivist work in graphic design that was suddenly coming out of Europe, along with the work of American designers, especially Paul Rand and Ray & Charles Eames. We devoured every publication on the new graphic design movements of that time and the Swiss publication New Graphic Design was our road map.


Graphic Design 1963-1965

By Mary Ellen McFadden, published on her blog 9/28/08 - 10/1/08

In 1963 my husband and I moved to Pullman, Washington when he became publications designer for Washington State University. Since there were strict university rules concerning nepotism, I was not allowed to work in the publication design office, although I was later employed in the graphics laboratory as a technical illustrator. I also taught calligraphy and lettering in the college art department.

I visited Whitworth college, a small private school in Spokane, where I signed a contract to design all their publications for one year. Their budget was very limited and there was always a short time-line on just about every project. They had no photographs to use so I shot rolls of film on their campus, then developed the film and made prints in a basement darkroom. They mailed material to me that I would create a design for and I would make a mechanical and ship it (and anything else needed by the printer) back to Whitworth on the greyhound bus. No computers, PDF files, internet, everything was done through telephone conversations, mail and the Greyhound bus service. Long distance design in the olden days of 1963.

An inexpensive two-color flyer from a series that won an award for college publications that year from American College Public Relations Association or ACPRA. I don't think ACPRA exists anymore but Whitworth was more than happy with winning their first college publications award. The circular was designed as both a poster and flyer. I used calligraphy and my husband's san-serif for headings.

Caption by Ellen McFadden: Whitworth campus guide 1964. I shot all my own photographs and developed and printed them in my basement. Photography in the old days.

The typeface used was from a printer in Spokane, (not too much choice to work with) and the type repros were shipped back from them on the Greyhound bus. I then created a mechanical with type and stats of headings that I pasted in position, cut rubylith windows on the mechanical for the photos to be tipped into by the printer after they had been screened, specified the PMS color, then shipped the mechanical back to Whitworth college on the Greyhound bus. All I could do was fervently hope that it would turn out as I had planned. 

Captions left to right by Ellen McFadden:

1. A simple type layout that I made at Washington State University back in the olden days before computer programs did the work. I would do a sketch and specify what typeface was to be used following the layout and of course, using the type available in the college print shop. Then the print shop would print it letterpress, but always feeling that a woman didn't know diddly-squat about real typography. (Hey guys, take a look at this!!! She's run the type vertically. How can anybody in their right mind read that???)

2. When there was no turn-around time or budget, I would pick up the edged pen and create my own "typography". An announcement for the Whitworth college art department.

3. My own promotion material 1973, designer, me.

4. Flyer for the University of Iowa college of medicine using a type called New Museum, designed by my husband Irwin McFadden.

Various design work for the University of Iowa.


When and how did your career start? My graphic design career started in 1956. I freelanced from my own office, a small cubby-hole in a downtown Portland building. I canvased business for possible design projects, and assembled traditional mechanicals and art pre-press preparation for other designers. It was at this time that I received the Swiss publication announcement for the journal New Graphic Design (Neue Grafik), that I subscribed to. New Graphic Design was the great turning point in how I saw myself. I was no longer involved in advertising art but was now a graphic designer, a new term for many of us. In 1953 the Portland Art Museum purchased Josef Albers “Late Reminder” (1953), from the “Homage to the Square” series, and it had a great impact on how I saw painting as well.


Embracing Technology

Caption from Ellen McFadden:

Mrs. McFadden and student. This machine was a Compugraphic EditWriter 8400 phototypesetter that had floppy disk storage on an 8-inch, 320K disk. It was faster than setting type on a stick and you didn't have to deal with a Linotype operator. But you had better know the coding info on the screen. No spell checker either. Its output was a twelve inch wide strip of photo paper from a roll in the machine that the students hung from wires and pipes in the lab to dry after being processed in a chemical bath. They were then cut up into repros to be pasted on a mechanical. And we thought it was the most modern system possible.

This allowed the typesetter to make changes and corrections without rekeying, a big breakthrough for us! The Cathode ray tube (CRT) screen let us view typesetting codes and we could set type from 6 points to 72 points. We had five work stations in the classroom, constantly being used by the students and college publication department.

It was at this point in time that all hell broke out in type design with devastating results for the world class foundries. The phototypesetting companies were getting around the copyright on standard faces such as Times Roman by making small changes in their design and then renaming them as close to the original as possible.

Some of my sharpest students began to design with the machine. Unheard of!!!! There was no image of type on the screen, they just created the typographic layout in their minds using the coding. Way ahead of their teacher!"


Ellen McFadden's Paintings

Ellen McFadden is represented by Ampersand Gallery.


Ellen on Painting

by Pilgrim Films in 2018


bottom of page