Speaking Graphically with Ellen Lupton

The designer, educator, and writer talks about the evolution and future of graphic design.

Ellen Lupton has been at the cutting edge of graphic design for the last quarter century. A writer, designer, curator, and educator, Lupton has contributed greatly to the advancement and understanding of graphic arts and design in general. Her 2004 book Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, and Students is considered a lexicon for design education. As curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City, she has organized numerous exhibitions, including “Solos: New Design from Israel” which runs until the 23rd of this month. Her latest publication, DIY: Design it Yourself, is a collaboration with graduate students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore where she is director of the MFA program in graphic design along wither husband, Pentagram partner J. Abbott Miller. Lupton recently took a moment to reflect back on graphic design’s evolution and to comment on its future.


What first sparked your interest in graphic design?
I started art school 25 years ago in 1981. It was the cusp of postmodernism. I knew a little bit about graphic design—we called it commercial art back then—but it was much less visible than today. There was less public interest in it. The real moment of discovery for me had to do with typography, that place where visual and verbal art come together. Artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were just starting and I was attracted to that part of the art world that was political and using language and media in a pointed way. There were designers like Tibor Kalman who had a humorous, literary approach to design and that was very exciting to me.

More from Metropolis

Nowadays you can’t throw a rock without hitting a graphic designer. How did we advance from the obscure “commercial arts” to the graphic design of today?
The Internet has had a huge impact and the computer in general. In 1981 nobody worked on computers, everything was done with Photostat cameras and typesetting. It was all cut and paste.

Who were the pioneers of the emerging technology?
There were certain designers in the late ’80s who were experimenting with the computer. Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans created a magazine called Emigre in 1984, the same year that the Mac came out. They were pioneering typefaces that were designed to look good on the computer. P. Scott Makela was one of the first people to use Photoshop in a design intensive way. He would actually go to the printing plant with his Mac because no one knew how to deal with it.

How did these new software programs impact designers?
Suddenly designers had control over stuff that other trades controlled before. Photoshop allowed you to manipulate the image. The same with typesetting programs like Quark. It put the power in the hands of the designer, but also the responsibility. It was a whole new skill set. The computer really became industry standard by about 1991.

And then designers started speculating that desktop publishing would end their careers.
Graphic designers were afraid that secretaries with Times Roman would take over and the field would die. But actually the opposite happened. Graphic design became more visible and more understandable, in part, because people had that intimate relationship with fonts. Fonts are the gateway into graphics for a lot of people. Before the mid-80’s, nobody knew what they were except for specialists. Now it’s a subculture. There’s a whole font intelligentsia.

With design more readily available to the masses, how is that influencing the direction of graphic arts?
In the last ten years we have seen this increasing public access to design tools. It’s a global phenomenon and one that in the next ten years has the potential to really change the way people live everywhere. Access to information through the Internet is a form of wealth. I’m increasingly interested in the sociability of design, in design as a part of every day life and as a medium of pubic expression that doesn’t just speak to people, but that people have access to.

There is a burgeoning emphasis on the social impact of design in general, through the work of folks like Bruce Mau and Massive Change. How is this playing out in the graphic design field specifically?
More people can apply design in their own life and to me that’s the most exciting development going on now. People are writing their own software and sharing it for free through the Open Source software initiative. It’s become a philosophical decision for designers to create networks that are public. Designers are not just creating things, they are creating ideas that are transferable. They are creating an information commons.

The democratization of design.
Exactly. But usually when people talk about the democratization of design, they’re talking about shopping. They’re talking about how there are more stores where you can buy better stuff, which is true. Target, IKEA, Design Within Reach—-they have done huge things in terms of raising peoples’ awareness of and access to better stuff to buy. But there’s another side to the democratization, which isn’t about buying. It’s about making. It’s about how you use what you’ve got.

You and your sister, Julia, recently launched a website that speaks to this.
We have a blog called Design-Your-Life.org, which talks about applying design thinking to everyday life situations, like raising your kids and organizing your house. The Design Your Life project is about how design thinking relates to everything you do.

Is this what also spurred the creation of your latest book, D.I.Y.: Design it Yourself?
There’s a huge resurgence in the interest in craft right now. Stores like Michael’s and the Church of Craft and knitting circles—craft is cool. It’s a mass market phenomenon. People want to make stuff. This book was written and designed by me and my graduate students and other faculty at MICA. We see our book as speaking to that social change. We see the audience as absolutely anyone. And that’s really the point—design is relevant to everyone.

To what do you attribute this social change?
Ironically it’s related to the computer. One would think that the rise of the computer would alienate people from making stuff, but actually it’s been the opposite because it fosters learning and provides access to digital design tools.

As you worked with your graduate students to compile the projects illustrated in the book, what struck you about today’s design curricula versus what you were studying 25 years ago?
The kinds of skills we had to learn are no longer relevant, the hand skills. Now students have to learn this incredible amount of software and for some faculty this is very distressing. A lot of people feel like all this software has taken time away from more traditional ways of thinking. But nobody can afford to think that way. The real challenge for educators is how to work with software creatively and to integrate it into our teaching so that it becomes what it can be, which is a great tool.

There was a similar challenge in the 1920s when industrialization dramatically impacted art and design. The Bauhaus adopted the motto “art and technology—a new unity.” Are we at the cusp of a similar kind of a seismic shift in the design world?
Absolutely. I think what’s going to happen in the next few years in design education—and something that I’m very interested in—is going back to the Bauhaus a little bit, but from the point of view of the tools we use now. There has been a period of computer fear, where educators tried to avoid thinking about the computer, and tried to deny its centrality to curriculum. The next step is embracing it. Learning to really love the tool and not resist change.

Recent Projects