Fanette Mellier, "Specimen," 2008, Courtesy the artist
EVERY MUSEUM EXHIBITION (along with every retail refuge, corporate café, magazine spread, and traffic ticket) is shaped by graphic design. From the captions on the wall to the EXIT sign over the door to the tote bags in the gift shop, somewhere a graphic designer conspired to tell us what we’re looking at, where we’re going, and what we can take with us on our way out.
It’s rare, though, that graphic design is the subject of a major museum show: its ephemeral products seem destined to wrap themselves around a piece of chewing gum or merge into the great half life of post-consumer waste. Most graphic design works by disappearing: we notice it when it’s not doing its job, when some message in our environment is illegible, overstated, or suffering from an acute comma deficiency. Or maybe we do take note of a piece of design: a McSweeneys page whose generous white space is atremble with the tiny wings of serif type, or a T-shirt that recollects the 1960s through its dead pan use of Helvetica. But unless we’re design insiders, most of us don’t know why we like what we like, or what graphic design has to do with it. At the same time, many of us are constantly designing something, thanks to the powerful tools and instant delivery methods bundled in our computers and wired into our workdays. Font, format, insert, publish, send: those are design words, with immediate (and often ugly) effects.
Considering its pervasiveness in our lives, it would be great to see broader design literacy everywhere and perhaps that work of aspirational outreach is one goal of “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” on view through January 6, 2013, at the Hammer Museum. The show is curated by Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Ellen Lupton from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Ellen runs the MFA program in Design at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, and she is the author of many books about design, including Thinking with Type, now in its second edition. She is also my twin sister. Although I am a Shakespeare scholar by day, Ellen and I have written about the everyday life of design in two trade books; she’s taught me enough about fonts to keep me type-conscious, color-sensitive, and brand-aware. In this interview, I’ve asked Ellen to talk about the show at the Hammer and to reflect on the state of design and publishing today.
Julia Lupton: “Graphic Design: Now In Production” gathers a wealth of graphic inventiveness into one type-happy, media-rich, logo-centric cosmopolis of design. Tell me about the concept behind the show. What do you mean by the phrase “now in production”?
Ellen Lupton: The word “production” refers to how designers implement a job technically — making corrections, preparing files for printing, or writing the code that makes a website function smoothly. Back in the 1980s &ldq...read more