Lupton, Ellen (2006)
Interview, Lawrie Hunter, “Critical Form as Everyday Practice, An Interview with Ellen Lupton.” Published in Information Design Journal 14, 2 (2006): 130-137.
Curator, graphic designer and author Ellen Lupton is director of the M.F.A. in the graphic design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She is also curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, where she has organized numerous exhibitions, each accompanied by a major publication, including the National Design Triennial series (2000 and 2003), Skin: Surface, Substance + Design (2002), Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age (1999), Mixing Messages (1996), and Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office. She has received numerous awards, including the Chrysler Design Award and the 1996 New York Magazine Award.
In 1996, Ms. Lupton and J. Abbott Miller published Design/Writing/Research: Writing on Graphic Design, a collection of essays about design theory and history. Lupton has written numerous books on contemporary and twentieth-century design. Her critical guide, Thinking with Type, was published in 2004; her latest book is D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, co-authored with her graduate students at Maryland Institute College of Art (January 2006).
LH: Please tell us about Design Writing Research.
EL: Abbott Miller and I founded Design Writing Research in 1985 as an “after-school program” where we could collaborate on experimental projects that merge theory and practice, writing and designing. By 1989 Design Writing Research had become a self-sustaining enterprise with a full-time staff and office space in New York City.
In 1997, we moved to Baltimore to teach at Maryland Institute College of Art. Soon after, Abbott joined the New York office of Pentagram and Design Writing Research became dormant. It remained an idea, but was no longer an active practice.
I launched the Web site DesignWritingResearch.org in January 2003 in order to revive the studio in the extra-curricular, quasi-underground spirit with which it was founded. The site is an archive of writing and a communications tool for my work as a curator and teacher. Having this site has put me in contact with students and designers around the world. A group of graduate students in Israel was reading the material on design and deconstruction, for example, and I constantly get questions and requests from students working on research projects. I now have two other Web sites, ThinkingWithType.com, a resource for teachers, students, and designers, and design-your-life.org, a blog about applying design thinking to everyday situations. The most interesting thing to me about all of these sites is how they put readers and writers into direct contact with each other. The Web is a social medium.
LH: Now you are a designer, a writer about design, and a curator. Is that like living in three different houses?
EL: To me, writing, design, and curating all fit together. It’s one house with a variety of functions, just as a real house is a site for cooking, cleaning, sleeping, entertaining. Design gives a physical form to the ideas generated through writing and curating. An exhibition, for example, uses lighting, materials, sequence, and the juxtaposition of objects, images, and text to tell a story. A book presents texts and images to readers in a way that either attempts to control the order of reading or provides a variety of ways to enter and exit a body of information. The way text is presented on a page affects how people read and understand it. Design enables the publishing of ideas, whether in a book, a magazine, or a Web site, and each of these media affects how readers approach the content. Design is also a way to create new ideas, although in my work, I would say the writing is the bricks and mortar.
LH: By time you graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art, you were already writing about graphic design and typography, particularly within a post-structuralist frame. What took you into critical writing so early in your design career?
EL: I come from a family of English teachers. My twin sister studied critical theory at Hopkins and Yale; she is now a professor of literary studies at University of California, Irvine. As a young person, my intellectual adventures were closely tied to hers, and she led me through many discoveries that ended up connecting with my own work as a designer. The insights of post-structuralist theory amazed me, because they were about recognizing the power and opacity of writing as a physical and intellectual medium. For me, the discovery of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, and Foucault was life-changing, and those thinkers continue to inform my work today, even though my own writing (and mission) has become more transparent and populist. These writers showed that language is embedded in politics and society; that representation takes an active role in shaping content; that much of what appears natural to us is, in fact, a cultural product, and so on. Typography and architecture are not neutral containers for the content or programs they are thought to neatly accommodate. These are fundamental insights of modern and post-modern thinking.
LH: In Thinking with Type you identify the ‘grid’ as a major expressive tool. Rick Poynor, in No More Rules, says that you use the grid in a Saussurean way as a form of language, “…just as language is a grid which breaks down experience into repeatable signs…” How do you perceive the grid as a tool?
EL: Grids exist in the background of nearly all printed communication. Even the Microsoft Word document through which this interview is being conducted has a grid, consisting of the default margin settings of the page. As designers, we try to avoid defaults and use the grid in an active, deliberate way, sometimes rendering it visible. For example, the grid is a way to attack the oppressive linearity of discourse, allowing us to present multiple columns, parallel texts, and so forth. Designers use grids to disperse a linear document across space.
LH: Your recent (stimulating and enjoyable) book, Thinking with Type, has three sections: Letter, Text and Grid. Each section begins with a discourse on culture and theory issues that touch all media, and follows with practical demonstrations of the hows and whys of typography’s nature and behavior. Please talk a little about the ‘with’ in Thinking with Type.
EL: As a young art student back in the early 1980s, discovering typography was discovering how to write visually. I had always been interested in art, and I had always been interested in writing, and typography was the amazing medium that brought these two things together. For me, typography has always been a tool for thinking. You don’t really know what something means until you put it down on paper. All writers want to start editing their work the minute it moves from a generic “manuscript” (such as this Microsoft Word document) into a typographic layout, because words read differently once they are rendered typographically. In my Typography I course at MICA, each student, ideally, reaches a moment in the course when they are “thinking typographically,” when they are beginning to express ideas through the medium of type. (This is not about fonts, but about alignment, hierarchy, scale, grids, and so on.) To think with type is to be in a partnership with the medium—with its history, its discourse, its systematic nature as a common cultural artifact.
LH: What do you regard as your set of essential design tools?
EL: What’s essential to me is having access to the means of publishing. As a very young writer/curator at The Cooper Union, where I worked from 1985 to 1992, I had access to a digital typesetting system, a massive set of machines and output devices that generated columns of text on photographic paper. By today’s standards, that was a very crude system, but unlike most designers in the mid-1980s, I had direct access to typesetting, which gave me the power to publish, and to write directly in the medium of typography. Now, of course, the Web is the most exciting realm for publishing, and it’s changing our relationship to print. My “essential design tools” are the tools of publishing. Those tools keep changing, and it’s important to me to continue having access to them. When I went to art school in the early 1980s, the tools were stat cameras, hot wax machines, acetate, and ruby lith film. By the early 1990s, those tools had become Quark and Photoshop. Today, they include html, Flash, and database languages—as well as the best tool of all, the Sharpie marker!
LH: Typography has always been a main theme for you. Rick Poynor points out that in a number of your books you and Abbott Miller have used Martin Majoor’s Scala typeface. In his introduction to your Design Writing Research, he writes, “…Scala is becoming a Design/Writing/Research house style, an appropriation that may be without precedent in critical writing.” What led to your adoption of Scala?
EL: I first used Scala in 1991, when Robin Kinross sent it to me in New York City on a floppy disk. Robin had written an essay for an exhibition catalogue, Graphic Design in the Netherlands: A View of Recent Work, published by The Cooper Union and Princeton Architectural Press. Robin’s essay was about Dutch typeface design. I used Scala for typesetting that catalogue, and I have been using it ever since. Scala is a magnificent blend of modern and literary/humanist traditions. Its forms reflect the origins of type in handwriting, as seen in the beautiful bowl of the lowercase a, but Scala is also exquisitely abstract, as seen in its severe, simplified serifs. Scala is coordinated with Scala Sans, making it a full-service typographic system. This has become a new standard in type design.
LH: In a recent DD+IDJ interview, Paul Mijksenaar said about his wayfinding design work, “Any discussion about typefaces lasting more than 5 minutes is a waste.” Of course Mr. Mijksenaar knows his fonts, and uses that knowledge wisely. How do you think subtle, sophisticated variations in font affect the consumer-user?
EL: Most users don’t think about fonts or notice them at all, but of course they affect our experience. I would say that the more knowledgeable the user, the more affected they are by choices of good or bad typefaces, just as a well-informed moviegoer will have a more critical experience of a film. Some of us go just for the plot; others are interested in how the thing is put together.
LH: Concluding his examination of current reading models in The Science of Word Recognition, Kevin Larson writes, “Word shape is no longer a viable model of word recognition. The bulk of scientific evidence says that we recognize a word’s component letters, then use that visual information to recognize a word. In addition to perceptual information, we also use contextual information to help recognize words during ordinary reading, but that has no bearing on the word shape versus parallel letter recognition debate. It is hopefully clear that the readability and legibility of a typeface should not be evaluated on its ability to generate a good bouma shape.” Do you think that the graphic design community pays substantial attention to information design/document design research on technical issues in communication?
EL: No. And I have not found the scientific research on legibility/readability to be of much practical interest, including the passage you have quoted above. Cumulatively, what all this research seems to confirm is the amazing power of alphabetic literacy to take hold of the mind and impose itself on us, even under poor conditions (bad typefaces, bad screen displays, and so forth). For better or for worse, most designers are not so interested in setting scientific standards for readability or legibility, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. The attempt to nail down what works best could end up stifling invention and change. The fact is, human beings are able to endure (and a enjoy) a vast range of typographic environments. In the Web design field, some people want to freeze the field into a set of standards, such as always putting nav bars in a certain place, or only having seven categories in a menu. But with a medium this young, it could be more harmful than helpful to lock it down so soon.
LH: In The ABCs of [circle square triangle]: The Bauhaus and Design Theory, you and J. Abbott Miller wrote, “Modern art education often discourages graphic designers from actively engaging in the writing process.” You argued for a new critical relationship between writing and design: “…the graphic designer could be conceived of as a language-worker equipped to actively initiate projects -– either by literally authoring texts or by elaborating, directing or disrupting their meaning. The graphic designer ‘writes’ verbal|visual documents by arranging, sizing, framing and editing images and texts.” That evolution has happened to some extent. What is the status of today’s graphic designer regarding the writing process?
EL: Some designers are directly involved in writing, such as Armin Vit and his people at Speak Up, or Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor, Bill Drenttel, and Michael Bierut of DesignObserver.com , or writers like Dave Eggers and Chip Kid, who are writing for a general, rather than design specialist, audience. But I like to think of “authorship” as not just verbal, but also visual. What Abbott Miller is doing with exhibition design and book design falls into this category, where he shapes the curatorial content of a project without literally writing it. The work of 2×4 and Bruce Mau are clearly forms of authorship as well. And then there is Martha Stewart, who I believe to be one of the most influential designers of the 1990s; her impact is way greater, for example, than David Carson. I prefer the term “producer” to “author,” because it encompasses the larger conceptual process, as well as suggesting the hands-on, blue-collar aspect of making things happen.
LH: In a recent designobserver.com posting about the notion of designers taking on editorial aspects of their projects, Rick Poynor wrote, “…the designer-as-editor demand has never convinced me as a rallying cry…I believe designers have a level of ability, skill and talent that an untrained person is unlikely to be able to match. It’s exactly the same with editing.” He singles out you and Robin Kinross as designers who are highly competent and successful editors. When should a designer be an editor?
EL: I think designers can be fantastic editors, as long as they have a rigorous understanding of the written word. Editing, like typography, is a labor of love. It’s about the details, and it’s ultimately about letting someone else’s voice speak in its own voice. Anyone who sets out to edit a project needs to be prepared for the anonymity of the task—the many, many hours of invisible labor.
LH: You have written a number of times about Lev Manovich’s depiction of “the conflict between narrative and database that structures modern media.” Manovich sees the narrative-database conflict as a parallel to the relationship between syntagm and paradigm. He argues that there is an ongoing shift from narrative linearity to database synchronicity in our lives today. What implications does that shift have for the designer?
EL: Increasingly, the projects we design consist of bundles of assets and non-linear forms. This may have more implications for writers than for designers. A blog, for example, is a database, and as such it provides a different kind of reading experience; naturally it demands a different kind of writing as well.
LH: In 1988 you wrote, “A powerful metaphor has informed post-war education in graphic design: the concept of a ‘language of vision.’ This abstract ‘language’ of line, shape, and color has been theorized as a system of visual communication analogous to but separate from verbal language, a distinct code grounded not in cultural convention but in universal faculties of perception.” Things have changed recently in terms of designer empowerment; are we closer now to having that language of vision?
EL: During the 1990s, many design educators turned away from formal analysis towards a more culturally based, referential approach to pedagogy. It was the age of multiculturalism, niche marketing, the “audience of one,” and so forth. Meanwhile, the designers of software programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Flash, and Final Cut were systematically organizing image-processing into menus of properties, parameters, filters, and so on, converting the Bauhaus theory of visual language—once a distant ideal—into comprehensive visual tools. So we do have a language of vision now, but it was created by corporate software developers. There are movements to create publicly owned tools, such as Processing.org and John Maeda’s Treehouse Studio. I think we are at a moment in time when the idea of universal tools and languages is becoming interesting again.
LH: Originally text was linear, given the bound book’s fixed sequence of things. Various devices were developed to support navigation: page numbers, footnotes, and the like; these led text in a less linear direction. You wrote, “Whereas talking flows in a single direction, writing occupies space as well as time. Tapping that spatial direction—and thus liberating readers from the bonds of linearity—is among typography’s most urgent tasks.” Do readers need liberating from linearity?
EL: If you are reading a novel (or watching a film), linearity is what you expect and value. However, many of our experiences of reading in our day-to-day existence are non-linear, such as reading the New York Times or sifting through a Google search. If one were forced to read the entire front section of the New York Times in order to get to the Op Ed page, few of us would ever get there.
LH: The materials which you have brought from elsewhere into you web site are simple, spare. What’s the thinking behind that reduction?
EL: I have kept the Web site really simple, mostly for my own sanity, but also because I like the idea of the digital text being disembodied, that it could be captured and repurposed by other people. The idea of separating form from content is driving a lot of work on the Internet right now. Whereas the great modernist pioneers of the 1920s built uniquely constructed pages that fused form and content, today there is a need to create text that will survive technological change and be readable on different output devices, from the printed page to a cell phone.
LH: In “Deconstruction and graphic design,” you and Abbott Miller wrote, “Post-structuralism’s emphasis on the openness of meaning has been incorporated by many designers into a romantic theory of self-expression: as the argument goes, because signification is not fixed in material forms, designers and readers share in the spontaneous creation of meaning.” Deconstruction as a style, or shall we say as an attitude, has been labeled history by some: can we still find post-structuralist design in action?
EL: Sure. The novels of Jonathan Safran Foer, for example. The architecture of Peter Eisenman. But what we were arguing is that post-structuralism and deconstruction are ways of looking at the world or ways of describing typography in an universal way, not in terms of a specific example of practice. The central principle of deconstruction is to look at a basic cultural assumption—such as the separation of mind and body—and to understand how the elements that appear to be opposites inhabit and infect one another. This way of thinking will never die.
LH: In “Critical Wayfinding,” you wrote, “Such icons [as Mona Lisa images serving to remind us that we are in the Louvre] participate in a broader phenomenon in the cultural landscape: the emergence of a hieroglyphics of communication, which overlays the contemporary experience of cities, buildings, products, and media with a code of repeatable, reduced icons, compacted chunks of information which collapse a verbal message into a visual mark. The expanding domain of this hieroglyphic speech poses subtle problems for designers in the next millennium: How can we create cross-cultural communication without flattening difference beneath the homogenizing force of a single dialect?” Twelve years later, are answers to that question emerging?
EL: The issue of the day is globalism, which is viewed by many designers primarily in terms of its negative impact on society and the environment. But there is a positive side to globalism as well, especially with regard to the possibility of global communication and broader access to information. Today, knowledge is the key to health, wealth, and opportunity, so creating information that lots of people can use can have a huge benefit. This means using a language that many people can understand, and technologies that many people have access to. This may be done at the expense of local traditions and customs. For example, I created a Web site to support and complement my book Thinking with Type. I get e-mail from people from all over the world who are using the Web site and don’t necessarily have access to the book.
LH: In 2000 you joined 32 other prominent visual communicators in signing First Things First 2000. renewing the call voiced in First Things First (1964) for a change of priorities in design work, for a “reversal of priorities in favour of more useful, lasting and democratic forms of communication – a mindshift away from product marketing and toward the exploration and production of a new kind of meaning.” Do you see signs of such a reversal?
EL: No. Most design activity remains in the corporate realm. This is where most opportunities for designers lie. What we need to do is find socially useful ways to operate within the stream of commerce.
LH: Curating such a defining institution as the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, how do you work to provide a viewpoint for the visitor/user?
EL: My exhibitions need to communicate to both the general public and the expert/insider audience. This is a huge challenge. It’s much easier to communicate to just one of those publics! Being forced to speak and write in this way has been a huge discipline for me, and, frankly, it’s harder to make design meaningful to the general viewer than to the viewer whose is life wrapped up in design practice.
LH: Exhibitions like Mixing Messages and Skin at the National Design Museum actually work to revise understandings and generate new perspectives. What is an exhibition?
EL: An exhibition is a physical place where objects, images, and texts communicate ideas. The goal, in general, is to use texts as little as possible (but as much as necessary), and let the visual materials dominate.
LH: In “The Macrame of Resistance,” Lorraine Wild identified technology as a generator of identity crises for designers: “Designers involved in new media projects often find themselves caught in team production based on the entertainment industry paradigm, where authorship is granted to the director, the producers, maybe the screenwriters, but typically not the people who create the visual nature of the product.” Five years later you pointed out that those same digital tools that threatened the trained designer’s existence also put the designer’s hands on the means of production, enabling the designer to become a producer. What is the situation today? Are increasing numbers of designers also producers?
EL: Yes, I believe that more and more designers are becoming producers. Likewise, you could say that more producers are becoming designers: that is, the tools of publishing are increasingly available to everyone, not just to those trained in the specialty of design. Design is truly a subject of universal interest and importance.
LH: Your recent book, Thinking with Type, is such an accessible work; though the concepts are explored to some depth, the initial framing of each assumes relatively little background knowledge. Now you have another title coming to press, D.I.Y.: Design it Yourself. Who is the target audience? Are you planning to Napsterize graphic design?
EL: D.I.Y: Design It Yourself is a design book for the rest of the world. Increasingly, what I am interested in is sharing the power of design with “non-designers.” (Although it may be that there are no “non-designers.”) We are living in a cultural moment when more people than ever are interested in design, have knowledge about design, and have access to the tools of design. Oddly enough, this fact has taken place in spite of our profession’s best efforts to explain itself as an exclusive professional discourse.
LH: Document designers and information designers in search of perspective and depth about the world of graphic design and typography would do well to read you. What other sources would provide such an empowering structuring of that world?
EL: Of course, everyone should read the books of Edward Tufte. Jef Raskin’s writings on interface design are very important, and Robert Bringhurst’s Manual of Typographic Style is the classic work on typography, full of brilliant insights. The best book I have read in recent years is Steven Johnson’s Emergence, about how cities, ant colonies, and contemporary computer programs are all organized as self-organizing swarms of primitive elements that combine together into something powerful and information-rich. The future of information lies in systems that are broadly distributed across a community of users, not focused in one place.
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Lupton, E. Websites: http://design-your-life.org http://www.DesignWritingResearch.org http://www.ThinkingWithType.com
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