Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Bierut, Michael

Interview, Ellen Lupton with Michael Bierut, June 16, 1994. Unpublished.What’s going on in corporate design?

Looking at the design field generally in the period between 1980 and 1995—there’s the “vernacular” stuff that’s just kind of there. At the other end, there’s the esoteric avant-garde. In between there’s the corporate design. Citibank in the 70s—that was an example of the avant-garde slipping into the corporate world.

There is an issue of I.D. that came out in 1980: it was the first article about “New Wave” design—Willie Kunz, Dan Friedman, April Greiman, Valery Pettis. This was so exciting then—it’s a very important article.

Dan Friedman did these subtle gradations and red bars in his stuff for Citibank. Corporations don’t care if stuff has gradations in it—they get upset by a picture of a penis, but not gradations. But for designers, we all saw that as radical design finding its way into the corporate world. That was very exciting for me, a thrill.

In the 1980s Pentagram did a bunch of work for Drexel Burnham Lambert, including their corporate identity and some corporate literature. It’s not as wildly decadent as you might hope from such a classic 80s story of greed, fraud, and excess. Pentagram did annual reports for Warner Communications before the Time/Warner merger. Frankfurt, Gips, Balkind took over after the merger. Pentagram did some pretty wild stuff for Warner, including a report with punk illustrations scribbled over Steve Ross’s face.

The first really radical Time Warner annual report had “WHY” written bif down the middle of the cover. It is a very significant document because it was the first visualization of what the merger would look like. It was featured in an article in the New York Times business section. It had everything in it from the design world of that moment—a chart from spy, an arrow from Rick Valicenti, etc.

What has happened in corporate identity over the last 15 years?

High design went from a specialized hobby practice of a small elite to a situation where there’s more designers out there and more people understanding what design is. You could say that design became more democratic in this period. The older generation looks back with longing at the time when there was only a handful of good designers out there to work with, a short list of people that the enlightened executive could call to get the job done. I talk about Aspen in my recent article in I.D. (replacing Michael Rock)—how Walter Paepcke founded Aspen as the elite, good-design thing, and at the same time his company was making some pretty gross point-of-purchase displays and packaging.

Consider Gran Fury: people doing activist design used to make it look like it was painted in a garret by angry people. Gran Fury understood that you have to knock on the door with the proper dress of a salesman in order to intrude on the consciousness of ordinary people.

Apple has had an interesting corporate identity. The introduction of the Mac is important to the design profession, of course, and the i.d. program for Apple is very important. You could do a case study focusing on the introduction of the Mac in 1984. If you did a time line, you would see the Mac moving from the white/white/white company with the white boxes to the brown boxes. They have an interesting corporate identity manual, that’s very “egalitarian.”

What’s important in typography from this period?

Well, you know what happened. Everyone became a typographer. Now, when people write a letter, they choose a typeface. Everyone chooses a cool typeface. Turning manuscript into type used to be the most mysterious thing in graphic design. It involved copy fitting, which no one really understood because it involved math.

This is what makes David Carson understandable. Mastery of typography has become such a degraded way to signify elitism, so now you have to do more. Carson, Barry Deck, Jeff Keedy—they’re trying to express the decay and alienation of contemporary design.

On the other side, there’s people still concerned with mastering typography—Fred Woodward, Fabien Baron.