Mindset promotions present:
First Things First. Nine online lectures unpacking the relationship between typography and consumption.
Vince Frost// Introductions Biography
Jonathan Barnbrook// Design beyond commodification Biography
Ken Garland// I design, therefore I am Biography
Katherine McCoy// There is such a thing as society (wake up and smell the coffee) Biography
Ellen Lupton// Introductions Biography
Towards a complex simplicity Biography
Jessica Helfand// You are under our control Biography
J. Abbott Miller// The idea is the machine Biography
Ruby VanderLans// Introductions
Sian Cook// Infiltrate, infect and mutate:
the problem with choice
Zuzana Licko// The big reveal: theatrical typography
Teal Triggs// The endless library at the end of print
Ellen Lupton: Biography.
Like an interpretation of a musical score, reading is a performance of the written word.
Ellen Lupton - 1963 - Philadelphia - USA
Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, and graphic designer. She is director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, where she also serves as director of the Centre for Design Thinking. As curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum since 1992, she has produced numerous exhibitions and books, including Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office (1993), Mixing Messages: Graphic Design and Contemporary Culture (1996), Letters from the Avant-Garde (1996), and Skin: Surface, Substance + Design (2002). She recently has focused on bringing design awareness to broader audiences. Her book Thinking with Type (2004) is a basic guide to typography directed at everyone who works with words. D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself (2006), co-authored with her graduate students at MICA, explains design
processes to a general audience. D.I.Y. Kids (October 2007), co-authored with Julia Lupton, is a design book for children illustrated with kids’ art. “It’s never too early,” they explain, “to talk to your child about design.”
Her most recent book is Graphic Design: The New Basics (with Jennifer Cole Phillips, 2008). She is the co-author with Abbott Miller of several books, including The Bathroom, the Bathroom, and the Aesthetics of Waste (1992), Design Writing Research (1996), and Swarm (2006).
Lupton is a 2007 recipient of the AIGA Gold Medal, one of the highest honours given to a graphic designer or design educator in the U.S. Ellen Lupton has contributed to various design magazines, including Print, Eye, I.D., and Metropolis. She has a regular column, “The El Word,” in Readymade magazine. Her editorial illustrations have been published in The New York Times. A frequent lecturer around the U.S. and the world, Lupton will speak about design to anyone who will listen. Other exhibitions she has curated and co-curated include the National Design Triennial series (2000, 2003, 2006), Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005 (2006), Solos: New Design from Israel (2006), and Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age (1999), all at CooperHewitt, National Design Museum. 33
Towards a complex simplicity.
In the face of global branding , designers are seeking inspiration from the everyday, the quotidian experiences found in the routines of daily life. What defines contemporary graphic design today? The shelves of your local bookshop provide at least one answer. Most books published on the socalled avant-garde of contemporary design represent the institutionalisation of graphic experimentation, only confirming that the radical signs surrounding design in the late 1980s and early 1990s have become thoroughly predictable. Not only has this kind of work become a marketable aesthetic niche, but it is perpetuated by educational institutions that dutifully churn out the latest incremental variations in formulaic fashion, fuelled by the twin myths of expressionism and stylistic pluralism. In his analysis of the 1980s art scene, the critic Hal Foster describes at least two conditions that identify a state of pluralism: a proliferation of accepted styles in the marketplace and a profusion of educational programmes that together constitute a new academy. I believe that graphic design operates under similar conditions today. The problem with pluralism is that styles become relative options, not critical choices. Although pluralism ensures many styles from which to choose, we lose any sense of critical alternatives because, as Foster states, “tolerance and acceptance doesn’t threaten the status quo”. Instead we have incremental or, in the parlance of 1990s economics, “managed” change. Just as the last round of “radical” graphics entered the profession in the late 1980s, many critics predicted an immedi38
ate opposite reaction, not understanding perhaps the speed and depth of
and visual, rather than the next round of
The diagrammatic and the eccentric converge in Timothy McSweeney’s, a
assimilation such work would engender.
stylistic permutations. This shift away from
literary journal in which words reign supreme. This is confirmed by the ad-
the simply complex and towards a complex
monishment on the cover of issue two: “If words are to be used as design
The prevailing notion of what defines contemporary graphic design took hold
simplicity is a condition that I would like to
elements then let designers write them.” Prone to confabulation, this small,
early in the 1990s – variously and problematically referred to as Decon-
read against many of the most celebrated
book-like journal is set in only one typeface, Garamond, about which is
structivism, grunge graphics, or simply, the “cult of the ugly”. In antithetical
characteristics of design produced in the
provided a five-page pseudo-colophon. McSweeney’s is typically bereft of
fashion, some critics foresaw an inevitable reaction to the trend by predicting
imagery, especially photography, preferring small line illustrations and the
a return to more minimal or reductive approaches. Emigre magazine devoted an issue to the subject (“Starting from Zero”) as early as 1991, in which the idea of reduction was taken to mean a return to the primal, and in 1995
occasional diagram or dingbat. Its well crafted covers evoke Victorian typo-
A complex simplicity.
Carel Kuitenbrouwer presciently saw the turn in contemporary Dutch design
charts structure the contents of each issue in much the way that nineteenthcentury physiognomy charts tried to map human nature. McSweeney’s relies
away from its baroque excesses and towards a “new sobriety” (Eye no. 17
In the realm of the simply complex, frag-
on verbal explication and finds a visual corollary in the diagram. The contents
vol. 5). The prophecies continue with the recent publication of Less Is More,
mentation is preferred as the viewer as-
of issue two, for example, are represented by the number of words per ar-
by Steven Heller and Anne Fink, a collection of contemporary design defined
sembles various bits of text and image to
ticle and approximate reading time, and by a pie chart that categorises the
by familiar yet retrograde notions of simplicity. In the wake of these predic-
form an aggregate message. Such work
offerings by percentage, for example, “Stories that want you to be happy:
tions has the cult of complexity given way to an ethos of simplicity?
tends to treat language as a free-floating
19%.” Carefully ordered, but abhorrent of white space, it leaves no place
talisman, isolated words drifting across the
unused. Witness, from the third issue cover, messages such as “This area
page in search of meaning. By contrast a
was blank for the longest time” or “Nothing need happen here”, or an article
complex simplicity relies on enumeration
printed on the spine. For McSweeney’s the modernist principle of “activated”
and explication, a series of digressions and
white space seems empty, both wasteful and useless, because every place is
elaborations linked in the flow of language.
a seen as a potential space to hold meaning.
Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas. -Beatrice Warde
graphic guises with elaborate extended prose and marginalia, while intricate
What seems trivial and tangential becomes essential – like so many bits and pieces of
It is also possible for the form to structure itself. For example, various bits
data in the detritus of the information age.
of data taken together form a powerful gestalt in Jeremy Coysten’s poster
At the beginning of the decade it seemed as if there was an ever-expanding
This abundance of information is employed
series on aeroplane crashes and traffic accidents. Coolly rendered as scat-
universe of graphic possibilities, yet now it feels as if we have reached the
to dramatic and occasionally humorous
terplots, Coysten’s Civil Airline Disasters 1950-1998 fixes the location and
limit. Is there no way forward when everything seems possible? In this infinity
effect. Structure becomes paramount in or-
death toll of 607 aviation tragedies, their resulting dispersal pattern forming
of possibilities, we may arrive at zero. But to begin again does not mean re-
der to handle large quantities of texts and
an image of the world. Coysten’s poster was prompted by his own near-miss
turning to the “good old days” of clarity, legibility and objectivity. Starting from
images: a penchant for charts, diagrams
incident aboard a flight to Australia. A second poster in the series docu-
zero does not mean that contemporary design arrives free of the past.
and maps prevails. But in the most inter-
ments road accidents in the uk over one week. In both instances the rational
esting work what appears to be good old
forms of information design have been employed to register the seemingly
There are signs of different forms of design taking hold, projects and solu-
information design reveals, upon closer ex-
irrational loss of life. The calculated nature of the statistics contrasts with
tions that embrace reductive not additive working methods, explicit rather
amination, something more subjective – a
random events or accidents. The posters are produced for sale and are not
than implicit structures of organisation, a preference for the literal over the
kind of over-rationalised explication – that
commissioned for public safety campaigns. In this way information becomes
ambiguous, and where the ordinary and the quotidian, not the exoticised
undermines its historical associations of
both a product and a surrogate form of experience.
subcultures of the vernacular, are sources of inspiration. At their best such
neutrality and objectivity.
projects are a critical encounter with problems of representation, both verbal 39
subsequent layout of 1,056 pages. The aim of the project is interpretative, not exhaustive, therefore the body of the text comprises only 144 expressions
used by Krauss in Die Fackel. The purpose of this dictionary is to register the nuances of Krauss’s concepts and expressions. Representing a decidedly postmodern “tissue of quotations”, Burdick has structured the pages
While the overt intervention of the designer figured prominently as a signifier
so that the central column of text includes excerpts from Krauss’s writings,
of self-expression, one can detect the suspension of many of the designer’s
while the left column contains citations and cross-references, and the right
more subjective decision-making tasks. Like forms of conceptual art, the
column contains texts that perform “interpretative actions” on the main pas-
preferred mode is more detached, relying on systematic approaches to pro-
sage. Because Krauss often used typography and imagery semantically in
duce solutions. Sol LeWitt once proclaimed that “the idea is the machine that
his writings, the central column frequently contains images and passages of
makes the art”. The systematic nature of a predetermined process generates
text lifted directly from the original. Burdick acknowledges that conventional
its form, and in this way it is the process itself that becomes the concept.
assumptions of design authorship were hampered by both the scope of the
Although the designer has not been entirely removed, what is foregrounded is
project and the barrier of a foreign language. Relying instead on a series of
the visible traces of the process. Unlike some Modernist attempts at aban-
instructions, Burdick’s solution nevertheless bears the traces of the designer’s
doning subjectivity in favour of machine-like rationality, certain projects provide
close attention to the details that would allow the project to realise its most
a framework for future actions outside the usual control of the designer and
appropriate polyphonic form.
are often completed by the viewer. Simple complexity demands typographic experimentation, highly articulated An example of such participatory, rather than prescriptive, design is a poster by
structures and eccentric typefaces. By contrast, a complex simplicity revels
Paul Elliman for a conference on the work of the French writer Lautréamont
in the spartan vocabulary of what might be called “vanilla typography”, where
(see Eye no. 25 vol. 7, page 31). White boxes have been inserted between
typography has been reduced to a near-zero degree of expression – neither
the words “image”, “Maldoror” and “text”, for conference participants to com-
pretty nor eccentric, but quite plain. This is an inverted world where the or-
plete, alter or negate. This simple gesture allows the project to generate a
dinary stands out from the crowd as a distinctive gesture. By comparison,
multitude of responses, which as an action echoes the nature of the event’s
yesteryear’s shaped paragraph blocks and micromanaged type treatments
interpretive agenda. In a similar but more extreme vein, Daniel Eatock’s utilitar-
look like fussy affectations, so many histrionics in the passion play of design.
ian poster project, essentially a generic form silk-screened on newsprint paper,
This change in typographies signals not only a shift in fashion, but also helps
methodically guides the user through the steps of creating their own adver-
expose the expressionistic fallacy behind much 1990s design.
tisement, and includes blanks to insert relevant information, such as titles of events, images, persons to contact, etc. In this instance the work is wholly
Expressionism denies its existence as a language, and thus a style, in order
dependent on viewer response, the absence of which denies the piece its
to preserve a sense of immediacy, a supposedly unmediated or direct con-
nection to individual desire and the unconscious. Indeed, in most forms of contemporary design, expressionism has become synonymous with individual-
Anne Burdick’s design for Wörterbuch der Redensarten, a dictionary of
ity. While modern typography in the 1960s and 1970s could be easily linked
idioms, demonstrates an intricate form of complexity that weaves together
with the increasing rationality of the then-emerging industrial technocracy,
various texts. Gathered from the work of Karl Krauss’s Die Fackel, a literary
today’s similar but simpler typography is aligned with the cultural sectors
journal published between 1899 and 1936, Burdick worked with a group
of fashion and art. This simplified approach to typography, while relatively
of researchers in Vienna to generate a series of design directions for the
common to many culture magazines, is most often employed in conjunction 42
In this image world, life is collected in
(a man and a woman) appear fresh from a sexual encounter – replete with
pictures documenting the everyday in the
small beads of perspiration on their faces. Inside, the clichés of sex are
face of a highly mediated, spectacularised
distributed accordingly – sexual innuendo and phallicism, photos of stained
existence. The moment preserved by the
mattresses and bits of blacked-out (“censored”) texts. Importantly, the sub-
snapshot is valued because it signifies
jects of re- are ordinary people, not celebrities. The texts remain first-person
“realness”. This theme appears in cultiver
accounts, either testimonials, diaristic thoughts, or confessions.
notre jardin, by Jan van Toorn. Using a structure of perforated and folded pages, Van Toorn alternates between colour and
The ordinary made extraordinary.
black and white images – pictures taken mainly by him – of people, friends and places
With the reconsideration of the ordinary and everyday within graphic design,
around the world. Interspersed through the
one may ask whether we are witnessing the end of what was once referred
with the nouveau realist photography of the
book are quotations about social reality,
to as “the society of the spectacle”. It is more likely that with today’s cam-
mediated experience and notions of public
paigns for global branding – the process that transforms the ordinary into
and private space, including a quote by
the memorable – we long for the less-mediated experiences found in the
social critic Mike Davis, who argues for a
routines of daily life. Perhaps we can’t recognise the spectacle because it
re-examination of nineteenth-century real-
exists all around us.
Picturing the everyday.
ism and its relationship to everyday life.
One of the more influential publications in this
Van Toorn extols us to “cultivate our own
After attending America: Cult and Culture, last year’s AIGA [American Insti-
genre is Paris-based Purple, which surveys
garden”, by carving out a space in the pub-
tute of Graphic Arts] conference in Las Vegas (Reviews, Eye no. 34 vol. 9),
the worlds of art, fashion, fiction, prose and in-
lic sphere in what have become expanding
it seemed all too easy to leave the spectacle behind as my plane departed.
teriors. Segregating the verbal (prose, fiction)
corporate and institutional fields.
Watching television at home, a group of rather ordinary young men and
Design is not just what it looks like and feels like.Design is how it works.
from the visual (art, fashion, interiors), Purple’s
representation. Eschewing visual ambigu-
moment it was difficult, but not impossible, to remember that the truly ordi-
of professional, commercial photography, with
ity, including the clichéd stylistic affecta-
nary lies in opposition to the brand. I was reminded of the architect Deborah
its requisite need for elaborate lighting set-
tions of blurriness, the preferred mode of
Berke’s warning, in writing about the transformation of the landscape from
ups, make-up, styling and retouching. While
pictorial represent-ation is documentary
banal to branded: “To confuse ubiquitous logos with generic identity [is] to
images have undergone extensive digital
realness – not an attempt at capturing the
mistake successful marketing for ‘popular’ culture.” At the eclipse of the so-
manipulation in the past decade, the recent
authentic, but a much more studied trope
ciety of the spectacle, the ordinary is made extraordinary and the trivial and
resurgence of the snapshot makes one won-
that signifies the real but does not try to
mundane become memorable.
der whether this form of representation is a
stand in for it. This strategy is evinced in
critical alternative or simply a fashionable one.
Jop van Bennekom’s self-initiated project,
The extensive presence of fashion advertising
re-, a magazine about everyday life. In an
that mimics this look in the pages of Purple
issue devoted to sex, the cover models
women dressed casually but alike were singing along to an old Madonna
preferred image is the snapshot, the most
Rather than striving to record moments
tune. The minimal white stage set and the uninflected karaoke ushered in
immediate form of photographic address.
of realness as it happens, other designers
the autumn season of clothing for The Gap and I found myself transfixed:
Uncomplicated, unstudied, and frequently un-
prefer a much more mediated approach to
ordinary clothes worn by average people elevated to a new aesthetic. At that
staged, the snapshot negates the conditions
suggests the latter.
Originally published in Eye Magazine. Text copyright Eye Magazine © 2001.
Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing.No argument or consideration can absolve typography from this duty.
A typography and editorial exercise, to make a book detailing transcripts and biographies from the First Things First manifesto.
Published on Apr 22, 2011
A typography and editorial exercise, to make a book detailing transcripts and biographies from the First Things First manifesto.