Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Ellen Lupton Interview: Fleeting Notions into Concrete Things
October 25, 2011

Being at the intersection, as she is, of the worlds of design, publishing, academia, and museums, Ellen Lupton has a unique perspective on the importance and power of language. In the introduction to her list of “Books Every Graphic Designer Should Read” she makes the (not intuitively obvious) claim that “reading and writing are fundamental skills for any graphic designer.” She describes writing as the process of “converting fleeting notions into concrete things”—which seems to be not a bad working definition of design itself—and asserts that those who are truly influential in graphic design are all “confident and creative writers.”

Lupton is the author of the all-time best-selling book published by Princeton Architectural Press (Thinking with Type), and one could make a convincing case that she herself occupies a spot on any list of the prominent and influential in graphic design. In between her beginning-of-the-academic year activities at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore and her curatorial work for the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, she graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Designers & Books: Through your positions at the Maryland Institute College of Art, you are well known for your intensive work with design students. How do they generally react to your belief that “reading and writing are fundamental skills for any graphic designer”? Does that notion seem unusual to them or do they see the connections as you do?

Ellen Lupton: MICA students, both graduate and undergraduate, tend to be strong in the liberal arts. Many of them actually read and collect books, when they can afford to. We have a free bookstore in Baltimore called The Book Thing,* which is very popular with students. Graduate students are especially motivated in this area. Several have written books for their graduate thesis projects, and they all read extensively as part of their research. They are big fans of the MICA library, which can get them pretty much any book in the world for free.

D&B: Your book list covers a wide range of types of books—the theoretical (Of Grammatology); the practical (Elements of Typographic Style); design history (Hollis’s Graphic History: A Concise History); and the literary (Slaughterhouse Five). Does the list you put together for us parallel some of the course reading lists at MICA? Or were you thinking of different criteria for your Designers & Books list?

EL: I don’t typically ask my students to read literature for our courses, but books about design and writing—absolutely!

D&B: Authors like Barthes and Derrida—who are both on your list—have long been perennials on college course reading lists. Is it your sense that students still see the value of challenging books like these?

EL: Graduate students are definitely up to the challenge, even though they often find it a bit bewildering. Often, they have read these authors before as undergraduates, so this is a chance to connect again with a difficult text, but now from the distinct vantage point of graphic design. It can be quite illuminating to circle back to critical theory from a design perspective. 

D&B: We would guess that when you started work on Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming (just published this summer), it was long enough ago that e-books weren’t quite the force they are now. For your next book, will you be thinking more consciously about how your content concept relates to e-book technology and can be delivered that way?

EL: I’m excited about seeing new ways to use and create books. My graduate students and I have begun working together on a book called Type on Screen, forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press (PAP) in 2013. This next book will appear in both digital and print editions; video and interactive elements are essential to the content. PAP is also working on a digital edition of my classic textbook, Thinking with Type. Digital books provide a different kind of experience and access than print. I don’t think they will replace print; hopefully, they will open up new markets and opportunities rather than shutting down the old ones. Reading a novel on an iPad or Kindle is great fun. I’m not yet convinced that this is the best way to read a visual book or a reference book. Readers will need to develop new habits, and designers and developers will need to find great ways to deliver content.

D&B: As a book designer as well as an author, can you conceive of books that won’t involve a physical book component?

EL: Sure, I read a lot of fiction on my iPad and iPhone. I read the newspaper and journals like McSweeney’s on my phone as well. I would like to write and design for this medium as well.

D&B: The website for your department at MICA says that Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming “is not an individual project. In fact, Lupton's students are her partners in the book’s making and design.” Can you describe how this worked?

Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming, 2011 (Princeton Architectural Press)

EL: Since 2006, I’ve been co-authoring books with students and faculty at MICA. We’ve produced some very successful titles, including D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, Graphic Design: The New Basics, Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book, and Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming, all published with PAP.

I develop a book proposal with PAP, focusing on topics that are of real value to potential readers. All of these books are useful, practical, down-to-earth guides to aspects of the design process. Then, I work with students and other faculty to develop visual and verbal content for the books. We conduct design experiments in our studio classes that test ideas or concepts; often, the students come up with their own processes and test them visually. The students are both learning new processes and sharing the results of their research, and that becomes the content of the book.

For example, grad student Virginia Sasser developed a chapter in Graphic Design Thinking devoted to rhetorical principles; she devised examples, identified applications, and wrote original text. Students receive credit as authors and designers, and some of these students go on to develop their own publishing projects. Royalties for the books are used to fund student research projects at MICA.


 Case study of “Rhetorical Chairs” from Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming (pp. 82–87)

D&B: The introduction to Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming talks about the concept of design thinking and the literature of creative problem solving. Can you mention a few of those titles and their importance?

EL: There’s a great book called Universal Traveler, by Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall. Published in 1972, this hippie classic was a big source of inspiration. It’s kind of a Last Whole Earth Catalog for design thinking techniques. I’ve written about it here:

D&B: You are the author of Princeton Architecture Press’s all-time best selling book, Thinking with Type, which to date has sold 100,000 copies. When you turned in the manuscript, did you have any sense that the book would be that successful? The book was originally published in 2004 and is now in its second edition. With that historical perspective, what’s your sense of the reason for the book’s success?

EL: Thinking with Type has been successful because it was written with readers in mind. I made a sign and posted it on my wall while I was writing the book that asked, “What do you want to say? Why does your reader need to know that?” Many books are written in order to prove how smart the author is or to otherwise explore the author’s personal obsessions. I wrote this book with design educators and young designers in mind, and it has indeed found a big audience. It’s not pretentious, grandiose, or overwhelming. It’s a book you can hold in your hands and make sense of quickly. And unlike those biology textbooks that broke your budget in college, Thinking with Type won’t give you sticker shock.

Thinking with Type,
revised expanded 2nd edition, 2010 (Princeton Architectural Press)


D&B: In your comments about Slaughterhouse Five, you say that novels like it can be inspirational to designers. Would we be right to conclude from your comments about Vonnegut that you read a lot of fiction? Can you name a few other novelists and novels on your favorites list?

EL: Fiction should inspire everyone. Fiction takes you to another place, and it exploits the most universal medium of visual communication: text. Designers have much to learn from fiction. There is a lot of discussion across the design disciplines right now about storytelling as a design tool. Reading actual stories is a great way to get started in this direction. Set in the near future, Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story has much to say about design, technology, and social malfunction. Shteyngart is a Vonnegut for our own time.

D&B: Two last questions. Can you tell us what you are currently reading?

EL: I’m reading Dan Chaon’s heartbreaking novel You Remind Me of Me. I just finished Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.

D&B: Can you mention some titles that would make it onto your list of notable books of 2011?

EL: Of course, Tina Fey’s Bossypants. Every woman on the planet should read this book! 

Note: Ellen Lupton’s next book (to be released November 30, 2011) is Graphic Design: Now in Production, of which she is co-editor. The book is the catalogue for the exhibition of the same name, which she co-curated for the Cooper-Hewitt along with the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The exhibition opened at the Walker Art Center this past weekend, on October 22.



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