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

Rock, Michael

Interview, Ellen Lupton and Michael Rock, August 7, 1994. Unpublished.

Tell me how theory functions at RISD, where you were a graduate student and then an instructor for seven years.

In Visible Language 8, there is an article by Tom Ockerse and Hans van Dijk on semiotics and graphic education that lays the foundation for the RISD approach. Hans is not always credited as fully as Tom for bringing semiotics to RISD. Hans did his graduate thesis at Ohio State or somewhere on semiotics; article in Visible Language is based on his thesis.

I studied English literature before going to RISD. I have always been a little worried about graduate school for graphic design. It’s “lite” academics—desperately trying to be real scholarship. I’m trying to get away from that as much as possible.

Tom’s essay on semiotics explicitly excludes “semiology,” the French variant of semiotics, which I think is a problem.The main idea he takes from semiotics is the classification of icon/index/symbol. Also, the idea of the “interpretant,” which is really mystified by the people at RISD, to the point that it’s not useful. The more I think about it, the goal was to use semiotics to legitimize design by giving it its own metalanguage. It was more a strategy of professionalism than a strategy of criticism. Theory ends up narrowing the perspective rather than opening it up, because it becomes an end in itself.

Deconstruction can never really determine the way work looks. It can reform the profession, but it can’t effect the way things look. It can change the way we think about absolutes and the goals of the profession. We can’t expect theory to determine the way things look. People expect to much when they think that visual work must bear the scars of theory.

The use of semiotics at RISD came out of the 60s idea of design process and problem-solving. Sharon Poggenpohl did a course on problem-solving using a matrix….Tom has an “interpretant” matrix—a way to jog yourself into getting ideas. I think that theory got sort of stuck there. Tom didn’t really know what was happening with theory in the 70s and 80s. He wasn’t up on post-structuralism, or even structuralism. No one was writing new material on Peircian semiotics. And yet so much was being written in the 70s and 80s in the tradition of semiology that was relevant to design. But he had written off that tradition.

I taught at RISD for seven years. I did an undergraduate theory course called “Visible Language,” which was mostly a design class but focused on coming up with ideas. This was a required course. I did another course, called “Design Methods,” which was taught by a team of four instructors. This course dealt with larger problems, larger projects. It was sometimes required—that was on and off.

At first I taught the course kind of like Tom, and then I kept reducing the amount of theoretical language until it was completely colloquial. Also, I kept introducing more popular culture. So the course got progressively more practical. I’m now questioning the idea of graduate school in graphic design. I’m wondering what people should be getting out of it.

How is theory taught at Yale?

Theory at Yale is two-fold. First, we try not to teach theory ourselves. We try to get people to do it in the academic setting of the university—women’s studies, media studies, film, etc. We have expertise in matters of design, not matters of theory.

We’re thinking about breaking up the program into two different tracks—a more academic track and a more visual track. Rather than having one overall definition of what a graphic design graduate student should be doing. People need to specialize more. There’s no universal formula for what people should know.

I teach a seminar class—one for 1st year students, one for 2nd year—which tries to bridge the gap between their academic courses and their studio work. We read about 15 articles during the semester; students conduct seminar discussions, and they are asked to bring in visual examples to talk about. They write short seminar papers at the end that are analyses of an object—which they have to read to the class.

Some of the things we read during the 1st year seminar include Roland Barthes, his essay “Responsibility of Form,” which is analysis of newspaper photographs. Along with this, some pieces from Mythologies, introducing them to the idea of criticism. Short essay from Eco on reading Steve Canyon[??] comic strips. A thing by Camille Paglia on Princess Diana. Next, Marxist interpretations of advertising by Judith Williams and Raymond Williams.

All this stuff is about mass produced visual objects. In their other classes they’re looking at objects of literature or art history. Here, they’re looking at objects more like what they’ll produce themselves.

People get very involved in the politics of images—stereotyping and so forth. I’m starting to get bored with that. This year I want to get people away from being political, and more involved with design itself. For example, how form can be about class description—the letterpress look is about class identity. I want them to look at meaning that comes out of the forms of design itself, not just out of pictures.

Sheila is the major influence at Yale. I think people want to do work that is Relevant with a big R. We’re afraid to do work that will be judged as superficial. Don and Marlene were very influential, too, for the first three years of the program. They’re not coming back next year, partly because they’re less interested in politics as well. The political activism situation has changed a lot in the U. S. since the late 80s. People feel less compelled to go down to West Broadway and put up political posters. For Don and Marlene, they want to move back into design again—taking joy in making form. This also parallels the growth of their business—working for Clinique doesn’t mesh with making political posters.

We want to move back from the extreme of being political and get back more into design itself.

In a way, that sounds like a return to Yale’s traditional program—to look at “design itself.” But you will be doing it with a difference.

Yes, it’s going back to a more formal approach, but with a difference. It had gotten so centered for so long—Yale had become a cavern. The biggest difference will be trying to get people to work within the vehicles of design, and not get too much into sculpture and filmmaking and so on. We want them to concentrate on the design idiom. And then to try to find more useful, public venues for using their thesis work.

From the start, we want people to think about writing material that could be published. Cathy Richmond’s project [on the representation of black women] was written as five short “articles.” Now she’ll try to place them in black magazines. Writing needs to be appropriate to the project. So we want to focus on the visual aspects of thesis work, rather than having them struggle with writing. They need to think about the venue and audience for what they’re writing.

Once the mantel of 60s scientism has been left behind, people are really questioning what they are doing. IIT is the only science-based program left.

And even they are talking about moving towards a more “human-centered” approach.

When you move to a more “human” approach, it gets very fuzzy, like a creative writing program. When it comes down to it, everyone’s trying to defend their area. Deconstruction has driven a stake into people’s certainty about what they’re doing. No one can escape this crisis of meaning that has hit the university.

What do you think about Cranbrook?

I’ve always been very interested in Cranbrook and how something so close to Detroit could escape urbanism so much. There seems to be an escape from urbanism there.

I think that’s encouraged by the campus. It’s a utopia.

The effects of Cranbrook’s program have been very strong. But the effects are felt more through education than through the profession. It’s like what happened with Basel: the style was too strong to be accepted by mass culture, so people went into teaching. Now you see the effects of this on undergraduate portfolios. They’ve replaced the Armin Hofmann projects.

I don’t think the Cranbrook program has much to do with French theory. It has to do with defiance of visual culture. That defiance had a snowball effect, from Weingart’s destruction of the grid to Fuse #10, where the fonts aren’t letterforms anymore, they’re completely deteriorated.

The idea of individual creativity is a totally modernist idea. Cranbrook has been an extension of this modernist idea. The fascination with the alphabet right now is a fascination with the originless thing, since the alphabet has no origin. The need to individualize the alphabet invokes the conflict between originality and repetition that Rosalind Krauss talks about in her work on the avant garde. Her essay on grids is great, too.

All of this Cranbrook work is about needing to be the artist. There are two different levels of modernism—international modernism of the 50s and 60s and the earlier avant garde. There’s this misunderstanding about the modernist promotion of clean typefaces as being about hygienics. Idea was that these generic typefaces didn’t belong to someone else. They didn’t conflict with the designer’s own originality.

I don’t know how “deconstruction” got applied to Cranbrook. I think the name had a lot to do with it. It sounds like its about taking things apart. The idea of “fragments”….