Donald M. Anderson

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Donald Meyers Anderson was born December 13, 1915 in Bridgewater, South Dakota. Anderson became an influential artist and designer, publishing such textbooks such as The Elements of Design (1961) and The Art of Written Forms (1969) while he taught art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He also wrote about and taught calligraphy extensively during the 1970s. Anderson died September 5, 1995.[1]

DONALD M. ANDERSON (1915-1995)

Biographical information

Donald Myers Anderson, an accomplished artist, calligrapher, graphic designer, published author and highly regarded teacher, was born in Bridgewater, South Dakota on December 13, 1915, the sixth of eight children born to John Howard and Gertrude Phoebe Myers Anderson. On June 18, 1939 he married Marjorie Elizabeth Miller, who preceded him in death in 1986. Donald died at age 79 on September 5, 1995.

College Education

Donald Anderson received both undergraduate and graduate art degrees from the University of Iowa (1940 and 1941) where he studied painting with Grant Wood and Philip Guston.

Design Experience

During World War II, Anderson initially worked in Washington D.C. as an illustrator for the Ordnance Department of the Pentagon and later in the Art Unit at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Following his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1946, he secured a position designing books for the Adjutant General’s Office and subsequently worked as a designer for the Civil Aeronautics Bureau.

While residing in Madison, Wisconsin, he designed numerous University of Wisconsin bulletins, brochures, exhibition catalogues as well as publications, posters, calendars and items related to the 1948 Wisconsin Centennial for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Anderson also established a relationship with the Holt Rinehart and Company while designing and providing many of the illustrations for a 1958 psychology text, The Behavior of Man.

Teaching Experience After receiving his graduate degree in 1941, Anderson taught briefly at Iowa and then at Duluth State College before moving to Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1947 he accepted a full-time position in the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During the next thirty-five years, Anderson taught popular design, lettering, typography, calligraphy and watercolor painting courses until he retired in December 1982.

Artistic Work

Within a year of joining the faculty in the Department of Art at UW-Madison, Anderson gained considerable recognition for his paintings, was included in many invitational exhibitions and in competitive painting shows was a frequent award winner. Known for his exquisite watercolor paintings that demonstrate an intimate knowledge of traditional techniques as well as research and experiments with new materials and concepts, Anderson also excelled at mixed media drawings and employed a variety of materials, including found objects, when producing collages assembled on sturdy wood backings.


Donald M. Anderson authored two highly regarded textbooks. At the request of the publisher, he wrote and designed the Elements of Design (1961), a popular text used for decades in basic design courses around the country that sold over 85,000 copies. His The Art of Written Forms (1969), another popular book also published by Henry Holt and Company, served as both a college text and also appealed to a much wider audience. The second book was reissued in 1992 as Calligraphy: The Art of Written Forms.

Anderson also collaborated with academic colleagues on several limited edition ventures issued under the imprint Meles Vulgaris Press that received national awards. These included Il Perfetto Scrittore, Parte Seconda, by Giovan Francesco Cresci, which was later published by the University of Wisconsin Press as A Renaissance Alphabet, as well as The Trajan Letters, De Caratteri Di Leopardo Antonozzi, Libro Primo. A limited edition, boxed volume titled Have Wrench/Will Monkey featured illustrations of tools and wrenches arranged in humorous positions that suggested living creatures.

Awards, Exhibitions and Collections

Starting in 1948 and during the next fifteen years, Donald Anderson’s paintings were exhibited frequently in the Midwest, and he received about forty regional and national awards. In 1948 he won two large awards: one for his entry in the Wisconsin Centennial Exhibition, judged by Ben Shahn, and another at the Northwest Territory Exhibition in Springfield, Illinois. Anderson frequently participated in the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors and Wisconsin Salon exhibitions, and in 1951 won a Gimbels purchase award for a painting titled “City at Night.” It was featured at the Milwaukee Art Museum and later reproduced as a two-page spread in the January 14, 1952 issue of Life magazine.

In 1959, Anderson received two design awards: one for his jacket cover for a University of Wisconsin Press book, On Numerical Approximation, and one of his full-color illustrations for The Behavior of Man was featured in Illustration ’59. In 1974, his limited edition Meles Vulgaris books were displayed at the Grolier Club in New York and were included in the American Institute of Graphic Art’s Fifty Best Books in 1976 and 1977. His books also received awards from the Society of Typographic Arts in 1971, from the Chicago Book Clinic in 1973 and the Type Directors Club of New York in 1973 and 1979.

Numerous libraries have acquired copies of Anderson’s limited edition books. These include: The Newberry, the Vatican, the Smithsonian, Cooper Hewitt, the New York Public, Yale University, the University of Texas, the Lily at the Indiana University and the Kohler at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Examples of Anderson’s paintings and drawings are included in the following collections: the Cooper Hewitt Museum (New York City), the University of Iowa Museum of Art (Iowa City), as well as the Chasen Museum of Art (the University of Wisconsin-Madison), the Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee) and the Museum of Wisconsin Art (West Bend, Wisconsin).

The Newberry Library in Chicago acquired most of the personal papers and manuscripts of this widely recognized authority and skilled practitioner in the fields of typography and calligraphy. The Donald M. Anderson collection is housed in the Roger and Julie Baskes Department of Special Collections at the Newberry.

Jazz Enthusiast

Don began listening to jazz records while still in high school and started drawing jazz musicians at the University of Iowa, where he often attended jam sessions and played trombone in a college band. During the 1940s, Anderson also served as the staff artist and designed many of the covers for the The Record Changer magazine, often signing them with his initials, DMA.

Anderson continued to produce jazz-inspired drawings, mixed-media pieces and in 1960 undertook a major jazz project that extended over a two-year period. After spending over three years completing his Elements of Design textbook, he purchased one hundred 24 x 38-inch blotters, which according to Anderson, he “attacked … with brush and ink in a series of duels that lasted two years.” He later issued a portfolio containing twenty-five smaller versions of the famous jazz musicians depicted in his original large drawings in an edition of fifty. The original jazz drawings Anderson produced from 1960 through 1978 were displayed in an exhibition mounted at the Grace Chosy Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin in 1992.

An Enduring Legacy

Donald M. Anderson bequeathed his entire estate to a foundation bearing his name, the designated beneficiary of which was design education in the Department of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In recognition of Anderson’s generous contribution, two classrooms in the Humanities Building on that campus have been designated as the Donald M. Anderson Design Research Laboratory. The Anderson foundation’s annual dispersements have funded lab equipment, undergraduate design scholarships as well as graduate design fellowships.


The Newberry Library, Chicago Illinois, <>

Museum of Wisconsin Art, West Bend, Wisconsin,

Department of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Signature: A quarterly publication of the Colleagues of Calligraphy, Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, Volume X, number 1, September 1965

The Record Changer (the American magazine of jazz) 1940’s

''The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times newspapers, Madison Wisconsin

Life magazine, "Wisconsin Airscapes" January 14, 1952, p. 68

Descendants of William and Catherine Anderson, Donald M Anderson, 1981 (plus other family-related books) The Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison Wisconsin

University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Oral History Program, Interview with Donald Anderson, 1991


  1. ^ Donald M. Anderson Papers at Newberry Library