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

Lunch: Zucchini Soup

Ellen Lupton makes zucchini soup in 31 seconds. Video and recipe.

Lunch: Zucchini Soup from Ellen Lupton on Vimeo.

How to Make Zucchini Soup

1. Chop one large onion and 4 or 5 stalks of celery.
2. Peel and chop four medium-sized zucchini or other summer squash and one large potato.
3. Saute onions and celery in a generous pour of olive oil.
4. Add chopped zucchini and potato.
5. Cover with water and bring to a boil and add four ears of shucked corn. Cook corn for five minutes and remove from soup. Slice kernels off the cobs. For sweeter soup, return cobs to soup.
6. Cook soup for 30 minutes or so.
7. Remove cobs as needed. Puree soup with immersion blender. Add chopped basil and puree again. Add corn kernels. Adjust seasoning (soup will need salt!). Add water if soup is too thick. Heat soup again to serving temperature.
8. Serve!

Welcome to Busytown

I produced my Busytown narrative (indebted to the great Richard Scarry) as a way to talk about themes raised by the exhibition Graphic Design: Now In Production, curated by Andrew Blauvelt (Walker Art Center) and myself (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), 2012. Illustration by Ellen Lupton.


How much is a ticket to Busytown?

Over the past ten years, the cost of a private 4-year degree has tracked closely to salaries.


Below is a video of my lecture “Welcome to Busytown: Or Whatever Happened to Graphic Design,” filmed by my friends at Creative Mornings Baltimore. Special thanks to Wesley Stuckey and the great folks at Dooby’s!


I created this interactive graphic using ThingLink, an amazing image-tagging tool developed by Ulla Maria Mutanen. “Welcome to Busytown” is my illustrated dystopia of today’s graphic design world.


From the Introduction to Graphic Design: Now In Production, by Andrew Blauvelt and Ellen Lupton (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012).

A sequence of images from Daniel Clowes’ satirical comic Art School Confidential, first published in 1991, features three equally dismal career paths for the average art school graduate: clerking in an art supply store, flipping burgers in a diner, or becoming a “paste-up artist.” Back then, paste-up occupied the lowest possible rank within the art world’s lowest field of endeavor: graphic design. Paste-up belonged to production, a menial phase of the design process devoted not to high-minded forms and ideas but to hands-on execution.

During the same year that Clowes published his seminal work of cultural samizdat, a major point of passage occurred in the field of graphic design. It was then that digital files became a fully accepted means for transmitting artwork from designer to printing plant. The age of QuarkXPress and PostScript page assembly had finally dawned; the drudgery of manual paste-up was lost to memory. Graphic designers absorbed the labors of the paste-up artist like the body of a dead twin. Designers picked up numerous other production tasks as well, from typesetting to photo retouching, processes demanding special skills and equipment that could now be performed from the narrow perch of the digital desktop. (Flipping burgers remained a separate calling, soon joined by new jobs such as Starbucks barista and Apple Store Genius.) Many designers feared their profession would collapse under the heavy weight of production. Worse, they predicted, desktop publishing would trigger a devastating transfer of power from designers to “secretaries,” a population newly empowered with Times Roman and Helvetica.

These things did not come to pass. The design profession grew and grew. Arial outpaced Helvetica as an object of scorn, and secretaries became scarcer than exorcists and bank tellers. At art schools everywhere, design programs emerged from their dusty crawl spaces, becoming proud engines of growth for colleges and gleaming beacons of opportunity for young artists who were drawn to digital tools and were unashamed to openly consort with commerce. The World Wide Web soon joined Photoshop and Ray Gun (the ’90s alt music magazine and graphic style guide) as gateways to graphic design. The field was no longer seen as the last resort of the failed painter, but as a genuinely interesting pursuit.

Alas, all that glitters is not Gotham Thin Reverse Italic. Graphic design is, indeed, a decent way to make a living, but as the largest design profession in the United States, it has ample room to bore the pants off its own practitioners. Among some quarter-million graphic designers working in this country alone, many love what they do yet experience the occasional pang of existential doubt or seller’s remorse. How many banner ads, business cards, and restaurant flyers can a person churn out before longing for something more? Graphic design MFA programs are on the rise, attracting restless young professionals eager to explore territories of their own making. Designers frustrated with routine client work have looked to authorship as a source of artistic agency and personal satisfaction, searching for authority and self-expression in an all-access world of evaporating expertise.

While desktop publishing changed the journey from initial concept to printed page, recent innovations have transformed the means of manufacture and circulation. Mobile devices, print-on-demand systems, low-cost digital printing equipment, rapid prototyping, and web-based distribution networks have created new opportunities for designers, writers, artists, and anyone else—from doctors and lawyers to school kids and housewives—to take up the tools of creative production. Recent design practice has taken a pragmatic turn, emphasizing process, situation, and social interaction over a fixed and final outcome. Design is a process that anyone can use as well as a specialized discourse whose language is open to exploration and expansion.

Perhaps production—the down-market arena of the paste-up artist—can help cure what ails us. Referring to physical making and economic organization, “production” speaks of process, collaboration, and practical implementation, in contrast with the more solitary and cerebral implications of “authorship.” Worldly, grounded, and pragmatic, production encompasses direct modes of action, from controlling the techniques of manufacturing to coordinating creative teams in order to realize complex projects.


Heirloom Chicken Wing

These illustrations were created for an opinion piece by Ellen Lupton for the NYTimes Opinionator. Read the editorial at nytimes.com.

Picture 7

Eccentric to Whom?

“Eccentric to Whom?” Essay by J. Abbbott Miller, published in special issue of AIGA Journal of Graphic Design on eccentricity, edited by Steven Heller, 1992

Eccentricity is a relative term, depending for its life on convention, normality, and tradition. During the teens and twenties the European avant-gardes sought to dissolve the boundaries between art and design. In America, as the profession of graphic design matured and its commercial potential evolved, there was a self-consciousness about the differences and similarities between art and design. Schizophrenically, designers have invoked the the similarities to shore up the cultural stature of their profession, while using the differences to assert the field’s economic, social, and scientific legitimacy. Designers have historically claimed the good parts of “artistic expression” while also insisting on their unique professional ability to control such expressiveness in a rational, strategic way. The glib equation “art + business = design” sums up a whole genre of design journalism produced from the 1930s through the 70s, which portrayed art as the wild beast tamed by the civilizing interests of commerce.

Design and art have moved closer together since the advent of Pop. Especially since the early 1980s, one can observe the phenomenon of art-influenced design and design-influenced art. Indeed, much work going on in graduate programs in design is closer to a form of art production than to the professionally-defined concerns of design. Since graduate programs are sites of advanced research, it is appropriate that they should pioneer new areas of inquiry and new formal languages. As designers become more and more invested in formal explorations, and as we begin to set our own conceptual and ideological agendas, we move closer to painting, sculpture, installation art, etc.

There are two ways that contemporary designers cross into the territory of art. The first, and more familiar, is through treating design as an abstract medium comparable to painting, and exploring the surface of the page for its formal, expressive possibilities. Much of the “new typography” of the 1970s and 80s falls into this category. Indeed, Wolfgang Weingart once called his mode of syntactical research “typography as painting.” David Carson’s layout’s for Beach Culture and Ray Gun—created for self-proclaimed subcultures of eccentricity—embrace a different style but chart similar territory, revelling in the intuitive and abstract possibilities of typography.

Another way that designers attempt to enter the territory of art is through entering its institutional framework—the context of the gallery or the museum. This is far more difficult to achieve, as it requires the social savvy to transcend the class barriers between the art world and the realm of visual “services” represented by graphic designers. Whereas designers have generally welcomed the prestige and pleasure of art into their fold, the art world is less generous towards designers. Many graduate school thesis projects in recent years have borrowed formats from the realm of gallery-based installation art, rejecting the medium of the typographic book, the traditional format for thesis research. It remains to be seen, however, whether graphic designers will be able to continue working in this mode after graduate school. While I believe such explorations are good for design, there are few institutions (galleries, museums) that will recognize, cultivate, and advance the cause of such design. It is difficult enough for artists to find funding and venues for challenging work: designers will have to get in line behind them.

Someone who has successfully crossed between the institutions of art and design is Dan Friedman, who abandoned a career in the early 80s as a corporate graphic designer to produce experimental “art furniture.” Friedman, who calls himself “an artist whose subject is design and culture,” showed his work at the Fun Gallery in New York’s East Village and went on to build an international reputation for his narrative, brightly colored chairs, tables, and lamps. Friedman found a warmer reception in Europe than in the U. S., especially in Italy and France, cultures that recognize furniture as a form of social poetry. Friedman will soon return to his roots as a graphic design educator—in 1995 he will become director of the graphic design program at The Cooper Union, where he plans to mix a rigorous approach to typography with an openness to the eccentric edges of the discipline.

Class Action is a group of students and graduates of Yale University’s MFA program in graphic design. The group formed in 1992 out of a course taught by Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett. (McCarty and Moffett, partners in the New York studio Bureau, live double lives as artists and designers; both have successful careers in the art world, but they keep the two activities rigorously separate.) Class Action is a free-form collective that assembles around projects initiated by the group. Class Action deals with social issues ranging from domestic violence and AIDS awareness to health insurance.

Their 1993 exhibition at the New Haven Artspace, called Aiding Awareness, consisted of chairs, recorded voices, and printed texts, relaying the experiences of New Haven women who are HIV+. The thoughtful, low-tech, yet highly emotive installation was cited as best in its category in ID magazine’s 1994 Design Review. The project represented an effective use of a gallery space by a group of graphic designers. As a model of practice, Aiding Awareness was not clearly marked as either art or design, but fell somewhere off-center from both.

Friedman’s description of himself as “an artist whose subject is design and culture” suggests ways that contemporary artists are exploring the territory of design. Such excursions are rarely defined in terms of the narrow formal and professional concerns identified with “graphic design,” but more often look at “media” or “mass culture” more generally. From Andy Warhol to Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, such confrontations with the public landscape of printed matter have yielded compelling visual vocabularies which have, in turn, influenced graphic design. These artists uncovered a visual energy in the “vernacular” of mass communication which the refined, professionalized language of “graphic design” had left behind.

The collective Art Club 2000, a group of students and graduates from The Cooper Union’s BFA program, has had two exhibitions at the gallery American Fine Arts Co. The group describes their 1992 gallery installation, called Commingle, as a “generationally specific critique of the Gap.” It included an installation using stolen Gap garbage and point-of-purchase display materials, as well as an “Individuals of Style” portrait center where patrons could order their own Gap-like ads. A portfolio of Art Club’s photographs appeared in a 1993 issue of Artforum magazine, featuring the collective in various “Generation X” poses: in matching striped t-shirts at an East Village coffee bar, lounging nude in bed at the Paramount Hotel, absurdly defiant album-cover poses at an intersection of Times Square wearing coordinated grunge denim. You get the picture….

At a recent conference in New York, Art Club 2000 staged the following performance for an audience consisting primarily of designers: – Stage is empty except for large screen at rear of stage. – Extremely loud Nirvana blares over speakers. (Kurt Cobain had committed suicide just two days before.) – Enter stage right: seven twenty-something men and women carry large boxes emblazoned with IKEA logos. They are dressed in similar athletic attire: metallic-sheen running shorts, windbreakers, and blue-striped tube socks. – Simultaneously: the screen at stage rear projects a video showing the same group of seven piling out of a car and entering the IKEA store in Elizabeth, New Jersey. IKEA, the gigantic Swedish manufacturer of knock-down furniture, flaunts its design-consciousness as loudly as its low prices. Members of Art Club shop and pose in different domestic vignettes in the IKEA showroom, then eat Swedish meatballs and smoke cigarettes in the IKEA cafeteria. – Over the next 7 minutes: on stage, the boxes are opened and the furniture is built. The group assembles a new “living room,” complete with couch, tables, lamps, and houseplants, and gathers together for a group photo. – Over the next 7 minutes: the entire process is put in reverse as the furniture is disassembled, returned to boxes, and carried off-stage. – Video ends with IKEA logo on screen, loud music (blessedly) ends, lights fade.
The cycle is completed exactly within 15 minutes. Some booing and hissing can be heard in the audience.

In the discussion period that followed, several audience members questioned Art Club’s “objectives,” “purpose,” goals,” and “agenda.” The questions implied that the performance should have had a clearly defined point, a containable message or moral. Someone wanted to know how much Art Club had spent on the furniture, someone else wanted to know if they were going to return it, someone else wanted to know the difference between Art Club and a “regular” IKEA customer. Slowly but surely the audience was turning into what John Grisham might ominously call “The Client.” I think that many people in the audience wanted to fire the members of Art Club.

The only definitive response came when someone asked if the members of Art Club were designers. In unison, they quickly swung their heads in disapproval: “No, we’re artists.” Now the audience had their answer: the beast had been identified and now we could rest. They’re artists, not designers. Problem solved. The interaction produced, negatively, a working definition of designers as people who 1) have a point to make, an agenda; 2) work with pre-established communication goals; 3) have clients.

A different approach to the eccentric space between art and design has been pursued by Michael Lebron, who describes himself as neither an artist nor a designer but as a critical realist: “Critical realism starts from the premise that advertising is to corporate consumer culture what social realism was to the Communist cultures of eastern Europe.” With years of experience as an art director for pharmaceutical companies, Lebron knows how to make information ready for public consumption by giving it an appealing format. In his projects as a “critical realist,” Lebron is not especially interested in critiquing the formal language of mass media—as seen in the work of Kruger, Prince, and Art Club. Instead, he seeks to mobilize that language to serve to his own purposes. During the mid- and late-1980s, Lebron rented advertising space in subways and bus shelters in New York and Washington, D. C., where he posted clean, official-looking statements about U. S. intervention in Nicaragua and other issues. Lebron thus exploited both the formal vocabulary and the institutional channels of mass media to create and send political messages rarely found in the public spaces reserved for advertising.

Lebron’s recent attempt to rent the illuminated 103-foot billboard at Penn Station brought him notoreity when Amtrak refused to rent him the space. Lebron’s proposed billboard connects the Coors brewing family with the far-right causes they fund (the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, the anti-gay publishing of the Free Congress Foundation, and counter-revolutionary groups in Nicaragua, Angola, and the Philippines). The case, Lebron’s third court battle for his work, is still pending. According to Lebron, a ruling in his favor would establish First Ammendment precedents, proving that Amtrak—as a quasi-governmental, Federally subsidized entity—does not have the right to reject political advertising the same way newspapers and magazines do.

Each of these figures has approached the forms and institutions of art and design from a point outside the center of either discipline. For Dan Friedman and Art Club 2000, design is a subject matter to be explored through the objects and institutions of art. The products and spectacles they produce have no clients to please nor any “problems” to “solve.” Class Action used a local art gallery as a forum for public education, generating an experience for viewers that was identifiable as neither art nor design—the intellectual obscurities familiar from art world installations were effaced by the stronger voices of the project’s subjects. Michael Lebron uses forms familiar to media professsionals but gains access to them in an unfamiliar way: not as the passive shaper of corporate messages but as the active buyer of advertising space. Each of these strategies suggests a way to move beyond the center of graphic design. Modern philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory have challenged the viability of “communication,” considered as a transparent delivery or relay system. Design can be used not only as a container for other people’s messages, but as a subject of inquiry and as a channel for initiating new exchanges.

Design and Production in the Mechanical Age

“Design and Production in the Mechanical Age” (excerpt), essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Deborah Rothschild, Ellen Lupton, and Darra Goldstein, Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age: Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. pp 50-81.

Modern designers, working in the ambitious decades between the two world wars, aimed to emphasize and transform the conditions of reproduction; they sometimes buried the evidence of one technology in order to objectify another. Mass manufacturers in the nineteenth century had proven that industrial production could replicate the work of traditional artisans; modern designers sought instead to express the techniques of production in the form and appearance of the object. They sought to expose technology and loosen its constraints, viewing the processes of manufacture not as neutral, transparent means to an end but as devices equipped with cultural meaning and aesthetic character.

By the 1920s, industrial production had accrued diverse cultural meanings, holding forth the utopian promise of social transformation as well as the ominous threat of war and destruction. In Europe in the early twentieth century, the American factory became a paradigm for economic and social planning. There was a growing adherence to Taylorism, a theory of management that, by advocating the objective analysis of human labor, promised to maximize profits while enhancing the lives of workers. Fordism, named after Henry Ford and his mass-produced Model Ts, crossed the Atlantic to Europe, bringing the concepts of the assembly line and the creation of vast markets for low-cost, standardized goods. The administrators of this freshly mechanized civilization were the engineers, professionals equipped to apply scientific methods to the organization of people, procedures, and environments. The new production experts helped the factory shed its image as a squalid site of exploitation and emerge into the healthy light of efficiency and rationality.1

Artists and designers saw industrial modes of production as vehicles for moving art into life. In the Soviet Union, the decision to take art “into production” marked a commitment to modern technology and a utopian mass culture. The critic Osip Brik, describing his friend Rodchenko as the prototypical production artist, wrote in 1923, “Rodchenko knows that you won’t do anything by sitting in your own studio, that you must go into real work, carry your own organising talent where it is needed—into production.“2 In the Soviet Union, many artists championed the industrial artifact—generated mechanically and consumed collectively—over the singular work of aesthetic contemplation. Although the utopian desire to transform the aesthetic innovations of the avant-garde into a popularly understood language ultimately crashed against the rocks of Soviet political reality, this new approach to art helped spawn the modern profession of graphic design.3 As a practice rooted in the experiments of the avant-garde, graphic design emerged as a socially engaged, technologically critical discourse involving the reproduction of texts and images, a domain that now extends from the printed page to the Internet.4

For graphic designers, production consists of the process of planning and assembling a poster, book, or other document before its manufacture by a printer. In their drive to celebrate the machine age, modern designers delved into the system of mechanical production in order to reveal and transgress its limits. This stance aligned them with modern architects and industrial designers, who also believed that expanded factory production was a cornerstone of an improved society and the key to a new language of construction.
Most critical literature on graphic design looks past the question of production, approaching the printed surface as a smooth and glassy plane on which float disembodied marks and images. It is typical, for example, for historians to use the term “typography” in reference to any manipulation of the printed word.

Understood from within the narrower perspective of production, however, typography is the organization of prefabricated letters—produced by a metal or wood relief, paper stencil, photographic negative, or digital signal—while lettering includes the construction of characters with pen, brush, or cut paper. The indifference to production among historians of design is bolstered by the very technological apparatus that gave birth to our field of study. Since the late nineteenth century, photomechanical reproductions have been the dominant source of information, for scholars and the public, about the visual arts. Our bottomless appetite for images has been fed with printed pictures, whose uniformity of surface and flexibility of scale obscure the differences among physical artifacts. Compounding this problem, many books about graphic design feature poor illustrations distanced by multiple generations of reproduction from the works they document.

Merrill C. Berman’s vast collection of twentieth-century graphic design has given the authors of this book an unequaled opportunity to study artifacts of design firsthand and view them as the result of physical processes. The Berman collection includes maquettes, drawings, and original photomontages as well as printed pieces created by some of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. The collection is staggering in both range and depth, constituting a premiere repository of primary documents of modern design.

This essay considers the role of production within the ideologies and aesthetics of modernism. How did techniques of making shape the meaning of design? What conflicts emerged between the ideal of mass production and the conditions of the print shop and designer’s studio? In this transitional period of modernism, many artists relied on hand processes and cottage-scaled industries to execute their visions of a technologically enhanced, rationally constructed future. The language they created outpaced the technologies of the time; the implications of this work continues to unfold today, in an era when the tools of visual communication are becoming ever more powerful, pervasive, and accessible.

The Technological Matrix: From Letterpress to Lithography

During the first decades of the twentieth century, artists drew from a mix of old and new technologies, using the tools of printed media to overhaul the established codes of poetic and public address. Two major printing technologies dominated the commercial graphic arts: letterpress and lithography. Each accommodated distinctive manners of generating images and texts for reproduction. Technological features had interacted with visual conventions to yield the entrenched vernacular styles of the nineteenth-century printing trades. Working within and against the established frameworks of production, avant-garde artists and designers forged new approaches to layout, lettering, typography, and illustration.

The letterpress system, introduced in the fifteenth century, consists of relief surfaces that are inked and pressed against a sheet of paper. Individual characters made from lead or wood are assembled into blocks of copy. The relief letters are stored in gridded cases, which also hold rules, ornaments, and blank bars and spacers used to adjust the distance among characters. The traditional aesthetic of letterpress is governed by a battalion of gridded structures, from the printer’s archive of prefabricated forms to the rectangular support of the “chase,” a frame in which parallel lines of type are locked together, hemmed in by blank blocks of “furniture” that establish margins and open spaces.5

While letterpress printing was invented to create multiple copies of texts, other techniques were devised to reproduce images, including woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography. For commercial printers, the most important of these methods was lithography. Invented in Germany in 1796, lithography involves marking a smooth stone with a water-resistant substance; when the surface is bathed in water during the printing process, the treated areas accept ink, and the resulting image prints onto paper. In offset lithography, which employs a flexible metal plate rather than a rigid stone, the inked image is “offset” from the plate to a rubber cylinder, which then prints the image onto paper. The offset method, introduced in the early twentieth century, proved more conducive to automation than stone lithography.6

Lithography enabled artists to draw images for reproduction in a direct and spontaneous manner with a crayon or brush, either directly on the stone or—to ease the awkwardness of drawing a flipped image—on transfer paper. Unlike letterpress, lithography is organized by no a priori grid. The stone is smooth, seamless, unmarked; it is not figured in advance by a matrix of horizontal elements and prefabricated characters. A lithographic design is built on open ground, not assembled out of rigid pieces. The early masters of the modern poster, such as Jules Cheret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, were celebrated for their ability to command the entire surface with their gestural images.

Although offset lithography would become dominant after World War II, printing from metal type was the principal means for reproducing text in the first half of the century, while lithography was the preferred medium for replicating images. Yet neither technology was confined to conveying solely words or solely pictures. The rise of magazines and advertising in the mid-nineteenth century encouraged the mixing of text and image. Letterpress printers inserted woodcut illustrations into their typographic grids, while lithographers created organic, freeform lettering, sometimes densely ornamental, using the tools of illustration. Letterpress printers used images as typographic elements, while lithographers treated words as pictures.

Photography, invented in 1839, was quickly exploited by commercial printers. By the 1850s, the literature of the printing trades was replete with texts devoted to photomechanical reproduction.7 Because neither letterpress nor lithography can reproduce shades of gray, photographic techniques served primarily to copy “line” images, or illustrations consisting of pure black and white tones, such as an ink drawing, a logo, or a line of lettering or type. The halftone process, invented around 1884, translated the continuous tones of photography into a pattern of black and white dots, which could be engraved into metal or transferred to a lithographic stone or plate (fig. 2.6). Photographs could now be printed simultaneously with typography; the conditions for the birth of the modern newspaper and magazine had been created.

Not only were photographs a special mode of representation—detailed and depersonalized—but the new halftones were cheaper to produce than drawings. The photographic image quickly became a ubiquitous mass medium; halftone reproductions of photographs and wash illustrations were a routine feature of newspapers and magazines by the 1890s. Some journalists and intellectuals were alarmed by the insurgence of the image enabled by the new technology, citing the mass-produced picture as an obstacle to clear thinking and the camera as an invasion of personal privacy.8 In contrast to such responses of fear and dismay, one writer dryly commented in 1900 that the halftone had managed to penetrate modern life without calling attention to itself—despite its omniscience, few readers had troubled to discern its structure. The halftone process was deliberately discreet; it sought to obscure its own presence, operating at the threshold of perception.9

The avant-garde artists and designers of the 1910s and 1920s, many of whom were born in the 1880s and 1890s, grew up with halftone photography delivered to them through the ubiquitous media of letterpress and lithography. The halftone, absorbed into the vernacular codes of commercial printing, became an indigenous texture of daily life, especially in Europe, Britain, and the United States, where a flood of images passed through its radically unobtrusive mesh. Although industrialization was less advanced in Russia, all the major graphic arts technologies, including photomechanical reproduction, were in place there by 1895.10

The modernists didn’t invent new technologies but rather devised new ways to use them, ways that often sought to emphasize technology itself. The means of production became a tangible presence, infusing the printed page with the taste—bitter, metallic, invigorating—of the mechanical age. This celebration of the machine was sometimes achieved through contradictory processes. As in Rodchenko’s Kino Glaz, one technique could aggressively broadcast its status while another was striving to cover its tracks.

Decomposing the Grid: Futurism and Dada

Breaking the grid of letterpress while at the same time asserting it as the framing condition of mechanical reproduction was a recurring challenge for avant-garde typographers. Consider F. T. Marinetti’s poem “CHAIRrrrrrrRR,” first published in 1912. The poem rejects the linear stream of conventional writing, in which words follow one another like beads on a string. The enlarged letters bracketing the ends of the poem cut through the rows of characters that oscillate furiously between them. “CHAIRrrrrrrRR” deviates from conventional composition while rendering emphatically visible the grid underlying letterpress typography.11 Once it had been produced within the letterpress system, however, the poem stabilized as an image, which was photomechanically reproduced in various contexts across its life, from Marinetti’s own publications to manuals of design and histories of art.
Other Futurist poems sought to obliterate the technological framework of letterpress typography. Marinetti’s “Montagnes + vallees + routes + Joffre” (1915), a textual journey through a mountainous landscape, was produced by cutting apart scraps of printed matter, pasting them onto a page, and creating additional marks by hand. This collage, submitted to a printer for reproduction, was then photographed as a line image, consisting of pure tones of black and white. The resulting line engraving could then be printed letterpress. Thus the printer treated the poem as an illustration, not as “typography” in the technical sense, composed from individual characters locked together in a chase. By incorporating a collage of letters as an overall picture, the letterpress system was able to accommodate free-form compositions cut loose from the strictures of the typographic grid.

Marinetti’s “CHAIrrrrrrRR” and “Montagnes + vallees + routes + Joffre” represent two distinct approaches to producing visual poetry, even though both pieces ultimately were printed letterpress. The first approach actively acknowledges the constraints of typography as a mechanical system—at once fighting and confirming the grid—while the other confronts the page as an unstructured field. Poems generated within the system of letterpress typography (rather than through the technique of collage) were composed from manuscripts marked up with directions to the printer, who would select characters whose size and spacing might not exactly match the poet’s sketch.12 In contrast, the collage, assembled at the poet’s work table, was photomechanically reproduced by the printer in a relatively neutral way.

Dada artists and poets also used the technologies and conventions of commercial printing to attack the institution of art. To construct poems, posters, and invitations, Tristan Tzara and Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd) lifted slogans from advertising and journalism and borrowed typographic conventions from commercial printing, such as mixed fonts and shifting scales of type.13 In a 1923 poster for a Dada soiree (fig. 2.9), Iliazd assembled a motley assortment of typographic elements—letters large and small, ornaments and dingbats, wood-engraved illustrations, an oversized exclamation mark—in a composition whose stacked forms and curved and angled lines aggressively eat away at the structural grid of letterpress. Yet the grid, ragged and bruised, remains intact, its orthogonal pressures bracing together the elements of the printed page. Each letter and ornament is a fabricated object, a rigid readymade, locked into place with spacers and blank blocks of printer’s furniture.

Tzara’s lithographic announcement for the 1921 Salon Dada expresses a similar aesthetic of commercial quotation (fig. 2.10). Various slogans, written in a tone of abject defeat (“Nobody is supposed to ignore Dada. . . . Forget me not, please”), are depicted as street signs casually littered across the surface of the poster. Although the elements resemble industrial artifacts, every mark and letter has been drawn by hand. The design is infused with the accidental aesthetic of the found commercial object, yet it has been executed with conventional drawing tools. To create the poster, the artist probably worked directly on lithographic transfer paper, unaided by any photomechanical processes.

Kurt Schwitters, famous for his pasted paper collages and his outrageous public performances, led a double life: alongside his Dada activity, he operated an advertising agency that created logos, stationery, posters, and other ephemera. Although the obscure references of his collages suggest a hermetic bent, in his graphic design Kurt Schwitters embraced a philosophy of functional communication. He belonged to an international vanguard of modern graphic designers who leapt without hesitation from the abrasive experiments of Futurism and Dada to a commercial design practice—at once rationally organized and emotionally charged—aimed at enlightened clients and consumers.14

In a letterpress booklet promoting his services (1930), Schwitters diagrammed two paradigms of typographic composition (see fig. 2.11). One page, titled Orientierung (orientation), features a tightly packed, strictly gridded space; the other, titled Werbung (advertising), frames an open field where forms soar and collide. Modernist advertising drew its energy from Dada and Constructivism, while the upright structures of information design reflected the Neue Sachlicheit, or new objectivity, coursing through the visual culture of Weimar Germany. Together these two impulses—so vividly diagrammed by Schwitters in his own promotional brochure—fueled the founding of modern graphic design, a profession built on the conflicts between free expression and technological precision, between consumer culture and social critique, between the deliberately opaque experiments of the avant-garde and the New Typography’s dream of a transparent language.

Regulating the Infinite: From Constructivism to the New Typography

By emphasizing the visual character of the printed word, Futurism and Dada freed letters from their subservience to the visual and verbal conventions of literature, just as Cubism and Suprematism had cut loose the elements of painting from the laws of perspective. The turbulent poetics of the avant-garde, which playfully manipulated commercial techniques and imagery, were retooled by proponents of functional communication in the 1920s. In his manifesto Die Neue Typographie, published in Berlin in 1928, Jan Tschichold placed Tzara and Marinetti among the founders of modern functional design. He attacked the centered compositions of the classical book and the florid individualism of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil in favor of asymmetrical layouts, uniform page sizes, sans serif letterforms, and the division of texts into functional parts (fig. 2.12). Whereas Futurism and Dada had cultivated chaos and contradiction, the New Typography claimed to be rational and coherent, capable of giving “pure and direct expression to the contents of whatever is printed; just as in the works of technology and nature.“15

A bridge from the disruptive experiments of avant-garde painters and poets to the functional philosophy of the New Typography had been built in the Soviet Union, where artists, sparked by the energy of the young communist state, sought to enter the realm of industrial production and public communication. In 1920 El Lissitzky published his tract “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” which challenged artists to plunge the abstract art of Kasimir Malevich into the broader social realm.16 Lissitzky proclaimed that Malevich, by collapsing the history of painting into a black square, had staked a flag at the edge of a “new planet,” marking an alien landscape to be explored by the artists of the future. Malevich had created a radically reduced object whose promise of infinite transformation was hemmed in by the social and physical limits of easel painting. Lissitzky’s PROUN compositions (from Project for the Affirmation of the New) of the late 1910s and early 1920s elaborated a space at once architectural and abstract. The PROUNs attempted to ground the mystical sublime of Suprematism in the physical world.

Lissitzky’s text “Suprematism and World Reconstruction” was a founding document of Constructivism, a theory and practice that flourished into an international movement during the 1920s. Constructivism was positioned from the outset in relation to the technologies of production. Lissitzky wrote: “Those of us who have stepped out beyond the confines of the picture take rulers and compasses . . . in our hands. For the frayed point of the paintbrush is at variance with our concept of clarity and if necessary we shall take machines in our hands as well because in expressing our creative ability paintbrush and ruler and compasses and machines are only extensions of the finger which points the way.“17 Against the “frayed point of the paintbrush,” Lissitzky promoted the ruler and compass as instruments of precision and economy that could transport the artist beyond the “confines of the picture.” Yet even the brush, worn to the point of exhaustion, could be put in the service of society, because any tool was considered a life-affirming celebrant of labor.

The goal of the new art was not just to create objects but to change the way the public perceives and acts in the world.18 In “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” Lissitzky observed the subordination of discrete houses, streets, and squares to decentralized patterns of electrical wires, radio signals, and subway systems. Looking at an urban landscape transformed by industry, he applauded the dissolution of the individual citizen and the isolated object and the triumph of the modern town as a network of energies. For Lissitzky, industrialization was embodied not in the machine-as-object but in diffused social and technological relationships.

Indeed, the interaction of technology with new social forms already had yielded powerful cultural tools. Such was the achievement of the poster project launched by ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, between 1919 and 1922. With ROSTA, crude production methods became central features of a sophisticated medium of communication. Known as “ROSTA windows” because they sometimes were installed in empty storefronts, these posters translated into a concise visual form news announcements and political directives that were conveyed across the telegraph wires. Originating in Moscow and Petrograd, ROSTA agencies soon appeared across the Soviet Union. The posters usually were produced overnight, sometimes in less than an hour.19

Vladimir Maiakovskii was the leader of ROSTA’s Moscow division, where he wrote copy for hundreds of posters. Maiakovskii would compose a text announcing news or information and then give it to an artist for visual interpretation. In Moscow, the ROSTA posters typically were printed from cardboard stencils, from which an edition of three hundred posters could be generated in two or three days. The workshops were cold and cramped, but the artists were paid regularly and commanded a degree of professional respect. Production methods varied from city to city: lithographs in Smolensk, linocuts in Petrograd (fig. 2.13). In Odessa, texts and images were painted on sheets of plywood that were then washed down and reused, plywood being more plentiful than paper. Maiakovskii described the posters as “Œtelegraphic bulletins, instantly translated into poster-form, decrees immediately published as rhymes. The vulgar character of the poetry, the coarse character—this is not only due to the absence of paper, but the furious tempo of the revolution with which printing technology could not keep pace.’“20 Although the ROSTA windows were crudely made, they reflected a sophisticated convergence of social systems and production methods. Simple means proved a more expedient response to the demand for immediate communication than the more polished techniques used by commercial printers.

Writing in 1926, Lissitzky recalled that the books of the Russian avant-garde in the 1910s had been produced largely by hand, “written and illustrated with the lithographic crayon, or engraved in wood.“21 During the reconstruction of the Soviet Union beginning in 1922, artists increasingly had access to letterpress and commercial lithography. Lissitzky wrote, “Comrades Popova, Rodchenko, Syenkin, Stepanova, and Gan devote themselves to the book. Some of them work in the printing-works itself, along with the compositor and the machine.“22 Varvara Stepanova’s 1922 announcement for the theatrical production The Death of Tarelkin reveals the tentative entry of Suprematist forms into the mechanical framework of letterpress: geometric shapes jostle among a mix of printed letters whose mismatched styles reflect the arbitrary inventory of the metal type shop.

In 1920, the same year he wrote “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” Lissitzky applied Suprematist theory to the design of the book Of Two Squares; this landmark work would not be published until 1922 in Berlin, where Lissitzky could exploit “the high standard of German technology.“23 In 1923 Lissitzky published For the Voice (fig. 2.15), also in Berlin, a typographic interpretation of a poem by Maiakovskii. For the Voice was a triumph of letterpress composition that resulted from careful collaboration between designer and printer.24 By combining typographic elements with geometric forms, Lissitzky compressed the exploded spaces of his PROUN constructions into the functional mechanics of the printed page.

Describing his method, Lissitzky wrote, “The spatial arrangement of the book, by means of the type matter and according to the mechanical rules of printing, must express the strains and stresses of the contents.“25 Lissitzky approached letterpress as a system of elements that could visually translate the meaning of a text.
While Lissitzky was actively exploring the structure of letterpress typography, Rodchenko approached the printed letter as an object to be constructed with the tools of the geometer and engineer. Drafting techniques had become familiar to Rodchenko as an art student in the early 1910s, when he performed painstaking exercises in descriptive geometry using the compass, pen, and ruler.26 Against the open spaces of Lissitzky’s books, pierced with typographic elements, Rodchenko built broad, massive forms that tend to fill and flatten the surface.27 On Rodchenko’s lithographic catalogue cover for the Soviet Pavilion at the Exposition de l’Art Decoratif in Paris (1925), letters take shape as negative forms inscribed into fields of color (fig. 2.16).28 Rodchenko’s distinctive manipulation of large-scale letters was well-suited to the drawing-based medium of lithography. In contrast, his letterpress designs for the journal Lef were crudely produced—the large-scale letters appear to have been carved in linoleum or cut quickly out of paper and photographed. The rawness of Rodchenko’s Lef covers may reflect the journal’s limited economic resources as well as the nature of letterpress production.29

Rodchenko and Maiakovskii had been close collaborators in the Moscow division of ROSTA. They joined forces in a second enterprise with the founding of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) following the end of the civil war in 1922. The NEP sought to revitalize the Soviet economy by allowing limited free enterprise, making state-owned businesses healthier by forcing them to compete with private companies. Rodchenko and Maiakovskii formed an advertising agency that produced posters, packages, and billboards for Soviet businesses, from GUM, the state department store, to Dobrolet, the state airline. Maiakovskii wrote avant-garde sales copy that reveled in alliteration, rhythm, and repetition; Rodchenko converted these texts into frontal assaults on the eye. Maiakovskii saw no contradiction between the shift from ROSTA’s campaigns of news and propaganda to the product solicitations he created with Rodchenko: “Advertising,’” he proclaimed in 1922, “is industrial, commercial agitation.’“30

As Rodchenko recounted, the Maiakovskii-Rodchenko advertising agency was organized along professional lines. The designer was assisted by two students from the VKhutemas, an art school similar to the Bauhaus, who worked with him through the nights to complete his designs.31 This support staff may have provided the meticulous execution seen in several of Rodchenko’s original advertising designs, preserved in the Berman collection. In a 1923 design promoting Mosselprom vegetable oil (fig. 2.18), the lettering, illustrations, and geometric background were painted entirely by hand; the only readymade element is a pair of small printed seals pasted toward the bottom of the poster. This hand-painted design would then have been photographically separated into plates for color lithography. Exploiting the character of the lithographic medium, Rodchenko’s design dominates the surface of the poster with its field of flat broad stripes and its heavy black rectangles filled with white letters: at the center floats the product, stark and pristine. By collaborating with Maiakovskii as well as employing technical assistants to create prototypes for reproduction, Rodchenko eschewed the role of the solitary creator and entered the realm of production for industry; his working methods anticipated those of the postWorld War II art director.

(end of excerpt)


Gummy World

“Gummy World: Thoughts on the Graphical User Interface,” essay by Ellen Lupton, originally published on AIGA Voice, July 16, 2004.

The world can be divided into two basic categories: people who like chocolate, and people who like gummies. Chocolate is serious, sexy, and secretive. Gummies are fruity, cheerful, and transparent. Whereas chocolates are often shaped as simple cubes, bars, and domes, gummies masquerade as worms, sharks, strawberries, coke bottles, teddy bears, cartoon characters, and more. Gummies promise a bright world of postmodern illusion, while chocolates imply a dark modernist sublime.

It looks like the gummy people were behind the visual design of Apple’s OSX. In place of the flat, pixel-based icons of Apple’s old-school interface, our screens now quiver with translucent, 3-d blobs. Prone to technological inertia myself, I have delayed my own switch to OSX for as long as possible. Finally, this spring, I converted my laptop to OSX, while keeping my basic workstation lodged in the static comforts of OS9.

The old-school desktop doesn’t pretend to be real; it is a metaphor for a desktop that pays a knowing nod to the banality of the workplace. The original trash can, for example, has a sense of humor (it is obviously and unapologetically a symbol of a garbage bin, not a “real” one). In contrast, the updated dock features a photographically rendered wastebasket, straight out of the Office Depot catalogue. (Someone should ask Karim Rashid to design a gummy one.) In place of the tiny, turning watch that tells you to wait in OS9, we get a happy pinwheel in OSX that looks like one of those giant lollipops from the beach or the circus. Everything in Gummy World (even waiting) is supposed to be fun.

The gummies in the dock are so eager to please, they move, twitch, and inflate when your mouse comes near them, pleading for attention like girls desperate for a dance. (The old interface expects the user to make the first move.) Many of the animated behaviors in Gummy World are quite wonderful, however. The dialog boxes that “shake their heads” to say “no” provide an ingenius and unmistakable visual cue, and the way files minimize into the dock like the silk scarves of a magician is both poetic and unambiguous.

Gummy World reflects a simulationist point of view, whereas OS9 employs a schematic, abstracted attitude. In the 1960s and 70s, cultural critics described the rise of a simulationist aesthetic; they witnessed a mind-numbing “society of spectacle” that was replacing the intellectual abstractions of modernism. Writers such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard described simulation as a semiotic sedative that had replaced the world of direct physical experience with a dominion of signs

For many cultural critics and producers in the 1980s and 90s, the rise of new forms of digital media meant that simulation would continue to dominate our experience of technology. But whereas Debord and Baudrillard viewed simulation through a dark and distopian lense, a new generation of authors greeted it with sparkling enthusiasm. For example, Janet Murray’s 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck celebrates immersive, hyperreal simulations (Disney theme park rides) as the triumph of simulation and the pinnacle of artistic achievement, where spectators suspend disbelief and lose themselves in a fantasy world of ersatz sensations.

The juicy, bulbous icons of Gummy World aspire to postmodern artifice and illusion, in contrast with the flat and obvious bitmaps of OS9, which, like modern works of painting, film, or furniture, call attention to their own concrete constructedness, announcing their status as human artifacts.

Yet OSX, for all its luminous simulationism, ends up delivering a transparency of a wholly different order. OSX is the first Apple operating system to be based on Unix, a more or less “open source” code that can be explored and modified by a user equipped with sufficient skill (and inclination) to do so. Such users choose to bypass Gummy World altogether and speak directly in the language of the Machine, peeling away the illusionistic skin of the desktop to reveal a command-line architecture as transparent as a Calatrava bridge.

As my colleague Yoram Chisik explains it, “There is a cultural divide between those who cherish their knowledge of arcane commands and those who just want their computers to be obvious so they can figure out stuff without having to bang their heads against the wall.” Regardless of the style of its icons (abstracted or illusionistic, static or animated), any icon-based desktop interface hides the structural language of the machine. In terms of surface aesthetics, OSX simply amplifies a narrative that was set into motion by the early GUIs and became the basis of the Apple interface (and was then imitated by Windows).

Does the “improvement” of digital media necessarily mean the pursuit of increasing levels of realism, with ever-mounting levels of detail and ever more complete and exagerrated spectacles? Making things more bright, shiny, and animated does not necessarily make them better, but giving them new structural intelligence and transparency does. Art and design can trigger mental images as well as retinal ones, critical ideas as well as special effects. The designer often acts as an editor, choosing what not to say and what not to show.

Myself, I’m not ready for command-line communication with my Mac. I still do love chocolate, but I am also learning to crave the sweet-and-sour sensibility of Gummy World.

On the critique of simulation, see Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983); and Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Mark Poster, ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), 166-84. On digital media, see Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). On the evolution of the GUI, see Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). Special thanks to Yoram Chisik.

Going Public

Essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Print magazine (January/February 2005).

As an identical twin, I am often asked whether my sister and I have a “secret language,” or whether we communicate via telepathy. “No,” I usually reply. ”We communicate via telephone.“ Until now. Recently, my sister and I have begun to share a truly secret language: the language of graphic design. It’s a secret that, once passed to another person, has a contagious way of spreading into the general population.

During the past year, my twin and I have engaged in a design experiment, as I helped her build her own Web site and acquire the skills to maintain and design the site herself. In addition to learning to use Dreamweaver, she has mobilized Photoshop and InDesign to produce posters, invitations, and other print projects. In the meantime, she has been teaching these skills to other people in her circle of college professors, setting off a chain reaction of self-empowerment and self-education.

As genetic duplicates, twins have been subject to numerous scientific studies that weigh the power of genetic destiny over environmental circumstance. Julia and I had nearly identical interests and abilities as young children, but we agreed to go our separate ways in high school. I became the “artist,” studying design at Cooper Union, while Julia became the “intellectual,” ultimately earning a PhD at Yale and becoming a full professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. As the academic super-achiever back in high school and college, Julia was my teacher, exposing me to post-structuralist theory, which I applied to my own work as an artist and designer. Now, I have become her teacher, delivering the practical tools and basic principles of design. Yet the teaching and learning flows back and forth, as Julia has shared new theories relevant to our current experiment in life and art, such as the notion of “social capital,” which looks at the economic value of human relationships and the informal systems of giving and exchange that enrich healthy societies.

This personal experiment has opened up my thinking about design education. What if, in addition to teaching college students to become “professional” designers, we looked for ways to help normal people use design in their daily lives? This year, my graduate students and I at Maryland Institute College of Art are writing a do-it-yourself guide to graphic design that will deliver design techniques to general readers. The book is directed, especially, at young people who are comfortable with technology and who are eager to make their own media (t-shirts, business cards, Web sites), but don’t know how to put together all the tools, materials, and ideas that are available to them. By promoting design thinking, we hope to give ordinary people the power to publish. (My sister is contributing essays on theory and politics.)

I have been a design educator for my entire career, both as a college instructor and as a museum curator. In the context of an art school, the presumed goal of the educator is to train students to become professional designers. In the context of a museum exhibition, the presumed goal is to foster “appreciation” of design values among the general public. What if we rewrote these goals? What if museums started teaching people how to make art and design, and what if college-level design programs took the tools and languages of publishing across the whole campus? Design is an instrument for packaging ideas and making them public. Giving people access to design tools helps them make tangible their own knowledge and ideas. This active mode of literacy folds back into the ability to read and understand what’s out there in the world. Learning to build your own Web site, or edit your own movie, or publish your own book, makes you more critical of the media you see and read each day, and more cognizant of the skill and artistry required to create such media at the highest level.

A DIY revolution is flourishing everywhere you look, from Martha Stewart and ReadyMade magazine to the front zone of Urban Outfitters stores, which is stocked with craft kits and underground guides to thinking and making. At MIT Media Lab, John Maeda and his research team are developing a set of simple, Web-based design tools, called Treehouse Studio, that will broaden access to digital imaging software. Such an undertaking may sound modest for an institution known for its high-tech experiments. Afterall, sophisticated software is widely available on the commercial market. Why labor to make cruder versions of applications that have become industry standards?

The reason, of course, is social. Maeda explains that when his mother wanted to buy a computer, he told her she probably wouldn’t be able to use it. “Why?” she asked. Maeda replied, “It’s not the computer, it’s the software, which is too expensive to buy and too difficult to use.” Treehouse is free, easy to learn, and runs over the Web, so all you need is a browser.’ It aims to make design tools accessible to people around the world, from curious kids, hobbyists, and aspiring artists to citizens who are economically or politically motivated to produce their own media.

Just as desktop publishing failed to obliterate the design profession in the 1980s, the do-it-yourself movement that is on the rise today will not wipe out the need for professional designers or high-end commercial software. Grassroots design resources are likely to feed, rather than suffocate, desire for more powerful tools and in-depth collaborations with full-time designers. I believe that the next great task of the graphic design discipline is to spread our ideas outward, putting the tools of communicating into the hands of people who have the need and urge to communicate. We can become front runners in a global design Peace Corps, starting with our own families, schools, and neighborhoods. This development is not the death of the profession but its humanistic rebirth.

Fluid Mechanics: Typography Now

“Fluid Mechanics: Typographic Design Now,” essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Donald Albrecht, Steven Holt, and Ellen Lupton, Design Culture Now: National Design Triennial. New York: Princeton Architectural Press and Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2000.

Liquidity, saturation, and overflow are words that describe the information surplus that besets us at the start of the twenty-first century. Images proliferate in this media-rich environment, and so too does the written word. Far from diminishing in influence, text has continued to expand its power and pervasiveness. The visual expression of language has grown increasingly diverse, as new fonts and formats evolve to accommodate the relentless display of the word.

Typography is the art of designing letterforms and arranging them in space and time. Since its invention during the Renaissance, typography has been animated by the conflict between fixed architectural elements-such as the page and its margins-and the fluid substance of written words. Evolutions in the life of the letter arise from dialogs between wet and dry, soft and hard, slack and taut, amorphous and geometric, ragged and flush, planned and unpredicted. With unprecedented force, these conflicts are driving typographic innovation today. Typography is going under water as designers submerge themselves in the textures and transitions that bond letter, word, and surface. As rigid formats become open and pliant, the architectural hardware of typographic systems is melting down.

The flush, full page of the classical book is dominated by a single block of justified text, its characters mechanically spaced to completely occupy the designated volume. The page is like a glass into which text is poured, spilling over from one leaf to the next. By the early twentieth century, the classical page had given way to the multicolumned, mixed-media structures of the modern newspaper, magazine, and illustrated book.

Today, the simultaneity of diverse content streams is a given. Alongside the archetype of the printed page, the new digital archetype of the window has taken hold. The window is a scrolling surface of unlimited length, whose width adjusts at the will of reader or writer. In both print and digital media, graphic designers devise ways to navigate bodies of information by exploring the structural possibilities of pages and windows, boxes and frames, edges and margins.

In 1978, Nicholas Negroponte and Muriel Cooper, working at mit’s Media Lab, published a seminal essay on the notion of “soft copy,” the linguistic raw material of the digital age. The bastard offspring of hard copy, soft text lacks a fixed typographic identity. Owing allegiance to no font or format, it is willingly pasted, pirated, output, or repurposed in countless contexts. It is the ubiquitous medium of word-processing, desk-top publishing, e-mail, and the Internet. The burgeoning of soft copy had an enormous impact on graphic design in the 1980s and 1990s. In design for print, soft copy largely eliminated the mediation of the typesetter, the technician previously charged with converting the manuscript-which had been painstakingly marked up by hand with instructions from the designer-into galleys, or formal pages of type. Soft copy flows directly to designers in digital form from authors and editors. The designer is free to directly manipulate the text-without relying on the typesetter-and to adjust typographic details up to the final moments of production. The soft copy revolution led designers to plunge from an objective aerial view into the moving waters of text, where they shape it from within.

Digital media enable both users and producers, readers and writers, to regulate the flow of language. As with design for print, the goal of interactive typography is to create “architectural” structures that accommodate the organic stream of text. But in the digital realm, these structures-and the content they support-have the possibility of continuous transformation. In their essay about soft copy, Negroponte and Cooper predicted the evolution of digital interfaces that would allow typography to transform its size, shape, and color. Muriel Cooper (1925-1994) went on to develop the idea of the three-dimensional “information landscape,” a model that breaks through the window frames that dominate electronic interfaces.

Viewed from a distance, a field of text is a block of gray. But when one comes in close to read, the individual characters predominate over the field. Text is a body of separate objects that move together as a mass, like cars in a flow of traffic or individuals in a crowd. Text is a fluid made from the hard, dry crystals of the alphabet.

Typeface designs in the Renaissance reflected the curving lines of handwriting, formed by ink flowing from the rigid nib of a pen. The cast metal types used for printing converted these organic sources into fixed, reproducible artifacts. As the printed book became the world’s dominant information medium, the design of typefaces grew ever more abstract and formalized, distanced from the liquid hand. Today, designers look back at the systematic, abstracting tendencies of modern letter design and both celebrate and challenge that rationalizing impulse. They have exchanged the anthracite deposits of the classical letter for lines of text that quiver and bleed like living things.

The distinctive use of type, which can endow a long or complex document with a sense of unified personality or behavior, also builds the identity of brands and institutions. Bruce Mau has described identity design as a “life problem,” arguing that the visual expression of a company or product should appear like a frame taken from a system in motion.

The flat opacity of the printed page has been challenged by graphic designers who use image manipulation software to embed the word within the surface of the photographic image. A pioneer of such effects in the digital realm was P. Scott Makela (19601999). In the early 1990s, he began using PhotoShop, a software tool that had just been introduced, as a creative medium. In his designs for print and multimedia, type and image merge in dizzying swells and eddies as letters bulge, buckle, and morph. The techniques he helped forge have become part of the fundamental language of graphic design. The linear forms of typography have become planar surfaces, skimming across and below the pixelated skin of the image.

The alphabet is an ancient form that is deeply embedded in the mental hardware of readers. Graphic designers always ground their work, to some degree, in historic precedent, tapping the familiarity of existing symbols and styles even as they invent new idioms. While some designers pay their toll to history with reluctance, others dive eagerly into the reservoirs of pop culture. Tibor Kalman (19491999) led the graphic design world’s reclamation of visual detritus, borrowing from the commonplace vernacular of mail-order stationery and do-it-yourself signage. Designers now frankly embrace the humor and directness of everyday artifacts. In the aesthetic realm as in the economic one, pollution is a natural resource-one that is expanding rather than shrinking away.

Thirty years ago, progressive designers often described their mission as “problem-solving.” They aimed to identify the functional requirements of a project and then discover the appropriate means to satisfy the brief. Today, it is more illuminating to speak of solvents than solutions. Design is often an attack on structure, or an attempt to create edifices that can withstand and engage the corrosive assault of content.

The clean, smooth surfaces of modernism proved an unsound fortress against popular culture, which is now invited inside to fuel the creation of new work. Image and text eat away at the vessels that would seal them shut. Forms that are hard and sharp now appear only temporarily so, ready to melt, like ice, in response to small environmental changes. All systems leak, and all waters are contaminated, not only with foreign matter but with bits of structure itself. A fluid, by definition, is a substance that conforms to the outline of its container. Today, containers reconfigure in response to the matter they hold.

Rough Ideas: New Design from Israel

“Rough Ideas: New Design from Israel,” (excerpt), essay by Ellen Lupton, published in New Design from Israel. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2006. Published in conjunction with the exhibition Solos: New Design from Israel, 2006.

The objects presented in Solos: New Design from Israel are the result of philosophical inquiries made by their designers about what things are and how they are made. Through their creations, the designers speak in a frank, direct way, avoiding metaphor, symbolism, iconography, and even irony. In the ways in which they construct and put together their pieces, and through the materials they use, they aspire to beauty, perfection, and finality; perhaps paradoxically, they also seek a rigorous plainness, and offer transitional solutions to vexing problems. The makers’ voices are at once hopeful and hesitant, assertive and melancholy . The objects are not merely anonymous objects that disappear into the transparency of function; they are, by and large, objects about ideas.

The designers in Solos: New Design from Israel all were either born in or immigrated to, and now live and work in, Israel—a small country at the center of a world discourse. Israel is a place with a rough terrain and contested borders. It is also a place defined by thinking, as well as by an incessant process of learning and debate. Its inhabitants look constantly inward at the country’s own struggles as they reach outward at the global context in which the future must unfold.

Israeli industry has a dual character. On the one hand, the country supports high-tech industries that produce advanced equipment for world markets. On the other hand, the country has few businesses that manufacture furniture and domestic goods—the objects at the core of the design field’s ongoing discourse on modern living. This dichotomy pushes designers to work for high-tech industries while, at the same time, creating one-off or small-batch pieces that foster reflections on the discipline of design. These experimental objects are primarily made in the designers’ own workshops, out of commonly available materials and using simple or improvised manufacturing techniques.

The Solos: New Design from Israel exhibition and book focus on this studio-based practice. Design from Israel is not a local or nationalistic dialect, but rather a voice which participates at the highest level of the global design discourse. By presenting their work in New York City, in a museum like the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, which serves as a commentator on the international design world, these Israeli designers take their place at the head of the table, where their objects can speak with clarity and directness to a broad audience.

The land occupied by modern Israel has been engaged with the surrounding world for millennia. Known across history as Israel, Judea, Palestine, and by other names, the country that made its center in Jerusalem was controlled and conquered by the Ptolemaic Greeks and the Roman Empire as well by numerous kingdoms of the Middle East. There remains today a sense that classical ideas of beauty belong to foreign peninsulas of the Mediterranean, an inland sea whose waters have long fostered the circulation of ideas and the migration of peoples. Israeli identity is lodged between East and West, between the reunited travelers of the Jewish diaspora and the traditional inhabitants of the Middle East. Containing sites that are sacred to three world religions, Israel is a pilgrim’s destination as well as a place to live and work.1

Blunt Instruments

A major concern across the history of design and the decorative arts has been the attempt to ease the transition between opposing forms and materials: the seat and leg of a chair, the handle and bowl of a cup, the cushions and armature of a couch, the skin and guts of a mechanical device. In the objects shown here, the frontiers between opposing structures and substances are often starkly revealed. In lieu of hidden joints and seamless surfaces, elements come together in abrupt and obvious ways. The works refuse to be subtle.

Traditional upholstery conceals a fixed armature beneath a stuffed skin. Such standards are countered by designers such as Zivia, who has created a series of furnishings entitled Zit Up which reference the nomadic life of the Bedouins, Arab dwellers of the Arabian, Syrian, or North African deserts . Some pieces use strips of fabric to weave together flat panels of wood into tables and chairs, while another consists of long skewers of wood threaded through rolled-up textiles that become cushions and chair backs. As for a collection of lamps and stools designed by Raviv Lifshitz, each piece encloses an inflated beach ball inside a wire cage. The upholstered volume bulges out from inside its naked skeleton.

A radio receiver by Assaf Warshavsky rejects another norm, that of the modern industrial appliance. Whereas the working parts of a radio are usually enclosed within a box, with controls parked on the exterior, this object consists of a thin, perforated plane with knobs on one side and the mechanical system on the other, creating a direct, transparent—and equal— relationship between the inside and the outside.

Addressing the properties of industrial materials and techniques is at the heart of much of these works. Raviv Lifshitz’s Official Channels lamp is made by sanding down areas along a length of PVC pipe; as the material thins, it becomes translucent. The Bin Seat chair by Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow is made from a mass-produced plastic garbage bin, its walls sliced and bent into a new form. Vili Mizrachi has used plastic—a material associated with lightness, cheapness, and mass production—to create handmade bowls that are heavy and thick. “In industry, machines work perfectly,” says Mizrachi. “My machine doesn’t work right.”

Tal Gur has adapted the industrial technique of rotation molding— in which a liquid material is rotated inside a mold to gradually build up the wall of a hollow object —to the production of small-batch products. This low-tech process is used for making everything from chocolate bunnies and plastic buckets to the ceramic jars seen along the road to Jericho. The tooling required for rotation molding is less expensive than for other methods of producing plastics. Gur’s rotation-molded Eash lamps look up toward the future. “Industrial materials,” says Gur, “can be used in a post-industrial way.” Eash refers to a small or ordinary man. In another innovative project, Gur has made a chair and ottoman out of thousands of plastic drinking straws. To make these objects, he created a plywood mold in the profile of the each piece, open on either side, and lined it with aluminum. When the mold is heated, the straws melt together, creating a sturdy object.

Designer Yuval Tal has altered a set of mass-produced ceramic mugs to describe a state of rupture and discontinuity. When manufactured in a factory, a cup or mug typically is assembled out of two components, a vessel and handle, joined together under a common glaze. Tal has broken off the handles from a set of ordinary mugs, replacing or reattaching them via blatantly mechanical means, and thus asserting the mug’s inherent dichotomy of forms. Alon Meron, disclosing a break of another kind, has made a series of cups, bowls, and saucers out of opposing materials—opaque, white ceramic and translucent, deeply colored rubber—that are joined together along their sharply drawn, interlocking borders. Broken crockery is the stuff of archaeological digs, where shards of pottery are carefully gathered, labeled, and documented. These pieces offer an archaeology of the present that acknowledges breaks and flaws as facts of modern life.

The Philosopher at the Table

If broken pottery is the primal stuff of archaeology, the table is the primal scene of philosophy, the place where the writer sits down to work. Karl Marx used a table as an exemplary commodity in his world-changing 1867 book Capital . A commodity, he wrote, is an object whose primary purpose is not to fulfill a useful function in people’s lives, but rather to be exchanged in the marketplace for economic gain. The commodity embodies a surplus value that is made possible by the worker’s sale of his labor to the capitalist, who owns the means of production. Like Alon Meron’s broken and healed dishes, a table designed by Vili Mizrachi consists of disparate parts pieced together. Two L-shaped planes are stitched to one another around a fence of nails on either side of their shared border. The divided parts do not merge into a harmonious whole, but nor are they opponents beyond reconcile. The piece speaks of compromise and conversation, of an awkward but attainable union. This is no mere table, then, but also an inquiry about what tables are and how they reflect the complexities of contemporary life.

Sometimes a work of design exists neither chiefly as an object of use nor as an object of exchange, but rather as a tool for thought. Pini Leibovich, a designer with a successful career working for Israeli industries, described his decision to make experimental works as a desire “to be thinking through objects.” Leibovich has created a series of tables and benches out of long strips of bendable plywood, constrained at certain points. The final object results from the conflict between these decisive points of control and the independent behavior of the material. Sharon Shechter has covered a table with red Formica, a thin, flexible material designed to look fixed and rigid. By cutting a flap into the sheet of Formica before gluing it down, the designer has exploited the material’s hidden tendencies and given the table a new function.

Although many of the works in the exhibition are unique or made in small numbers, a few have gone into industrial production. Ezri Tarazi’s New Baghdad table is made from lengths of factory-made extruded aluminum cut into sections and assembled together to create a broad flat plane. Working with these sections in his studio, Tarazi saw that the pieces could fit together like parts of a city; their pattern is structured and constrained around geographic landmarks, yet it is also organic and aggregate. First made by hand in his own studio, the table was developed for production by the Italian furniture maker Edra in 2005.

Philosophical inquiry lends itself to objects in a series. Yaacov Kaufman is a senior figure in Israel’s design community whose body of work includes numerous light fixtures and other pieces in industrial production as well as experimental endeavors. In one project, Kaufman has taken a generic aluminum container and subjected it to a battery of physical operations: cutting, bending, crushing, piercing. As the anonymous industrial thing gives itself up to these violent acts, it can abandon its function or gain new ones. Making things is paradoxically a destructive process which imposes form onto existing materials.

A series of wall-mounted drawers entitled Plans for/of a Drawer by Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow contemplate the relationship between drawers and handles. Can the thing inside the drawer become the handle? Can the handle hide itself inside the drawer? Can the handle occupy the space between the drawers? Can the drawer become a flexible space between a fixed ceiling and floor? A prototypical object of modern dwelling becomes the subject of systematic study.

Many Israeli designers have turned their attention to another generic furniture type: the bookshelf, the architectural repository of learning. Chanan de Lange has created shelving systems of exceptional magnitude, including Mandu A, B, and C , which assembles standard strips of perforated metal into an armature conjoined at odd angles. “Shelves that slant a little bit,” he explains, “are more comfortable for the books.” Such shelves also look temporary, raw, and unfinished. They do nothing to hide their industrial character or their means of construction. They are open, blunt, and inquisitive.

1. See Vanni Pasca and Ely Rozenberg, Promisedesign: New Design from Israel (Berlin: SOG_visuelle Kommunikation), Milan Triennale, 2005. See also Nadav Safran, Israel: The Embattled Ally (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978).


Deconstruction and Graphic Design

Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller. Published in special issue of Visible Language on graphic design history, edited by Andrew Blauvelt (1994). This is an earlier version of the essay “Deconstruction and Graphic Design,” published in our book Design Writing Research.

Since the surfacing of the term “deconstruction” in design journalism in the mid-1980s, the word has served to label architecture, graphic design, products, and fashion featuring chopped up, layered, and fragmented forms imbued with ambiguous futuristic overtones. This essay looks at the reception and use of deconstruction in the recent history of graphic design, where it has become the tag for yet another period style.

We then consider the place of graphics within the theory of deconstruction, initiated in the work of philosopher Jacques Derrida. We argue that deconstruction is not a style or “attitude” but rather a mode of questioning through and about the technologies, formal devices, social institutions, and founding metaphors of representation. Deconstruction belongs to both history and theory. It is embedded in recent visual and academic culture, but it describes a strategy of critical form-making which is performed across a range of artifacts and practices, both historical and contemporary.

Jacques Derrida introduced the concept of “deconstruction” in his book Of Grammatology, published in France in 1967 and translated into English in 1976. “Deconstruction” became a banner for the advance guard in American literary studies in the 1970s and 80s, scandalizing departments of English, French, and comparative literature. Deconstruction rejected the project of modern criticism: to uncover the meaning of a literary work by studying the way its form and content communicate essential humanistic messages. Deconstruction, like critical strategies based on Marxism, feminism, semiotics, and anthropology, focuses not on the themes and imagery of its objects but rather on the linguistic and institutional systems that frame the production of texts.

In Derrida’s theory, deconstruction asks how representation inhabits reality. How does the external image of things get inside their internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin? Western culture since Plato, Derrida argues, has been governed by such oppositions as reality/representation, inside/outside, original/copy, and mind/body. The intellectual achievements of the West—its science, art, philosophy, literature—have valued one side of these pairs over the other, allying one side with truth and the other with falsehood. For example, the Judeo-Christian tradition has conceived the body as an external shell for the inner soul, elevating the mind as the sacred source of thought and spirit, while denigrating the body as mere mechanics. In the realm of aesthetics, the original work of art traditionally has carried an aura of authenticity that its copy lacks, and the telling of a story or the taking of a photograph is viewed as a passive record of events.

“Deconstruction” takes apart such oppositions by showing how the devalued, empty concept lives inside the valued, positive one. The outside inhabits the inside. Consider, for example, the opposition between nature and culture. The idea of “nature” depends on the idea of “culture,” and yet culture is part of nature. It’s a fantasy to conceive of the non-human environment as a pristine, innocent setting fenced off and protected from the products of human endeavor—cities, roads, farms, landfills. The fact that we have produced a concept of “nature” in opposition to “culture” is a symptom of our alienation from the ecological systems that civilization depletes and transforms.

A crucial opposition for deconstruction is speech/writing. The Western philosophical tradition has denigrated writing as an inferior copy of the spoken word. Speech draws on interior consciousness, but writing is dead and abstract. The written word loses its connection to the inner self. Language is set adrift, untethered from the speaking subject. In the process of embodying language, writing steals its soul. Deconstruction views writing as an active rather than passive form of representation. Writing is not merely a bad copy, a faulty transcription, of the spoken word; writing, in fact, invades thought and speech, transforming the sacred realms of memory, knowledge, and spirit. Any memory system, in fact, is a form of writing, since it records thought for the purpose of future transmissions.

The speech/writing opposition can be mapped onto a series of ideologically loaded pairs that are constitutive of modern Western culture:

interior to the mind/exterior to the mind
requires no equipment/requires equipment
present subject/absent subject

Derrida’s critique of the speech/writing opposition locates the concerns of deconstruction in the field of graphic design. We will return to the speech/writing problem in more detail later, but first, we will look at the life of deconstruction in recent design culture.

The Design History of Deconstruction

Deconstruction belongs to the broader critical field known as “post-structuralism,” whose key figures include Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, and others. Each of these writers has looked at modes of representation—from literature and photography to the design of schools and prisons—as powerful technologies which build and remake the social world. Deconstruction’s attack on the neutrality of signs is also at work in the consumer mythologies of Barthes, the institutional archaeologies of Foucault, and the simulationist aesthetics of Baudrillard.

The idea that cultural forms help to fabricate such seemingly “natural” categories as race, sexuality, poetic genius, and aesthetic value had profound relevance to visual artists in the 1980s. Post-structuralism provided a critical avenue into “post-modernism,” posing a left-leaning alternative to the period’s nostalgic returns to figurative painting and neo-classical architecture. While Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Victor Burgin attacked media myths through their visual work, books such as Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic and Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory delivered post-structuralist theory to students in an accessible form.

Graphic designers in many U. S. art programs were exposed to critical theory through the fields of photography, performance and installation art during the early 1980s. The most widely publicized intersection of post-structuralism and graphic design occurred at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, under the leadership of co-chair Katherine McCoy. Designers at Cranbrook had first confronted literary criticism when they designed a special issue of Visible Language on contemporary French literary aesthetics, published in the summer of 1978. Daniel Libeskind, head of Cranbrook’s architecture program, provided the graphic designers with a seminar in literary theory, which prepared them to develop their strategy: to systematically disintegrate the the series of essays by expanding the spaces between lines and words and pushing the footnotes into the space normally reserved for the main text. French Currents of the Letter, which outraged designers committed to the established ideologies of problem-solving and direct communication, remains a controversial landmark in experimental graphic design.

According to Katherine McCoy, post-structuralist texts entered more general discussions at Cranbrook around 1983. She has credited Jeffery Keedy, a student at the school from 1983-85, with introducing fellow course members to books by Barthes and others. The classes of 1985/87 and 1986/88 also took an active interest in critical theory; students at this time included Andrew Blauvelt, Brad Collins, Edward Fella, David Frej, and Allen Hori. Close interaction with the photography department, under the leadership of Carl Toth, further promoted dialogue about post-structuralism and visual practice.

Post-structuralism did not serve as a unified methodology at the school, however, even in the period of its strongest currency, but was part of an eclectic gathering of ideas. According to Keedy, students at Cranbrook when he was there were looking at everything from alchemical mysticism to the “proportion voodoo” of the golden section. McCoy recalled in a 1991 interview: “Theory had become part of the intellectual culture in art and photography. We were never trying to apply specific texts—it was more of a general filtration process. The term ‘deconstructivist’ drives me crazy. Post-structuralism is an attitude, not a style.” But what is the difference between “style” and “attitude”? If “style” is a grammar of form-making associated with a particular historical and cultural situation, then perhaps “attitude” is the unarticulated, just out-of-focus background for the specificities of style.

The response to post-structuralism at Cranbrook was largely optimistic, side-stepping the profound pessimism and political critique that permeates these writers’ major works. McCoy used the architectural theory of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as a “stepping stone” to post-structuralism, enabling her to merge the Pop aestheticization of the American commercial vernacular with post-structuralism’s critique of “fixed meaning.” McCoy’s preference for celebration over criticism is echoed in Keedy’s comment, “It was the poetic aspect of Barthes which attracted me, not the Marxist analysis. After all, we’re designers working in a consumer society, and while Marxism is interesting as an idea, I wouldn’t want to put it into practice.”

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. This approach represents a rather cheerful response to the post-structuralist theme of the “death of the author” and the assertion that the interior self is constructed by external technologies of representation. According to the writings of Barthes and Foucault, for example, the citizen/artist/producer is not the imperious master of systems of language, media, education, custom, and so forth; instead, the individual operates within the limited grid of possibilities these codes make available. Rather than view meaning as a matter of private interpretation, post-structuralist theory tends to see the realm of the “personal” as structured by external signs. Invention and revolution come from tactical aggressions against this grid of possibilities.

“Deconstructivism” catapulted into the mainstream design press with MoMA’s 1988 exhibition Deconstructivist Architecture, curated by Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley. The curators used the term “deconstructivism” to link certain contemporary architectural practices to Russian Constructivism, whose early years were marked by an imperfect vision of form and technology. The MoMA exhibition located a similarly skewed interpretation of modernism in the work of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, and others. Wigley wrote in his catalogue essay: “A deconstructive architect is…not one who dismantles buildings, but one who locates the inherent dilemmas within buildings. The deconstructive architect puts the pure forms of the architectural tradition on the couch and identifies the symptoms of a repressed impurity. The impurity is drawn to the surface by a combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture: the form is interrogated” (11). In Wigley’s view, deconstruction in architecture asks questions about modernism by re-examining its own language, materials, and processes.

By framing their exhibition around a new “ism,” Wigley and Johnson helped to canonize the elements of a period style, marked by twisted geometries, centerless plans, and shards of glass and metal. This cluster of stylistic features quickly emigrated from architecture to graphic design, just as the icons and colors of neo-classical post-modernism had traveled there shortly before. While a more critical approach to deconstruction had been routed to graphic designers through the fields of photography and the fine arts, architecture provided a ready-to-use formal vocabulary that could be broadly adopted. “Deconstruction,” “deconstructivism,” and just plain “decon” became design-world clichés, where they named existing tendencies and catalyzed new ones in the fields of furniture and fashion as well as graphic design.

In 1990 Philip Meggs published a how-to guide for would-be deconstructivists in the magazine Step-by-Step Graphics. His essay, which includes a journalistic account of how the term “deconstruction” entered the field of graphic design, focuses on style and works back to theory. Following the logic of the MoMA project, his story begins with Constructivism and ends with its “deconstruction” in contemporary design; unlike Wigley, however, Meggs’s story depicts early modernism as a purely rational enterprise.

Chuck Byrne and Martha Witte¹s more analytical piece for Print (1990) describes deconstruction as a “zeitgeist,” a philosophical germ circulating in contemporary culture that influences graphic designers even though they might not know it. Their view corresponds roughly to McCoy’s sense of post-structuralism as a general “attitude” or “filtration process” responding to the “intellectual culture” of the time. Byrne and Witte’s article identifies examples of deconstruction across the ideological map of contemporary design, ranging from the work of Paula Scher and Stephen Doyle to Lucille Tenazas and Lorraine Wild.

Today, in the mid-90s, the term “deconstruction” is used casually to label any work that favors complexity over simplicity and dramatizes the formal possibilities of digital production—the term is commonly used to invoke a generic allegiance with “Cranbrook” or “CalArts,” a gesture which reduces both schools to flat symbols by blanketing a variety of distinct practices. Our view of deconstruction in graphic design is at once narrower and broader in its scope than the view evolving from the current discourse. Rather than look at deconstruction as a historical style or period, we see deconstruction as a critical activity—an act of questioning. The visual resources of typography help demarcate Derrida’s ideological map of the biases governing Western art and philosophy. Having looked at deconstruction’s life in recent design culture, we will now locate design within the theory of deconstruction.

Design in Deconstruction

Derrida’s critique of the speech/writing opposition developed out of his reading of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, a foundational text for modern linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology. Saussure asserted that the meaning of signs does not reside in the signs themselves: there is no natural bond between the signifier (the sign’s material aspect) and the signified (its referent). Instead, the meaning of a sign comes only from its relationship to other signs in a system. This principle is the basis of structuralism, an approach to language which focuses on the patterns or structures that generate meaning rather than on the “content” of a given code or custom.

Saussure revealed that because the sign has no inherent meaning, it is, taken by itself, empty, void, absent. The sign has no life apart from the system or “structure” of language. Saussure revealed that language is not a transparent window onto pre-existing concepts, but that language actively forms the realm of ideas. The base, material body of the signifier is not a secondary copy of the elevated, lofty realm of concepts: both are formless masses before the articulating work of language has sliced it into distinct pieces. Instead of thinking of language as a code for passively representing “thoughts,” Saussure showed that “thoughts” take shape out of the material body of language.

Derrida’s Of Grammatology points out that although Saussure was willing to reveal the emptiness at the heart of language, he became infuriated when he saw the same principle at work in writing, the system of signs created to represent speech. Saussure’s text views writing as a copy of speech, an artificial technology for reproducing language. While the alphabet claims to be a phonetic transcription of spoken sounds, codes such as written English are full of irrational spellings: for example, words that sound the same but are spelled differently (meet/meat), and letter combinations with unexpected pronunciations (th-, sh-, -ght). The tone of Saussure’s critique escalates from mild irritation at the beginning of his presentation to impassioned condemnation of the alphabet’s violation of an innocent, natural speech: “writing obscures language; it is not a guise for language but a disguise.” The “tyranny of writing” distorts its pristine referent through “orthographic monstrosities” and “phonic deformations” (30-2).

Saussure specifically concerned himself with phonetic writing, the paradigmatic medium of Western culture, which translates the diverse sounds of a language into a set of repeatable graphic marks. He explicitly excluded pictographic and ideographic scripts from his attack on writing; Chinese ideograms have fewer “annoying consequences” than the alphabet, because their users clearly understand their role as secondary signs for spoken words (26). The power (and seductiveness) of phonetic writing lies in its economy: a small number of characters can represent an ever-expanding quantity of words. Unlike pictographic or ideographic scripts, phonetic writing represents the signifier of language (its material sound) rather than the signified (its conceptual meaning or “idea”). Whereas an ideogram represents the concept of a word, phonetic characters merely represent its sounds. The alphabet thus embraces the arbitrariness of the sign by considering the signifier independently of its meaning.

As an intellectual technology, alphabetic writing can be compared to photography: it is an automatic record of the surface of language. The alphabet cleaved language into an inside and an outside: the destiny of phonetic writing is to occupy the outside, to be a mechanical copy of the signifier, leaving intact a sacred interior. The belief in the interiority, the fullness, of speech depends on the existence of an exterior, empty representation—the alphabet. Similarly, the notion of “nature,” as an ideal realm separate from human production, emerged as “civilization” was despoiling the broader ecological systems in which culture participates. To “deconstruct” the relationship between speech and writing is to reverse the status of the two terms, but not just to replace one with the other, but rather to show that speech was always already characterized by the same failure to transparently reflect reality. There is no innocent speech.

In Of Grammatology, Derrida asserted that an intellectual culture (or episteme) built on the opposition between reality and representation has, in fact, depended on representations to construct itself: “External/internal, image/reality, representation/presence, such is the old grid to which is given the task of outlining the domain of a science. And of what science? Of a science that can no longer answer to the classical concept of the episteme because the originality of its field—an originality that it inaugurates—is that the opening of the ‘image’ within it appears as the condition of ‘reality,’ a relationship that can no longer be thought within the simple difference and the uncompromising exteriority of ‘image’ and ‘reality,’ of ‘outside’ and ‘inside,’ of ‘appearance’ and ‘essence’ (33).” The fact that our culture developed a phonetic writing system—one which represents the material signifier in isolation from the sacred signified—is indicative of our primary alienation from the spoken language. Phonetic writing, because it makes use of the gap between signifier and signified, is not simply a secondary reflection of language, but is a symptom of language’s lack of presence, its lack of interior self-completeness.

Derrida’s final attack on the notion of writing as a secondary copy of speech is to make the claim that “phonetic writing does not exist” (39). Not only does writing inhabit speech, transforming its grammar and sound, and not only does phonetic writing exist as language’s “own other,” an “outside” manufactured to affirm its own complete “insidedness,” but this model of the “outside” continually fails to behave in the manner expected of it. Thus where Saussure had claimed that there are only two kinds of writing—phonetic and ideographic—Derrida found the frontiers between them to fluctuate.

Phonetic writing is full of non-phonetic elements and functions. Some signs used in conjunction with the alphabet are ideographic, including numbers and mathematical symbols. Other graphic marks cannot be called signs at all, because they do not represent distinct “signifieds” or concepts: for example, punctuation, flourishes, deletions, and patterns of difference such as roman/italic and uppercase/lowercase. What “idea” does the space between two words or a dingbat at the end of a line represent? Key among these marks, which Derrida has called “graphemes,” are various forms of spacing—negative gaps between the positive symbols of the alphabet. Spacing cannot be dismissed as a “simple accessory” of writing: “That a speech supposedly alive can lend itself to spacing in its own writing is what relates to its own death” (39). The alphabet has come to rely on silent graphic servants such as spacing and punctuation, which, like the frame of a picture, seem safely “outside” the proper content and internal structure of a work and yet are necessary conditions for making and reading.

Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting unfolds the logic of framing as a crucial component of works of art. In the Enlightenment aesthetics of Kant, which form the basis for modern art theory and criticism, the frame of a picture belongs to a class of elements called parerga, meaning “about the work,” or outside/around the work. Kant’s parerga include the columns on buildings, the draperies on statues, and the frames on pictures. A frame is an ornamental appendix to a work of art, whose “quasi-detachment” serves not only to hide but also to reveal the emptiness at the core of the seemingly self-complete object of aesthetic pleasure. In Derrida’s words, “The parergon is a form that has, as its traditonal determination, not that it stands out but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy. The frame is in no way a background….but neither is its thickness as margin a figure. Or at least it is a figure which comes away of its own accord” (61). Like the non-phonetic supplements to the alphabet, the borders around pictures or texts occupy an ambiguous place between figure and ground, positive element and negative gap.

Spacing and punctuation, borders and frames: these are the territory of graphic design and typography, those marginal arts which articulate the conditions that make texts and images readable. The substance of typography lies not in the alphabet per se—the generic forms of characters and their conventionalized uses—but rather in the visual framework and specific graphic forms which materialize the system of writing. Design and typography work at the edges of writing, determining the shape and style of letters, the spaces between them, and their positions on the page. Typography, from its position in the margins of communication, has moved writing away from speech.

Design as Deconstruction

The history of typography and writing could be written as the development of formal structures which have articulated and explored the border between the inside and the outside of the text. To compile a catalogue of the micro-mechanics of publishing—indexes and title pages, captions and colophons, folios and footnotes, leading and line lengths, margins and marginalia, spacing and punctuation—would contribute to the field which Derrida has called grammatology, or the study of writing as a distinctive mode of representation. This word, grammatology, serves to title the book whose more infamous legacy is deconstruction.

Such a history could position various typographic techniques in relation to the split between form and content, inside and outside. Some typographic conventions have served to rationalize the delivery of information by erecting transparent “crystal goblets” around a seemingly independent, neutral body of “content.” Some structures or approaches invade the sacred interior so deeply as to turn the text inside out, while others deliberately ignore or contradict the internal organization of a text in response to external pressures imposed by technology, aesthetics, corporate interests, social propriety, production conveniences, etc.

Robin Kinross’s Modern Typography (1992) charts the progressive rationalization of the forms and uses of letters across several centuries of European history. Kinross’s book characterizes printing as a prototypically “modern” process, that from its inception mobilized techniques of mass production and precipitated the mature arts and sciences. The seeds of modernization were present in Gutenberg’s first proofs; their fruits are born in the self-conscious methodologies, professionalized practices, and standardized visual forms of printers and typographers, which, beginning in the late seventeenth century, replaced an older notion of printing as a hermetic art of “black magic,” its methods jealously guarded by a caste of craftsmen.

If Kinross’s history of modern typography spans five centuries, so too might another history of deconstruction, running alongside and beneath the erection of transparent formal structures and coherent bodies of professional knowledge. Derrida’s own writing has drawn on forms of page layout from outside the accepted conventions of university publishing. His book Glas, designed with Richard Eckersley at the University of Nebraska Press, consists of parallel texts set in different typefaces and written in heterogeneous voices. Glas makes the scholarly annotations of medieval manuscripts and the accidental juxtapositions of modern newspapers part of a deliberate authorial strategy.

A study of typography and writing informed by deconstruction would reveal a range of structures that dramatize the intrusion of visual form into verbal content, the invasion of “ideas” by graphic marks, gaps, and differences. Figures 6 and 7, pages of late fifteenth-century book typography, represent two different attitudes towards framing the text. In the first, the margins are a transparent border for the solid block dominating the page. The lines of classical roman characters are minimally interrupted—paragraph breaks are indicated only by a wider gap within the line, preserving the text as a continuously flowing field of letters. The second example draws on the tradition of scribal marginalia and biblical commentary. Here, typography is an interpretive medium; the text is open rather than closed. The first example suggests that the frontiers between interior and exterior, figure and ground, reader and writer, are securely defined, while the second example dramatizes such divides by engulfing the center with the edge.

Another comparison comes from the history of the newspaper, which emerged as an elite literary medium in the seventeenth century. Early English newspapers based their structure on the classical book, whose consistently formatted text block was designed to be read from beginning to end. As the newspaper became a popular medium in nineteenth-century Europe and America, it expanded from a book-scaled signature to a broadsheet incorporating diverse elements, from reports of war and crime to announcements of ship departures and ads for goods and services. The modern illustrated newspaper of the twentieth century is a patchwork of competing elements, whose juxtaposition responds not to rational hierarchies of content but to the struggle between editorial, advertising, and production interests. While the structure of the classical news journal aspired to the status of a coherent, complete object, the appearance of the popular paper results from frantic compromises and arbitrary conditions; typographic design serves to distract and seduce as well as to clarify and explain.

Dictionaries of page design featuring schematic diagrams of typical layouts have been a common theme in twentieth-century design. Such visual enactments of theory include Jan Tschichold’s 1934 manifesto “The Placing of Type in a Given Space,” which charts a range of subtle variations in the placement of headings and body copy, and Don May’s 1942 manual 101 Roughs, which catalogues various types of commercial page design. While Tschichold charted minor differences between clearly ordered elements, May accommodated the diverse media and competing messages found in advertising. Both theorists presented a series of formal containers for abstract, unspecified bodies of “content, “ but with a difference: Tschichold¹s structures are neutral frames for dominant textual figures, while May¹s patterns are active grounds which ignore conventional hierarchies in favor of such arbitrary rules as “Four point: The layout touches all four sides of the space once and only once” [Figure 8], or “Center axis: The heading copy, illustration, and logotype flush on alternate sides of axis.”

If one pursued the study of “grammatology” proposed by Derrida, the resulting catalogue of forms might include the graphic conditions outlined above. In each case, we have juxtaposed a coherent, seemingly self-complete literary artifact with a situation where external forces aggressively interfere with the sacred interior of content. A history of typography informed by deconstruction would show how graphic design has revealed, challenged, or transformed the accepted rules of communication. Such interventions can represent either deliberate confrontations or haphazard encounters with the social, technological, and aesthetic pressures that shape the making of texts.

In a 1994 interview in The New York Times Magazine, Derrida was asked about the purported “death” of deconstruction on North American campuses; he answered, “I think there is some element in deconstruction that belongs to the structure of history or events. It started before the academic phenomenon of deconstruction, and it will continue with other names.” In the spirit of this statement, we are interested in de-periodizing the relevance of deconstruction: instead of viewing it as an “ism” of the late-80s and early-90s, we see it as part of the ongoing development of design and typography as distinctive modes of representation. But deconstruction also belongs to culture: it is an operation that has taken a name and has spun a web of influence in particular social contexts. Deconstruction has lived in a variety of institutional worlds, from university literature departments to schools of art and design to the discourse of popular journalism, where it has functioned both as a critical activity and as a banner for a range of styles and attitudes. We will close our essay with two examples of graphic design that actively engage the language of contemporary media: the first confronts the politics of representation, while the second remakes design’s internal language.

Vincent Gagliostro’s cover for NYQ [Figure 10], a gay and lesbian news magazine, was designed in November, 1991, in response to Magic Johnson’s announcement that he is HIV+. Gagliostro imposed NYQ’s own logo and headline over a Newsweek cover featuring Magic Johnson proclaiming “Even me,” his upheld arms invoking saintly sacrifice and athletic vigor. “He is not our hero,” wrote NYQ over the existing cover. While Gagliostro’s layering and splicing of type and image are shared with more aestheticized, individualized gestures found elsewhere in contemporary design, this cover does not aim to trigger an infinite variety of “personal” interpretations but instead explicitly manipulates an ideologically loaded artifact. Gagliostro’s act of cultural rewriting is a powerful response to the ubiquity of normative sign systems, showing that the structures of mass media can be reshuffled and reinhabited. The NYQ cover reveals and exploits the function of framing as a transformative process that refuses to remain outside the editorial content it encloses.

The manipulation of existing media imagery is one activity in contemporary design that can be described as deconstruction; another is the exploration of the visual grammar of communication, from print to the electronic interface. Designers working in hypermedia are developing new ways to generate, distribute, and use information—they are reinventing the language of graphic design today, just as typographers reacted to the changing technologies and social functions of printed media in the past. A leading pioneer of this research was Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop at MIT in 197X. In the wake of her death in the spring of 1994, her students are continuing to build a concrete grammar of three-dimensional, dynamic typography. Cooper called the basic elements of this language “geometric primitives,” defined by relationships of size, brightness, color, transparency, and location in 3-D space, variables which can shift in response to the user¹s position in a document. Cooper and her students have worked to restructure the internal language of typography in four dimensions.

Spacing, framing, punctuation, type style, layout, and other nonphonetic marks of difference constitute the material interface of writing. Traditional literary and linguistic research overlook such graphic structures, focusing instead on the Word as the center of communication. According to Derrida, the functions of repetition, quotation, and fragmentation that characterize writing are conditions endemic to all human expression—even the seemingly spontaneous, self-present utterances of speech or the smooth, naturalistic surfaces of painting and photography. Design can critically engage the mechanics of representation, exposing and revising its ideological biases; design also can remake the grammar of communication by discovering structures and patterns within the material media of visual and verbal writing.

Critical Wayfinding

“Critical Wayfinding,” essay by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, published in The Edge of the Millennium,. ed. Susan Yelavich. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1993. 220-232.

The pyramids of Egypt are mythic monuments to the origin of Western culture, from architecture to the alphabet. These oversized tombstones have always fascinated the West; they are testaments to the surprising fact that a human society could actually design something that could last for five millennia.

At the edge of another millennium, a glass pyramid marks the entrance of a more modern form of tomb: an art museum in contemporary Paris. The grand concourse of the Louvre looks, sounds, smells, and feels like an airport, or a hotel lobby, or a department store. What reminds one that it’s an art museum is the Mona Lisa—or rather backlit transparencies of the Mona Lisa—visible from across the broad hall in which visitors congregate. What links the Louvre to other public spaces—aside from its stadium-capacity entryway—is its use of pictorial symbols addressed to an international public.

Such icons 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?

Perhaps these dubious achievements are what makes graphic design the black sheep of the design family. Graphic design lacks the spatial drama or presence or architecture and product design. Architectural criticism often contrasts the plenitude of architectural form with the one-dimensionality of “sign,” “communication,” “illustration,” “anecdote,” and “information”—the very modes of expression that graphic design traffics in.1

Like an over-eager, pimply-faced younger sibling, graphic design is what architecture never wants to be: namely, packaging, ornament, frame, and sign. Architecture says, “Experience, Space, Tactility, Drama, Eternity”…while graphic design says, “Can I help you? Do I look okay? Buy me, read me, eat me, drink me!”

Yet graphic design is a frame which makes spaces, places, and objects legible. Graphic design continually mediates contact with the environment. Signs, arrows, instructions, “you are here” maps, advertisements, and other kinds of information set up the conditions in which experience takes place. And this process of wayfinding—the term used by environmental graphic designers—is increasingly more visual than verbal. The semantic and visual reduction of international symbols—their concise generality—gives them their paradoxical status. They are simultaneously open and closed, vague and specific, ostensibly neutral and yet loaded with connotations and stylistic mannerisms.

Environmental signage is simultaneously there and not there—not really a “part of” the architecture, yet indispensable to its functions, its lived use. The signs that lead visitors to the Mona Lisa are like the frame around the painting: they direct attention to the object and yet are considered extrinsic to it. Graphic design—signage in particular—is largely a framing activity. Graphic design occupies the space between a product, building, or text, and its user. Graphic design is the margins of a book, the buttons of a boom box, the friendliness of a computer interface, or the paper wrapper on a tin can.

In common usage, the term “graphic” describes a high-contrast image: black against white, white against black. The silhouette is the dominant strategy behind the language of international pictures, suggesting an objective shadow of material reality, a schematic index of fact. The ideal of an international picture language has been part of modernist design since the 1920’s, and reached the intensity of an obsession during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Sign systems, such as the Department of Transportation’s 1974 symbol set, designed under the guidance of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, aspire to the semiotic consistency of a typeface.2 The quest for uniform symbols for public information parallels the rise of coherent corporate identity programs and the emergence of an international consumer hieroglyphics.3

Such civic and commercial marks signal the challenges of cross-cultural communication in the next millennium. For as the globe is rendered increasingly accessible by communication technologies and forces of economic consolidation, it is at the same time segmented by diverse national, racial, and ethnic identities. The contradictory mandate of designers in the 21st century is to create visual scripts which can communicate across cultural and linguistic barriers without flattening diversity into caricature. Differences must be maintained to counter the domination of what Herbert Marcuse has called “one-dimensional man,” whose culture has been robbed of ambivalence and negativity in favor of a mass media capable of assimilating, and thus neutralizing, any form of cultural difference or dissent.4

International communication carries the dangers of homogeneity and hegemony alongside the hopeful promise of an integrated global village lined with universally legible street signs and uniformly available products. Designers working at the edge of the millennium are faced with the conflicting imperatives to both expand and contract these formal languages: to reach a diverse public without succumbing to the dangers of assimilation. The one-world, one-language ideal of heroic modernism is an untenable solution for design in the next century.

The simultaneous expansion and contraction of markets for products and media has encouraged the compression of messages. Visual, verbal, and aural texts—transmitted through print, television, film, radio, computers, products, and exhibitions—are increasingly reduced to a code of repeatable icons, or what we call a hieroglyphics of communication. These hieroglyphics punctuate daily life with a pattern of generalized, repeatable signs, marks which signal ownership or information.

Historically, hieroglyphs occupy the space between pictures and writing; it is the passage connecting the concrete depiction of objects with the abstract, mechanical coding of the alphabet. The hieroglyph marks the clash between the soft, continuous, flowing substance of visual experience and the hard, polarized, digitized articulations of writing. The power of the phonetic alphabet, in contrast with the older forms of the ideogram, lay in its ability to ignore the “ideas” or “meaning” of a language, and to represent only its material side—its sounds—disconnected from the objects and ideas that a language refers to. The alphabet, unlike the hieroglyphic, is blind: it is a neutral grid, an automated device capable of converting any word into a graphic mark, regardless of its referent.5

The alphabet claims to represent only the outside of a given language—its exterior envelope—rather than its interior content.6 The hieroglyphic script is the checkpoint between the mechanical abstraction of the alphabet and the vivid particularity of the image. In hieroglyphics, the specificity of pictures embeds itself in the schematic abstraction of the typographic sign. Through repetition and conventionalization, the picture enters the realm of writing. The soft becomes hard, the fluid becomes fixed, the concrete becomes abstract. In between these two extremes stands the hieroglyph, a rebus which is both silent and spoken, a full-bodied depiction of an idea and a standardized abstraction.

Modern communication has returned to the transitional medium of hieroglyph-writing. The logotype, the corporate symbol, and the international pictogram combine the generality of the typographic mark with the specificity of pictures. In corporate identity the image becomes the “personality” behind a mass-produced product, a sign of uniqueness stamped into an intrinsically multiple object. The fictional character “Betty Crocker.” for example, is regularly updated by her image managers, who have enabled her features to slowly evolve over the decades while keeping her identity—her status as a proprietary symbol—intact. She is at once naturalistic and schematic, changing and fixed, a rendered portrait and a conventionalized mark.

How does the return of the hieroglyph affect everyday life? Writers from diverse ideological positions have described ways in which the media that supposedly “records” events have come to play a central role in shaping those events—sometimes initiating the event in the first place. From Daniel Boorstin’s “pseudo-event” to Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacrum” to Stuart Ewen’s All Consuming Images, critics of culture have noted that representation has come to inhabit reality, not content to document it after the fact.7 This by-now familiar critique has attacked network television, mass-market publishing, advertising, and Hollywood film for substituting an endless stream of superficial images for the lost fullness of experience.

This diaphanous veil of commercial imagery is punctuated with a pattern of hieroglyphics, signs which are neither strictly image nor text but occupy a middle-ground between them. Such signs, whether generated in the name of private commerce or public information, are attempts to anchor or regulate the ongoing barrage of pictures and products. Like digital rocks in an analog stream, hieroglyphics guide the flow of communication by directing the interpretation of events, the consumption of goods, or the navigation of public spaces.

Baudrillard has critiqued the function of signs in contemporary media, arguing that they have organized reality into a reductive pattern of oppositions. Baudrillard describes how the symbolic plentitude of a concept is emptied when it becomes instrumental, when it is strictly coordinated against its semantic opposite. Baudrillard’s example is the sun, which for non-industrialized cultures is a concept approached with considerable ambivalence: it is a source of destruction as well as growth. To this he contrasts the vacation sun of the tourist economy, which is “a completely positive sun,…source of happiness and euphoria, and as such…is significantly opposed to non-sun (rain, cold, bad weather).” The vacation sun results from a semiological reduction: the ambivalence of the sun is lost when opposed to the idea of non-sun. This yes/no, on/off operation of the sign is what Baudrillard describes as “semiological organization”: the process through which signs are given a cultural value.8

A comparable pattern of semiological difference governs the cultural boundaries of sexual identity, a phenomenon inadvertently expressed in the official U.S. Department of Transportation travel symbols. The difference between male and female bathrooms is signified by the addition of a cultural mark to the generic human form: the fin-like extrusions representing the woman’s dress. Rather than express the difference between male and female lavatories with an anatomical representation, as in these signs proposed by National Lampoon in the mid-1970’s, the DOT design committee stayed with the already-conventional device of the fin-like party dress.

The semiotic pattern male/female disappears in other signs in the DOT system, however, where the male figure represents humanity in general, just as the word “man” becomes a generic title in many verbal contexts. The supposedly neutral pattern of linguistic oppositions breaks down in this particular sign, which happens to depict a service relationship between an employee and a consumer. The DOT sign system thus unwittingly brings home the fact that sexual relationships are determined not solely by biological fact, but also by culture customs, images, and structures of power.

The symbols used in commerce, information graphics, and environmental signage draw upon and reinforce dominant cultural ideas. With the rise of television journalism in the 1960’s, pictograms became an important element of news graphics, where they provide symbolic logotypes for issues or events. In the television industry, such symbols are called “over-the-shoulders,” referring to their ubiquitous location in the void behind a talking head. Over-the-shoulders draw upon a stock vocabulary of flags, maps, hearts, doves, and olive branches. “Over-the-shoulders” became visually more complex with the introduction of the Paint Box sytem in the 1980’s; conceptually, however, they are virtually unchanged.

The idea of pictorial logos for news stories crossed over into print media in the late 1970’s, when Nigel Holmes and Walter Bernard revamped Time to make it more competitive with television. Such logos continue to provide news events with a corporate identity. The 1970’s also witnessed the renaissance of pictorial information graphics, or what Edward Tufte has called “chartoons,” in which numbers are projected into entertainingly figurative scenarios.9 A pictographic chart from Time? showing an Arab “over a barrel” belies the supposed objectivity of journalistic statistics by resorting to racist caricature. The ethnic stereotype is itself a kind of hieroglyphic form, consisting of a set of conventionalized, exaggerated features.

The hieroglyph has also found its way into the verbal features of broadcast news. The ascendancy of the “sound byte” as the basic unit of News Speech reflects the media’s increasing reliance on condensed chunks of information in favor of extended, linear discourse. The term “sound byte” couples the immateriality of speech with the materiality of a product—a bite-sized portion, a compacted blip of information.

The replacement of linear discourse with visual and verbal hieroglyphs in the news media is exemplified by the newspaper USA Today, which favors illustrations over text and serves up its articles in TV-sized portions. USA Today’s “snapshot series” presents pictorial statistics on mass habits, supporting the publication’s desire to be everybody’s hometown paper by celebrating the uniformity of taste and canonizing the myth of a national consensus on such issues as how eggs should be prepared.10 USA Today came of age in the 1980’s, a decade which was also fascinated with bringing comic books to life. In films such as Roger Rabbitt, live-action cinema was merged with the flat, caricatured aesthetic of the cartoon, laying an opaque hieroglyphics over the depth of the filmic image.

The modernist ideal of the sharp, crisp graphic symbol is giving way to a logic which favors the folding of signs into experience. This softening of the edges between signs and reality reflects the ongoing conquest of the real by the abstract, the will to impose a legible pattern or symbol over the amorphous mass of experience. The grafting of hieroglyphic signs onto the fullness of experience—to bring the sign to life and into life—is seen in numerous advertising campaigns. Absolut projects its product silhouette into various settings with its endlessly transformed bottle, while other ads merge the corporate hieroglyph with naturalistic settings and live-action drama. We either see living objects becoming signs, or we see corporate symbols acting as life-size elements in the landscape.

Architecture also increasingly participates in the phenomenon of the hieroglyph. Numerous office towers have come to function like graphic logos for a corporation, their silhouettes serving as massive commercial signs across the script of urban skylines, such as San Francisco’s TransAmerica pyramid or New York’s Citicorp building.

The expansion of global advertising strategies has been another agent in the internationalization of the public landscape. Initiated in the mid-80’s by British firms such as Saatchi and Saatchi, global advertising relies on images and messages that function across diverse markets. An early example is a series of Coca-Cola ads called the Mean Joe Greene Series, which features American, Brazilian, Argentinean, and Thai sports stars, each giving a youngster a football jersey in gratitude for a Coke. Such “universal” narratives of heroism and identification are considered general and durable enough to cross cultural contexts. Global strategies increasingly preoccupy advertisers, who wish to centrally control their worldwide identity rather than entrust their marketing to local firms.

The success of this centralization depends upon the pairing of sufficiently general messages with equally generic imagery. The production of a single ad to run across different national markets has created a demand for a new “everyperson”—or “everyconsumer”—a full-bodied, full-color corollary to the international man of airport signage. It has created a need for what a marketing director at Coca-Cola described as a “global teenager”: “There is global media now, like MTV. And there is a global teenager. The same kid you see at the Ginza in Tokyo is in Piccadilly Square in London, in Pushkin Square, at Notre Dame.“11

Of course, Coca-Cola and MTV have a vested interest in the concept of a universal teenager and, furthermore, Tokyo, London, and Moscow hardly fulfill the definition of “globalness.” Yet the projection of a globally consistent consumer—through advertising, marketing, and packaging—increasingly will inform the public representation of cultural identity.

For example, the international marketing of Frosted Flakes uses a young man whose racial, ethnic, and national identity are uncertain. His generic good looks allow him to function as a logotypical consumer in American, Latin American, and European contexts. Tony the Tiger presents another approach within global advertising: the cartoon mascot/spokesperson who escapes questions of cultural identity entirely. The cartoon/mascot is a speaking, acting logo—a proprietary beast of burden who is trademark and spokesperson rolled into one.

The economic and bureaucratic advantage of global campaigns is that advertisers can approach divergent audiences as a unified market, as in the United Colors of Benetton campaign. In contrast to Frosted Flakes, Benetton has constructed a global market not by blurring cultural difference but by incorporating cultural difference as its theme or trademark. While Frosted Flakes attempts to override racial and cultural specificity, the Benetton campaign makes a fashion statement about cultural difference.

The possibility of a “world culture” in the next millennium brings with it the same anxieties that attended the postwar uniformity of American culture. The loss of individuality and the sense of placelessness in American suburbia can be extrapolated to a worldwide context. Mass media, internationalized markets, and tourism suggest a future “world culture” of stunning sameness.

Internationalization, especially as expressed in the U.S. Department of Transportation symbols, has been viewed as a democratizing force that facilitates intercultural communication and contributes to an ecology of information through an economy of signs. What many instances of internationalization show, however, is a hegemonic relationship between the officially sanctioned “language of internationalism” and the specific cultural contexts which they inhabit. The sign for “women’s toilet” in a Saudi Arabian university has been modified by the addition of the silhouette of a veil, since the long dress depicted could just as easily signify the traditional robes worn by Muslim men. The use of pictorial symbols is, in itself, problematic for Muslim religious codes, which discourage representations of the body.

Consider also the poorly conceived sign that has been used on San Diego freeways to alert drivers to Mexican immigrants who run across the freeway trying to avoid the customs checkpoints.The image of the family in that sign was interpreted by Spanish-speaking people as a directive to “cross here.” Thus the very audience most in danger was misled by a sign directed at drivers, rather than pedestrians.

Modern hieroglyphs crystallize through simplification and repetition: by offering schematic icons for film genres, news events, or corporate messages, the hieroglyph visually categorizes experience into tidy packages, often reducing it to a flattened cliché. One of the chief functions of graphic design is to generate such tidy icons. But are designers only in the business of purveying dominant ideologies and pandering to the reduced attention spans of contemporary audiences? Could the code of repetitive symbols and schemes that provides the bulk of our visual diet be used for something more than passive instruction or the caricature of complex ideas into univocal statements? If graphic design provides an interface between people and products, could it not also provide an interface between people and culture? We call this utopian project for design in the next millennium “critical wayfinding,” or the construction of interfaces which serve not to package corporate messages, but rather to provide alternate routes of access to media and information.

For example, one of the chief inventors of international pictograms was Otto Neurath, a Viennese philosopher and social scientist who pioneered the use of pictorial symbols in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a means of public, cross-cultural education. Although his pictograms are remembered now as the ubiquitous signage found in train stations, airports, and art museums, in his own lifetime he used them to display social statistics in a visually accessible way.

Designers working in the critical spirit of Otto Neurath today include Dennis Livingston, a Baltimore-based activist designer who uses pictorial symbols to track distribution of wealth across the categories of race, sex, profession, and family organization. His chart of Social Stratification allows readers to see vertical paths running upward through the economic heap, expressing the fact that for many people social identity is formed more by profession (e.g., office work vs. factory work) than by income.

A billboard-sized poster created by Michael Lebron, a New York-based artist and designer, uses the language of advertising and information design to compare the amount of money spent preventing terrorist attacks on international airplane travel to the amount of money spent preventing the death of poor children across the globe. A 1988 billboard designed by Sheila de Bretteville and the Brooklyn 7 entitled Can-U-Read-Me? uses a combination of pictures, letters, and symbols to encourage people to learn to read. By showing non-readers how much they already know just by living in a literate culture, this hieroglyphic billboard helps to demystify literacy and thus to make it more accessible.

In a more comic vein, the designers of Spy Magazine in the 1980’s created a mode of information graphics which derails the intellectual paternalism of mainstream news media and explores instead the messy subconscious of the information age. The tongue-in-cheek yet meticulously archival style of Spy’s news graphics, invented by Stephen Doyle and Alex Isley in the mid-80’s, is an example of design that works within yet against the dominant codes of the media.

These examples, taken from both the context of activist design and the commercial media, indicate some paths that designers could pursue at the edge of the millennium. Graphic design, as the interface between people and products, information, and environments, has the potential to interpret, revise, and critique the world as well as to simplify and condense it. The notion that design should be transparent, and that we are simply legibility- and problem-solvers, offers a recessive and reactive role for design that is ultimately disempowering.

1. Kenneth Frampton questions the legitimacy of “communication” as an architectural value in his essay “Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Hal Foster, ed., Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture (Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 16-30.
2. On the history and theory of international pictograms, see Ellen Lupton, “Reading Isotype,” in Victor Margolin, ed., Design Discourse: History, Theory, Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
3. On corporate identity, see Maud Lavin, “Design in the Service of Commerce,” in Mildred Friedman, ed., Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History (Minneapolis and New York: Walker Art Center and Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 126-143.
4. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
5. I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).
6. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1974), 30-44.
7. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1971); Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983; Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
8. Jean Baudrillard, “Fetishism and Ideology: The Semiological Reduction,” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1981), 88-101.
9. Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1990).
10. J. Abbott Miller, “USA Today: Learning from Las Vegas,” Print XLIV:VI (December 1991): 90-97.
11. Peter S. Sealey, Senior Vice President and Director of Global Marketing for Coca-Cola, quoted in The New York Times (November 18, 1991).

How Books are Sold

“How Books are Sold.” Essay by Ellen Lupton, posted on AIGA Voice, April 4, 2006.

Publishing has always been my greatest pleasure. Whether it is producing a free pamphlet or a full-on book, publishing is for me what keeps graphic design so endlessly engaging. Design is, above all, a tool for getting words into print, giving text and ideas a physical shape that speaks to readers. Right?

If only it were as simple as that. Once you have designed, written or published a book, how does it get into the hands of readers? Retail environments are the last step between your book and your reader, and it takes more than great design and great content to get your book seen.

The first chain bookstores, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, appeared in the 1970s. Located in malls, they drove many neighborhood, independent shops out of business. Barnes & Noble (B&N) and Borders became dominant forces in the 1990s, while the future of book selling lies with the big-box outlets: Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, and so on—these mass sellers already account for 27 percent of book sales for Random House.

Does it matter that independent bookstores are disappearing? If people would rather shop in the big chains or the big boxes, why be sentimental about neighborhood stores? Historically, independent bookstores have been places where titles get discovered that are not actively promoted through heavy marketing campaigns. Angela’s Ashes and Cold Mountain, for example, became huge bestsellers because independent bookstores built their success through local sales and word-of-mouth. Authors discovered this way include Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amy Tan and Cormac McCarthy.

As book sales become more centralized, marketing resources are concentrated on those few books at the top of the list. It becomes harder for “new discoveries” to happen. You may have thought the books on the front tables at B&N were hand-selected by a local book-loving manager, or that the titles on view are “bestsellers” or the books being talked about in the press. In actuality, the publisher has paid the store for this placement in a deal known as “co-operative advertising” or cost sharing between the retailer and supplier. Those books on the table often do end up being bestsellers, in part because of this positioning in the store. A book is far more likely to be seen by browsing customers on a table than on a shelf, especially given the vast size of a store such as B&N, and customers instinctively ascribe a value to the books placed there.

How does this affect us as readers and writers? The co-op system is widening the divide between top-of-list books and those at the middle and bottom. If a publisher has invested a large advance to the author of a particular book, they will want to insure the title’s success by investing in costly co-op deals as well. A low-investment, low-risk book is unlikely to get this kind of attention, and thus lingers on the shelves. If it’s a special interest title, such as travel, parenting or graphic novels, readers will seek it out, but a general interest book, such as a new novel or a work of narrative nonfiction, is harder to find.

Independent bookstores don’t sell in high enough volumes to qualify for significant co-op funds. Their tables and windows reflect the “discoveries” of the staff and an awareness of current book buzz and word of mouth. The displays at St. Marks Bookshop in New York City are hand-curated by the store’s managers and owners. Included are bestsellers alongside titles you won’t see displayed at B&N, such as Offensive Films and The R. Crumb Handbook.

Price as well as convenience drives consumers to B&N. Many shoppers won’t pay full price at an independent store when they can get a discount of 20 percent or more at B&N—and buy a muffin and use the toilet while they’re at it. Who pays for this? The publisher does, by providing books at a lower cost (but larger volume). Often, this “deep discount” is taken out of the author’s royalty, which is calculated at the net (discounted) price rather than the list price of the book.

Amazon.com has been good for publishing diversity, and it also happens to be a great place to buy design books. B&N has a poor selection of books in the design field—just a narrow shelf area (and usually no tables at all). In contrast, Amazon offers thousands of design titles and keeps the books available for a long time. According to Steven Heller, the world’s most prolific design author, the accessibility of design titles online is basically a good thing, but it has a deleterious effect as well: “Since Amazon and B&N exist online, buyers for the chains feel that people who want design books will migrate to these sites, so the stores do not have to buy a lot of stock.”

Meanwhile, specialty shops such as Nijhof + Lee in Amsterdam offer graphic design books in both their physical store and on their website that are hard to find anywhere else in the world. Shop owner Warren Lee explains, “We do not even attempt to compete with sites like Amazon as far as price is concerned, but we can compete on the level of specialized knowledge, language, flexibility and availability of limited-edition publications.” Dedicated design mavens will continue to seek out unusual titles at places like this, and may even be glad to know that Nicolete Gray’s recently republished treatise on Renaissance lettering is not yet available at Wal-mart.

Despite concerns about the potential effect of mass retailing on what gets published, books are certainly not disappearing. According to the NEA’s 2004 report “Reading at Risk,” the book industry in the year 2000 published 122,00 new titles and sold a total of 2.5 billion books, a number that had tripled over the previous 25 years. Some people think this is too many books. Mark Lamster, an editor at Princeton Architectural Press, says, “There’s a philosophical issue that transcends this whole story, and that is the vast amount of material our commercial culture actually produces every year. Obviously, there’s tons and tons of crap. But there’s also a tremendous amount of good stuff, or interesting stuff, being pumped out into the system. From a physical standpoint, this means the shelf life of any project is just tiny, because we need to make room (at B&N, physical room) in our lives for the next thing to come along.”

In the meantime, reader-driven forums like this one pose a different challenge to the makers of books. With digital threads proliferating far faster than the publishers’ lists, it remains to be seen what long-term impact the blogosphere will have on the culture of the printed page.


Writing 101

“Writing 101: Visual or Verbal.” Posted to AIGA Voice, January 2009.

Liz Losh is an English teacher. But put aside your image of a frumpy schoolmarm with faded gravy stains on her blazer. This hip, forty-something ex-punk rocker teaches at the University of California Irvine, where she oversees an introductory writing course that enrolls over 1,100 students. She also teaches advanced seminars on digital rhetoric, where projects include editing a blog, producing a YouTube video and crafting a virtual persona on Second Life.

Likewise, Cheryl E. Ball, assistant professor of new media at Illinois State University, teaches “multimodal” writing courses, in which students assemble images and texts using video, photography, web design and page layout. Ball says, “We are looking at the idea of ‘composition’ in the broadest sense, going way beyond the old model of grammar-based freshman comp courses.”

A spate of new writing textbooks suggests that a visual revolution is underway in college writing curricula. The sleek, sophisticated Seeing & Writing series, designed by 2×4 and launched in 1999, shook up the field of English composition by inviting students to analyze visual artifacts, from works of photojournalism to contemporary art installations. A bigger change came with Picturing Texts (2004), which not only uses visuals as prompts for writing but addresses design as an active, generative tool. The book’s designer, Anna Palchik, helped infuse the project with credible instruction on basic visual principles as well as selecting readings by Tibor Kalman, Jessica Helfand, Richard Wilde and other graphic designers. (Disclosure: Picturing Texts includes a piece co-authored by Abbott Miller and me.) Assignments include creating book covers, postcards, scrapbooks and brochures as well as traditional essays.

Meanwhile, many young designers are wondering if their own college English courses were tough enough to prepare them for real-world writing tasks such as bidding for jobs, justifying design solutions, delivering presentations and marketing their work. Even routine email communication requires command of the written language. (Some of my students seem to believe that just because they can’t spell, their employers won’t be able to, either.) Designer Scott Stowell, speaking at AIGA’s recent “Social Studies” conference, talked about the seamless integration of text and graphics in his work for GOOD magazine and other clients. “I can’t imagine being a designer who can’t write,” said Stowell. And it’s not just about business. The glorious, sloppy, over-populated blogosphere beckons everyone to participate, but you can only play if you have something to say and you know how to say it.

How are graphic designers learning to write? Since the late 1970s, a movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) has argued that writing should be taught in every course on campus, not just in specialized composition courses. Because each discipline—from art to engineering—has its own standards and conventions, faculty in each field should be teaching its own practitioners how to write. Yet few design educators have the time or confidence to load this duty on to their studio courses.

Some are giving it a try. Andrea Marks has authored a new e-book on writing for visual thinkers, which emphasizes brainstorming techniques rather than grammar and composition. As for me, I’m teaching a stand-alone writing course for graphic design MFA students at MICA this spring. I won’t be using any of the sexy new composition textbooks, however. Instead, I’m focusing on basic style, starting with how to craft a seaworthy sentence and how to pare down over-upholstered prose. Our textbook? Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style (Maira Kalman’s illustrated edition, of course).

Even Liz Losh agrees that most young writers still need to work on the basics, especially on college campuses like hers, where over half the students speak a home language other than English. As foot soldiers in the visual revolution, students have more to learn, and faculty have more to teach. Introducing the principles of web design and typography shouldn’t replace teaching writing as a precise, rule-based medium of communication. In the digital age, people are writing more, not less. The alphabet isn’t dead; it just has a lot more company.

Additional reading
Writing in a Visual Age, by Lee Odell and Susan M. Katz.
On the history of visual literacy instruction, see Diana George, “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing,” in Teaching Composition: Background Readings, ed. T. R. Johnson.

Grids (review)

Book review for I.D. Magazine, 2009. Hannah B. Higgins, The Grid Book (MIT Press, 2009) and
Carsten Nicolai, Grid Index (Gestalten, 2009).

What do a brick, map, tablet, ledger, screen, and box have in common? They are all examples of grids, modular systems made from uniform blocks of space, time, or material. For thousands of years, human beings have used grids to build structures and to institute laws and social systems. The Grid Book, a clever and cogent treatise by Hannah B. Higgins, looks at modular devices across history, showing that where each powerful new grid appears, it profoundly changes the community that wields it. Bricks are the basic units of permanent settlement. Maps are tools for imperial conquest. Urban street grids enable cities to expand and connect.

The grid, argues Higgins, is a dominant myth of the modern era; it is a “visualization of modernity’s faith in rational thought and industrial progress comprising everything from the urban landscape to the power grid, from modernist painting to the forms of modern physics.” Societies have used the grid to subdue the uncertainty of nature under the organizing net of culture. The grid is more than a mythic abstraction, however. It is deeply embedded in the material facts of human society. The grid is a made, crafted thing that dates back to our most ancient social transformations, rocking the very cradle of civilization.

In her chapter called “Brick,” Higgins takes us back to 9000 BCE, when human beings first learned how to grow crops, raise animals, and make shelters with chunks of mud. These early technologies allowed farming and building to replace hunting and gathering. A brick, like a loaf of bread, takes form in the hand. The laying of bricks is also a handicraft, and hence this elemental architectural unit has honored basic human scale across time. Assembled into staggered rows, bricks form sturdy walls. When they crumble and collapse, they become the underlayer of new buildings, providing cities with dense strata of ruin and rebirth. Higgins traces the spread of bricks and blocks across the ancient world as well as describing the mass production of these building materials in the nineteenth century.

Chapters on early writing systems, urban gridirons, ledger-based accounting, and perspectival representation each demonstrate Higgins’s ability to explain complex ideas in an engaging narrative style. Boldly spanning vast swaths of time and territory, The Grid Book has much in common with Jared Diamond’s bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel. Like Diamond, Higgins presents a big picture of cultural change in the West by examining the surprising consequences of tools and technologies.

Her chapter on “Type” may take too broad a view. Higgins barely acknowledges the grid as a methodology—and ideology—within the discourse of graphic design. Instead of looking closely at differences among shifting modes of page layout, she outlines the rise of print and its general impact on religion and society, drawing on familiar scholarship in this area. The chapter ends by looking at some experiments in modern poetry rather than confronting the changing role of grids in mass media and the internet. A section called “Box” links the rise of the modern skyscraper, with its steel skeletons and gridded curtain walls, to the spread of standardized shipping containers. Here, the image of the box sometimes feels like an inadequate container for its subject matter; some readers will wince at the comparison of Mies’s Seagram Building to “an upended shipping container rendered in glass.”

Designers interested in the visual possibilities of the grid will want to explore Carsten Nicolai’s stunning Grid Index, a book accompanied by a CD of ready-to-use vector art. Progressing from simple rectilinear lattices to patterns that self-assemble from irregular polygons, Nicolai celebrates the grid as an open-ended device for generating organic, dynamic forms as well as orderly and predictable ones. In his hands, the grid flourishes as a living surface wed to the rhythms of nature. Nicolai would find much to discuss with Hannah Higgins, who concludes her book with this statement: “Far from static or flattened entities, finished cultures create established and emergent symbols and systems of knowledge production and sensation—all of it organized on the lively grid.” Humans have used the grid to create and establish order, and they have also seen it unwind and unravel. The grid, a form with a rich and powerful history, will surely play a part in the doings and undoings of the future.

Important Artifacts (book review)

Book review for I.D. (International Design) Magazine, 2009. Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. A novel by Leane Shapton. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2009.

She: twenty-six years old; adorable pixie blonde; a foodie who writes a weekly column on cakes for the New York Times. He: thirty-nine; tall and dark with big geek glasses; a commercial photographer who travels the world on shoots for magazines.

These winsome hipsters fall in love and exchange understated gifts (an Elgin travel clock, a McCoy vase, a Godard screenplay). They go to parties, read tattered paperbacks, and share fanciful home-cooked dinners. Yet soon enough, their romance comes apart at its vintage Schiaparelli seams as they tire of each other in the usual male/female ways. She’s too needy and volatile; he’s too distant and self-involved. (He also drinks too much, has bad breath, and prefers Count Chocula to charlotte russe.)

Sounds an awful lot like real life? This novel’s inventive format strives to overcome its wan plot and familiar characters. Titled Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, it’s a narrative assembled as an auction catalog. Author Leane Shapton presents a parade of objects from the couple’s life, improbably put up for sale following the collapse of their four-year relationship. The book features blunt black-and-white photographs of personal artifacts—from a heart-shaped silver toast rack to a taxidermied squirrel—numbered and captioned with the cool eye of an undertaker or an intern at Christie’s.

Like her female protagonist, Shapton is a New York Times employee (art director of the Op Ed page). She is also a well known illustrator and founder of the indie publishing house J&L Books, a not-for-profit venture dedicated to new art, photography, and fiction. Shapton designed the book herself, arranging its complex contents in pleasingly precise layouts. Snapshots of the couple are included among the auction lots, helping to carry the story along in a cinematic way. In these photographs, real-life fiction writer Sheila Heti poses as our heroine, while graphic designer Paul Sahre impersonates her boyfriend.

Designers will appreciate the mere fact of the book: its canny concept, its trendy insider cast, its graphic form, and its obsession with objects as the visible fallout of emotional strife. Shapton has curated a novel by describing things. Some objects tell their own stories, such as a Sleep Sound white noise machine with “irreparable damage to top and sides, as if struck by a hammer.” More often, a paper trail provides evidence of love and disaffection via notes inscribed on grocery lists, dinner menus, playbills, postcards, and the occasional printout of an email. These remnants of human conflict—tucked into books and apron pockets—are fun to read, but one sometimes doubts that an adult male with intimacy problems would actually transcribe his thoughts so willingly or so often.

Nice surprises emerge from newspaper clippings of the heroine’s on-going food column, as she chooses recipes that reflect her state of mind: a spicy Siena cake reminds us that not all desserts are sweet, while a confection laced with Guiness reveals that “Rich, dark, and bitter may be intimidating qualities in a woman, but rather nice in a cake.” Meanwhile, we glimpse our hero’s half-baked ambitions as a fine artist through his serial photographs of beef jerky and the ceilings of hotel rooms.

Other contemporary novels that experiment with graphic form include Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2006), whose games with typographic structure range from extreme letter spacing to long passages written in numerical code. Graham Rawle created his novel Woman’s World (2005) by cutting and pasting scraps of text from old magazines, assembling a dark and mesmerizing story about family trauma and sexual identity. Shapton, lacking the full-scale literary skills of Foer or Rawle, produces a tale that rarely arcs or twists. A studied boredom cloaks the whole ensemble. Two people meet, fall in love, lose interest, and move on. No shocking betrayal emerges to explain why they are selling off their possessions—including many items untainted by their deflated relationship. (Why would a gifted young food writer get rid of her cookbooks just because she broke up with her boyfriend?) For a design audience, the book’s playful format and artfully presented details may be compelling enough to make up for a story that fails to climax.

Why Collaborate?

Essay, 2005.

“I’d love to collaborate, as long as I can work alone.” I often have felt that way about collaboration. Sure, it’s a great idea, as long as it doesn’t violate my personal work schedule or on my sense of control and authorship. I have been a museum curator for nearly fifteen years, so I am familiar with both the pleasures and pains of collaborating. It’s a joy to work on a team whose members have clearly defined roles and distinctive skill sets. It can be frustrating, however, when a few people are doing the heavy lifting and the others are there only to “insure consensus” or “weigh in” on concepts. A museum exhibition, like a Hollywood film, can’t be produced by one person; everyone involved must learn to get along (curators, educators, designers, editors, fundraisers, and so on).

The situation is different in school, where each student is a paying customer and the overall goal is the education of individuals rather than the production of large-scale projects. In my own experiences as a student, I have enjoyed voluntary, informal collaborations with my friends, but I have resented being forced into arbitrary, mismatched teams in the name of social correctness.

Students create social networks in school that can last a lifetime. The people you hang out with are a source of artistic inspiration, healthy competition, and informal education that could be more important than what you officially learn in class. You can work with your schoolmates to create magazines, Web sites, and events that will bring together even more people, yielding an organic, underground design community. (That’s how AIGA started way back in 1914.) Working with a group, you can take on freelance projects that might be too big to pursue alone, and, after you graduate, your collaborators can continue to provide a network of support or even the basis of an independent business.

I was struck, recently, by an article in Surface magazine about hot young architects. I was impressed not just by their work, but by the fact that many of the firms mentioned in the piece—such as Free Cell, SHOP, and Open Office—are teams of younger designers who have come together to pool their skills, their financial resources, and their social connections. Architecture, even more than graphic design, is a notoriously difficult field in which to make a name for one’s self, and these emerging designers have succeeded in winning important commissions and getting their work seen by the larger community. They are also, presumably, making a living, while working outside the established system of single-name firms and big corporate offices.

At Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), we have been actively pursuing group projects at the graduate program over the past two years (http://www.micadesign.org). One is called BUY*PRODUCT, where each student develops an original product (t-shirts, stationery, housewares, fashion items), while the whole group works together to promote and organize events where we offer these goods for sale. The students have invested their own labor and creativity into their own products, but they each know that the success of the overall undertaking relies on teamwork. This past year, our graduate students and faculty wrote a book together (D.I.Y: Design It Yourself, forthcoming in Fall 2005 from Princeton Architectural Press). Again, the project worked because the students had a degree of individual ownership over their parts of the book, as well as a commitment to the coherence of the overall project. Other projects include a trans-Atlantic collaboration with students at Central St. Martins in London (http://www.dependence-daze.com/dependencedaze.html).

Successful collaborations are like democracy writ small. Members of a civil society expect to have individual freedoms and opportunities, but in order to exercise and protect those rights, they need to participate in the larger social system. Some people believe that such civil behavior is in danger of disappearing in contemporary American life. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) looks at how the interests of the individual have been replacing team efforts in everything from the organization of neighborhoods to how people use bowling alleys (where the “league” once held sway and individual play has taken over).

Collaboration isn’t just for kids. Design world legends Lorraine Wild, Louise Sandhaus, and Rick Valicenti recently formed the trans-continental partnership Wild LuV, which is allowing them to work together and tackle big commissions that draw on all of their talents (http://www.wildluv.com/). Collaboration is becoming more important across many fields of creative work, and I expect to see more of it happening with the rising generations of graphic designers. In response to this article, I’d love to hear about successful (and unsuccessful) attempts at collaboration, and the role of social networks in the emerging design practices of today.

White Space

Essay, 2009. First published in Ambidextrous, Stanford D-School Magazine.

Empty. Blank. Void. Wasted. That’s how most people see the parts of a web page or magazine spread where nothing is displayed or printed. Graphic designers, however, call such fields of unclaimed territory “white space.” These open areas are as sacred to us as a fresh bar of soap or a fifteen-minute intermission. How did we come to cherish the abyss, and does it have a future in today’s digital world?

The elements of white space

While people typically associate typography, the backbone of graphic design, with the shape of characters, it also concerns the space around and between them. Ever since Gutenberg invented movable type, printers have set text in crisp, justified columns. To achieve this effect with letterpress, the typesetter would insert additional spacing material between elements (as well as hyphenating words where possible). Today, software does the same work automatically. When done well, the variable spacing between characters is so subtle the reader fails to notice it. When done poorly, gaps erupt across the text like wormholes in a damaged universe. To see examples of choppy spacing firsthand, take a look at the print edition of nearly any city newspaper.

In addition to the spaces between words and characters, the margins of a page are a place where designers cultivate the beauty of nothingness. While a cheap paperback novel is jammed with prose right up to the edge, the wider margins of an elegant book of poetry offer the hands a place to grip the book, and the eyes a place to rest. Such margins function, essentially, as a frame, a border that passively surrounds the featured content.

A key tool for organizing the open space of a page or poster is the typographic grid, an invisible lattice that divides an area into vertical and horizontal units. The architecture of the grid becomes visible as it gives shape to content but also it is also made visible by the fields of space left empty. Advocated by Swiss designers including Emil Ruder and Karl Gerstner in the 1960s, the grid suggests where to place elements and what size and shape to make them. It provides an underlying rationale that allows variation and contrast to coexist with order and repetition. In place of the static frame of a classical page layout, the grid encourages the designer to create dynamic, asymmetrical compositions in which open space not only occupies the margins but flows among content elements.

In addition to making typographic content dynamic, white space can also drawi attention to forms and messages in graphic art. Modern graphic designers discovered how to use white space as more than a classical frame. El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and other avant-garde designers working in Russia and Germany in the 1920s sought to invade every region of a poster or page with potential emptiness. Inspired by abstract painting and asymmetrical architecture, these designers saw empty space as a palpable substance. Seeking to organize compositions in dynamic and flexible ways, they learned that white space could be activated—not merely filled—with content.

From books and posters to computers and phones

While it’s relatively easy to implement grids for print design, applying them to dynamic web sites is more challenging, especially due to the monetization of pixel space. Web designer Khoi Vinh has written and lectured extensively on making grids for online media. While countless web sites are divided into three or more vertical columns, a fully functioning grid should allow some components to “break the grid” by crossing over multiple columns within a content area. The generous swaths of white space in Vinh’s gorgeous web pages in his popular personal blog, Subtraction, free the eye from relentless clutter while emphasizing the underlying grid structure.

Besides the technical challenges of preserving white space on websites, there are also practical concerns. No one wants to scroll across a 300-pixel dead zone while hunting for bargains on eBay. Online shopping sites are modular systems designed to accommodate different amounts of content per page depending on the merchandise in a given category—thus some product pages have lots of white space, while others are more dense. As a result, white space is built in to such systems in a serendipitous way. For example, in West Elm’s website, generous space around each product’s image yields more or less white space on a page in relation to how many products come up in a given search. Web designers try to build white space into flexible, unpredictable systems.

Despite the growing size of today’s cell phone screens, big fields of white space can be more annoying than pleasing on a mobile application. With space at a premium, interface designers adjust the gaps between and around graphics and text elements in order to guide the eye and create clear visual separation. In a well-designed iPhone app, there’s not a lot of white space, but what’s there has been carefully modulated.

Filling White Space

Working within the realities of commercial publishing, where open space equals wasted money, designers have always had to fight to preserve white space. Open a typical mass-market magazine today and you will find few areas left unfilled. White space is also in short supply on the web, where density is king. A typical news or social media site is tightly packed with content, especially towards the top of the page, where primary information competes with side bars loaded with links, tags, and ads.

From an information design point of view, using less white space can help streamline communication. Infographics guru Edward Tufte has argued that loading a lot of information into a small area allows readers to compare data more quickly—in contrast to spacing out charts and graphs across a series of Powerpoint slides or placing them on separate pages in a book layout. Just as a dense urban neighborhood can be easier to navigate than a sprawling suburb, so a tightly packed page or screen can reward readers with quick access to data.

Graphic designers have long been enamored of white space. For us, it is more than an empty vacuum—it is a poetic presence and a functional tool. In an era of tiny screens and shrinking budgets, the idea of leaving anything blank may seem foolhardy. Yet when used well, open spaces—even small ones—can make information easier to understand and more pleasurable to read. Every pixel has the potential to please the eye.

Modern Design Theory

“Writing Lessons: Modern Design Theory,” unpublished essay by Ellen Lupton, written for graduate seminar taught by Rosemary Bletter, City University of New York Graduate Center, 1988.

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.

A chief laboratory in which this language was analyzed was the “Vorkurs” or “Basic Course” at the Bauhaus, which has served as a model for foundation programs at art schools around the globe since World War II. The theorists of “visual language” aimed to locate a universal code that communicates through the mechanics of the eye and brain, bypassing the contingencies of verbal language and cultural context. The modernist theory of “visual language” compares verbal and visual expression in order to keep the two systems apart from one another.

Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane (1926), published by the Bauhaus, tried to identify an abstract and universal grammar of visual expression. Two later books, Gyorgy Kepes’s Language of Vision (1944) and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion (1947), further elaborated the theory of “visual language” and gave it a scientific rationale; both were written while Kepes and Moholy were teaching at the School of Design in Chicago, founded as the “New Bauhaus” in 1937. This essay excavates some of the origins of contemporary design theory with the goal of finding a place within those assumptions for a more expansive “language of vision,” one that rather intersects with verbal language rather than standing as its opposite.

1. The “language of vision”

The “Basic” course, conceived to prepare students for diverse practical disciplines by teaching them general formal concepts, was not part of Walter Gropius’s original program for the Bauhaus, but was established in 1920 in response to the inexperience and lack of discipline of students admitted to the school. Johannes Itten was the first teacher of the Basic Course; his writings outline some of the “principles” of design which also occur in the writings of Kandinsky, Klee, Kepes, and Moholy-Nagy. According to Itten’s theory of “polar contrasts,” for example, a picture is organized by such formal oppositions as big/small, long/short, straight/curved, pointed/blunt, much/little, light/heavy, and hard/soft (Itten, Foundation Course, 105).

When conflicts with Gropius led Itten to resign in 1922, Kandinsky was assigned to teach classes on color and the “Basic Elements of Form,” part of the Vorkurs (Naylor 83, 87); Klee began teaching sections of the basic form class after 1924 (Wingler, 79). In 1923 former student Joseph Albers became a master, responsible for the materials component of the Basic Course. Moholy-Nagy was put in charge of the program as a whole later in 1923 (Naylor 100).

Kandinsky’s basic form class resembled the program he had taught at the Russian Inkhuk (Institute of Artistic Culture) starting in 1920, where he stressed the continuity between music and painting and freely merged scientific and spiritual analyses of form (Naylor 86). In Kandinsky’s 1919 essay “Little Articles on Big Questions,” he used the metaphor of verbal “language” to discuss the laws of visual form, calling simple geometric shapes “‘forms belonging to the first sphere of graphic language,’” constituting a “‘sphere of draftsmanship with its limited means of expression, akin to a language without declensions, conjugations, prepositions, or prefixes’” (Naylor 87). Kandinsky would develop the metaphor more fully in his later Bauhaus textbook.

The metaphor of visual language emerges in Kandinsky’s genesis of the “point” in Point and Line to Plane. The point first appears in Kandisky’s story as a punctuation mark. In its life as a “period,” the point must remain in silence, because it marks a stop in the flow of reading. When the point is wrenched from the context of writing, however, it gains a “voice”: “Naturally, the new science of art can only develop when the signs become symbols and the receptive eye and ear open the way from silence to speech. Let him who is unable to accomplish this, leave both the ‘theoretic’ and the ‘practical’ in art alone… It is these very people who are today intent in placing a period after the word ‘art’” (26). In Kandinsky’s story of the liberated “point,” the linguistically bound mark gains direct access to perception, and thus begins to participate in the musicality Kandinsky attributed to art that had been freed from the bonds of the literary.

The writings of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy during the 1920s were more overtly hostile towards verbal writing. In Painting Photography Film, published by the Bauhaus in 1925 and 1927, Moholy described the new medium of “typophoto,” or design which combines typography and photography: “Photography is highly effective when used as typographical material. It may appear as an illustration beside the words, or in the form of “phototext” in place of words, as a precise form of representation so objective as to permit of no individual interpretation. The form, the rendering, is constructed out of the optical and associative relationships: into a visual, associative, conceptual, synthetic continuity: into the typophoto as an unambiguous rendering in an optically valid form.” Moholy put faith in photography as an objective extension of the human eye—even in its distortions, photography would tell the truth. The photograph would rescue words from their inherent ambiguity and abstraction, cleansing them with the “hygiene of the optical.”

Moholy continued to promote this attitude as director of the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago. The school was founded in 1937 by the Association of Arts and Industries, a group of businessmen and concerned citizens who wished to open a design school that would “‘meet the needs of industry and reintegrate the artist into the life of the nation’” (Stahle, in Wingler 193). This project seemed to correspond with goals publicized by the German Bauhaus, and the association asked Moholy-Nagy to participate. The school quickly lost the support of the association, however, and Moholy reopened it under the name “School of Design” in 1939. It became the “Institute of Design” in 1944, and since then has weathered numerous changes in administration and academic affiliations. It is now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In 1937 Moholy invited Gyorgy Kepes, another Hungarian artist and designer, to teach photography and “commercial art” in Chicago. Moholy and Kepes worked together to formulate the school’s curriculum, modeled closely on that of the original Bauhaus (Wingler, 199). They retained the concept of the “Basic Course,” a first-year program which taught formal principles believed to underly and unite all the specialized disciplines of art and design. An essay which Kepes wrote in 1938 summarizes his goals for the Basic Course: “As the eye is the agent of conveying all impressions to the mind, the achieving of visual communication requires a fundamental knowledge of the means of visual expression. Development of this knowledge will generate a genuine ‘language of the eye,’ whose ‘sentences’ are created images and whose elements are the basic signs, line, plane, halftone gradation, color, etc.” (Wingler 197)

The Basic Course aimed to isolate this “language” of form from the context of linguistic, culturally acquired knowledge. Kepes’s metaphor of “visual language,” which had its precedent in the textbooks of Kandinsky and Klee, became the basis of his own textbook, Language of Vision, written between 1939 and 1942, published in 1944.

Moholy’s Vision in Motion was issued posthumously in 1947. As suggested by the title of his book, Moholy’s central concern was representing motion, which he discussed in terms of graphic, photographic, sculptural, mechanical, and natural “manuscripts.” He restated in this text his bias against verbal language by comparing visual abstraction with verbal “semantics”: “Like the semanticist, who strives for logical cleanliness, a clearing away of loosely trailing connotative associations in the verbal sphere, the abstract artist seeks to disengage the visual fundamentals from the welter of traditional symbolism and inherited illusionistic expectations” (150).

The “semanticist” referred to in this passage was perhaps Charles Morris, a philosopher of language who taught a course in “Intellectual Integration” at the Institute of Design (Vision in Motion 70). Morris was a member of the Unified Science movement, which aimed to devise a single technical vocabulary capable of communicating among the diverse branches of science. Morris contributed a statement to the 1937-38 prospectus of the New Bauhaus that called for a “simplified and purified language in which to talk about art (and indeed about all values) in the same simple and direct way in which we talk about the world in scientific terms” (Wingler 195). Morris’s effort to identify a simplified verbal language complemented the artists’ and designers’ search for a universal “language” of vision.

Charles Morris’s writing developed the theory of “semiotics,” or the classification of signs, following the work of the American philospher Charles Sanders Peirce. In the terms of Morris’s semiotics, an icon resembles its object, a symbol has a conventional or arbitrary association with its object, and an index stands in a relation of spatial or causal contiguity to its object—it either points to it (an arrow), or preserves its physical trace (a footprint or a photograph). The branch of sign that would have been of greatest interest to Moholy-Nagy and Kepes, and also to Kandinsky and Klee, was the index.

Information “graphics” are largely indexical signs (although they may also have symbolic and iconic components). When used in a strictly didactic or expository context, an information “graphic” is a neutral record of given data. One set of facts could be expressed in numerous ways, and a particular format might picture the same information more clearly, or stress a different aspect of it. Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics presents “A Hundred Different Graphics for the Same Information.” In Bertin’s terms, a graphic is a pure “transcription” of fact, an unambiguous sign whose meaning is beyond interpretation: “graphics and mathematics are similar and construct the ‘rational moment’” (Bertin, 3). The lines in a graph or the locations on a map directly correspond to the data for which they stand. A population curve, for example, is a shape produced by the information it describes, not a symbolic or illusionistic image: it is an index of the data it represents.

The diagram, particularly valued by the designers and artists discussed in this paper, is more closely allied with conventional artistic representation than other types of graphic. Charts and graphs, for example, divide space according to an abstract, geometric grid—columns and rows, or an x/y axis. A diagram relates the page to physical rather than geometrical space—either literally, as in a map or a drawing of an experimental apparatus, or by analogy, as in a logorithm or a coroporate management hierarchy. Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook and Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane use diagrams to picture relationships between the “elements” of design; Klee’s figures in particular exploit the ability of the diagram to express spatial and temporal relations simultaneously. Moholy-Nagy identified “diagrams” produced by natural and technological processes; Gyorgy Kepes used figures from psychological theory as normative models. In addition to using diagrams as explanatory tools, Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, and Kepes used the concept of the diagram to characterize the drawing process itself: the drawn line is a record of motion. The diagram constituted the basis of a new “language” of vision, suggesting the possibility of a script which would render its object transparent, a mode of “writing” spontaneously generated by the world it would represent.

2. Kandinsky and Klee: Line as diagram

Both Kandinsky and Klee produced a theory of “elements” radically different from that offered by geometry. Whereas Euclid’s line is an infinite accumulation of static points, the line of Klee and Kandinsky is conceived as a single point dragged across a page—it is the recorded motion of the point, a graphic trace of the designer’s action. In Kandinsky’s words, the line is the “track made by the moving point; that is, its product. It is created by movement—specifically through the destruction of intense, self-contained repose of the point” (Kandinsky, 57). Similarly, the plane is the product of a moving line which closes in on itself (Kandinsky, 81). The title of Kandinsky’s book, Point and Line to Plane, reiterates the narrative sequence contained within.

Klee’s text also sets forth a temporal relationship between the elements: line is defined as a “point progression” and plane is defined as a “line progression” (Klee, 21). Klee’s grammar of elements involves a metaphor between visual and verbal form: the relationship between point, line, and plane is compared to active and passive “voice” is language. The point which moves to become a line is “active”; the line which moves to enclose a shape is “medial,” acting as both a figure in itself and as the edge of another figure; the line which thickens to fill in the shape becomes “passive,” functioning merely as the secondary border of the plane.

Klee represents this narrative with a pair of “graphics.” The first is a pictorial and verbal chart listing the three “cases” of line/plane relations in parallel layers, like a table of verb forms in a grammar book. [Fig. 1] The second, titled “Three Conjugations,” is a diagram of the same information, representing the three cases in a spatial scheme. A “Semantic explanation” appended to the diagram compares the three “cases” of line to written sentences. [Fig. 2] In keeping with the spirit of the linguistic “primer,” the circle, square, and triangle serve as exemplary planes.

Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane refers to the “basic elements” as a graphic system: point, line, and plane are fundamental to any act of painting; they also “constitute the exclusive material for an independent kind of painting—graphic.” (20) Kandinsky used the term “graphic” in reference to drawing and print-making; he also used it in the sense of an information “graphic,” or a diagram: see, for example, Fig. 3. According to Kandinsky, any physical or spiritual complex can be represented graphically: “every phenomena of the external and of the inner world can be given linear expression—a kind of translation.” (Kandinsky, 68) Graphic “translation” is the basis of one of Kandinsky’s classroom excercises, in which objects are “completely translated into energy tensions… the over-all scheme made visible by dashed lines” (Wingler, 146). [Fig. 4] This assignment was perhaps influenced by an earlier exercise from Itten’s Basic Course, in which a linear network is superposed over reproductions of “Old Masters” paintings. Experiments like these imply an objective correspondence between the diagrammatic “translation” and a real pattern of energy present in the original image.

Kandinsky’s text as a whole is a graphic “translation” of a complex system: it reduces a vast spectrum of sensations to black and white typography, photography, and graphics. Technological limitations, to some extent, prevented this book from drawing directly on two of the sensory realms it explores: color and sound. Yet the material silence and monochromatics of Kandinsky’s text is not completely gratuitous. Kandinsky was interested in how sound and color can be evoked internally in the viewer through the mediation of a graphic system, rather than by literal external means. According to Kandinsky, the exact theoretical study of visual art depends on identifying the objective, “natural” correspondence between the graphic “elements” and the more variegated realm of painting: “The natural connection between the ‘graphic’ and the ‘pictorial’ elements, which we can to some extent recognize today, are of immeasurable importance to the future theory of composition. Only in this direction, can planned exact experiments in construction be made in our laboratory work, and the mischeivious fog in which we are today condemned to wander, will certainly become more transparent and less suffocating.” (Point… 62)

Thus the linear script the diagram would dissolve the currently opaque understanding of visual form by exposing its interior structure. Moholy-Nagy’s program at the New Bauhaus would include a version of Kandinsky’s exercise: to “translate” a Picasso painting into an “essential line structure… showing the tightness and clarity of the composition” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 38). These schematic, linear “translations” constitute a kind of writing which renders its referent transparent.

The theories of graphic communication presented by Kandinsky and Klee are further elaborated by the typographic design of their texts. Like the other Bauhaus Books, these were designed by Moholy-Nagy, and the material arrangement of the texts is presumably the result of collaboration between author and designer. Each page of the Pedagogical Sketchbook is headed with a diagram indicating the chapter of the book and the subsections contained within that page [see Figs. 1 and 2]. The roman numeral “four” is represented with four vertical strokes rather than the conventional “IV,” a move which complements the interest in a non-abstract sign system by concretely representing the concept of “four.” [Fig. 5] On one page in the Pedagogical Sketchbook, the copy flows between two opposing columns: the meaning of the linear text is reinforced by its spatial position. [Fig. 6] In Point and Line to Plane the subheads run along the margin of the main text, breaking it up into numerous small “entries,” suggesting that the book be read like a “dictionary.” The subheads sometimes occur at the middle of a paragraph, where no break is otherwise indicated; they are a secondary system which analyses the main text. [Fig. 7]

Kandinsky and Klee defined drawing as a “trace” or diagram of its own making; Kandinsky’s “translation” exercise used these lines to cast a network over the variegated forms of experience. Many paintings by both Klee and Kandinsky superpose a system of graphic marks over a luminious ground, suggesting the revelation of nature through a universal script. Moholy-Nagy would identify numerious additional “visual manuscripts,” produced not just by the hand but by natural and technological forces.
3. Moholy-Nagy: Drawing with light and other substances

Moholy-Nagy saw photography as a new kind of writing: “The illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 208) Moholy valued photography as an expansion of natural sight—a technique for penetrating opaque bodies, recording the passage of time, or layering multiple images onto a single, unified surface. For Moholy the “realism” of photography lay not in its ability to produce traditional perspectival images, but rather in its status as a neutral, mechanical record of phenomena.

Moholy’s “photogram” emphasized the non-retinal core of the photographic process; like Kandinsky’s and Klee’s theory of line, the “photogram” engaged the logic of the indexical “track,” the mark left as the direct record of an action. According to Moholy, the the essence of photography is not the camera, but the chemical sensitivity of film and paper, which documents the print of light (Moholy, Painting, Photography, Film, 32). Moholy wrote that he and Man Ray simultaneously re-invented the cameraless photograph “around 1920”—Moholy called it a photogram, a condensation of “photograph” and “diagram” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 178) He wrote: “The photogram understood as a diagrammatic record of the motion of light translated into black and white and gray values can lead to a grasp of new types of spatial relationships and spatial rendering. The receding and advancing values of the gradations, which are projections of ‘light tracks,’ can be used for space—that is space-time‹articulation” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 189-90).

As a “diagram,” the photogram is a spatial record of a temporal event, a non-illusionistic yet non-arbitrary image of the real. Moholy noted numerous other artistic, technological, and natural “diagrams” throughout Vision in Motion, including photographs of fireworks, industrial time and motion studies, tire tracks in the snow, the pattern made by peeling paint, the ridges inscribed by waves on a beach, and the text left by a skywriting plane (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 36, 121 and passim). Another member of this class is the simple line drawing, which “can be understood as a motion study since it is a path of motion recorded by graphic means”—Moholy’s aesthetic of the diagram returns thus to the autographic theory of Kandinsky and Klee (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 36). These modes of diagramming space and time were for Moholy “but the beginning in the perfection of visual ‘manuscripts’ which will be read more quickly and precisely than verbal ones.” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 121) Moholy connected the “tracks” of the diagram with the drawn line of writing, but he saw such tracks as fundamentally different from script because of the objective, necessary relationship between the sign and its referent in the natural world.

Vision in Motion is illustrated with images of three-dimensional as well as graphic works, mostly student projects from the Foundation Course and the industrial design workshops of the Chicago school. The “tactile chart,” an exercise which probably originated from Itten’s Basic Course, is an assemblage of physical objects having different textures. These “charts” were not intended as aestheticized objects, and most of those pictured are organized in neutral, arbitary columns, like entries in a diary or a dictionary. One of them is labelled:
Tactile chart
A dictionary of the different qualities of touch sensations, such as pain, pricking, temperature, vibration, etc. (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 69)
A similar “Dictionary of the photogram” appears later in the book—these “dictionaries” suggest the eventual compilation of an infinite reference book of visual signs, a complete swatchbook of reality.

Another Basic Course excercise is the “hand sculpture”: a piece of rounded, amorphic, carved wood designed to be pleasing to the hand. The hand sculpture can also “be understood as a space-time diagram; the result of the resistance of the wood to the forces applied—the carving tools combined with the intention of the maker” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 73-4). These apparently “artsy-crafty” objects were preparations for designing the molded plastic handles of useful objects—they were exercises for learning the contemporary industrial vocabulary of “streamlining.” Like other good modernists in America in the 1940s, Moholy criticized thoughtless, stylistic “streamlining,” but he was nonetheless interested in the range of production processes it represented: “welding, molding, shaping, and stamping,” which had supplanted the bolts, rivets, and screws of the nineteenth century. He proposed the manufacture of stamped objects from continuous pieces of material: for example, “furniture, molded without joints” and “clothing, cast, pressed or molded in one piece…” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 51-54).

The relationship between a stamped object and its mold is analoguous to the graphic “trace” and the light or process it has recorded. Whereas a traditional industrial product is bolted together out of pieces, a stamped form takes its shape from a “negative.” As in a photograph, a potential infinity of “prints” can be cast from a single negative, and the uniform surface of the object is unbroken by “syntactical” connectors. Moholy assigned social as well as aesthetic value to the molded object, seeing it as an agent for eliminating the division of labor and bringing cheap goods to a mass public.

The student design projects reproduced in Vision in Motion include drawings of molded plastic products, such as a tumbler with a built-in straw, and the shell of a motor car. The finished student projects do not include any full-fledged streamlining, probably because of technical limitations. The closest is a chair constructed out of a single sheet of plywood, “bent without waste, using only two lap joints” (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 90, 93, 95). Moholy called one of his own sculptures in Vision and Motion a “space modulator,” an object molded out of smooth plastic which in turn molds its environment: “air” is listed as one of its materials (Moholy, Vision in Motion, 167, 235).

Moholy’s interest in molding three-dimensional space was shared by other Constructivist artists, including Oscar Schlemmer. Like Kandinsky and Klee, Schlemmer wanted to identify the “elements” of dance—the “‘one, two, three’ and the ABC” (Wingler, 118). He wrote in 1926: “imagine a space filled with a soft, pliable substance in which the figures of the sequences of the dancer’s movements were to harden as a negative form… Aids such as poles (the horizontal balancing pole) or stilts (vertical elements) are… capable of vivifying space in a framelike, linear fashion” (Wingler, 118).

Schlemmer pictured this dance as a three-dimensional diagram, a permanent track cut into a jelly-like ground. The poles and stilts, painted white against a darkened stage and costume, automatically record the dancer’s movements, substituting his body with a graphic system. The space of the stage functions like the neutral background of a picture, a black field inscribed with the white lines of a diagram.
Rosalind Krauss has written that this “diagrammatic” shaping of space characterizes Constructivist sculpture in general: These sculptures are often made of a transparent material—glass, celluloid, open networks of string—and this material transparency is the signal for a kind of transparency or lucidity of the explanatory model that lays bear the essence of things, exposing their real structures to view.
Similarly the graphic “translations” of Kandinsky imply the objective dissection of the natural image, rendering opaque relationships “transparent.” Such works of art use the diagram as the “grammar” of a universal script whose meaning would be insured by the shape of the physical world rather than cultural convention.

4. Gyorgy Kepes: Gestalt psychology and the language of vision

The structure of Gyorgy Kepes’s book Language of Vision reflects the curriculum of the New Bauhaus: it first studies visual “laws” in isolation and then applies them to art and advertising design. Kepes’s “grammar” is an extended, more analytical version of the earlier books by Kandinsky and Klee. His main innovation is to use principles from “Gestalt psychology” to expand on and verify the notion of an autonomous faculty of visual communication.

Gestalt psychology was initiated by Max Wertheimer (1880-1843) at the University of Frankfurt in 1912; he and his students Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967) and Kurt Koffka (1887-1941) became its central theorists. Gestalt psychology challenged the traditional notion that the ability to make sense out of visual data is culturally learned; according to Gestalt theory, the brain spontaneously orders and simplifies sense data into structured, wholistic patterns. Wertheimer and Kohler worked in Berlin after 1914 and 1921 respectively; all three scientists immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, where they became a prominent intellectual force (Sahakian).

Some of the tenets of Gestalt psychology parallel ideas developed in Klee’s and Kandinsky’s textbooks of design—the similarities are, presumably, coincidental, as it was not until 1928 that a representative of Gestalt psychology lectured at the Bauhaus. According to Wingler, the psychology lectures were well received because they offered “scientific affirmation” for the theories of Kandinsky and Klee. The student notes reproduced by Wingler suggest that the speaker explained a few general Gestalt principles as well as unrelated issues in child psychology and psychoanalyis—his presentation appears to have been casual and unsystematic (Wingler, 159-60).

In Gestalt psychology the term “figure” refers to a positive, dominant form revealed against a neutral “ground”; the figure/ground relationship is the precondition for perceiving “objects,” for articulating the complex, infinitely variegated image cast upon the retina into distinct relationships. Gestalt psychology’s central claim is that the “percept” (or the image that the brain produces from the physical data it receives) is not an accumulation of individual parts, but is a whole: the value of each part depends on its relation to every other part, and any local change will affect the whole. The percept is not a geometric copy of the stimuli cast upon the retina, but a set of ordered relationships, or gestalten (Wertheimer, 1922; in Ellis) As Wolfgang Kohler wrote: “A homogeneous field in visual space is practically uniform… When Gestalten appear we see firm, closed structures “standing out” in “lively” and “impressive” manner from the remaining field… In the accompanying diagram the narrower spaces are “strips” while the area between them is “mere ground.”“ (Kohler, 1920; in Ellis, 36) [Fig. 8]

The figure/ground relationship in Fig. 8 is not an “objective” condition of the image; in geometric terms, the lines are simply equivalent marks located on a homogeneous plane. The figure/ground relation, which describes the qualitative differences contained in the percept, is a phenomenal rather than a geometric fact, an aspect of the image as it is experienced. The act of perception produces values.
Fig. 8 is one of numerous drawings used in Gestalt psychology to demonstrate the “factors of organization,” or the the formal conditions which lead to the articulation of “figure” against “ground.” Simple line drawings were the staple test material used for studying the laws of organization—these figures offered an experimental setting from which extraneous elements had been largely eliminated. The Gestalt psychologists, like Kandinsky and Klee, used linear, graphic drawings as a “laboratory” for discovering universal laws of vision. They aimed to construct, as Koffka wrote, “‘as naive and full a description of direct experience as possible’” (Pastore, 271-2). Some Gestalt experiments employ words or letterforms in order to prove that innate formal structure is able to obliterate the cultural conventions or “content” which has been added to it. [Fig. 9] A similar goal lies at the foundations of the Bauhaus curriculum: to temporarily isolate visual form from the context of its cultural use. Like the “grammar” of design, Gestalt psychology characterizes vision insofar as it can be quarantined from the context of everyday experience. (Gestalt theory would not be particularly useful, on the other hand, for studying the function of signs in society.)

The parallels between Gestalt psychology and the theories of Kandinsky and Klee are, as far as I know, an historical coincidence. Gyorgy Kepes, however, recognized the usefulness of the new psychology, and he directly incorporated it in his Language of Vision. Fig. 10 shows some basic principles he employed and the figures with which he illustrated them; I have included analogous figures from texts by Gestalt psychologists. The reduced, linear style of these experimental drawings would have appealed to Kepes as an aesthetic in itself. Kepes’s demonstration of “continuance” juxtaposes a schematic line drawing against an abstract painting: Kepes used the diagram as a normative model for art, a move which is in fact inherent to Gestalt theory. Wertheimer described the same principle of “continuance”: “On the whole the reader should find no difficulty in seeing what is meant here. In designing a pattern, for example, one knows what a ‘good’ continuation is, how ‘inner coherence’ is to be acheived, etc.; one recognizes a resultant ‘good Gestalt’ simply by its own ‘inner necessity’… Additions to an incomplete object (e.g. the segment of a curve) may proceed in a direction opposed to that of the original, or they may carry on the principle ‘logically demanded’ by the original.” (Werth, Laws, 83)

For Wertheimer, the processes of seeing and design are closely related: designing is merely a more active form of perception. In Kepes’s demonstration of the principle of “similarity,” a Mondrian composition is graphically treated as the final term in a series of scientific drawings: the painting is reproduced the same size as the diagrams, as a high-contrast image rather than a half-tone. Kepes does not specify any further relationship between the Gestalt graphics and the Mondrian composition—the formal similarity alone seems to have inspired the juxtaposition. In addition to the Gestalt examples, Kepes’s text incorporates figures demonstrating such principles as “dynamism” (28, 290), “balance” (36), proportion (54), rhythm (53), and depth representation (72, 76, 86). The book also contains figures which are neither overtly didactic nor aesthetic—small, high-contrast compositions, often grouped in series, with no explicit “message.” [Fig. 11] Numerous reproductions of finished works of art and graphic design appear in the midst of these didactic and quasi-didactic figures, often reproduced as high-contrast images. In a few instances “linear diagrams” stand in place of the finished works of art (60, 102) [Fig. 12].

The concept of “figure” operates in two ways in Kepes’s text. On the one hand, “figure” is a term from Gestalt psychology, refering to the articulation of a mark against a background. On the other hand, a “figure” is a genre of graphic communication: a visual image inserted into a scientific or didactic text. Understood in this second sense, a “figure” is not a particular form of graphic—it could be a chart, graph, table, drawing, photograph, etc.—but is rather a particular function of graphic. Scientific figures offered Kepes attractive stylistic qualities—abstraction, simplicity, linearity. He also valued their function aesthetically. For Kepes, the explanatory, instrumental, unambiguous status of the didactic figure was an appealing attribute for art and design—even though “message” of the aesthetic object would tend to be associative rather than explicit. As Kandinsky and Oscar Schlemmer made the diagram into an expressive tool, a model for an elucidating, explanatory art, Kepes used the explanatory “figure” as a model for design.

The first part of Kepes’s book is a basic “grammar” of vision, and Part II is an historical typology of “idioms” for representing time and space, a catalogue of conventional techniques which must be integrated with “the genuine language of the picture surface” (Kepes, Language of Vision, 68). Part III concludes that all the abstract “laws” and representational “idioms” unlocked by modern painting can be synthesized in the new, unfettered institution of advertising: “All these findings came to focus in the practical tasks of contemporary advertising art. Advertising could utilize them because it was not handicapped by traditional forms… it belonged to its very nature to be contemporary and forceful… the most heterogeneous elements—verbal message, drawing, photography, and abstract shapes—were employed… Posters on the streets, picture magazines, picture books, container labels, window displays… could disseminate socially useful messages, and they could train the eye, and thus the mind, with the necessary discipline of seeing beyond the surface of visible things, to recognize values necessary for an integrated life…” (Kepes, Language of Vision, 221)

For Kepes, advertising would be able to bring modernist aesthetics to a mass audience because it was unbounded by historical, academic, or economic traditions. Advertising could freely absorb techniques of visual representation from every pocket of culture and disseminate its messages through contemporary technology. Kepes’s book thus begins with the isolation of visual form from its linguistic and cultural contexts, and culminates with a hopeful reintegration. Despite this final synthesis, however, abstraction remains the guiding force of Kepes’s theory, occupying the first and most rigorous chapter of his book—similarly, the isolated study of abstract form occupies the full first year of most college-level art school training today.

Kepes’s book is a designed object which uses didactic images for a rhetorical effect; similarly but more overtly, some of the examples of graphic design reproduced in his book use the visual code of the diagram for its rhetorical and formal expressiveness, rather than as a neutral carrier of information. Fig. 13, an advertisement by Ladislav Sutnar, has an explicit message—waste will be saved by coordinating the distribution of products—but the actual shapes and “data” in the chart do not stand for real products, and the “diagrammatic” lines are formal rather than utilitarian. The big “X” which divides the page, for example, is evocative and dramatic rather than unambiguously functional. An advertising image by Will Burtin [Fig. 14] recalls Hannes Meyer’s “diagram of functions”: the plan of a house is superposed with photographs of family life, and the images are connected with lines suggestive of machinery belts. The architectural drawing and the diagrammatic lines produce a symbol of a technologically enhanced suburban lifestyle, rather than serving as neutral, unambiguous mappings of real space or processes (75).

Language of Vision, like the other textbooks of design discussed in this paper, asserts abstract visual form as the basis of a new “writing” that would wash verbal expression of its ambiguities. In Moholy’s notion of the “typophoto,” for example, the image could clarify a verbal text or replace it completely. Walter Benjamin offered an alternative image/text relationship in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer”: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce… But we shall make this demand most forcefully when we—the writers—take up photography.” According to Benjamin, the image would not render the text transparent, exposing it to view, but instead the caption would transform the meaning and function of the image.

This paper has been an attempt to revalue—in a positive rather than a destructive way—some of the fundamental theory of modern graphic design. Benjamin called writers to take up the camera; the intention behind my own study of design history and theory is to eventually influence designers to take up writing. Benjamin’s “author-as-producer” would have been able to juxtapose image and text; the skills of a graphic designer/writer would allow her not only to juxtapose but also to penetrate: to analyse images with the “language” of both words and graphics, and to determine the format in which a message might be framed. Despite the hostility expressed towards writing in these brilliant and influential textbooks of design, the notational “vocabulary” of form that develops out of them is rich in associative, culturally communicative meaning. The visual “language” of the diagram, as demonstrated by the some of the examples of graphic design published in Kepes’s text, is not a transparent filter for self-evident meaning, but rather a transforming, metaphoric code.

Reskilling the Art Student

“The Reskilling of the American Art Student.” Essay by Ellen Lupton, filed in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design, March 29, 2005.

The idea of skill has come to seem woefully outdated in an art world that emphasizes conceptual innovation, and making the right statement at the right time, with the right media. Gone are the days when life drawing was the backbone of any artists’ skill set. The term “skill” carries not only an academic connotation, but a working-class one. The skilled worker is one who knows something about a particular process (which puts him or her a step above the unskilled worker), but is not part of the professional class. Plumbers, auto mechanics and short-order cooks are skilled workers.

I’m arguing for the re-skilling of the American art student across the disciplines of fine and applied art, but working from our own design field as a model. Liberal arts education is based on the view that a certain body of knowledge is required to create a well-rounded person and an informed citizen of the world. The liberal arts ethos withdraws the pursuit of knowledge from the practical concerns of daily life; indeed, it views practical pressures as somehow tainting the purity of our educational goals.

That philosophy, of course, is under attack, and schools like New York University are actually encouraging liberal arts students to pursue professional internships during college (a practice unheard of a decade ago), and even to take “non-credit” workshops on such practical subjects as “graphic design.” The pressure for liberal arts programs to change comes from the customers: the students and their parents. Meanwhile, arts education offers a physically engaged, skill-based alternative to the liberal arts.


Conceptual skills: How to get ideas
Let’s demystify the notion of “conceptual thinking.” At the bottom, conceptual thinking is about getting ideas for a project: how to solve a problem, how to generate content, how to set the parameters of a project. Some students are good at this and some students are terrible, but there’s a lot we as educators can do to help them learn how to get ideas. This is where our work must begin. Thinking is not a mystery; it’s a skill.

Technical skills: How to realize ideas
Many educators, even in design, put technical skill at the bottom of their list of priorities. It’s not very glamorous or interesting to teach how to use software or make a comp. But technical training belongs right near the top because without technique, students are limited to primitive ways of realizing their work. So many of the art forms that have helped define the 20th century require a high level of technical proficiency: film, photography, video, design, architecture, animation. And yet faculty often looks down upon the teaching of technique. Oddly enough, technical skills are what many of our students want. Teachers would often rather spend a five-hour critique talking about “ideas,” while their students are hungry for technical knowledge.

Critical skills: How to build the discourse
We help students place their work in a historical and social context. Why do the fields of art and design function the way they do? What issues are artists and designers currently confronting in their work, and what’s the tradition against which contemporary practice takes place? This critical understanding helps students engage the world in a relevant way. The highest level of success for a designer or artist is, in my view, to create work that influences others in the field (or better yet, people in other fields). Such work contributes to the discourse.

Social skills: How to work with people and make things happen?
Social skills are harder to teach. There is no curriculum for showing students the importance of social interaction in the career of an artist or designer. You have to create situations where they can and must collaborate. I’m doing this in my graduate program at Maryland Institute College of Art by creating large-scale projects that rely on collaboration. Through these projects, the students witness the fact that big things are rarely done alone. It’s great preparation for the realities of the working world.

Professional skills: How to make a living
Last but not least: art schools need to prepare students for the working world. We need to show them how to document their work: record it, reproduce it, talk about it. Every student should leave school with a personal/professional website that they built themselves. They should all know how to write a resume, how to write a letter, how to write a proposal, and how to communicate effectively via email.

At the end of the day, a person who has successfully pursued these skills—conceptual, technical, critical, social and professional—is likely to be effective in many walks of life. The pursuit and cultivation of these skills may help students understand where their strengths and interests lie, and prepare them for a satisfying life in the working world.

Sacred Cows

In order to embrace a skill-based approach to art education, we have to question some of the sacred cows of the Art School.

Teaching art
The first one is “teaching art.” We don’t teach art; we teach art students. Art students are our customers. We have a serious obligation to them, and it is important to recognize their needs and desires in this new century, and not to be trapped in our views of what “art” is. A lot of teaching is focused more on the needs (and habits) of faculty than it is on the needs of our students.

The Critique
The old atelier model was to paint or draw in front of a live model for five hours while the professor wandered around making comments. That model was replaced by an even worse one: the critique, a five-hour discussion group where students talk about each other’s work, often pursuing a level of detail that far exceeds the intensity of the piece at hand. Students hate critiques, but in the post-skills studio environment, there is simply nothing else to do. Let’s use some of the time wasted in critiques to build skills.

Art enrichment
Art enrichment is over. It was the notion propagated in the 1950s that everyone should learn to understand and appreciate art, thus making people more sensitive and cultivated. This model still drives many museum education programs, as well as arts education in the schools, which is why art is the first subject to get cut. Enrichment is, by definition, a luxury. Today, people’s educational pursuits are more likely to be driven by practical and professional goals than spiritual enlightenment or “self improvement.” At the K-12 level, schools should be striving not to unleash a universal love for form and color, but to expose students to the properties and resistances of tools and materials, showing them how to solve problems and communicate visually and structurally. At the college level, programs for graduates, undergraduates, and post-graduates should think of the practical goals that drive people today towards higher education.

Responsibility towards our students
It is acceptable to say that we are preparing undergraduate students for “life in general,” but through an action- and skill-based course of study. But I believe we must be preparing graduate students to pursue sustaining creative work in their field of study. Although many of our graduates will not become “professional artists” within the gallery system, they should all leave school with a variety of concrete skills, skills that would be useful to a person in any path of life.

We can’t teach people to be geniuses (although, fortunately, our students are very, very talented), but we can teach them skills. It’s up to them to put those skills to work.

Savage Diary

Unpublished essay, written for a graduate seminar at University of Baltimore with Stuart Moulthrop, 2003. A mother thinks about theories of literacy and representation in the digital age while observing her tween-age son work and play with media.

Science of Typography

Essay by Ellen Lupton, “Cold Eye: Big Science,” Print magazine, Summer 2003.

Despite heroic efforts to create a critical discourse for design, our field remains ruled, largely, by convention and intuition. Interested in alternative attitudes, I recently set out to examine the scientific literature on typography. From the late nineteenth century to the present, researchers from various fields—psychology, ergonomics, human computer interaction (HCI), and design—have tested typographic efficiency. This research, little known to practicing designers, takes a refreshingly rigorous—though often tedious and ultimately inconclusive—approach to how people respond to written words on page and screen.

What did I learn from slogging through hundreds of pages photocopied or downloaded from journals with titles like Behavior and Information Technology and International Journal of Man-Machine Studies? Both a little and a lot.

Each study isolates and tests certain variables (font style, line length, screen size, etc.). Although rational and scientific, this process is also problematic, as typographic variables interact with each other—a pull on one part of the system has repercussions elsewhere. For example, in 1929 Donald G. Paterson and Miles A. Tinker published an analysis of type sizes—part of a series of studies they launched in pursuit of “the hygiene of reading.”1 Texts were set in 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 14-point type. The study emphatically concluded that 10 points is the “optimum size” for efficient reading—a result relevant, however, only for texts set at a particular line length (80 mm), in a particular typeface (not disclosed).

Another study by Paterson and Tinker tested ten different fonts, including traditional, serifed faces as well as the sans serif Kabel Lite, the monospaced American Typewriter, and the densely decorated, neo-medieval Cloister Black.2 Only the last two fonts—Typewriter and Cloister—caused any significant dip in reading speed. The authors’ conclusion: “Type faces [sic] in common use are equally legible” (613). Science leaves the designer more or less at sea in terms of font choice.

A 1998 study testing fonts on the screen revealed conflicts between how users performed and what they said they liked. An interdisciplinary team at Carnegie Mellon University compared Times Roman with Georgia, a serif font designed for the screen.3 Although the team found no objective difference, users preferred Georgia, which they judged sharper, more pleasing, and easier to read. A second test compared Georgia with Verdana, a sans serif face designed for on-screen viewing. In this case, users expressed a slight “subjective preference” for Verdana, but they performed better reading Georgia. Once again, the study concludes with no definitive guide.

How is typographic efficiency judged? “Legibility” concerns the ease with which a letter or word can be recognized (as in an eye exam), whereas “readability” describes the ease with which a text can be understood (as in the mental processing of meaningful sentences). Designers often distinguish “legibility” and “readability” as the objective and subjective sides of typographic experience. For scientists, however, readability can be objectively measured, as speed of reading + comprehension. Subjects in most of the studies cited here were asked to read a text and then answer questions. (Speed and comprehension are factored together because faster reading is often achieved at the expense of understanding content.)

The literature on readability includes numerous articles on whether (and why) paper is preferred over screens. In 1987 researchers working for IBM isolated and tested variables that affect text on both screen and page, including image quality, typeface, and line spacing.4 While the team hoped to successfully identify the culprit behind the poor performance of the screen, they discovered something else instead: an interplay of factors seemed to be at work, each variable interacting with others. The screen itself proved not to be the root cause of its own inefficiency; fault lay, instead, in the way text was presented—in short, its design.

In a second paper the IBM team proved that the efficiency difference between page and screen could be erased entirely if the screen were made to more closely resemble the “normal” conditons of print.5 This study presented black, anti-aliased typefaces on a light, high-resolution screen—features that became more or less standard in the 1990s. The IBM research thus established that design conventions evolved for print effectively translate to the realm of the screen.
While such work confirms the commonality of design for page and screen, other research defies some of our most cherished assumptions. Consider the burning typographic questions of line length and the appropriate number of characters per line. The Swiss modernists have long promoted short, neat lines as ideal for reading, from Josef Müller-Brockman (seven words per line) to Ruedi Rüegg (forty to sixty characters). Such rules of thumb have become basic instinct for many designers.

Science, however, tells a different tale. One study determined that long line lengths are more efficient than shorter ones, concluding that columns of text should fill up as much screen real estate as possible.6 (Grotesque images swim to mind of marginless, unstructured pages of HTML, expanding to fill the screen with one fat column.)

Another study compared texts with 80 characters per line to texts with 40 characters per line. The 80-character lines were created—get this!—by collapsing the width of each letter, thus jamming more text into the same space.7 Despite this unforgivable crime against typography, the study found that subjects could read the denser lines more efficiently than lines with fewer—albeit normally proportioned—characters. Ugliness, we learn, does not always compromise function.
Upsetting assumptions is not a bad thing. Although the research cited here may not tell us exactly how to set type, its conclusions could be useful in other ways. For example, it was once progressive to promote the use of “white space” in all things typographic. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the value of density, from page to screen to urban environment. Down with sprawl, down with vast distances from a to b, and up with greater richness, diversity, and compactness among information and ideas, people and places.

What we might expect from the science of type is a seamless web of rules. Such is not forthcoming. In its drive to uncover fixed standards, the research has affirmed, instead, human tolerance for typographic variation and the elasticity of the typographic system. Science can help ruffle our dogmas and create a clearer view of how variables interact to create living, breathing—and, yes, readable—typography.

1. D. G. Paterson and M. A. Tinker, “Studies of Typographical Factors Influencing Speed of Reading: II. Size of Type,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 13, 2 (1929): 120–30.
2. D. G. Paterson and M. A. Tinker, “Studies of Typographical Factors Influencing Speed of Reading: X. Style of Type Face,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 16, 6 (1932): 605–613.
3. Daniel Boyarski, Christine Neuwirth, Jodi Forlizzi, and Susan Harkness Regli, “A Study of Fonts Designed for Screen Display,” CHI 98, 18–23 (April 1998). Not paginated.
4. John D. Gould, Lizette Alfaro, Vincent Barnes, Rich Finn, Nancy Gischkowsky, and Angelo Minuto, “Reading is Slower from CRT Displays than from Paper: Attempts to Isolate a Single-Variable Explanation,” Human Factors, 29, 3 (1987): 269–299.
5. John D. Gould, Lizette Alfaro, Rich Finn, Brian Haupt, and Angelo Minuto, “Reading from CRT Displays Can Be as Fast as Reading from Paper,” Human Factors, 29, 5 (1987): 497–517.
6. Robert L. Duchnicky and Paul A. Kolers, “Readability of Text Scrolled on Visual Display Terminals as a Function of Window Size,” Human Factors, 25, 6 (1983): 683–692.
7. Study by Kolers et al, cited in Carol Bergfeld Mills, and Linda J. Weldon. “Reading Text from Computer Screens,” ACM Computing Surveys, 19, 4 (December 1987): 329–358.

Skin: New Design Organics

“Skin: New Design Organics,” essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Ellen Lupton, Skin: Surface, Substance and Design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. Book published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2002.

Skin a multilayered, multipurpose organ that shifts from thick to thin, tight to loose, lubricated to dry, across the landscape of the body. Skin, a knowledge-gathering device, responds to heat and cold, pleasure and pain. It lacks definitive boundaries, flowing continuously from the exposed surfaces of the body to its internal cavities. It is both living and dead, a self-repairing, self-replacing material whose exterior is senseless and inert while its inner layers are flush with nerves, glands, and capillaries. Contemporary designers approach the surfaces of products and buildings as similarly complex, ambiguous forms. Manufactured skins are richly responsive substances that modulate the meaning, function, and dimension of things.

In the 1940s and 1950s, organic forms and materials provided designers with a humanist vocabulary that affirmed society’s place within the natural world. By the end of the century, a new organicism had emerged, as nature itself was transformed by a host of technologies. In the 1990s, plants and animals with altered DNA were dispersed through the global food market. The successful cloning of a sheep in Scotland in 1997 plunged a science-fiction fantasy into practice. In the summer of 2000, the human genome was mapped—a competitive venture between government and private enterprise—laying bare new terrains for medical science and economic conquest. In the mid-1990s, the new field of tissue engineering emerged, charged with the manufacture of human organs. While complete hearts, lungs, and kidneys cannot yet be generated from living cells, skin is already a viable medical product, grown in laboratories.

During the 1990s, cosmetic surgeries and products were marketed to an expanding and unembarrassed public, as many people came to see surgical alteration as no more objectionable than diet and exercise.1 Consumption of breast implants and liposuction doubled between 1997 and 2000. The demand for nonsurgical dermatological procedures soared during the late 1990s as well. Injections of fat or collagen are used to temporarily fill shallow lines and acne scars. Chemical peels remove the outermost layer of the epidermis, erasing sun damage and other blemishes by exposing a fresh layer of cells. Cosmeceuticals, a rapidly growing over-the-counter product category, deliver low concentrations of acids and other chemicals, and claim to repair skin at the biological level.2 Botox injections allow a small dose of the toxin that causes botulism to paralyze selected facial muscles, easing wrinkles caused by habitual frowning and eyebrow-raising—the number of Botox procedures performed in the United States doubled between 1999 and 2000, having risen sixteenfold since 1997.3

A sense of horror as well as enthusiasm accompanies these developments. Environmentalists warn against an ecosystem unhinged by genetically altered species, while bioethicists condemn human cloning and envision a society dominated by a self-replicating elite.4 At the same time that humanity risks reduction to a genetic code, concerns are arising about the potential humanity of machines, as seen in films such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001). Scientific research is increasingly motivated by profit and loss—life-saving drugs and newly identified DNA sequences are patented and sold for financial gain, while unchecked diseases devastate local and international economies. Cosmetic surgeries are consumed by the privileged few—anxious to prolong the attributes of youth into lives ever-lengthened by medical services—even as the lack of basic health care and sanitation shortens the life spans of millions around the world. Designed objects and spaces inhabit this rapidly transforming arena, where surging fears and ambitions fuel scientific discovery and stimulate the creation and consumption of new technologies. Design reflects and shapes our understanding of the world; it is both symptom and cure. As a practice embedded in the fabric of technology and commerce, design responds critically to the very culture it serves to replicate and extend.

The rise of digital media over the past decade has changed the practice of design, providing tools for making objects and buildings that resemble living creatures—modeled with complex curves and forms—while remaining distinctly artificial. This new organicism has taken shape most aggressively across the surface of things. The primacy of the skeleton has given way to the primacy of skin. Surfaces have acquired depth, becoming dense, complex substances equipped with their own identities and behaviors. New materials react to light, heat, touch, and mechanical stress. Translucency and mutability have replaced transparency and permanence. The outer envelope has detached from the interior volume. Flexible membranes are embedded with digital and mechanical networks. Thin planes of material are folded, warped, or pumped with air to become load-bearing structures. Industrial skins have assumed a life of their own. It is a life whose pedigree, however, is more alien than human.

Skin is both dead and alive. The thin outer layer, the epidermis, consists of strata of cells that migrate toward the surface, where they compact into a layer of dead material. Skin’s protective function relies on the inertness of this outer surface. Mark C. Taylor, whose 1997 book Hiding is a commentary on the culture of skin, writes, “Death, like life, is not a momentary event but is an ongoing process whose traces line the body. At the point where I make contact with the world, I am always already dead.“5

This convergence of life and death also structures our relationship to the object world. Skin, hair, and nails are products of the body, continuously sloughed off and renewed. Hair is part of the skin, its cells generated deep within the living dermis and pushed upward into shafts of protein, emerging across the body’s landscape as a thicket of dead blades. Skin is connected to our bodies yet also alien, marking the exterior, the end of our selves. It is a screen on which we can watch the body’s amazing ability to heal itself while also witnessing its inevitable collapse.

Many of the earliest technologies were created to supplement the inadequacies of this natural envelope. The first shelters and the first garments, made from animal skins, protected humans against hostile climates. Today, military and aerospace technologies are being used to extend the body’s tolerance of extreme temperatures. In Italy, Corpo Nove has created the hyperinsulated Absolute Zero jacket, lined with the cloudlike substance Aerogel, one of the lightest materials on Earth. The Cooling System jacket, also by Corpo Nove, is plumbed with plastic tubes that carry water across the body, as used in space suits. CP Company has produced a series of raincoats that inflate to become chairs, tents, or mattresses, while the Tokyo partnership ixilab has created prototypes for garments that are also stools, floor mats, or storage units. By providing survival gear for the urban nomad or the eco-tourist, these products suggest a culture where danger and disaster coexist with leisure and entertainment, animating the surface of experience.

Such projects recall the Pop movement of the 1960s, with its embrace of portable structures and synthetic materials. Pierre Cardin introduced his vinyl minidress in 1968, using a sculptural, preformed fabric made by American Cyanamid—an artificial skin with its own dimensional markings. In contrast with the implied optimism of Cardin’s Pop couture, the vinyl and PVC fashions of Walter van Beirendonck are apocalyptic party clothes. The shiny surface of a 1998 red synthetic suit bubbles with protrusions, like scales on a futuristic dragon. On the runway, models danced in gas masks, implying the presence of a toxic process.
Like skin, design performs at the intersection of life and death, body and product. Human beings, using objects to survive and conquer, rely on the world of things, merging their own identities with the objects they use. Photographer Elinor Carucci, whose pictures appear throughout this book, has used her camera to reveal intimate relations between skin and everyday industrial products, from lipstick and pantyhose to zippers, bras, and buttons. Industrial designers Carla Murray and Peter Allen propose more grotesque conjoinings of bodies and consumer goods in their project Skinthetic (2001), which predicts the grafting of brand identities into living tissue. Skin is the surface where bodies and products merge.

In modern civilization, dependence on technologies has become absolute. From birth, the human organism is enmeshed in an infrastructure that controls and delivers food, water, light, climate, health care, and entertainment. This modern creature of comfort has become a cyborg, a living thing whose functions are enhanced by technology.6 Monstrous beings come to mind, along with everyday pacemakers, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and even pagers, cell phones, and wristwatches.

Our increasing dependence on the artificial is not without anxiety, a phenomenon most vividly expressed in science fiction. In Star Trek: First Encounter (1996), the leader of the villainous army of Borg consists of a disembodied mechanical nervous system covered with glossy, translucent skin—she is a head and shoulders with no body. She descends into a metal gown whose connective fasteners bite down into her soft, lubricated flesh. The hero of the same film has a nightmare recalling his seduction by the Borg; in his dream, a spiderlike mechanical probe pushes out through the elastic skin of his cheek, searching bluntly from behind the soft layers before cutting through with its sharp prongs.

The fear of invasion from within the body drives many depictions of beings from outer space. In the Alien films, the enemy is most frightening when it occupies a human host, incubating inside the body before erupting through the abdomen or chest. A dream sequence in Aliens (1986) shows Sigourney Weaver—prone on a hospital bed—watching with horror as a mechanical-looking object probes upward through her belly, threatening a hideous birth. The clinical setting heightens the shock of the scene, with its threat of physical helplessness and humiliation.

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) conjoins the body and machinery in reverse: here, inanimate objects pulse with life. First a videocassette, then a television and VCR, swell, buckle, and moan, their plastic surfaces heaving with morbid sexuality. The screen of the TV bulges outward, filled with a video image of Deborah Harry’s half-open, lipsticked mouth, which threatens to engulf the shocked but willing hero, played by James Woods. Later, a hand and gun press through the elastic surface of the screen, turning into a slippery, engorged hybrid of flesh and machine.

Like cinema, design offers imaginative responses to the convergence of life and technology, sometimes celebrating the relationship and other times recoiling from it. Contemporary objects and spaces are cloaked in surfaces that have been enhanced, simulated, or engineered, surfaces that masquerade as other materials, surfaces where the physical and the virtual, the real and the imagined, collide. Hard surfaces look soft, and soft surfaces look hard. Wood is sealed inside of resin; smooth planes are rippled, bubbled, or scarred with digital imagery; luminescent fabrics, gels, and plywoods glow with preternatural life.
Jurgen Bey’s Kokon series, initiated in 1997, encloses traditional wooden furnishings inside a tight wrapping of PVC. The familiar, humanly scaled limbs of the found objects press through a grossly artificial skin. In Kokon Double Chair, two chairs are bound, back to back, like lovers held hostage in a dysfuntional embrace. Moorhead & Moorhead’s Rubber Lamp No. 5 has a flexible shade of translucent rubber that peels open to direct the flow of light, evoking the alien pods from the films Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978).

Organic design vocabularies—from the ecstasies of baroque ornament to mid-twentieth-century biomorphism—have always gestured toward the erotic, suggesting the curves and movements of the human body. In contemporary design, eroticism is present yet kept at a distance, handled with rubber gloves. The fulfillment of desire and the satisfaction of touch are blunted by protective layers of material. Clothed in latex, vinyl, rubber, or resin, sensual forms are rendered clinical. When love and fear are necessary bedfellows, the plush, dimly lit boudoir gives way to the bright, wipeable surfaces of the laboratory and lavatory.

TechnoGel, developed for the health-care industry in the 1970s, typically is used in wheelchairs or hospital beds, supporting the body with minimal friction. Designers have adopted this soft polyurethane material for its cool yet fleshy texture—it is said to have the consistency of human fat.7 The Tino stool (1999), designed by Alessandro Scarpellini Piva, is padded with TechnoGel; the armrests rise up like bathroom grips or the side rails of a walker. Werner Aisslinger’s Soft chaise is an indoor/outdoor lounge chair. A web of nylon straps is padded with a seamless slab of TechnoGel, protecting its user’s skin from unsightly impressions while providing an ideal resting place for invalids and sunbathers.

Latex is another material whose clinical functionality cloaks the eroticism of contemporary design. Matthieu Manche has created latex garments that propose links among multiple wearers and the proliferation of body parts. He uses the material of self-protection to suggest the merging and elaboration, rather than the separation and containment, of bodies. Tonita Abeyta’s Sensate is a line of latex undergarments—some equipped with built-in male and female condoms—that aim to transform the tools of sexual hygiene into alluring fashion objects. In furniture designed by Elizabeth Paige Smith, the outer layer becomes a viscous medium. Her Cube table (1998) is a built-up block of balsa wood interred in a deep coat of resin. While conventional finishes heighten the visual texture of wood, Smith’s milky skin provides a palpable layer of protection. Timothy McLoughlin’s 2001 Ottoman (Customized for K. Fischer) is a pristine white volume that has been physically violated. Upholstered in fragile white fabric, the surface of the stool appears gouged with a path of footprints. McLoughlin has inserted rubber castings of footprints into the stool’s foam padding, suturing them into place with the care of a surgeon and covering the scars with flocking. McLoughlin’s Ottoman uses modernism’s white cube—archetype of the silent, static object—as the stage for a temporal narrative.

Smith’s thick coat of resin brings an element of time to her Cube table as well, slowing down our view of the natural surface. Terrence Riley describes how materials serve to delay and materialize the passage of light in his 1995 book Light Construction. Contemporary architects have exchanged the transparent skins of early modernism for physically present, semi-opaque surfaces. Buildings are clothed in multiple skins that trap and reflect light, from translucent marble to double layers of glass.8

Temporal change animates the skin of Gluckman Mayner’s Helmut Lang Tokyo showroom (2001), which pulses with shifting light effects. Composed of translucent glass and LCD panels, the store’s gridded facade is 60 centimeters deep, functioning as a vast showcase and a field of dynamic light patterns, transforming from opaque to transparent to translucent over the course of a day. The glass facade can either reveal or conceal the contents of the building; it functions like a multilayered, three-dimensional cinema screen, whose narrative is populated by the merchandise, the customer, the concrete shell within, or the skin of the glowing white box itself.

Greg Lynn confronts temporality by stretching the skin of architecture into the dimension of time. According to his concept “animate form,” digital design tools plunge three-dimensional structures into a space that ripples with currents of force. Lynn writes that in place of a neutral abstract space, “the context of design becomes an active abstract space that directs form within a current of forces that can be stored as information in the shape of the form.” The undulating skins of Lynn’s “blobs” record the object’s passage through fields of pressure.9

The idea that the shape of an object can refer to its own motion through a fluid medium is linked to the origins of the industrial design profession. In the 1920s and 1930s, Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, and other pioneering industrial designers drew upon engineering principles that had been employed in naval and aeronautical design since the nineteenth century, when the curved shells of ships and zeppelins were designed to minimize drag as vessels push through air or water. In the 1930s designers employed aerodynamic forms to impress the image of speed and modernity on the bodies of cars, trains, and planes as well as on such stationary objects as toasters, staplers, and pencil sharpeners. The teardrop became an icon of 1930s modernism.10

The early industrial designers created skins for mechanical devices that enclosed their working innards inside smooth, streamlined shells. These gleaming surfaces became the interface between body and product, protecting the mechanisms from water, dirt, and interference from the user. Documenting his work in the manner of a cosmetic surgeon, Raymond Loewy promoted his achievement through Before and After photographs.11

While Loewy’s skins aimed to conceal, product skins today are often transparent or translucent. The iMac (1997) revealed the electronic components of the computer through a candy-colored shell, providing visibility while maintaining the fundamental structure of the protective casing. Other industrial surfaces have become softer, more giving to the touch, enhancing the object’s creaturelike presence. Mario Bellini designed an adding machine for Olivetti in 1972, covering the keyboard in flesh-toned rubber. In 2001 the design firm IDEO published prototypes using ElekTex, a conductive fabric whose entire surface can sense the location and pressure of human touch: “It allows a product to have a skin that is flexible, that is itself a functioning, intelligent organ.“12

Skins also mediate between users and products in the digital realm. The customized buttons and controls used in computer interfaces are known as skins. Thousands of skins can be downloaded from the Web, allowing users to create and exchange interfaces that are colored, coded, themed, and branded to suit individual whims. Avatars, the graphical personalities used to represent players in computer games, are also known as skins—they are the digital surfaces of invented personae. In 2001, the first feature film cast entirely with digital, photoreal human characters—Final Fantasy—was released. Such characters are created by imposing digital surfaces over wireframe structures.

In an editorial in the New York Times (11 April 2001), Maureen Dowd commented on the use of bovine collagen as a “line filler” in dermatological procedures as well as an ingredient in numerous cosmetic potions and creams. As communicative diseases devastated livestock across Europe at the turn of the twenty-first century, cattle-based products could have fallen into disfavor. Yet the alien had already been invited in, and it is hard to banish such a charming guest. Dowd quotes dermatologist Patricia Wexler: “I’ve never had a patient ask about a kosher cow. I’ve never had a vegetarian model object to bovine collagen. I’ve never had an animal rights activist object to cows getting killed for collagen. When it comes to cosmetic matters, women have a ŒDon’t ask, don’t tell me, please!’ policy.”

The substance of the body is under renovation. The arsenal of drugs, vaccines, and mechanical replacement parts developed during the twentieth century is now joined by the engineering of flesh itself. While living skin has become a commercially manufactured product, objects and buildings have come to resemble natural organisms. The barriers between body and product, self and other, nature and technology, are folding inward. The dense, luminous surfaces of contemporary objects—pulsing with hidden intelligence or taut with potential life—can be beautiful and disturbing, divine and grotestque. These industrial skins may be incubating something alien. They could be shielding us from invisible dangers or harboring the nascent growth of a predatory being. Everywhere, prophylactic skins slip into the space between people and things, forming seductive planes of contact as well as protective barriers, screens where image replaces tactility or where touch triggers a visual response—points of no entry or no return.

Does That Look Green to You?

Essay, 2009.

Last week, I had to buy some laundry detergent. I confess that I didn’t apply any rigorous thought to this routine task. I just stood in front of the shelf and grabbed what spoke to me: Ultra Tide Pure Essentials with Baking Soda. Why that one and not something else? Because it looked green to me.

Ultra Tide Pure Essentials comes in a cream-colored plastic jug. It’s made from the same material as the bright orange bottles used for Tide’s other products (No. 2 HDPE plastic), but the soft ivory color makes it look…greener. And the lid actually is green—a pale, soothing tint of sage. Tide’s familiar logo (jaunty blue letters leaping out from a toxic tornado) is positioned rather small on the front of the bottle, but the rest of the design speaks of a kinder, gentler world. The product contains baking soda—a household chemical that you can actually eat. The detergent is also “pure,” “essential,” and smells like “white lilac.” (White lilac is surely cleaner, more invisible and ethereal, than purple lilac, no?)

The one thing that actually makes this product greener than what my mother used to buy is its concentrated form. A more potent product is cheaper to ship, package, and store than a diluted one—yet many people dump more detergent than they need into their laundry, canceling out the environmental benefit. Liquid detergents are less green than powders because they are heavier to ship.

The Tide Pure Essentials bottle is a classic example of green washing. Graphic designers and branding experts choose colors, language, imagery, and materials that speak to the emotions of a certain class of consumers. “Green” is a cultural vocabulary that talks about nature and purity and ecology but may have nothing to do with how products actually affect the world.

Here’s another piece of packaging: a returnable glass milk bottle. Once a week, Cold Mountain Creamery delivers fresh dairy products to my house. The milkman picks up the empty bottles and takes them back to be washed and reused. Screenprinted on the front of the bottle is the date “2003”—the bottle has been circulating for six years. The package is owned by the dairy and merely leased by the customer (I pay a $2 deposit for the privilege of using it). What I am purchasing each week is access to a well-designed system. The milk I buy is a service, not a product.

This milk bottle suggests a more exciting approach to green packaging than the detergent jug—and yet it represents an old business model that was made obsolete by strip malls and parking lots in the 1960s, when the modern housewife learned to pick up her own milk in her own car, embracing a more private and isolated lifestyle. Today, new ecological priorities along with the online networks are making systems like this one convenient and attractive once again. Designers are starting to work with industries to imagine and implement new systems for getting things done.

A Barbie doll box—with its shiny plastic window and its twisted wire attachments—only serves to sell the product in the store. It’s 100% marketing, with no value added for the user. Some packaging, however, is actually useful to consumers. If milk didn’t come in a carton, how could I pour it on my cereal or store it in my fridge? Packaging has other useful functions as well. It also helps make manufacturers accountable for their goods and encourages consistency, promoting relationships between consumers and brands. It protects goods in transit and keeps them clean in the store and in your house. Packaging can explain how products work or how to use them, and it can disclose important data such as ingredients, warnings, and sell-by dates. And then there’s the beauty factor—elegant, intelligent packaging can stimulate desire for beneficial products. Greener design strategies seek to maintain benefits like these while reducing—or eliminating—waste.

Here are some basic green design principles and how they work:

Recycle. This is the old-school approach to green design. People think that by putting their stuff out on the curb for recycling, they are solving the problem. But recycling consumes a lot of energy, and typically, recycled goods can’t be turned back into the same products they started as. Soda bottles get turned into plastic lumber, an ugly material with limited uses. William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle and one of the world’s leading sustainability advocates, prefers the term “downcycling” to “recycling,” because the process yields lower-quality substances and does nothing to upset the need for more virgin materials at the front end of the process.

Repurpose. The D.I.Y. approach is to make adorable objects out of old containers. Although this can become an engaging hobby, it’s not a solution to our bigger problems. If I were to use a year’s worth of plastic milk jugs to make bracelets, flower pots, and lamp shades, I would fill my house with over 200 dubious crafts projects. And that’s not even getting started with the beer bottles and soda cans.

Reduce materials. Laundry detergent would be hard to carry home without a package. But what if detergent took a different form, such as a pill or a sheet that doesn’t need a container? Or what if it were packaged for single use, and the container dissolved in the washing machine? Or how about an appliance that gets filled just once a year with detergent? In the UK, the cleaning products manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser N.V. has filed a patent for a cartridge-based system that would automatically dispense detergent as needed. Ideally, when the cartridge is empty, it could be returned to the manufacturer for refilling, just as we now do with ink cartridges.

Rent, don’t own. As John Thackara points out in his influential book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, many businesses lease cars, trucks, photocopiers, and office spaces. Likewise, consumers are accustomed to renting a hotel room or a seat on an airplane—we don’t need to own these things in order to enjoy their benefits. Couldn’t packaging be rented as well? What if everything from breakfast cereal to dish detergent came in a beautiful, high-value package designed to be refilled rather than thrown away? What if all household products were delivered to people’s homes instead of getting picked up at the store? This would mean less driving, smaller parking lots, and warehouses designed for optimum efficiency rather than for putting goods on display. Think of the open refrigerators in a typical American grocery store. An enormous amount of energy is wasted just to make it easy for shoppers to grab a carton of yogurt or a brick of cheese from an open dairy case.

Create new behaviors. In Europe, shoppers have always brought their own bags to the store (and bagged their own groceries). In the U.S., we expect free bags, at the cost of trillions of discarded bags each year. Passing a law is one way to change behavior. In 2007 San Francisco banned standard plastic bags at large supermarkets and drug stores (paper ones are still permitted). People tend to resist change if they don’t see an obvious benefit to themselves. Walmart and Costco have introduced a cubic milk jug that supports its own weight when stacked, eliminating the need for plastic shipping crates. Getting rid of the crates saves room on the trucks; ditching the crates also means not having to clean and sterilize them, saving more money and energy. The problem is, pouring milk from the new jugs is a little different (you have to tilt the jug rather than lifting it to pour), so the change has met with consumer resistance. Consumers are willing to buy the new milk, however, because it is cheaper than the old style—saving people money can inspire them to accept new behaviors.

Next time I buy laundry detergent, I’ll try to give it more thought. Which product packs the most cleaning power into the smallest package? Which product has the lowest weight per wash? Which product works best in cold water? Someday, I hope the soap won’t come in a package at all—that’s the goal that “green” designers are working toward.

Bathrooms and Kitchens

“The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste,” introduction by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller to the book The Kitchen, the Bathroom, and the Aesthetics of Waste: A Process of Elimination (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992).

Between 1890 and 1940, America’s culture of consumption took its modern form: products were mass produced and mass distributed, designed to be purchased and rapidly replaced by a vast buying public. The same period saw the rise of the modern bathroom and kitchen as newly equipped spaces for administering bodily care.

The bathroom became a laboratory for the management of biological waste, from urine and feces to hair, perspiration, dead skin, bad breath, finger nails, and other bodily excretions. The kitchen became a site not only for preparing food but for directing household consumption at large; the kitchen door is the chief entryway for purchased goods, and the main exit point for vegetable parings, empty packages, leftover meals, outmoded appliances, and other discarded products. By the phrase process of elimination we refer to the overlapping patterns of biological digestion, economic consumption, and aesthetic simplification. The streamlined style of modern design, which served the new ideals of bodily hygiene and the manufacturing policy of planned obsolescence, emanated from the domestic landscape of the bathroom and kitchen. The organically modeled yet machine-made forms of streamlined objects collapsed the natural and the artificial, the biological and the industrial, into an aesthetics of waste.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, various consumer goods, from packaging, appliances, and furniture to interior architecture, began to acquire a vigorous new physique: the plush fabrics, carved moldings, and intricate decorations of Victorian domestic objects were rejected as dangerous breeding grounds for germs and dust, giving way to non porous materials, flush surfaces, and rounded edges. This “process of elimination” found its most extreme expression in the streamlined styling of the 1930s, which borrowed the conical “teardrop” from aerodynamics and applied it to countless immobile objects, from industrial equipment to electric waffle irons. Streamlining used bulbous forms with tapered ends and graphic “speed whiskers” to invoke the rapid movement of an object through air or water. The mechanical devices of the industrial age, their elements assembled with visible nuts, bolts, belts, and gears, surrendered to the new ideal of the objects as a continuous, organic body, its moving parts hidden behind a seamless shell, appearing to be molded out of a single piece of material.

We suggest that the fluid modeling of streamlined forms reflects the period’s twin obsessions with bodily consumption and economic consumption. Streamlining was born of modern America’s intensive focus on waste: on the one hand, its fascination with new products and regimes for managing the intimate processes of biological consumption, from food preparation to the disposal of human waste, and on the other hand, its euphoric celebration of planned obsolescence and an economy dependent on a cycle of continually discarded and replenished merchandise. Streamlining performed a surreal conflation of the organic and the mechanical: its seamless skins are fluidly curved yet rigidly impervious to dirt and moisture. The molded forms of streamlining yielded an excretory aesthetic, a material celebration of natural and cultural digestive cycles.

The flamboyant product designs of the 1930s were preceded by the more anonymous modernism of the bathroom and kitchen, which earlier had begun to replace heterogeneous collections of domestic equipment with continuous, coordinated ensembles, designed to administer a new technological regime of bodily care.

The bathroom as an architectural space did not exist prior to the late nineteenth century. In the pre-plumbing era, America’s reluctant bathing customs revolved around portable containers-tubs, pails, chamber pots, and washstands-which were used in the kitchen or bedroom. As modern plumbing coordinated the delivery and removal of water and waste from the home, the toilet and tub assumed a necessarily fixed position in the home: they became fixtures. While early plumbed bathrooms maintained the decorative features of traditional domestic spaces-draperies, carpets, carved details-the “modern” bathroom emerged at the turn of the century as an overtly industrial ensemble of porcelain-enameled equipment, with white, washable surfaces that reflected contemporary theories of hygiene.

The modernization of the kitchen followed that of the bathroom, whose aesthetic of obsessive cleanliness resonates in the non-porous materials used for kitchen floors, walls, and work surfaces in the 1910s and 20s, and in the gradual shift from free-standing appliances and storage units to boxy, built-in forms. Like the bathroom, the modern kitchen came to favor fixtures over furniture: the slender legs supporting individual units were absorbed into monolithic, built-in slabs that linked mechanical devices to work and storage cabinets. The modern kitchen emulated the unforgiving sparkle of the bathroom; it also reflected the production ideal of the modern factory, whose linear sequence of work stations enabled an unbroken flow of activity. This norm, which we call the continuous kitchen, was established by the end of the 1930s and remains powerful today.

The changes in kitchen design were preceded by the rise of food packaging, a phenomenon that accelerated in the 1880s and soon dominated urban and suburban grocery sales across the US. The food package enclosed the product in a smooth, continuous skin, giving the organic, shapeless substance inside a clear geometric shape. The package resists dirt, air, and moisture, sealing off the product within, just as the shells of modern kitchen cabinetry and appliances would later enclose the tools and materials of the kitchen behind a seamless surface.

Packaging was a major force in the shift from locally-based agriculture to corporate food production around the turn of the century. By 1910, many brands names which remain “household words” today were the trademarks of nationally distributed products, including Quaker Oats, Kellogg’s toasted Cornflakes, Heinz Ketchup, and Campbell’s Soup. Such manufactured personalities ease the transition between the traditional food store and the modern retail outlet, where packaging replaced the shopkeeper as the interface between consumer and products with a graphic identity and a corporate address held accountable for defective goods.

Packaging provided a model for the early industrial design profession, whose pioneers extended the principles of advertising and packaging to the product itself. The redesign of an object in the 1920s and 30s commonly involved its external package rather than its working parts. To ”streamline” a product often mean to enclose it within a hard new shell.

Streamlining metaphorically invoked a body gliding through fluid; it also served to accelerate a product through the cycle of purchase and disposal, stimulating sales and hastening the replacement of objects not yet worn out. The built-in disposability of food packaging became a paradigm for consumer goods more generally in the 1920s and 30s, extending a logic of digestion to durable objects. The policy of “planned obsolescence” pictured the economy itself as a “body,” whose health depends on a continual cycle of production and waste, ingestion and excretion.

Advertising became a crucial lubricant for keeping this cycle regular, emerging as a powerful partner of mass distribution in the early twentieth century. Although it raised the cost of conducting business, advertising was defended as a laxative for hastening the flow of goods through the economy. Advertising created desire for new products and generated emotional differences between otherwise indistinguishable ones. It helped spread the emerging standards of hygiene, housekeeping, and nutrition by promoting new products that promised access to the rigorous ideals of modern bodily care.

A “consumer economy” sells manufactured goods to a large populace through high volume production, making individual items cheaper by selling a greater number. American designers and advertisers in the 1920s and 30s used the term “consumption” in reference to “durables” such as radios, furniture, and clothing; the term’s more literal reference, however, is to the food cycle: to consume is to devour, to eat in a voracious, gluttonous manner, as fire “consumes” a forest. The advertising executive Ernest Elmo Calkins wrote in 1932 that an urgent task of marketing is to make people “use up” products that they formerly “used”: cars and safety razors must be consumed like tooth paste or soda bisquits. Calkins thus compared the continual movement of goods through the economy with human digestion. To consume is to ingest and expel, to take in and lay waste. It is a process of elimination.

Giving voice to the ethos of disposal, the domestic theorist Christine Frederick employed the oxymoronic term “creative waste” at the end of the 1920s to describe the housewife’s moral obligation to rhythmically buy and discard products. Her phrase “creative waste” elevated the garbage of consumer culture into a form of positive production, valuing the destruction and replacement of objects as a pleasurable and socially instrumental act. Frederick and other promoters of consumerism conceived of “waste” not merely as an incidental by-product, a final residue, of the consumption cycle, but as a generative, necessary force. In the consumer economy, “production” finds a place inside the process of consumption, a cycle that reiterates the body’s own form of “creative waste,” excrement.

Reflecting and reinforcing the consumer culture’s positive valuation of waste was the shift of cooking, bathing, and defecating from positions of invisibility to dominance in the home. Formerly relegated to the cellar, exiled to the outhouse, or merged with the bedroom, these functions came to command the most expensive and technologically advanced features of the modern dwelling, their disciplined aesthetic radiating outward as a standard for the rest of the home and its inhabitants. The new governance of the house by the marginalized functions of the bathroom and kitchen reflected a shifting relationship between architecture and what Reyner Banham has called “another culture,” comprised of plumbers and consulting engineers-a culture “so alien that most architects held it beneath contempt.” Banham describes a historical rupture in the discourse of design in the eighteenth century that divorced the “art” of architecture from the making and operating of buildings. We add to Banham’s second culture the consumers-often female-who increasingly came to influence the shape of domestic space; the modern technologies of consumption directly address women’s roles in domestic life, a fact that both empowers and manipulates them.

In his essay on “Infantile Sexuality,” Freud suggests that during a child’s development, the sexual zones move from mouth to anus to genitals: the body is an open, relational field to be mapped and remapped into regions of desire. Although the genitals commonly are viewed as the “natural,” healthy focus of sexual life, the mouth and the anus are the initial sites of erotic pleasure. Desire, Freud argued, leans on the alimentary functions; desire always works in conjunction with-and in excess of-need, which lends it energy and justification. Desire latches on to the biologically vital functions of digestion; at the same time, physical needs are transformed by their collaboration with desire, and can never again be reduced to simple utility.

We suggest that twentieth-century design gradually articulated the bathroom and kitchen as the erotogenic zones of the domestic body. While the parlor or living room is the home’s symbolic heart-its ”proper” architectural focus-this center was displayed by the utilitarian regions of the bathroom and kitchen, which became concentrated zones for built-in construction details, costly appliances, and on-going maternal maintenance.

The new standards for personal and domestic hygiene, born out of scientifically-based health reforms, rapidly exceeded the demands of utility; the functional “need” for clean bodies and clean houses has fed the culture of consumption, by mapping out the human and architectural body as a marketplace for an endlessly regenerating inventory of products. Just as sexual pleasure is propped on the utilitarian processes of digestion, the restless desire for new goods builds upon the fetishized routines surrounding biological consumption.

In her reading of Marx’s Capital, Elaine Scarry describes the relation of manufactured goods to the human body as a relation of reciprocity: every artifact recreates and extends the body. In a zero-degree state of production, human beings consume only enough fuel to regenerate their physical tissues. The body takes in food in order to build and maintain its own structure; the organism itself is the product, yielded through the process of consumption. Production at a more advanced sate involves consuming a broader range of materials in order to further extend the body: chairs supplement the skeleton, tools append the hands, clothing augments the skin. Furniture and houses are neither more nor less interior to the human body than the food it absorbs, nor are they fundamentally different from such sophisticated prosthetics as artificial lungs, eyes, and kidneys. The consumption of manufactured things turns the body inside out, opening it up to and as the culture of objects.

For the product world of the early twentieth century, human digestion served as a metaphor for the economy as well as a territory to be colonized and rewritten by a wealth of new commodities. The consumerist body ingests and expels not only food-the prototypical object of consumption-but the full range of images and objects that pass through the cycle of manufacture, purchase, and disposal. In the process of elimination, the body itself is remade.

1. On the rise of corporate food industries, see Alfred d. Chandler, The Visible Hand: the Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977). On the American diet, see Harvey A. Levenstein, Revolution at the Table (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.)
2. On the industrial design profession, see Arthur Pulos, American Design Ethic (Cambridge: MIT Press 1983).
3. The ideology of consumerism is summarized and cerebrated in Daniel J. Boorstin, “Welcome to the Consumption Community,” Fortune 76 (1967): 118-38. On social critiques of consumerism, see Daniel Horowitz, The Morality of Spending: Attitudes toward the Consumer Society in America, 1975-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). For essays on the development of American consumerism, see T. Jackson Lears, ed., The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1983).
4. Consumer Engineering, A New Technique for Prosperity, Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens, (New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1932),32.
5. Christine Frederick, Selling Mrs. Consumer (New York: The Business Bourse, 1929), 81.
6. Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969, 1984), 9.
7. Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 39-72.
8. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Critic, Article (x)

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The Producers

“The Producers,” essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Ellen Lupton, Susan Yelavich, Donald Albrecht, and Mitch Owen, Inside Design Now: National Design Triennial, 2003. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. T-shirt by Geoff McFetridge.

“I’m rocking on your dime,” says the panda bear. The bear is sitting at a bar, a beer and a cigarette in front of him. His flat silhouette appears on a t-shirt by Geoff McFetridge, a young designer based in Los Angeles. McFetridge and his slouchy, working-class panda convey the attitude of an increasingly influential set of designers who want to shape the content and conditions of the work they do. “I’m rocking on your dime,” says the designer who sees the client as a source of capital for creating inventive work equipped with a cultural life.

Graphic design is, among the design professions, the area most at blame for visual waste and overload in modern society. Graphic design often serves as a lubricant for other disciplines (product design, architecture, fashion) and as the gloss and glitter of the media industries (publishing, film, television, the Internet). Typically, graphic designers provide the spit and polish but not the shoe.

Not so for some of the most interesting designers working today. They are writing books as well as designing them. They are creating products, furniture, garments, textiles, typefaces, databases, magazines, novels, music, critical essays, films, and videos. They have become producers, working to initiate ideas and make them happen.

The phrase “designer as author” appeared in the 1990s to describe new aspirations for the practice of graphic design. The word author suggests agency and creation, as opposed to the more passive functions of consulting, styling, and formatting. As an author, the designer could create books, exhibitions, posters, or publications whose outcome was not dictated by a client. Furthermore, a designer could develop a “signature style,” a uniquely recognizable visual penmanship.

In his 1996 essay “The Designer as Author,” Michael Rock described the contradictions as well as the freedoms suggested by authorship.1 The concept of the lone creator had long been attacked within literary studies. In 1968 the French theorist Roland Barthes had proclaimed the “death of the author,” the end of the writer as a singular, self-contained voice. Barthes described the circulation of signs, styles, and genres within the vast social system that constitutes literature. Meaning is made by readers as well as writers.2

In the early 1990s, Michael Rock became prominent within the graphic design field as a critic and educator. He founded the firm 2×4 with Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout in 1993, where he and his colleagues were able to fold ideas developed as writers, teachers, and students into an influential design practice. Many of the studio’s projects are based in research; the outcomes promote flexible use by clients and audiences. In place of forging a “signature style,” 2×4 works to uncover visual forms from popular culture or from a client’s own history. In Rock’s words, “Ultimately the author equals authority….We may have to imagine a time when we can ask, ‘What difference does it make who designed it?’…The primary concern of both the viewer and critic is not who made it, but rather what it does and how it does it.“3

While the author may be a solitary originator of content, the producer is part of a system of making. In the context of contemporary media, a producer is, typically, someone who puts together a team, builds a budget, and secures access to distribution networks. In music and television, a producer is in charge of the technical aspects of a project. A producer—whether functioning in an executive capacity or a technical one—belongs to a network of creative and economic collaborators.

The German critic Walter Benjamin attacked the traditional definition of authorship in his essay “The Author as Producer” (1934). He exclaimed that new forms of communication—film, radio, advertising, newspapers, the illustrated press—were melting down traditional artistic genres and corroding the borders between writing and reading. Benjamin wrote: “What we require of the photographer is the ability to give his picture the caption that wrenches it from modish commerce and gives it a revolutionary useful value. But we shall make this demand most emphatically when we—the writers—take up photography. Here, too, therefore, technical progress is for the author as producer the foundation of political progress.“4 Benjamin claimed that to bridge the divide between author and publisher, reader and writer, poet and popularizer, is a revolutionary act that challenges the social institutions of literature and art.

Benjamin celebrated the proletarian ring of production—as opposed to the bourgeois solititude implied by authorship. Within graphic design practice, production refers to the preparation of artwork for manufacture. Production is design’s blue-collar, hourly-wage base. It is the traditional domain of the paste-up artist, the film stripper, the hand-letterer, and the typesetter.

Graphic design emerged as a distinct discipline during the mid-twentieth century. In the old-fashioned model of the commercial arts, a printing company determined the look of a poster or advertisement and then physically produced it. The printing firm often set the type, laid it out on the page, and provided illustrations. As these services split apart, the designer became the provider of ideas and director of production.

The “desktop” revolution that began in the mid-1980s merged many production activities back into the process of design. Today, a designer sitting at a computer workstation can set copy, correct text, and retouch photographs, as well as create and manipulate sound, video, animations, and interfaces. The result is both a proletarianization of design and new access to creating and manipulating content. Such changes have enabled a small company such as HunterGatherer to produce print graphics, films, and Websites as well as designs for textiles, t-shirts, and furniture.

Independent entrepreneurs are now leaders of the typeface industry, once dominated by large manufacturers who could finance the creative development, tooling, manufacture, and distribution of fonts. House Industries aims to infuse digital typography with the qualities of hand-lettering and sign painting. The Hoefler Typefoundry creates fonts commissioned by clients or offered directly to designers via mail-order and the Internet. Paul Elliman creates typefaces that are exploratory and experimental rather than commercial.

Like these font producers, Charles S. Anderson creates raw material for use by other designers. CSA Archives is a collection of digital illustrations and photographs. Anderson conceives his enterprise as a direct challenge to the huge stock houses that dominate the business and sell clichéd, leftover images at prices that undercut independent photographers and illustrators. Many of his images poke fun at the depictions of wholesome “professionals” that fill standard stock catalogs.

Dave Eggers has built a unique practice out of the convergence of design, production, and authorship. A self-described “hack designer and Macintosh temp,” Eggers founded the journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, in 1998, at age 28. He used his basic production skills to publish the journal himself. McSweeney’s quickly drew attention from the literary world, in part because of its brazenly bookish design. Resisting the corporate control of bookstores, Eggers makes McSweeney’s publications available only online or through independent booksellers, not through large chains.

Although his early work included menial forms of production, Eggers is now an editor, publisher, and author—a producer in the executive sense. In 2000 Simon & Schuster published the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about how Eggers, at age 22, lost his parents and became the guardian of his eight-year-old brother, Toph. Designed by Eggers, the book became a bestseller.5 As Eggers proves, the author isn’t dead, he has just learned how to set type. The book isn’t dead, either, despite frequent warnings of its imminent demise. The 1,376-page tome S, M, L, XL, coauthored by architect Rem Koolhaas and graphic designer Bruce Mau in 1996, spurred the publication of other big books, including Mau’s own Life Style (626 pages) and John Maeda’s Maeda@Media (480 pages). An editor of design and architecture books was quoted in the New York Times about how contemporary architects are rushing to publish their own big volumes. “We get lots of fat-book proposals,” he said. Technology allows architects—for better or worse—to control the design, editing, and writing of their own books. “And they understand the book as a physical object, one that should take up a great deal of space.“6

Perhaps the biggest book of 2002 is A New Kind of Science, by Stephen Wolfram. The book, more than 1,200 pages long, provides a new theory of nature that aims to rewrite nearly every field of scientific study.7 Wolfram executed his research on a computer in his home office, using a software program (Mathematica) of his own design. Wolfram chose to present his research in a single printed volume, edited and designed by his own private company, Wolfram Media. He thus rejected the academic protocol of submitting articles to peer-reviewed journals in favor of what might be called “vanity publishing” were it not for the importance of what he has created.

Wolfram insists that no conventional publisher could have adequately produced his huge book, which is filled with detailed computer-generated illustrations. Furthermore, the magnitude of his ideas demands presentation in a single bound volume—a book holding the key to life itself. Dribbling out his research in a series of separate articles would have lacked the impact of one sweeping text, the culmination of ten years of work. This scientist has become author and entrepreneur, an academic outsider who has made his research into products for his own use and distribution.

Although Wolfram’s New Kind of Science is the work of a single author, it nonetheless represents the labors of many people—graphic designers, font designers, layout assistants, proofreaders, program testers, and a manufacturing manager—but, curiously enough, no editor.8 Traditionally, an editor mediates between intellectual authorship and material production. Indeed, many publishing houses refuse to let authors meddle with the physical realization of their works. In the book designs of J. Abbott Miller, Lorraine Wild, and Bruce Mau, the graphic designer becomes an editor, actively shaping the organization, content, and even the basic conception of a book.

Graphic designers also have become editors of magazines. Miller edits and art directs the journal 2wice; Joseph Holtzman is editor, art director, and publisher of the quarterly nest. Holtzman, who sees himself first as an interior designer, brings the skewed perspective of an outsider to the medium of print. Working with an almost amateur sense of typography and layout, he brings the decorative intensity of a room to his strange and elaborate pages.

The Internet has allowed people of all manner of obsession and prior training to try on the roles of editor and publisher. Although the pornography business survived the collapse of the dot-com bubble better than literary magazines did, the Web remains a place where serious content can be developed and distributed. At Picture Projects, Alison Cornyn and Sue Johnson produce Websites that document issues such as abuse and overpopulation in the U.S. penal system, using clean, elegant interfaces to weave together visual and verbal content. Futurefarmers, founded by Amy Franceschini, reflects on issues of ecology and community by building interactive landscapes inhabited by candy-colored animated characters—Hello Kitty meets the rain forest.

Mike Mills is a graphic designer who has become a filmmaker. Mills directs television commercials for corporations such as Nike, Volkswagen, and The Gap as well as independent films and music videos. As pointed out in the pop culture journal Surface, Geoff McFetridge’s slogan “I’m rocking on your dime” describes Mills’s attitude toward the film business. He sees real opportunities for creativity in mass-media work, and, furthermore, such projects help him pursue his own independent films.9

Whereas the term author, like designer, suggests the cerebral workings of the mind, producer privileges the activity of the body. Production values things over ideas, making over imagining, practice over theory. Graphic designers today have opportunities to bring these spheres together, to actively mediate between form and content. By understanding the tools of physical production, they are achieving greater intellectual and economic control of their work.

Underground Matriarchy

“Underground Matriarchy in Graphic Design,” essay by Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton, published in Eye magazine, 1994.

This article is a dialogue between two young women [Laurie Haycock Makela and Ellen Lupton] talking about the “underground matriarchy” in graphic design. The essay was written across fax lines between New York and Minneapolis in two distinct authorial voices. We each have chosen to focus on particular women, drawing on our own views of the landscape of contemporary design. Although some of these mothers could be our sisters, each has had a profound impact on the recent history of graphic design, not only through products which bear her own signature but through the creativity of people working in her midst. The cluster of designers we have gathered here is not a closed canon but an open set.

LHM: During a pivotal period in the mid-1980s, the insistence of something called subjectivity wedged open the tight rightness of “good” design. The radical efforts of renegade modernists such as April Greiman, Sheila de Bretteville, Lorraine Wild, and Katherine McCoy, however different from one another, created, for a moment, a powerful underground matriarchy that upended formal constraints and validated personal content and gesture. Ten years ago, “good” design still meant objectivity, obedience, cleanliness, and correctness. Into that impossible modernist environment, these women placed the concept of subjectivity. Messy, permissive, full of idiosyncratic logic, and essentially feminist in nature, subjectivity is at the heart of the explosive avant-garde in American graphic design today.

EL: Important design emerges from contexts that encourage innovation and experiment. Good design is not simply the product of individuals graced with a miraculous talent—designers are stimulated by schools, clients, companies, studios, colleagues, competitors, and other social networks. The danger in mapping out an “underground matriarchy” is that we will replace the Old Boy’s Network, which for so long has excluded women, younger designers, and people working at the margins of the professional mainstream, with an equally exclusive New Girl’s Network, defined by its own personal ties and ideological biases. For me, to chart the family tree of an “underground matriarchy” is not to recast the traditional Olympiad of individual genius with a new set of shining stars but rather to shift the focus of design journalism from the individual as creator ex nihilo to the individual as actor in a social context.

“Matriarchy” invokes the values associated with feminine culture—gathering instead of hunting, cultivating instead of conquering, nurturing instead of self-promotion. These values are not strictly tied to sexual identity, but have been linked in our society to the worlds of women. As the design profession—and public life more generally—becomes more inclusive, these values increasingly are shared by both sexes. Sheila de Bretteville, Muriel Cooper, Carol Devine Carson, and Mildred Friedman have contributed to the evolution of contemporary design both by producing their own creative work and by creating contexts in which innovation can flourish.

LHM: While I was in high school, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville created a poster for the then-new California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, called Taste and Style aren’t Enough. The low-tech, vernacular look to her poster was a deliberate commentary on the high-finish corporate aesthetic celebrated by most of her professional colleagues. Later, in 1980 at University of California at Berkeley, I was a student in Sheila’s senior studio, where we were given projects in which design served only as a formal language for expressing personal values.

Sheila de Bretteville: “I create matrixes that enable people to speak.”

As a teaching methodology, Sheila’s encouragement of self-reflective subject matter connected the student to the content, and the content to the form. From the early 1970s to the present, de Bretteville has consistently conveyed to her students the sense that their content is worthy, so their forms resonate with personal choice. Without a doubt, Sheila increased the value of plurality, interpretation, and collaboration in design, and those values inspire my current role as design director at the Walker Art Center, a major contemporary arts institution located in Minneapolis.

EL: Sheila de Bretteville became chair of the graphic design program at the Yale School of Art in 1990. In addition to encouraging her students to draw on their own personal experiences, she believes that designers should interact with their audience and should consider the social consequences of their practice. According to De Bretteville, producing design in collaboration with one’s audience is a feminist act, because it draws on values of intimacy and cooperation associated with women’s culture. She and her students have have studied ways that the media marginalizes groups based on sexual, ethnic, racial, and class identity, and they have produced projects with communities in the surrounding city of New Haven, a harsh urban setting from which Yale traditionally has stood apart as a bastion of privlege.

LHM: The success of Sheila’s approach depends on keeping a serious distance from style-related design trends. Her students shun design competitions as the irrelevant beauty pageants they tend to be. She distrusts pure form-making without commitment to a larger issue. For some designers, however, the bigger issues can only be expressed in abstract, formal terms. April Greiman—often criticized for creating an “empty” kind of beauty—wraps her talent around global themes: the overlapping of science, technology, and spirituality. Greiman exhibited her Space Mats (designed with Jayme Odgers) at our design gallery at UC Berkeley about the same time I was doing a typographic poem about my menstrual cycle for an assignment for Sheila. The place mats were produced without a client, and captured an erotic and exotic hyper-dimensional vision. Using a clicky kind of humor, April found a glamorous, funhouse, zen-like center to the practice of design. She threw the Swiss grid on its back, and lovingly fucked it with color and wild imagery. This was a galactic brothel compared to the retentive, methodological aesthetic of corporate design. April was undoing the bow-tie life of graphic design.

April Greiman: “I am not a feminist.”

To this day, however, April will tell you she is not a feminist. But I believe her visual seductions are motivated in part by an emotional freedom not indulged in by her male colleagues at the time. Kathy McCoy has said that “the modernist design paradigms of objective rationalism are typical of a male sensibility, safely disengaged from emotional involvement.” April’s work, if anything, depicted volumes of passion. When that passion turned to technology, she gave the future a new aesthetic and it was beautiful, sensual, and bright.

EL: April Greiman’s work is a painterly and personalized response to digital technology. As the progenitor of a distinctive signature style that has been widely imitated, Greiman is a legendary star who has helped fuel—inadvertently or not—the cult of personality cherished by many graphic designers. While her work is an exquisite revision of the formal languages of modernism, her approach to technology is often suggestive and metaphorical rather than structural, engaing the mythology of the machine rather than the revolutionary potential of electronic media.

A very different exploration of technology is witnessed in the career of Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop, part of MIT’s Media Lab, in 1975. While Cooper’s untimely death on May 26, 1994, is a profound loss for the community of designers, her work will be carried forward by the institution that she created and the people she inspired. I was fortunate to spend time with Cooper and her students less than two weeks before her death, none of us imagining how short her future would be. She was a brilliant designer and a generous person whose ideas have a long life ahead of them.

The VLW has treated digital typography not as a tool for designing printed graphics, but as a unique medium with its own properties and possibilities. Most graduate programs in graphic design focus on the making of complete, self-contained works: books, posters, installations, and other objects whose “signature” status is modelled on the products of painting, sculpture, and photography departments. The VLW’s focus has been different: Cooper worked to build an electronic language that will support the work of future designers, helping them make complex, malleable documents in real time and three-dimensionsal space. The visual structures designed by Cooper and her students will enable readers and writers of interactive media to intuitively navigate through levels of data.

Cooper gave concrete functions such principles as layered information, simultaneous texts, and typographic texture—visual structures that are familiar as expressive, personal gestures from the “New Typography” of the 1970s and 80s. While many designers working at the stylistic edges of contemporary typography have approached technology in terms of impressionistic imagery—the territory traditionally reserved for graphic design—Cooper aimed to restructure the language of design in four dimensions.

Muriel Cooper: “I would like to see systems with enough intelligence and with enough rich graphical vocabulary that a designer could interact with technology in an empowered way.”

Many women are excelling today in the fields of interface design and electronic publishing, including Red Burns, Jessica Helfand, and Loretta Staples. While men are the visible spokesmen and economic leaders of such companies as Voyager, Microsoft, Apple Computers, and Whittle Communications, women are playing important roles in crafting environments for the new design media. Perhaps “interface” is an electronic couterpart for realms of culture that traditionally have been feminized—an interface, like a housewife or a secretary, presents a gracious, comfortable setting for the performances of others. Many tasks in the twentieth-century office known as “women’s work” involve mediating technologies. From answering phones, transferring calls, and taking messages to typing letters and making copies, female office workers historically have formed a human link between male managers and their machines. Women have served as bodily extensions for communications equipment. The contemporary ideal of the “user friendly” electronic environment reflects the continued desire to humanize technology.

*LHM: An interface is also like a teacher. As co-chair of the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s design program, Katherine McCoy sheparded dozens of students through the school’s now-notorious formal experiments. In the mid-80s McCoy allowed some of the first arguments of deconstruction to surface in critiques about graphic design. I use the word “allowed,” because while Kathy may pursue a more conservative course in her own work, her critiques were a designated free-zone for new thinking about design. Inadvertently or not, McCoy was willing to take the heat and the glory for staking out the potentially unbeautiful aesthetic manifestations of literary deconstruction, or, if you will, postmodernism.

Women seemed particularly well-equipped to grapple with the decentering of the times, or at least to be a center for decentered thinking. Kathy found her students agressively rejecting traditonal approaches to visual communication. She encouraged their private dialogues, strange and culty works with a fascinating influence of Dutch design, twisted by post-structural theory and a man named Ed Fella.

The intellectual comfort of the formal exercises that teach abstraction was literally abandoned at Cranbrook. A few hours in critique studying dot and line relationships in black and white may be revealing about lines and dots, but never about its makers. This new turn in design education was psychoanalytic and difficult to control. It was, however, a perfect antidote to the depersonalized endpoint of modernism many young designers were experiencing. Cranbrook became such a powerful design cult because people look for family refuge, and the McCoys ran a foster home for design addicts. They recently have decided to retire from Cranbrook after twenty years, now that those weird little mid-Western lab experiments have grown to powerfully influence international design trends.*

EL: The exemplary “matriarchs” we have discussed so far have come chiefly from the academic world, a place where women have found visible and influential places over the last twenty years. Although universities and art schools traditionally were dominated by men, women have made significant gains in the arts and humanities. Perhaps the institutional support and clear structures for advancement that schools offer have made academic settings more penetrable than large-scale design studios, where vast numbers of women continue to hover in mid-level positions. The academic world can put designers in the ambiguous position of producing both marginal and official culture: marginal, because academia provides a place outside of commercial practice from which experiment and opposition can be safely expressed, and official, because schools are charged with articulating principles that young designers will take with them into the marketplace, and which constitute much of the professional community’s dialogue.

Carol Devine Carson has had a tremendous impact on contemporary design, working not from an academic post but from a major publishing house. Since Carson became art director of Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, she and her design staff have transformed bookstore shelves across the country with their strange and sinister jackets. The principal designers in the Knopf Group have been with Carson since 1987: Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and Archie Ferguson. The fact that this amazingly productive (and now widely imitated) team of designers has stayed together for so long reflects the strength of the imprint’s management. Knopf has brought visually challenging graphics to a broad national public—these are not esoteric art catalogues or posters for design events, but mainstream consumer products displayed in shopping malls across the country.

Like colleges and universities, major publishing houses are large, bureaucratic institutions with defined hierarchies; for most employees in publishing, the field’s cultural prestige is countered by relatively low wages. According to Carson, the book business traditionally has made a place for women: “We have always done a lot of the real work in this industry. The difference in the past fifteen years is that it’s more common for women to be rewarded for the work they do.”

Carol Carson: “In the publishing climate outside of Knopf, there’s not much cultivation of authors and editors. People have to be trained to become editors, and a publishing house has to create an environment for that kind of care. Designers have to be cultivated, too.”

Arriving in New York from Nashville, Tennessee in 1973, Carson was an outsider to both the city’s design establishment and to the academic/modernist vanguard. At the time, art director Bob Scudelari was Corporate Vice President of Random House, serving to administrate design for all the company’s imprints, including Knopf and around a dozen others. In 1991 Carson became Vice President, Art Director in charge of the Knopf Group. She now directly controls design within the Knopf imprint, and supervises work at Pantheon and Vintage. In the old system, Scudelari was the chief spokesman for design, while the art directors were kept relatively cloistered from editors and authors. Now, Carson has direct contact with these forces (as well as with the meddlesome marketing department), giving her more control over the design process.

*LHM: I was teaching at California Insitute of the Arts when Lorraine Wild arrived from Houston in 1985 as the new chair of the visual communications program. Soon after, two more Cranbrook graduates—Jeff Keedy and Ed Fella—joined the faculty. Within a year, the fires were set. The four of us taught a graduate seminar whose students included Barry Deck, Barbara Glauber, and Somi Kim. Informed by theory and history, Lorraine set a tough standard for critiques that often mocked conventional design standards of meta-perfection and problem-solving. The students’ formal and critical skills developed within an authentic and radical contemporary art environment. The rigorous exchange between Cranbrook and Cal Arts and the emerging influence of Emigre magazine (and Zuzana Licko’s typefaces) all helped create a dizzying centrifugal force for our times, a virtual supernova in design evolution. All the while, Eric Martin and Scott Makela presided like magicians over the MacLab, introducing one and all to the wonders of new design technology.

In this extreme environment, Lorraine attempted to respond to brutally incongruous demands: in addition to directing the program, she wrote articles, gave lectures, maintained international contacts, designed books, and taught a design history course that would keep the interest of even the most informed design historiam. Sharing an office with Lorraine for several years made me a witness to countless momemts between a student’s tears and emergency faculty meetings, where she would look up with a pained smile and say “why are we doing this?”

The answer, of couse, was that if we were to make a difference in the design field, we literally needed to reinvent the setting for design education. For Lorraine, there was an element of absolute disgust at what she had been exposed to in the New York studios. She approached the CalArts program with a furious intensity, which she has recently redirected toward creating ReVerb, a studio for collaborative design. Through ReVerb, she has launched a constructively angry response to the objectivity and patriarchy which had pervaded the roots of her training. I admire her design work, because it speaks for many cultural institutions of our time in alternating fits of elegance and anarchy.*

Lorraine Wild: “We need more graphic design particular to the tribes, not less.”

Interestingly, men still dominate the profession—even at its avant-garde fringe. Consider, for example, the following excerpt from a conversation between David Carson and Rudy VanderLans in a recent Emigre.

Whose work in particular stands out to you?
R: The work of Rick Valicenti, Barry Deck, ReVerb, Jeffery Keedy, John Weber, Edward Fella, Scott Makela, Tibor Kalman, Fabien Baron, David Carson.

*With the exception of ReVerb, this is a list of guys who work very hard at gaining individual recognition for their work, for whom “the edge” is an important place to be.

This article points out that women seem to spend more time underground, gaining collective recognition for their work and regenerating the field in intangible and crucial ways. Simply put, the efforts of this “matriarchy” has made possible the kind of permissive, wild, personal, and pluralistic form-language that so many men are getting famous for right now. As our “fathers” stood at the front door, firmly protecting the rules of the house, the “mothers” quietly unlocked the back door, freeing all the children and their natural impulse to personalize what they make. Or, as Lorraine Wild puts it, “I feel like a termite, gnawing at the bottom. The meal is delicious, and why should I give a damn if the whole house falls down!”*

EL: The modernist design establishment has never been a solid edifice—it was always threatened from without by consumerism and mass culture, and pressured from within by the vanguardist obsession with individualism and novelty. In recounting the rise of subjectivity in design, it’s important to remember that men as well as women opened the back doors of the discipline. Wolfgang Weingart, Dan Friedman, and Gert Dumbar fueled the unleashing of typographic form in the 1970s and 80s, often working side by side with the “matriarchs” heralded in this essay. The current fascination with radical personalities (male or female) continues a long lineage of avant-garde confrontations that traditionally have been led by men.

As this article comes to a close, the reader may have noticed a difference in tone between the two authors’ voices. Laurie Haycock Makela has been lush and intimate, linking her subjects to her own life and experiences; in contrast, I have been rather cool and distant. My primary identity is as a curator and writer, working for Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design in New York. Because I am a curator first, and a designer second, I feel obligated to look beyond my immediate circle of mentors and friends. My sober tone also reflects distrust for any cult of personality in design, even if the personalities are new.

But I have “mothers,” too. A personal mother for me is Mildred (a.k.a. Mickey) Friedman, who as design director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1970 through 1991 set an international standard for exhibitions and publications on design. Mickey has been a mentor, role model, and colleague for me, perhaps in ways that Lorraine, Kathy, April, and Sheila have been for Laurie. In 1989 Friedman curated the first large-scale museum survey of graphic design in the U.S.; while her strong curatorial vision provoked anger from the design community, the exhibition probably did more to raise public knowledge of graphic design than any event in history. We don’t always thank our mothers for their work.

LHM: When I interviewed for my position at the Walker Art Center in 1991, I was visibly and proudly pregnant, sitting betweeen Mickey Friedman and Kathy Halbreich, who had just replaced Martin Friedman as the museum’s director. I was excited and humbled by the transitions taking place. In my first few months working as design director at the Walker, I discovered that I had inherited unbelievable resources in the form of curators who embraced quality design and publishing, and audiences who had come to expect design to be part of contemporary arts programming. These attitudes were nurtured by Mickey Friedman during the twenty years that she edited Design Quarterly and produced exhibitions at the Walker, creating a place for educated dialogue about design when few existed.

After writing this essay with Ellen Lupton, I have found myself indebted to two women I really do not know: Mickey Friedman, for the setting she created for design research and presentation at the Walker Art Center, and Muriel Cooper, for her investigations of the infrastructure of new media. As Ellen suggested earlier, new media may be “feminizing” old media through concepts of interface, simultaneity, and interactivity. I am currently curating an exhibition at the Walker called Digital Campfires: Interactive Multimedia Environments, scheduled to open in 1996, which is deeply motivated by a desire to bring out the more “feminine” aspects of new media via content, aesthetics, collaborations, and, most importantly, non-linear thinking.

“Masculininty” and “femininity” are cultural constructions historically tied to the biological differences between the sexes. An important goal of feminism is to make the values traditionally associated with the world of women into values recognized across the social and sexual spectrum: to nurture, to include, to respond, to support, to enable. As the influence of women continues to flower in the coming decades, it may no longer be recognized as distinctly “feminine” or as the exceptional product of women’s achievement, because our work and values will have been integrated into the larger social network. Design competitions must begin including new categories, such as lectures organized or given, exhibitions curated, new curriculum planning, or special research in areas such as cultural iconography. In this way, we will give ourselves the opportunity to properly recognize all levels of accomplishment—from the surface of the page to the underground of the community.

Women Graphic Designers

Excerpt from essay by Ellen Lupton from Pat Kirkham, ed. Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000. London: Yale University Press, 2000.

A colophon is a note appearing at the end of a book that describes the volume’s design and production. From the Greek kolophon, meaning summit or finishing touch, such commentary falls outside a publications’s main body of content, belonging to the technical apparatus of end matter, along with the index and other credits. A summit is also a peak, a climax, and it is fitting that in a book about the field of design in its broadest sense, the final chapter should confront the medium of publishing itself. The preceding chapters of this book present remarkable evidence of women’s creativity in the applied arts, across a wide range of practices and over a century. The pages themselves and the cover that encloses them are also evidence of design, reflecting the efforts of a team of collaborators. The letters that have gathered together to form printed words also are objects of design, exemplars of the art of typography. Each of these elements—cover, page, type—was designed by a woman.

Books and magazines

The book, a physical artifact and a medium of communication, offers an appropriate opening for a survey of women graphic designers. Today, women are among the most influential designers of American books, having forged key paradigms in the exterior packaging and internal architecture of jacket and page. Across the twentieth century, women found opportunities to work in the publishing world‹as editors and authors as well as designers.

The printing trades had provided employment for women during the nineteenth century, especially as typesetters, although they were subject, as in other trades, to lower pay for equal work.2 During this industrial era, the appearance of books, magazines, and advertising was largely determined by printing technicians. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the field (then better known as “commercial art’) of graphic design began to emerge as an artistic discipline.

The transformation of book design owed much to the Arts and Crafts movement, which revered the book as an object both functional and aesthetic, a part of everyday life yet worthy of care and adornment. William Morris had turned to typography in the 1880s, late in his career. Reacting against the harsh, sparkling pages of spiky type made possible by nineteenth-century printing and paper technologies, Morris reclaimed the weighty, dull-edged letters of early Renaissance typography.3

The Arts and Crafts movement that spread from Britain to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century nurtured a new attentiveness to the book arts promoted by the operators of small private presses as well as by designers working for commercial publishers. Margaret Armstrong’s design for Wanted: A Match-Maker exemplifies the Arts and Crafts ideal of approaching the book as a total object, from outside to inside (figs. 16-2 and 16-3). With its use of slender, attenuated letterforms and light colors, Wanted: A Match-Maker rejects the ponderous density of William Morris’s printed pages in favor of a more conventional and pragmatic attitude, appropriate to the book’s commercial distribution and light-hearted romantic content.

Promoting moral uplift through meaningful labor, the Arts and Crafts movement was relatively open to women, who belonged to many of the Arts and Crafts societies founded around the turn of the century. As historian Ellen Mazur Thomson has argued, membership in clubs aided designers’ professional advancement, and apart from the Arts and Crafts organizations, most denied access to women until much later in the century.4

In Boston, a strong publishing industry provided fertile ground for experiments with typography, calligraphy, illumination, illustration, and bookbinding. The Society of Arts and Crafts, Boston, founded in 1897, celebrated the book arts in its exhibitions and included numerous women among its active members, such as Sarah Wyman Whitman, Julia DeWolf Addison, Mary Crease Sears, and Amy Sacker. Several of these designers ran small schools and workshops and taught bookbinding, illustration, and other skills in fields that might provide suitable employment for young women.5

While the workshop of Mary Crease Sears produced hand-tooled bindings using luxurious materials, other Boston designers worked in the commercial arena. The prominent society woman Sarah Wyman Whitman designed numerous machine-stamped bindings for Houghton Mifflin, as well as interiors and stained glass windows and screens for private clients.6 Amy Sacker’s 1902 design for the commercial binding of The Kindred of the Wild achieves a sense of depth and drama with a minimal number of colors and simple, linear illustrations (fig. 16-4).

While the Arts and Crafts movement provided philosophical fuel for progressive graphic design in the early twentieth century, by the 1940s the formal and technological experiments of the Bauhaus and such European avant-garde movements as Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism had reached a small community of American designers.7 Fewer women gained entrance to this new American vanguard than to the fine press movement. Among them was Elaine Lustig Cohen, who married the graphic designer Alvin Lustig in 1948. Elaine Lustig managed her husband’s studio in Los Angeles and later New York, serving as an all-purpose secretary, production assistant, and draftsperson-the “office slave,” as she recalls.8 Alvin Lustig suffered from diabetes, a condition that led to blindness, and as he lost his eyesight, he increasingly relied on his wife to implement his ideas.

After Alvin Lustig’s early death in 1955 at age forty, Elaine married Arthur Cohen, publisher of Meridian Books, and established her own design practice. In her innovative covers for Meridian Books, designed from 1955 through 1961, she used geometric symbols, evocative photographs, and expressive typography. For her cover for The Noble Savage 4, she affixed a typographic mustache to a marble statue, adorning a literary journal with a Dada flourish (fig. 16-5).

Several women were leaders in the postmodern return to historical styles that reshaped the top level of commercial book cover and jacket design in the 1980s. Working in New York, designer Louise Fili literally changed the surface of mainstream publishing, rejecting the shiny finishes and garish foil-stamping that served as standard packaging for mass-market books. Fili’s designs for Pantheon used matte, laminated coatings to create mysteriously soft yet durable, highly plasticized surfaces. Her cover for Marguerite Duras’s The Lover (1983) was a lasting icon, later serving as the basis for the motion picture promotion (1992). Along with her contemporary Carin Goldberg, Fili explored historic alphabets and decorative vocabularies, assembling these elements with a modern sense of color and composition.9

The neo-historical designs of Fili and Goldberg readied the publishing industry for a more flexible approach to cover and jacket design, a medium made rigid by conservative editors and marketing managers. Carol Devine Carson became art director of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, in 1987. According to Carson, the book business traditionally has made a place for women: “We have always done a lot of the real work in this industry. The difference in the past fifteen years is that it’s more common for women to be rewarded for the work they do.“10 Carson and her core staff of gifted younger designers-Chip Kidd, Barbara de Wilde, and Archie Ferguson-transformed bookstore shelves across the country.
Knopf’s covers often impart new meanings to familiar images by changing their scale or shifting their context. Carson’s designs for books such as Damage, Degree of Guilt, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became icons of popular culture in the 1990s. Her cover for Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red takes a distant view, its modesty undercut by the implied eroticism of an erupting volcano, heaving like a breast from the supine earth (fig. 16-6).

The interior architecture of books, and not just their facades, has also been subject to renovation. In the publishing industry, the design of covers typically is divorced from the design of a book’s content, especially in text-dominated works of literature and nonfiction. In an organization like Random House, the interior pages often follow a formulaic design, in contrast with the glamour and novelty afforded the book’s cover. Illustrated volumes about art and architecture are a different matter, however, involving a greater level of skill to successfully combine elements. As design director at MIT Press, Muriel Cooper focused on the book as an intelligent device for storing information. In 1974 she became one of the first designers to set her own type on a computer, using an IBM system to design Herbert Muschamp’s collection of essays, File Under Architecture. The only font available was Courier, but this limitation was offset by the freedom discovered in “mise-en-page” typography. Cooper’s other groundbreaking books for MIT included the first edition of Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a large-format interpretation of the famous pop document, and Hans Wingler’s Bauhaus (1969), a vast archive of visual and verbal documents compiled within a massive yet eminently manageable volume over 650 pages long.

Lorraine Wild’s 1985 design for Mask of Medusa, a book of images and texts by architect John Hejduk, was published by Rizzoli at a moment when architects were producing an astonishing number of monographs, each an assertion of personal greatness and professional viability during a period of rapid stardom in the field of architecture. The acknowledged master of the architectural monograph was Massimo Vignelli. Often using a single typeface, he orchestrated his books around a consistent grid, creating a cinematic sequence of images-large views underscored with drawings and plans, full-page images confronted with generously framed details. Vignelli’s books are big, simple, and direct.

Then along came Mask of Medusa, a tribute to poetics, which asserts the architect’s pleasure with ideas rather than the construction of monuments (fig. 16-7). Wild used varied column widths and a range of typefaces to interpret a rich diversity of texts-poems, commentaries, interviews. Working before the Macintosh computer put the tools of typesetting into the hands of the graphic designer, Wild carefully customized her approach to each section of Hejduk’s work, creating a book of enormous subtlety.
The sea change signaled by Mask of Medusa expanded beyond the architectural monograph; Wild’s exhibition catalogues, designed for the Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions, helped revise standard expectations of the museum publication as a neutral portfolio of essays and reproductions. The book, like the installation of works in a gallery, became recognized as an interpretive context. Other women designers working in the 1990s who helped rethink the art book included Bethany Johns, Laurie Haycock Makela, Rebeca Méndez, Susan Silton, and Susan Sellars.

Magazine publishing is another field where women have found opportunities to thrive. While names such as Grace Mirabella (??Mirabella??), Tina Brown (??Vanity Fair?? and the New Yorker), and Anna Wintour (Vogue) have figured high on the mastheads of great magazines, women’s roles as art directors and designers have been far less prominent. An exception is Cipe Pineles, whose brilliant achievements beginning in the late 1930s recently were documented in a critical biography by Martha Scotford Lange.11 Pineles, a Polish immigrant who came of age in Brooklyn, began working in 1932 as assistant to M. F. Agha, art director of Vogue and Vanity Fair. Agha, testing ideas from European modernism within the heady world of New York publishing, was forging new attitudes towards photography and layout. He conducted many of his experiments with Pineles at his side but gave her considerable independence, and she designed numerous significant projects on her own. For a Vogue cover proposed in 1939, Pinelesdrew the magazine’s name with jewelry and pushed the model off the edge of the page (fig. 16-8).

In 1942 Pineles became art director of Glamour, a Conde Nast publication directed at younger women. The looser and more popular style Pineles crafted there was linked to modernist principles of structure and abstraction while making playful use of images and type. Her open-hearted brand of modernism continued to evolve in her work as art director of Seventeen (1947-50), Charm (1950-59), and Mademoiselle (1959-61). She paid keen consideration to the physical setting of fashion shoots and their two-dimensional impact, using typography to echo and emphasize images. Approaching the magazine as an environment with its own scale, as well as a window onto other worlds, Pineles often staged three-dimensional objects on the page, allowing samples of reality to converse with printed texts.

Although few women achieved the status of magazine art director in the 1940s and 1950s, some filled other executive positions. Estelle Ellis, a colleague and collaborator of Pineles, became promotion director of Charm, the “magazine for women who work,” in 1944. She had also worked with Pineles on the marketing of Seventeen. In 1951 Ellis commissioned one of the first market surveys of working women, charting women’s spending on shoes, stockings, cosmetics, and other high-status items worn in the office. Ellis worked with women designers on some of her advertising campaigns, including Helen Federico, who used modernist collages and photograms to depict the material world of the working woman.12

In more recent decades, several women have served as chief designers for major magazines. Bea Feitler was art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Ms., and Rolling Stone during the 1960s and 70s.13 Rhonda Rubinstein has worked since the late 1980s as art director of Esquire, Mother Jones, and other publications. New York’s downtown-style magazine Paper was given its signature identity-irreverent photography and pop-retro typography-by art director Bridget de Socio during the 1990s (fig. 16-9).

Perhaps the most influential magazine of the 1990s, conceived and executed by women, has been Martha Stewart Living, which has had a considerable impact not only on publishing but on electronic media, the mail-order catalogue business, and mass-market merchandising.14 Launched in 1991, Martha Stewart Living revolutionized the genre of the home style magazine. Any subsequent publication dealing with cooking, gardening, or decorating, as well as any upscale catalogue devoted to home furnishings, has been forced to confront the Martha Stewart Living ethos, with its use of soft, organic colors, crisp, overlapping typography, and atmospheric photographs that seek to capture the effects of natural light, often by combining soft and sharp focus within a single shot.

The magazine’s distinctive look was created by Gael Towey, who now, as creative director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, oversees the design of all the company’s products, publications, and programs. With a circulation over 2.1 million, the magazine presents a mix of articles-at once educational and sensual-that combine detailed, original research with a romantic sensibility that provokes pleasure and longing. An article about cheese juxtaposes a photograph of a lamb against a tower of handmade cheeses, staggering in its variety and scope (fig. 16-10).

The magazine’s editorial content fuels the company’s product development. The Martha Stewart brands of paint, for example, originated in an article about decorating with color, inspired by the eggs from Stewart’s own flock of Auracana chickens. An exclusive line of paints was put into production, and later, a less expensive grade was developed for sale nationwide in Kmart stores. Thus a magazine, created by one of America’s most famous women, working with a largely female staff, transformed the everyday domestic environment and the way we use and imagine it.

Political and public realms

A book or magazine is an inward volume of pages reflecting out on the world of events and ideas. Designers use words and images to directly engage the physical environment as well. There is a long tradition in the United States of posters promoting social and political causes or cultural events. Graphic design also marks the landscape with wayfinding systems, commercial signs, and institutional identities, annotating public space with logos, icons, and directional cues.

Suffrage was the central issue for feminism in the early twentieth century. As art historian Paula Harper has pointed out, the suffrage posters of the 1910s (as opposed to cartoons and other graphic work) tended to be conservative in their rhetoric and visual style. While such works dated among the earliest uses in this century of the political picture poster-anticipating the medium’s widespread deployment during World War I-the strategies chosen by the posters’ publishers and designers aimed not so much to agitate as to reassure. While many nineteenth-century feminists had taken a revolutionary stance against society’s norms and institutions, the suffragists of the 1910s did so by suggesting that women’s vote would strengthen rather than destroy the existing culture.15

Bertha M. Boye’s 1913 poster “Votes for Women” is symmetrical in design, reinforcing the sense of serene stability emanating from the statuelike figure at its center; the orb rising behind her head is both sun and halo, suggesting unambiguous warmth and virtue. The poster’s slogan appears not as an argument or battle cry, but as an unassailable truth, an “inalienable right” whose time had come (fig. 16-11).

In contrast to the 1910s, the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s viewed itself as a counterculture phenomenon, appearing within the context of the battle for Civil Rights, the protest against the war in Vietnam, the international student upheavals of 1968, and the sexual revolution. Feminism’s “second wave” unfolded within-and sometimes against-the anti-Establishment freedoms promoted by these movements. Posters, buttons, and bumper stickers, carrying such slogans as “Women’s Liberation IS the Revolution” and “Women Are Not Chicks” suggest that feminism was its own battle within the broader counterculture.16
The Woman’s Building in Los Angeles, conceived as a studio and exhibition space for women’s art and design, was founded in 1973 by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Judy Chicago, and Arlene Raven. Printing equipment-from offset lithography to letterpress-was made available as a resource for personal and political expression. De Bretteville’s 1974 poster “Women in Design: The Next Decade” promoted one of the many public events organized there. Marching across a gridded landscape are eye screws fitted with bolts-translations into hardware of the female symbol that had become the movement’s icon (fig.16-12).

De Bretteville, who worked as a successful commercial designer in the 1980s (redesigning, for example, the Los Angeles Times), as well as an educator and public artist through the 1990s, continued to assert her identity as a feminist. Few women designers have willingly used the “f-word,” fearful, perhaps, of alienating their colleagues or of casting doubt on the legitimacy of their own success. De Bretteville articulated a set of design strategies in the early 1980s that reflected feminist principles, such as the attempt to represent a subject from multiple perspectives, to allow words and images to contradict each other, or to allow viewers to complete the meaning of a communication.17 Such strategies coincided with the theories of experimental typography and postmodernism that were emerging around the same time.

Marlene McCarty is part of a younger generation that has used graphic design as a tool of social agitation. She was part of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where she helped keep women’s issues on the AIDS agenda. McCarty also was an active member of WAC, the Women’s Action Coaltion, founded in 1992. Together with designer Bethany Johns, she created posters and media-savvy demonstrations on current issues.18 McCarty founded the New York design studio Bureau with Gran Fury colleague Donald Moffett in 1989. During the 1990s, the firm pursued commercial work for clients such as Clinique and Elektra Records, as well as creating graphics for various political organizations. Their large-scale poster “You and Your Kind Are Not Wanted Here,” promoting gay civil rights, was sniped in the streets of New York in 1994. It features birds chirping around an strangely cheerful sunburst, surrounded by an explosion of pop letterforms recalling mainstream consumer packaging (fig. 16-13).

In addition to punctuating the landscape through guerilla postings and political announcements, designers create signage that explains and identifies public spaces. Over the past several decades, information systems increasingly have pervaded the built landscape. A leader in this evolution has been Deborah Sussman, who founded the firm Sussman/Prejza with Paul Prejza in 1980. The firm has created urban signage programs for numerous cities in California, as well as environmentally based identities for corporations such as Hasbro and Apple Computer.

One of Sussman/Prejza’s most famous projects was the environmental design program for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The signs and related kiosks and pavilions needed to guide an enormous international audience through a complex space, while visually celebrating the games and the surrounding city. Sussman’s system of bright colors, striped columns, and large-scale graphics was both functional and popularly accessible (fig 16-14). Sussman/Prejza also created signage for Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where the languages of public information and commercial iconography joyfully mingle, as Mickey Mouse peers over the top of a standard-issue highway sign (fig. 16-15).19

Paula Scher also creates institutional identities that merge with the built environment. In 1991 Scher became the sole woman among over a dozen partners in the international design firm Pentagram, making her what she has called “the only girl on the football team.” That doesn’t make her a cheerleader or a trophy date, but an equal player in a pack of heavyweights. Pentagram brought Scher a level of visibility and cultural clout virtually unattainable to a woman working on her own, while in turn, her fresh, energetic approach earned new recognition for Pentagram, a venerable company whose reputation had begun to level off.

Scher’s work for clients ranging from museums to global corporations has grown increasingly environmental, encompassing banners, building signs, and urban advertising campaigns. In 1994 she conceived a total design program for the New York Public Theater that ranges from billboards, street signs, and lobby interiors to logos, tickets, and stationery. Scher used a rhythmic mix of sans serif letterforms, drawn from the American printer’s vernacular, to construct a visual vocabulary that is both diverse and coherent-like the theater’s programming.20 Many of her posters combine evocative images with dramatic typography to reflect the spirit of the production, rather than showcasing individual stars (fig. 16-16). Although print is Scher’s native medium, the impact of her work, like that of Deborah Sussman, Sheila de Bretteville, and Marlene McCarty, is felt most powerfully on the street.

Designing the institutions of design

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, women played a central role in building the discourse of graphic design. During this period the profession came of age both as a recognized business and as a field of study in university art and design programs, including at the graduate level. Women were no minority among the educators, critics, editors, and curators who defined the theoretical issues of the time. Schools and museums provided accessible platforms from which women could influence the direction of graphic design.

Many of the women already discussed in this essay as key practitioners also were influential educators, including Cipe Pineles, who taught during the 1960s at Parsons School of Design; Lorraine Wild, a professor at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California; and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who in 1990 became director of the graphic design program at Yale University School of Art.
De Bretteville’s appointment at Yale signaled changes and rifts within the design world. Since the late 1950s, the Yale program had been entrenched in high modernist theory, associated in particular with the work and philosophy of Paul Rand, a legendary corporate designer and stalwart defender of modernist ideals of direct communication and simple form. De Bretteville arrived at Yale advocating a more socially oriented, critical approach to design that would address the needs of multiple audiences. Rand resigned after de Bretteville’s appointment and convinced other key faculty to do so as well. In an angry manifesto published in the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design, Rand railed against the violation of modernism by screaming hordes of historicists, deconstructivists, and activists.21 Behind each of these challenges to modernism stood a powerful woman: behind historicism was Paula Scher, behind deconstructivism was Katherine McCoy, and behind activism was Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.

Katherine McCoy, co-director of the design program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, from 1971 to 1995, promoted ideas of postmodernism and critical theory in relation to typographic practice. She developed pedagogical exercises that converted modernist grids and letterforms into vehicles of personal expression, grounded in vernacular, rather than universal, forms. She and her students developed a model of “typography as discourse,” drawing on post-structuralist literary theory, that posited the reader as an active participant in the communications process.22 Designers at Cranbrook employed layers of texts and images to create complex, deliberately challenging compositions.

McCoy’s 1980 poster “Architecture Symbol and Interpretation,” created with Daniel Libeskind, shows how the theory of postmodernism that was gripping the architectural community was finding its own life in the field of graphic design. Neoclassical forms are deployed in an unsettlingly Surrealist manner and are titled with letters that are modernist in their individual form yet willfully disconnected in their spacing (fig. 16-17).

Many of McCoy’s Cranbrook students became prominent teachers and practitioners. Lucille Tenazas, working in New York and then San Francisco, was a student at Cranbrook in the early 1980s. Her 1986 brochure for Springhill engaged neoclassical geometry, photographic imagery, and flat, decorative patterns (fig. 16-18). Nancy Skolos is a Boston-based designer whose 1987 poster “Fonts,” produced with photographer Thomas Weddell, plays elaborate games with space, pattern, and dimensionality (fig. 16-19). Laurie Haycock Makela and P. Scott Makela created the poster “Sex Goddess” as a student project in 1989, revealing the turn towards more harsh, direct imagery that took place at Cranbrook at the end of the 1980s (fig. 16-20). The Makelas succeeded Katherine McCoy as co-directors of the school’s two-dimensional design program in 1997. Since Scott Makela’s death in 1999, Laurie Haycock Makela has filled the post on her own.

Rebeca Mendez is another designer who built a remarkable career while working within an institutional setting. Born and raised in Mexico City, she studied design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.23 While serving as the school’s design director from 1991 to 1996, she created numerous publications and posters for the school and other institutions. Mendez combines typography and photographs in delicate, permeable layers, exploiting the possibilities of digital production in ways that engage the physicality of surfaces (fig. 16-21).

In addition to their roles in schools, women occupied positions of great influence in museums during the late twentieth century. Mildred Friedman, as design director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from 1970 through 1991, set an international standard for exhibitions and publications on design. In 1989 she curated the first large-scale museum survey of graphic design in the U.S., an exhibition that greatly expanded public knowledge of graphic design.24 Among the legions of other women who have promoted design awareness through their museum work and publishing during the 1980s and 1990s were Karrie Jacobs, Dianne Pilgrim, Chee Pearlman, and several of the women contributing to this volume. Such critics and curators labored hard to raise the level of public discourse about design.

Design for screens

While the printed word provides an apt opening for discussing design in the twentieth century, the screen suggests a view to the future. Designers have produced graphics for film and television since the inception of these media, and new genres have continued to emerge with the explosion of interactive and networked technologies.

One of the great pioneers of film title design was Saul Bass, who, beginning in the 1960s increasingly collaborated with his wife, Elaine Bass, on film design. In the 1990s they jointly created several stunning film titles. Their opening titles for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and Casino (1995) were conceived as films-within-a-film, narrative sequences that set the tone for the drama to follow, in a language that is at once set apart from the main film and compatible with it.25 In Casino the spinning wheels and flashing lights of Las Vegas mix with a surreal image of a body thrown from a burning car and drifting through space (fig. 16-22). Younger designers for film include Karin Fong, an art director at Imaginary Forces in Hollywood, whose witty titles for Dead Man on Campus (1998) consist of a meandering pan across a page of primer-style instructions for committing suicide. Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler, co-founders of Number 17, a New York studio, have created numerous graphics for television, as has the Los Angeles designer Margo Chase (fig. 16-23).

A pioneer of design for digital media was Muriel Cooper, who founded the Visible Language Workshop, part of MIT’s Media Lab, in 1975. Cooper worked with her students to create an electronic language for building “typographic landscapes”-complex, malleable documents in real time and three-dimensionsal space (fig. 16-24). Cooper gave concrete functions to such principles as layered information, simultaneous texts, and typographic texture.26 April Greiman’s film Inventing Flight carries forward some of Cooper’s ideas about text as three-dimensional form (fig. 16-25).

Many women are excelling today in the fields of user-interface design and electronic media, including Red Burns, head of New York University’s Interactive Technology Program; Jessica Helfand, critic and designer of interactive media; and Loretta Staples, head of U dot I, specializing in the design of graphical user interfaces (GUI). Perhaps “interface” is an electronic couterpart for realms of culture that traditionally have been feminized. Office tasks known as “women’s work” often involve mediating technologies. From answering phones, transferring calls, and taking messages to typing letters and making copies, female office workers historically have formed a human link between managers and machines; women have served as bodily extensions for communications equipment. The contemporary ideal of the “user-friendly” electronic environment reflects the continued desire to humanize technology.

(end of excerpt)

Woodward, Fred

Interview, magazine designer Fred Woodward with Ellen Lupton. Conversation, June 6, 1996. Unpublished.

Tell me what you do here at Rolling Stone.

I’ve been here for nine years. I’m art director of Rolling Stone, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been creative director of the whole company. We publish US and Men’s Journal and some books. I keep the other two magazines staffed, and last year I was involved with changing the format of US. Mens Journal is being redesigned by David Amario. Richard Baker is art director of US. I design about two books a year, and whatever Jann [Wenner] has in his head.

What were you doing before Rolling Stone?

I worked at Texas Monthly, with a little stop-off in Washington, DC, where I designed the format and a few issues of a magazine called Regardie’s. Then I got the call to come here in 1987. That was pretty exciting. I always loved this magazine, as a kid I always loved it. It was Bob Wallace, executive editor of the magazine, who called me. I made it through the first screening and was deemed worthy of seeing Jann. I had quite a long interview with him.

What do you think it was in your work that made him choose you?

Typographically, my work probably owed a lot to the history of his magazine. When I was in school, I was very influenced by it. I studied design briefly, at Memphis State, just for two semesters. Then I went to work at Memphis magazine for the summer and decided to stay. My schooling was really working for the magazine.

What did you change at Rolling Stone?

Rolling Stone had gone through a four or five year period when it had kind of stripped down. The working term was “modern“—80s modern. It used Franklin Gothic. I came in and tried to connect the magazine to its past. It took a year or two to lay the foundation again. I put the Oxford border back in, to help clarify the relationship between editorial and advertising. The border had been used at the magazine before, but not for a long time. I made the magazine more eclectic again. Anything that went inside the border was Rolling Stone. It was actually very liberating. I was nervous about doing it, afraid that the border would be too confining, but I found that I could try anything within the limits of the border. I felt very challenged by the legacy of what others had done before. I was really working out of fear. That was a good thing. The two-week schedule was good, too. You just had to keep going.

Tell me about the work you’ve done with the type designer Jonathan Hoefler.

Working with Jonathan was a natural thing. He’s steeped in all the same history and sources. He’d uncover something new, give me a call, flesh it out. I’d be working on a special project and stop by and see what he was doing. The Cobain book was done that way—he had a typeface called Fell Historical.

How has the computer changed the way you work?

We’ve been doing everything on the computer for about four years now. I was scared to death of it, but that was good. We had a rocky period the first six months or so, but then we started making it work for us. The tail wasn’t wagging the dog anymore.

The computer didn’t really change the look of the book. I always felt that Rolling Stone should look handmade, kind of funky. We kept it that way. We were always trying to hand-tool those feature headlines, and it was a struggle to keep it clean-looking. We were cutting apart xeroxes, blowing it up, putting it back together. The computer makes it much easier to do that kind of work. It also makes it much easier to work at large scales like we were doing.

Over the last year, something has crept in that I think is different from the way we would have worked before the computer. The Alicia Silverstone feature where she’s blowing a bubble with bubble gum, and we used the reflection in the bubble as the headline—it’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it’s something new with this equipment.

We do all the photoretouching in-house, on a Scitex scanner, so we can control everything. It’s always been that way at Rolling Stone—we had our own film strippers. I like that. The magazine is a home grown product.

What do you think has been important in magazine design as a whole over the past fifteen years?

Fabien Baron’s work for Interview and Italian Vogue was very important. Harper’s Bazaar is less important to me. I think the work for Italian Vogue is where it started. The first year at Harper’s Bazaar, was very important, though.

Martha Stewart Living is extremely important. I hate to say it. It’s not that I like what it’s trying to do editorially, it’s just a beautifully crafted thing. It’s structured differently from any magazine that went before it. The art department evolved in a way that the designers really craft the stories with the editor, photographer, stylist, and so on. They go on location with the piece as it’s put together. That care really shows on the pages, apart from just how it looks. In terms of photogaphy, the magazine took the look of natural light and shallow depth of field and made it a trademark style.

Spy was very, very important, too. And in the early 80s, Robert Priest’s work for Esquire, around 1981, 82. That was very influential. It owed a certain debt to Rolling Stone but took it somewhere else. The magazine published very personal photography and illustration, a lot of it from Europe, that was unusual and ended up being quite influential.

What about Details?

To me, Details is a lot of watered-down Cranbrook, without being the real pure thing. Photographically, it’s very good, but otherwise, it feels like it’s trying to do something, but its cuffed. It holds back. Of course you’re showing Ray Gun. That’s been incredibly important and it’s quite a phenomenon. And I hope you’re talking to the people at Dance Ink.

What else about Rolling Stone?

Lately, the last five years or so, or six or seven, people have talked about the type a lot. But I think it’s the combination of the type with illustration and photography. But I’m the last person that you should be talking to about Rolling Stone. I can’t really talk about it.