Font, Format, Insert, Publish, Send: A conversation about the exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production

By Julia LuptonNovember 28, 2012

Font, Format, Insert, Publish, Send: A conversation about the exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production

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 “production artists” did the grunt work of the design business, spending long nights hunched over their drafting tables with their Xacto knives and t-squares. The desktop publishing revolution poured much of that production work into a little beige box — the Macintosh computer — making the creative process merge freely with production. Today, every designer is a production artist — setting type, retouching photos, and making endless updates for clients. The convergence of design and production gives us more direct control over the outcome of a project, while also loading us with an ever-growing list of skills and tasks to master.

The word “production” suggests getting things done. It also suggests taking a role at the head of a complex project. Many designers today are using their knowledge of production techniques to become publishers, authors, editors, and instigators. New tools such as print-on-demand, on-line distribution, and low-cost digital printing allow designers, artists, writers, and other creative people to produce their own content. Designers in this all-access, post-recession era are working harder than ever to pay the bills with commercial work; many are also exploring new avenues of opportunity by working in more independent and entrepreneurial ways.

imageExternalcyan, "Flieger," 2010, Courtesy Maharam Digital Projects

JL: How does this new production context change the kinds of things that a single designer or design studio might make? How do you see a diversification into the design of products, spaces, and experiences coming out the of the graphic designer’s central vocation, working with type? How do we know that a work is still “graphic” when it’s no longer on a page?

EL: The term “graphic” has long been a point of contention in our field. Some designers prefer the professional sound of “visual communication,” but I’ve always rejected the vague pseudo-science of that term. Facial expressions and traffic lights are visual communication, but they are tangential to what we do. Other designers want to ditch the word “graphic,” shooting for the broader, more inclusive modality of design in general. I like the word “graphic” because it connects us to the world of text, as well as to the “graphic arts” — the processes of printing and production. Typography is always about writing, and writing is a graphic phenomenon. Whether typography exists in ink or pixels, or appears on books, bodies, or buildings, it turns written content into image and form.

JL: What do you see as California’s contribution to graphic design, historically and right now? I am thinking, for example, of Mike Davis’s comments in The City of Quartz about Los Angeles as the place where capitalism is both massively promoted and acutely critiqued; or his argument that the visual stories told by and about Los Angeles in film are themselves a “material force in the city’s actual evolution.” In other words, graphic design — as in, say, the famous Hollywood sign — seems to generate the city itself as a living stage set that is always “now in production.”

EL: Mike Davis does indeed capture the role of the image (whether it’s Hollywood or Disney) in shaping the sprawling brandscape of Southern California, which in turn has had a massive impact on urban design globally. In our exhibition, reels of film and television titles featuring spectacular motion graphics (for example, Karin Fong's title sequences for Crossing the Rubicon and Boardwalk Empire, both featured in the show) speak to the heart of the California creative industry and its historic role in shaping national and international pop cultures.

But design in California goes beyond movies, malls, and theme parks, and you’ll see oppositional and artisanal kinds of work in the show as well. In the late 1990s, for example, Dave Eggers famously deployed his desktop publishing skills to build a publishing enterprise with an assertive graphic presence. The McSweeney’s empire of products shows how design, typography, and the physical craft of bookmaking can merge creatively with writing, editing, and publishing. Detroit native Ed Fella, who has been teaching at CalArts for over two decades, has produced an ongoing series of low-tech, self-published posters that mix PressType letters with sliced, diced, and hand-drawn alphabets. Also made in California are screenprinted wallpapers designed by Geoff McFetridge and urban birdhouses produced by sign painter Jeff Canham and sculptor Luke Bartels. Such work taps into California’s long love affair with regional traditions, countercultural experiment, and back-to-the-woods craftsmanship.

JL: Beginning with the Bauhaus, we often think of design as an international language. You did great work early in your career on international picture languages and their hidden cultural bases. Where do you see the global and regional dimensions of graphic design today?

EL: Certain parts of the world have been hot houses of graphic creativity since the 1920s. New York is one of them, but so is the Netherlands, a small country with an outsized impact on world architecture, products, and graphics. Artists like Theo van Doesburg thrust the Netherlands into the global avant-garde during the Bauhaus period. Today, groups like LUST and Metahaven are building an international dialogue about design while also confronting issues specific to the low countries. Many of today’s most interesting design practices combine local engagement with an international conversation made possible by the internet.

JL: You have an essay on “Reading and Writing” in the catalog. The catalog itself is cleverly designed as an homage to the Whole Earth Catalog, the hippie bible that flipped the genre of the mail-order missive into an anti-ad for alternative living. The exhibition features dozens of contemporary books and magazines, teasing book lovers everywhere with the hope that print is not dead and paper is forever. Where do you see publishing going right now? What difference is design making in the future of the book?

EL: More books and magazines are being published today than at any time in history. Many of these are small-scale endeavors directed at niche audiences. Artists, writers, and enthusiasts of every stripe are using the power of the Internet to promote and distribute their work. It’s Nice That is a fast-moving website that publishes a biannual print edition, culled and curated from the web’s ephemeral flow into a physical object you can hold in your hands. Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and Anne Carson are exploring the expressive potential of ink on paper in books that function as both objects and literature. Working at a more grandiose scale, Nathan Myhrvold — a former Microsoft executive and professionally trained chef — financed, produced, and co-authored Modernist Cuisine, a six-volume, 52-pound exploration of avant-garde cooking techniques. (The set is so heavy, it takes two curators to safely put the book in the museum display case.)

Countering all that material mass, books and magazines created exclusively for the iPad are infusing text and image with motion and interactivity. All these projects use graphic design in the hope of creating memorable experiences for readers. An editor or author starts with an idea; graphic design makes it real. But what counts as “real” is changing all the time, thanks to the volatility of hardware, apps, brand identity, and investment capital. A beautiful interactive project by software designer Ben Fry looks at the textual history of Darwin’s book Origins of the Species, which was published in six different editions during Darwin’s lifetime. Fry’s piece lets us see what was added with each new edition (including more vigorous references to the Creator). We sometimes imagine that printed books are fixed and finished objects, but Fry’s digital reconstruction of Darwin’s treatise shows how unstable print publishing actually is.

imageExternalAcconci Studio, "City of Words," 2010, Courtesy Maharam Digital Projects

JL: Shakespeare’s plays are certainly proof of a similar malleability. The texts we read today are largely constructed out of a variety of early printed copies, from underground quartos to coffee table Folios. And there was likely a great deal more variation and improvisation when it came to actually staging the plays.

When I was in graduate school back in the late 1980s, you advised me on an assignment that asked us to imagine a new model for editing Shakespeare. You came up with a hypertext Shakespeare that would allow the reader to choose among variants from the early print texts. This was before desktop publishing took off, and of course way before the web. We prototyped the project on a huge type-setting machine housed in the design department at the Cooper Union. Ten years later, publishing really did move in that direction. Where do you see design and research influencing each other today?

EL: The tools of scholarship are changing along with the tools of design. College students no longer just write “term papers” but also learn to edit video, create page layouts, and publish content on the web. At UCLA, writers like Peter Lunenfeld and Johanna Drucker are working with designers (including Art Center’s Anne Burdick) to create new models of practice for the “digital humanities.” Research is becoming cross-disciplinary and multi-media.

JL: Metahaven’s Facestate project is the most speculative work featured in your exhibition. The Amsterdam-based studio is working at the intersection of graphic design, research, branding, and critical theory. What is Metahaven aiming at with Facestate? How do you see their more oppositional work interacting with, say, the installation by Brand New, which is a more mainstream exploration of logo makeovers?

EL: Facestate is an imaginary brand for a borderless global society governed by social networks. In the glassy-eyed future imagined by Metahaven, invisible protocols will monetize social connections while crowd-sourcing public policy, replacing elected officials and entrenched bureaucracies with systems of surveillance. Facestate captures ideas such as e-Government and Wiki Government — which have been circulating since the 1990s — and endows them with a chilling visual form. The installation features printed paper models of tablets, smart phones, and credit cards along with a dramatic faux advertising campaign. Designed by Metahaven founders Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk, Facestate represents “invisible walls,” “social debt,” and the “pool of memory” as features of a seemingly free and open (but effectively controlled) social model. Facestate combines the aesthetic of Web 2.0 and Apple-flavored minimalism with Metahaven’s own insistent brand of corporate resistance.

The exhibition offers a wholly different experience of corporate branding in Brand New, an interactive installation conceived by Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio, where visitors can grab a handful of shiny yellow poker chips and use them to vote on the “before” or “after” version of a recently redesigned logo. As a curator, I’ve been fascinated to stand back and listen to people compare the new logo for Comedy Central — a cool, concise mark that looks a lot like the copyright symbol — to the old logo, which depicts a miniature urban skyline bursting with energy. Professional designers tend to prefer simpler, more abstract logos, while members of the general public often prefer fussier and more literal designs.

JL: You’re a designer, but most of the design you do relates immediately to your writing of books and shaping of exhibitions. How is design a way of thinking and writing for you?

EL: Design is an empowering tool for me as a writer and curator. Having a direct understanding of hands-on production processes and communication techniques allows me to craft messages and tell stories with more confidence than an academically trained curator might have. Writers who can control how text sits on a page feel hugely enabled by that experience. Jonathan Safran Foer, Reif Larsen, and Anne Carson are doing amazing things with typography and layout as tools of direct writerly intervention. When I’m designing one of my own books, I don’t have to ask another designer to interpret what I want. The tools are in my own hands, liberating me to come into much closer contact with the experience of readers.

JL: The poster has played a foundational role in the last century of graphic design, whether we’re talking about high modernist designs by the Russian Constructivists or commercial posters advertising goods, shows, and events pasted up along city streets. What’s your favorite poster in the show? Tell us a little about how changing communicative and technological platforms are affecting the way that the poster contributes to graphic design as a critical discourse.

EL: The most intriguing projects in the exhibition rethink what a poster can be or do. The British designer Daniel Eatock created a new piece for us called Felt-Tip Prints, which asks whether a poster needs to have a conventional message at all. Eatock placed sheets of paper on top of 148 felt-tip pens, left uncapped and standing, for varying durations, allowing the paper to absorb the ink and drain the markers dry. Eatock rotated and flipped the paper as he worked, randomly rearranging the pens and printing some sheets up to ten times to create a set of unique prints. As a student Eatock was trained to use Magic Markers to visualize ideas — a process already on its way to obsolescence. He recalls being more interested in how the ink soaked through the layers of paper than in the sketches he was supposed to be rendering. At once super-smart and super-beautiful, Felt-Tip Prints pays its respects to a tool that once exemplified the creative process of “commercial art.”

Using new technologies instead of fading ones, Posterwall for the 21st Century displays an ever-changing collage of digital graphics that pile up on each other like posters pasted on city walls and fences. Projected on a big screen, each “poster” is produced by custom software that gleans content from various local and global data feeds and arranges them according to a set of rules. Created by the Dutch collective LUST, this vibrantly abrasive cacophony of type, image, and color embraces open systems rather than polished results. Visitors to the exhibition can make their own posters by Tweeting photos or texts with the hashtag #posterwall. The system converts the user’s Tweet into an instant graphic layout. If you like what you see, you can capture it with a QR reader and take it with you.

The tools of graphic design — from fonts to Photoshop — have become ubiquitous. Design is a medium that nearly anyone can engage with, both as users and producers. From understanding infographics to savoring the persistence of posters, I’d like to see everyone leave this show with a greater sense of what graphic design is and can be; we can all question — and expand — what our roles are in making, using, and perhaps transforming the many tools and environments that design mobilizes today.


Ellen Lupton will be speaking at the Hammer on November 29. For more information, click here

LARB is reader supported.  Click here to donate.

LARB Contributor

Julia Reinhard Lupton teaches English at UC Irvine and keeps digital house at She is the author, co-author or editor of seven books, including Thinking with Shakespeare and Design Your Life (with Ellen Lupton).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!