Cogito Interview: David Macaulay, Author and Illustrator

Trained as an architect, David Macaulay went on to write and illustrate many witty, award-winning books that explain the machinations of everything from cathedrals to can-openers to the human body. Be sure to check out Cogito member Alexandre Caillot’s review of his latest book.
Photo credit: Steven Haller

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David Macaulay was eleven when his parents moved from England to Bloomfield, New Jersey. He found himself having to adjust from an idyllic English childhood to life in a fast paced American city. During this time he began to draw seriously, and after graduating from high school he enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). After spending his fifth year at RISD in Rome on the European Honors Program, he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture and vowed never to practice. After working as an interior designer, a junior high school teacher, and a teacher at RISD, Macaulay began to experiment with creating books. 

He published his first book, Cathedral, in 1973. Following in this tradition, Macaulay created other books—including City, Castle, Pyramid, Mill, Underground, Unbuilding, and Mosque—that have provided the explanations of the how and the why in a way that is both accessible and entertaining. From the pyramids of Egypt to the skyscrapers of New York City, the human race’s great architectural and engineering accomplishments have been demystified through Macaulay’s elaborate show-and-tells. Five of these titles have been made into popular PBS television programs.

Macaulay is perhaps best known for the award-winning international bestseller The Way Things Work, which was expanded and updated in 1998 and renamed The New Way Things Work. This brilliant and highly accessible guide to the workings of machines was dubbed “a superb achievement” by the New York Times and became a New York Times bestseller. Using a humorous woolly mammoth to illustrate principles, Macaulay offers even the least technically minded reader a window of understanding into the complexities of today’s technology. He uses this same humorous approach and uncanny ability to explain complicated systems in The Way We Work, which tackles the most intricate machine of all: the human body.

David Macaulay’s detailed illustrations and sly humor have earned him fans of all ages. His books have sold more than three million copies in the United States alone, and his work has been translated into a dozen languages. His many awards include the Caldecott Medal and Honor Awards, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, the Christopher Award, and the Washington Post–Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award. He was a two-time nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award and received the Bradford Washburn Award, presented by the Museum of Science in Boston to an outstanding contributor to science.

In 2006 he was awarded a prestigious MacArthur (“Genius”) Fellowship, given “to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations.”

David Macaulay lives with his family in Vermont.

Here are two very short videos about David Macaulay, prepared for a museum exhibition of his work.

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  • As you would expect (or at least hope :) ) from someone so visually creative, his web site is delightful and has lots to explore, including:

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I’m compiling a list of the views of prominent scientists, writers, etc. on the role of education in shaping their careers. I’d like to have your opinion. To what extent did your education make your career?

Impossible to say. If you mean formal education, there certainly were contributions made along the way. Primarily by a handful of passionate teachers I was lucky enough to encounter on that otherwise fairly predictable and at times tedious journey. My years at the Rhode Island School of Design were very significant, but for the same reasons: The teachers. The fact that my education hasn’t ended, and in fact never will, is what is making my career. I am motivated by curiosity, imagination, a sense of humor, and a need to fund the whole thing.

When I was in 6th grade, in class we read “Motel of the Mysteries” as an example of incorrect conclusions made from archaeological findings. Even now (some seven years later), that book still fascinates me to some extent with its macabre humor. For instance, one of my favorite themes was the apocalyptic junk mail–so appropriate for the time and such an original idea.

What inspired you to create such well-told stories for children, and how do you think of these crazy ideas?!

I’ve never written “stories for children.” I’ve only ever made books for myself that I thought others might enjoy. I work hard to tell them as well as I can, but I remain the primary audience throughout the process. I’m the audience I know best, after all.

As far as the origins of ideas, they come from life. Nothing is crazier than life itself so if you just keep your eyes and ears open you’re bound to be infected by the absurd.

What “thing” did you find most interesting to research?

The human body.

Was there a particular illustrator that you admired as a child? Did that person’s style influence your approach to illustrating?

I had my favorites as a child but I didn’t really appreciate their skills until I was much older and trying to do it myself.

How did you first become interested in architecture? Also, what made you decide to study as an architect? Finally, was there an architect whom you admired and looked to as a role model?

It seemed like a reasonable profession for someone interested in design. I lived in Rhode Island, I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and they accepted me. No [answer to last question].

I assume that you had a lot of access to these structures since you create such amazing books. Which structure was the most difficult to get access to? I have loved your books since we were allowed to check out books when I was in pre-kindergarten. In fact, my only late fee was for keeping your book out too long!

Watch out for those late fees. I never could get into a French cathedral because I don’t speak French, and even if I did I’m not sure that they would have simply opened the structure up to someone with no track record and no history. Maybe I’m wrong and perhaps if I had spoken French I could have convinced them of my sincere interest. Who knows?

How did you know what to put into your book The Way Things Work? I mean, how did you know what people wanted to know about?

I didn’t. Neil Ardly and the team at Dorling Kindersley pulled all the information together, which left me to serve primarily as the “visual translator.” My main written contributions were the inventors’ notebooks.

Given your foray into biology, have you considered writing a book on the ocean floor (detailing such things as the sea life and the geographical makeup of the area), or on the structure of Earth?

Not the ocean floor so much as the entire planet.

Have you ever considered writing a book on warships?


From which sources do you get your information?

Everything available.

I’m glad you are here on Cogito. Do you have any tips for drawing objects realistically? Sometimes I have trouble with this, especially with the human face.

Don’t be in a hurry and don’t get stuck in your seat. Move around the object. Think about what you’re looking at then draw it. Do it again and again and again. It isn’t easy.

What inspired you to start researching anatomy? Do you feel that your new knowledge of anatomy is helping you in your artwork?

I was inspired primarily by my lack of knowledge about my own body. Kind of embarrassing how little I knew! And speaking of embarrassing, I would like to think that my drawings of people will be now be more convincing. It should help to know what’s actually going on inside.

What was your experience as a junior high school teacher like?

Brutal. Loved the kids, felt sorry for many of them, hated the system. It didn’t work then and I still wonder if it does now.

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