Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and founding 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

de Bretteville, Sheila Levrant

“Sheila Levrant de Bretteville: Dirty Design and Fuzzy Theory,”
interview with Ellen Lupton, published in Eye magazine, 1992

In 1990 Sheila Levrant de Bretteville became the new director of studies in graphic design at Yale University School of Art. Since the late 1950s, the Yale program had been a bastion of modernist theory, a conduit between designers in the U.S. and the program in graphic design at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basle, directed by Armin Hoffmann. For over thirty years, graduates of these distinguished programs have profoundly influenced American design through their professional work and their teaching.

Presiding over this long and productive history was Alvin Eisenman, whose retirement prompted a committee of faculty and design alumni to appoint a new head in 1990, a decision which will shape the program’s direction for the decades to come. The committee selected Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who had attended the Yale program in the early 60s and has since become an influential and outspoken designer and educator. As a feminist who participated in the rebirth of the women’s movement in the 1970s and its critical refinement in the 80s, de Bretteville believes that the values culturally associated with women are needed in public life. She wants designers to begin listening to different voices, and to forge more attentive and open structures that provide opportunities for others to be heard. She wants to move design toward proactive practice instead of focusing solely on corporate service.

De Bretteville has been met largely with support and hope. While most faculty and alumni have affirmed her inclusive definition of design, others have been outraged. Paul Rand, who had been a member of the faculty since the late 50s, resigned on principle, and convinced his long-time colleague Armin Hoffmann to do the same. In an angry manifesto published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design (Vol.10 No.2 1992), Rand railed against the violation of modernism by screaming hordes of historicists, deconstructivists, activists, and other heretics. Behind each of these challenges to modernism one can name a powerful woman whose voice threatens the stability of Rand’s carefully guarded ideals: behind historicism stands Paula Scher, behind deconstructivism stands Katherine McCoy, and behind activism stands Sheila de Bretteville. In the conversaton that follows, de Bretteville talks about the new program at Yale and the values it promotes. Perhaps de Bretteville’s philosophy reflects a global shift in the design profession, or perhaps it will catalyze such a shift, just as the program of Eisenman, Rand, and Hoffmann helped redirect the currents of American design practice.

How is the new program at Yale different from what proceeded it?

When you ask a question like this, I feel reluctant to locate the differences, because notions of “difference” have been coded with so much positive thought on my part. Also, I have great respect for Alvin Eisenman, and for the forty years of work that he has done here, and for the intelligence and ecumenical spirit that he brought to this endeavor.

It is important to me that this program be person-centered. The students are encouraged and empowered to put and find themselves in their work. My agenda is to let the differences among my students be visible in everything they do. In most projects—not just in thesis work—it’s the students’ job to figure out what they want to say. Emphasizing the students’ desire to communicate, and focusing on what needs to be said and to whom they want to say it—that’s what I mean by person-centeredness. While that may have existed before, it is even stronger now.

What resistance have you had from faculty or alumni or from your own students? Some faculty who were here for many years left in a spirit of protest.

I think you should talk to the people who are upset. I am not upset. I am delighted. When students say that they chose to come here because it scared them, it was the most unfamiliar and the most challengng, I consider that a positive place to start from. (I feel that comfort is a highly overrated emotion.) It means they’re beginning a journey that allows them not to become representatives of a single, unifying, universalizing, totalizing view, making all their work look the same.

I didn’t need to end anything that was happening here; I needed to add what I felt had been left out. There are people for whom diversity and inclusion is terrifying and inappropriate, and they have absented themselves from teaching here. I am hoping that the students who come, come for the open-minded attitude that exists here, and for the chance to frame their own way of being in the profession.

Do you think people are surprised by what you have done?

Some people have said that I should be less visible, that I should be in the background, that I should simply and invisibly support the people who are here and whom I brought. But don’t those recommendations too closely match old female role notions? Alvin was a more supportive person for the other faculty; he was much less visible than they were. But this is a very different time now.

And in truth, as a woman designer, no one would have known about me if I hadn’t spoken out in the seventies with a feminist reappraisal of the design arts. Focusing on one stratum of myself—gender—provided me with other ways to look at graphic design that were prescient, because they anticipated the eighties deconstructivist critique of the International Style. I feel aligned with Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and other people who in the late sixties and early seventies were, like me, criticizing the universalizing aspects of design, and the notion that there was one high, single truth that would improve the lot of everyone.

“To be seen and not heard” was not a good thing to be told. I was not told that by the majority, however, and I was not told that by David Pease, Dean of the Art School, who was 100%-plus supportive. The group of faculty and alumni that chose me, chose to send a signal to the design community about the kinds of changes they wanted to see at Yale. Since what I’ve done before is known, it can’t be a total surprise what I would do here. No one should be surprised that I would look at things from multiple perspectives, that I would be involved in the community, or that I would care about the personal voice of the designer.

What do you think are the most important intellectual tools for young designers today?

They need to learn about different ways to interpret graphic design. There is not only one way to interpret any made thing, but there are many perspectives. Students should know the names and the languages that go with each of these perspectives—not because jargon is useful, but because knowing about these issues enables the students to participate in the debates, should they so choose. I believe that a productive tension comes from diverse points of view, and that students should grapple with diverse points of view about any act of design.

We have given students readings from various critical perspectives, including psychoanalytic, semiotic, post-modern, feminist, and formalist, to enable them to participate in the discourse at these different levels. And we encourage them to take classes at the university, from people whose daily work is thinking from these perspectives. Our students take academic courses every semester; it’s now a requirement. When I was a student here thirty years ago, we didn’t have seminars with readings that allowed us to discuss these different perspectives. We took courses in the university, but bringing back those courses and material to the act of doing, and thinking about, and writing about, and analyzing design didn’t occur in design seminars and critiques, to my knowledge.

You asked about other kinds of tools. In order for designers to know whether the appropriate way for communicating to a particular audience is a poster, a billboard, an exhibition, or an interactive hypermedia experience, they need to know what those tools can do. The choice of which format to communicate with should occur after you know whom you want to talk to, and what you want to tell them. This plays into our notion of proactivity, which is to go out into the community along issues that have meaning for you, find out who else is affected by these issues, what organizations already exist, what they are already doing, what needs have not been met, and then look for what ways graphic design could communicate to those audiences who don’t have access to the information that’s out there for them.

The person-focus of your program concerns not just the designer, but the audience. The audience has a new centrality.

That’s correct. Because the audience is not an audience; it’s a co-participant with you, and it’s also your client. You bring skills, they bring their own knowledge, and you are both agencies of knowledge—your knowledge as a designer, their knowledge as a person in need, and the community as a group of people in need. It’s a parallel construction, rather than a top-down mechanism. The students here have had an experience of being alongside the client/audience/user, because they themselves are part of the client/audience/user.

How does form-making relate to these problems of addressing the audience? You talked about the format, the institutional frame, of communication. How do you fill up that frame?

I’m providing a variety of parallel experiences of coming to form. I do personally believe in delaying form-making until you know what you need to say, to whom you need to say it, and how it should be said. On the other hand, there is a hunger among our students for purely aesthetic exploration, where there is no need to communicate, where we take away the client, where we take away the audience, where it doesn’t matter if we can understand it. We just play with the materials because we can bump into a new form of expression that we could apply where it’s appropriate. Pure aesthetic exploration which doesn’t have any agenda at all, except to see what could happen, is something personally I’m less comfortable with, but therefore I hire people who are very comfortable in it.

In your 1983 essay “Feminist Design” Space and Society/Spazio e Societa 6 (June 1983) 98-103], you describe feminist design as a set of formal, tactical moves. What is “feminist design”?

First, what’s feminism? In my understanding, feminism acknowledges the past inequality of women, and doesn’t want it to continue into the future. The issue of equality broadens beyond just women to involve the equality of all voices. Feminist design looks for graphic strategies that will enable us to listen to people who have not been heard from before. Feminism is about enabling those voices to be heard.

Thinking about myself from a gendered perspective—even if gender is a fiction—meant separating those experiences that related to me as a gendered figure from other aspects of myself—from being a New York, being Jewish, or being skinny. For me, the processes of childbearing, parenting, and reading feminist writings brought social inequities into sharper focus. There is a prevalent notion in the professional world that only if you have eight or more uninterrupted hours can you do significant work. But, if you respond in thought and action to other human beings—if you are a relational person—you do not really have eight uninterrupted hours in a row!

Relational existence is only attached to gender by history—not by genes, not by biology, not by some essential “femaleness.” A relational person thinks about other human beings and their needs during the day. I used to call it “strudeling,” because strudel is a layered pastry. A relational person allows notions about other people to come in and interrupt the trajectory of thinking or designing. I don’t think strudeling is an exclusively “female” way of thinking, but I might call it a feminist way of thinking, because to acknowledge and valorize this attitude is to separate it from gender and free it from the nineteenth-century idea that women’s culture should be locked away in the private, domestic realm.

My grandmother, my mother, my sister, and I all work. In my family, private and public spheres are not separated. I could easily take on the values of the work world, since I had to work. There was no choice. The kinds of work habits that are part of the public sphere—that deny relational experience—are precisely the ones that I want to challenge. Feminism has allowed me to challenge it; thinking about myself as a woman allowed me to challenge it. When women are in the workplace, women do as the workplace demands, because success in the workplace demands it. If I’m in the workplace, I’m going to be somewhat more aggressive than I might be in the private sphere. Feminism is about bringing public, professional values closer together with private, domestic values, to break the boundaries of this binary system.

How is this relational spirit manifested in design? In other conversations, you’ve used the word “care” to describe feminist design.

In the early eighties I came upon a set of strategies which I thought manifested that care. These strategies include asking a question without giving the answer, so that viewers are called upon to feel that their own thinking is of value. Another strategy is to have multiple perspectives on a subject, which creates a tension that enables critical thinking in a viewer. Having the words and the images contradict themselves also creates a productive tension, by asking the viewer to resolve the conflict and thus bring his or her thinking process and point of view into play. Another principle is to be there in the street with your audience, who can give you feedback on how they understand it. Once you’ve experienced this, you are transformed in your notion of who the client is.

Last year a group of our students designed a pro-choice billboard for a course taught by Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett. (Marlene and Donald work together in the design studio Bureau, and they’re members of the AIDs activist group Gran Fury.) They gave the students all a newspaper and asked them to locate an issue they felt was important. A group of students who chose reproductive rights analyzed U.S laws, looked at what local and national organizations are doing, and finally decided to provide a fact, a statistical fact: “73% of Americans are pro-choice.” By providing a statistical fact that most people didn’t know, they would allow viewers to think that perhaps what they were being manipulated by media coverage of the pro-lifers.

The group gave themselves a name—“Class Action, The Art Collective for Community Action.” The idea that it’s important to know who’s talking comes from our readings of Judith Williamson. She argues that the absence of a “voice” in advertising forces us to create relationships and visions of ourselves that are limiting; advertising poses as an abstraction laid on top of us, which we just have to perform.

The formal language of that billboard is the expected language of mass media. It doesn’t have a “design” look.

That’s intentional. The students didn’t want the aesthetic position to be the primary reading. They don’t want you to immediately think how nice it looks and wonder who designed it—before receiving the information.

A lot of contemporary writing about design, especially writing influenced by Postmodernism and contemporary literary theory, suggests that when images and messages become complexly layered, a political challenge occurs, because the design forces the viewer to discover the meaning. In the situation that you’ve just described, a decision was made to be clear and direct. What do you think about the aesthetics of complexity?

These ideas are not mutually exclusive. On a billboard, which you have about three seconds to understand, a caring and inclusive design strategy can only be enacted in certain ways. On the other hand, when there’s time to be in front of the design communication, then more complex strategies that provoke a thinking audience to feel and resolve the tensions themselves are appropriate.

You studied at Yale thirty years ago. A lot has happened since then—the protest movements of the sixties, the feminist revolution of the seventies, the theoretical research of the eighties. How have the conditions changed that once made modernism seem viable?

I will never, never, never forget to include people of color, people of different points of view, people of different genders, people of different sexual preference. It’s just not possible, any more, ever to move without remembering. That is something that Modernism didn’t account for. Modernism did not want to recognize regional and personal differences.

People who have given their whole lives to supporting the classicizing aesthetic of modernism feel invalidated when we talk about this necessary inclusiveness, but this diversity and inclusiveness is our only hope. It is not possible to plaster over everything with clean elegance. Dirty architecture, fuzzy theory, and dirty design must also be out there.

Many women my age are afraid of the word “feminism,” even though we might support its principles. You’ve suggested that feminism is not just for women, but that it’s an attitude for including everybody. Do you think that feminism could be a design philosophy for the nineties, an aesthetic and ethical attitude that could help fill the void left by modernism?

I believe that gender is a cultural fiction—not a biological given—but we are not there yet. While we have had many accomplishments in the last twenty years, racism and sexism are still rife. Some responses to my presence here really do come because people attach what I do to the fact that I am a woman. Those things have to become detached. But until we are able to detach gender from the ways we are in the world, it’s important for us to move toward equality. Moving toward equality is what the word feminism means. Until that’s true, we can’t give up the word. Feminist design is in an effort to bring the values of the domestic sphere into the public sphere; feminist design is about letting diverse voices be heard through caring, relational strategies of working and designing. Until social and economic inequities are changed, I am going to call good design feminist design.