Born 1963, Philadelphia, PA
Recognized for her invaluable role as an educator, author and curator in the field of design and for her intellect and mastery of words.
Ellen Lupton makes this industry smarter. If graphic design has a sense of its own history, an understanding of the theory that drives it and a voice for its continuing discourse, it’s largely because Lupton wrote it, thought it or spoke it.
Like so many other design legends that came of age in the era of “commercial art,” Lupton was not aware of design as a viable field of study before college. It wasn’t until she began as a fine art student at Cooper Union in 1981 that she discovered the expressive potential of typography. The visual art of writing was an inspiration to a self-professed “art girl” who came from a family of English teachers. Realizing the potential for an expanded critical discourse in graphic design provoked a shift in her ambitions. “Graphic design was a revelation to me,” says Lupton. “Design really wasn’t in the mainstream back then. It was esoteric. It was the thing you did if you were very ‘neat,’ which I wasn’t.”
Upon graduating in 1985, Lupton accepted an offer to run the newly founded Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union. The future advocate of “do-it-yourself” started out as a D.I.Y. curator herself, fusing her talents as a writer and designer with an abiding interest in post-structuralism to visually construct the principles of graphic design history and theory on a shoestring budget. Curatorial work came naturally as an extension of writing and design. Exhibitions provided another arena in which objects, images and text functioned as both the method of communication and the subject of inquiry. Lupton’s early work in this area brought the visual and the verbal together so playfully that she surprised her academic peers with her ability to make rigorous theory digestible and engaging. During this time Lupton also began publishing as a critic, establishing herself as a leading voice in the field in publications such as Blueprint, Eye, Design Review, I.D., Print, Emigre andAssemblage.
In the mid-1980s Lupton founded the Design Writing Research lab with partner J. Abbott Miller as a so-called “after school” supplement to their early working lives. “We were young and had theories,” she says, “so we created DWR as a thing where we could take on work with clients and do artsy-fartsy stuff for the real world.” The fledgling studio provided the ideal climate for the kind of seamless integration between theory and practice that would characterize the scope of Lupton’s career. Ideas from the Design Writing Research studio and early curatorial explorations at the Lubalin Center formed the basis for Design/Writing/Research: Writing on Graphic Design, co-authored and designed by Lupton and Miller in 1996. The Lupton/Miller partnership has yielded many accomplishments, both professionally and personally, from the Chrysler Design Award in 1993 to the ultimate collaboration: their two children, Ruby and Jay.
Lupton earned access to broader audiences and larger-scale projects in 1992, when she became the contemporary design curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, one of the few existing design curatorships in the country. During her continued tenure at the museum, Lupton has organized numerous exhibitions and major publications that showcase design for a general public without sacrificing conceptual depth. Shows such as 1996’s “Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture” set a precedent for sophisticated, mainstream legibility that came to fruition in 2000, when Lupton co-organized the first National Design Triennial, thus establishing a benchmark of innovation in American contemporary design.
“I first experienced Ellen Lupton’s curation when I visited her ‘Mechanical Brides’ and ‘Mixing Messages’ exhibitions in the late 1990s,” recalls Paul Warwick Thompson, director of the Cooper-Hewitt since 2001. “I was truly excited by the prospect of working with Ellen, and I remain captivated by the ‘Skin’ exhibition, which she curated in my first year in New York. She is a beautifully expressive writer, an eloquent and engaging speaker, a remarkable designer and design thinker: a true polymath.”
For the latest Triennial, 2006’s “Design Life Now,” Lupton raised a few eyebrows by including populist forms of new social media such as blogs, open-source software and D.I.Y. magazines, all of which work towards making design literacy part of mainstream culture and reflect her own desire to make design a less exclusive club. Lupton herself is an avid blogger on design-your-life.org and DIYKids.org, two sites that apply design to everyday life co-edited with her identical twin sister Julia. Inviting audiences to participate in the creation of a new design discourse shows a level of confidence rarely found among the design elite and a lack of fear in what she calls the age of “unstoppable self-education.”
“Ellen Lupton is an institution,” says Paula Scher. “In a time when design writing has moved to the blogosphere—and is more democratic, but more idiotic—Ellen’s clear voice is even more valuable.”
In her role as director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 2003, Lupton has continued to practice an inclusive ethos of design and communication. (She joined the school as chair of the undergraduate design program in 1997.) In 2006, she and her grad students produced D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, a manual for empowering non-designers with how-to skills. Lupton advocates exposing all methods of production: to this end, she has taught a course on code writing with a graduate student at MICA, and recently hosted seminars on independent publishing and blogging for designers and writers.
When she needed the right textbook for her students, Lupton wrote one herself. Although she has worked with various publishing houses over the years, she has produced over a dozen books with Princeton Architectural Press, including 2004’s Thinking with Type, one of the press’s best-selling titles. That seminal book features a series of concise essays, deftly illustrated examples and direct rules of engagement, and is most notable for the humor that hums dryly behind its Scala typeface. Her writing is smart, but more importantly, it entertains, too. “I wanted to produce a book that addressed both the how and why of typography, with serious history and theory,” she recalls, “and I wanted it to be fun, but not dumbed down. This is typography for people who think, but the book is not pompous or overly detailed.”
Lupton’s writing about design is itself an art. “She’s exceptionally adept at both the verbal and the visual, which is not to be taken for granted in this new era of ‘designer as author,’ an era that she so skillfully pioneered and has inspired many of us to follow suit,” says Chip Kidd. Lucid, sophisticated and free from jargon, her words continue to define the territory of graphic design after deconstruction—using theory not just as a collection of footnotes or an intellectual endgame, but also as a way to bring critical reflection into everyday practice. Abbott Miller concurs, “Ellen has always been interested in writing that is clear and stripped down. She wants to make theory and history relevant to what designers do, making her work a resource for practicing designers as well as a contribution to the discourse of design history.”
In addition to inspiring others to become contributors to the design world, Lupton challenges them to be intellectuals, too. Her conclusion to Thinking with Type offers this typically droll bit of advice: “Think more, design less.” She is this profession’s constant reminder to strive for conceptual depth, avoid style over substance and be smarter than we think we can be.
By Katherine Feo
© 2008 AIGA