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

Lupton, Ellen (1998)

Steve Heller interviews Ellen Lupton, 1998, for his book Becoming a Designer

Why did you become a graphic designer?

Like many young art students, I began school at The Cooper Union in New York with only the vaguest idea of “commercial art” as a possible career direction for a visual artist. I was inspired by George Sadek, who was head of the design department at the time, to engage design as an art form that was both visual and literary. I was also excited by the art world of the early 1980s, when artists like Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Hans Haacke were incorporating text and social commentary into their work. As someone who had always been fascinated with the written word, I felt design was an ideal forum in which to develop text and image.

Why did you expand your interest and practice to include curatorial and authorial work? Was this strategy or accident?

I became a curator by accident—when I graduated from The Cooper Union in 1985, I was invited to run the just-founded Herb Lubalin Study Center for Design and Typography. It was a shoestring operation, occupying a few small rooms and hallways of The Cooper Union. But it was great opportunity to put together exhibitions and publications about design history and theory. I got hooked, and I was able to build a career as a critic and curator.

Is this cross disciplinary activity really viable in the market today, or simply a fortuitious niche that you made for yourself?

My position as a museum curator is a rare one—there are only a handful of design curators around the country, at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. However, there are more and more opportunities for designers to develop and use their skills as writers/editors/publishers, and for literary people to engage the processes of design. This is a broader cultural development with relevance beyond my own particular experience.

As an educator as well, do you encourage students to follow your path? If so, how?

I don’t expect my undergraduate students to become professional writers or historians. Rather, I hope that their work becomes infused with design literacy, with a sense of awareness of the history and future of their discipline. I have found from teaching both academic “history” courses and studio-based courses that those students who excel in the studio as designers also do extremely well in their history courses—they write well about design because they care about what they are doing. The students who show passion in their visual work also feel passionately about the history of design. They get excited by looking at other people’s work.

I tell my students to think more, design less. They need to focus on ideas and concepts. There is a tendency produce empty design gestures—from endless Photoshop layers to fancy fonts and tricky type effects—because the concept and content are missing. Students with a strong sense of history and an awareness of what’s going on in the world have a much easier time confronting content. They can use visual language to develop a point of view.

Would you say that your interdisciplinary practice has given your firm, Design Writing Research, an advantage in the competitive design market? And, how do you account for your success?

As partners in Design/Writing/Research, Abbott Miller and I have done a series of key projects that exemplify the ideal of combining research and writing with visual work. These are not always the most lucrative projects, however, and the studio does many projects that are executed along a more traditional “design services” model. The studio is primarily Abbott’s undertaking—I am primarily employed by Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and, more recently, Maryland Institute, College of Art. Abbott is doing a marvelous job at the studio developing the ideal of a design/research continuum while still making a living for himself and his staff.