Ellen Lupton on Writing with Design

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Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type is foundational in the field of graphic design. I bought myself a copy of the Brazilian translation in 2006, shortly after my advisor and friend Ana Gruszynski introduced me to Ellen’s texts when I was an undergraduate in Communication School in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

I immediately fell in love with the engaging narrative and the robust theoretical framework behind each applied example. It is a brilliant, unpretentious introduction to typography organized into three sections: letter, text, and grid. Each section begins with an overview of that category, including its definition and history, then splits into smaller sections about specific subcategories.

My copy of Thinking with Type has accompanied me as a student, then as a teacher and a researcher. I have read and re-read its pages in each of those phases. The book also traveled with me a few times. I brought it to Baltimore in 2015, when I had the opportunity to be mentored by Ellen for part of my PhD research. And later, when I moved here, my battered copy came along again in my suitcase.

Initially published in 2004, Thinking with Type was groundbreaking in the way that Ellen combined text/type and imagery to tell the story of typography. It’s a bestseller that has been published in several languages, and Ellen is working on a third edition of the book now. “Whenever a young designer hands me a battered copy of Thinking with Type to sign at a lecture or event, I’m warmed with joy from serif to stem,” Ellen wrote in the introduction to the second edition. “Those scuffed covers and dinged corners are evidence that typography is thriving in the hands and minds of the next generation.”

Born in Philly and raised in Baltimore, Ellen has an identical twin sister, Julia Lupton, at the University of California, Irvine, with whom she published Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things

Ellen earned a BFA in 1985 from Cooper Union, where she met her husband Abbott Miller. The two lived in New York City for fifteen years. She started working at Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum, in 1992 as a full-time curator.

A couple of years after their son was born, Ellen and Abbott moved to Baltimore. She went to part-time at Cooper Hewitt, and took on a teaching position at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 1997. She co-founded MICA’s MFA in Graphic Design program in 2004 with Jennifer Cole Phillips, and currently serves as the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Chair in Design.

Ellen worked between NYC and  Baltimore for more than two decades. After 30 years at the Cooper Hewitt museum, her term ended in 2022. She is looking forward to focusing on her books, lectures, and traveling in addition to teaching.

Ellen has published thirty-one books and curated twenty-two exhibitions. Among her favorite book projects are the 2020 Health Design Thinking: Creating Products and Services for Better Health—a “book for people who don’t go to museums,” as she says—and Extra Bold: A Feminist, Inclusive, Anti-racist, Nonbinary Field Guide for Graphic Designers (2021). She designs her books while writing them, editing text and making decisions about the hierarchy between words and images directly in InDesign.

When I asked Ellen what her favorite exhibition was, she responded right away: The Senses: Design Beyond Vision (2018). I remember visiting the show and being amazed at the wide spectrum of design work included. There was the packaging of Compartés Chocolatier, designed by Jonathan Grahm, which Ellen selected for the show to point out how colors, shapes, and forms amplify the sensation of taste and flavor. Another standout was Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael’s Cotton Candy Dish—3D-printed objects made of cotton candy. 

Daniel Wurtzel’s Feather Fountain was also shown at The Senses exhibition. It is an incredibly delicate and impressive sculpture involving bird feathers that rise up off the mirror base and fly in a central column of air. “Air is thus a crucial component of materials. It hides among the fibers of a felt curtain, and it fills the cells of a foam-rubber mat. Air is also an active, dynamic medium unto itself. Wurtzel is a sculpture artist who works with air,” Ellen wrote in the exhibition catalog.

Part of curatorial work entails ensuring all design pieces work well in the space. For Feather Fountain, each plume needed to have a specific weight so they would all move up and down correctly. Ellen brought all feathers to her house in Baltimore, weighed them, and applied a transparent coating to those that were too light.

For this interview, I met her at her home near Stony Run Park in August. She greeted me at the door with a big smile without a mask, and asked me if she should get one when she saw I was wearing one. We had both had COVID recently, so we felt comfortable being around each other without face covers. It felt like pre-pandemic times.

Her house is gorgeous, full of beautiful furniture, art, and design objects. Ellen showed me where she studies, writes, and relaxes. Her dogs, Kelvin and Jack, accompanied us while we talked about design as a superpower, her experience as a curator, and the rewarding process of writing books.

The following interview was edited for clarity, with photos by Vivian Doering created at Lupton’s home.

Design really is my superpower. Seeing my words in the correct font, laid out on the page exactly as they will appear in print, gets me closer to the experience of readers.
Ellen Lupton

Raquel Castedo: How is design a superpower?

Ellen Lupton: We all make design decisions every day. I’m a designer when I organize my fridge, plan my outfits, and format my emails. The farmers’ market offers an extravagant lesson in size, shape, color, and texture. In my career, my superpower is to merge design and writing.

For thirty years, I was Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. The museum explores everything about design—the people, the stuff, the process, the impact.

As a curator with design skills, I could format a label, arrange pictures, and produce an entire book. Design has helped me create mountains of content while understanding the subject of design from the inside out.

How did your exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision at Cooper Hewitt come together? Why did you feel the need to curate The Senses

My most thrilling experience at Cooper Hewitt was creating the exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision in 2018. I got excited about multisensory design while creating the exhibition Beauty with my colleague Andrea Lipps.

We were asking, What is beauty? Beauty can appeal to the intellect, but overwhelmingly, beauty is a sensory response. Beauty activates all our senses, not just vision. So we decided to create an exhibition that focuses on this idea. Sensory design touches on so many themes—from beauty and function to inclusive design and the psychology of perception.

A priority was to make the exhibition accessible to people with sensory disabilities. We created display techniques that invite touching, listening, smelling, and looking. We also published a book, including a beautiful print edition and a free, accessible ebook

Our house is a place to learn, relax, gather, and create. It is filled with books and with objects that are both useful and beautiful. 
Ellen Lupton

How do you make design accessible so everyone can understand and benefit from it?

Accessibility is about offering people choices. I should be able to watch a video with captions or with visual descriptions of what’s happening on screen. I should be able to read a book in print or on my phone, or hear the text voiced out loud. I should be able to tab through a website or navigate with a mouse. Providing choices helps ensure that anyone can access your content. Museums are learning that accessibility is more than ramps and elevators. Accessibility requires offering a joyous, inclusive experience to all visitors.

How did you learn to be a curator? Would you share a few tips for emerging curators?

Curating an exhibition is telling stories with objects and environments. You are creating an experience. The physical impact of a space and the things you display there need to drive the narrative. Of course, a complex story uses text to offer a deeper understanding of a person’s life or the intentions behind an artifact. However, a strong exhibition engages people more directly. I should be able to learn something new without reading too much. As a curator, I spend a lot of time editing text to make it as concise as possible. That said, I’m a museum-goer who loves reading text panels and labels!

How does the experience of choosing design pieces to be featured in exhibitions impact your decisions on what design objects you live with? 

I love living in a beautiful space. I share my home with a brilliant designer—my husband, Abbott Miller. Abbott is a partner in the design firm Pentagram. His main office is in New York, and he also has an office here in Baltimore. Our home isn’t stuffy and restrictive like an old-fashioned museum. Our house is a place to learn, relax, gather, and create. It is filled with books and with objects that are both useful and beautiful.

Would you share a few stories about your favorite design objects in the house?

Closest to my heart is the work of Betty Cooke. She is truly a genius and a unique Baltimore phenomenon. Betty graduated from MICA in 1948 and has a shop in the Village of Cross Keys, right off Falls Road. You can’t buy her work online; you have to go there in person. I worship her jewelry designs and wear them every day. Betty’s functional art brings purity and invention to shape, line, and structure.

My friend and former student Inna Alesina created a series of beautiful salt cellars whose geometry is based on a crystal. Rather than sitting flat on the table, these little vessels tilt this way or that. These objects have an inner life. Inna is a Ukrainian designer who teaches at Stevenson University.

I also enjoy dark humor in design. My friends Constantin and Laurene Boym designed a birdhouse based on the Unabomber’s cabin. (John Waters also owns one.) I enjoy objects that are a bit strange, like an oversized bunch of glass grapes from the 1950s or a vase shaped by stuffing a condom with chicken eggs.

What do you enjoy most about living in Baltimore now, compared to 20 years ago? 

Twenty years ago I lived near MICA, in Bolton Hill. I loved walking to work and the train station. Bolton Hill has gorgeous architecture and classic streets. Now, I live in Roland Park. I have to drive to MICA, but there are amazing places to walk—restaurants, cafes, and groceries as well as stunning parks and natural paths. This city has so much to offer.

What do you do for fun when you are not working?

I love to walk in my neighborhood—with my little dogs or just by myself.

You are such a productive writer and editor! On average, you’ve been publishing a book per year for the past 30 years. Would you share a bit of your process as it applies to writing, designing, editing, and organizing your books? 

Design really is my superpower. Seeing my words in the correct font, laid out on the page exactly as they will appear in print, gets me closer to the experience of readers. Designing my own text brings me to a place of empathy. It also allows me to revise my work in a continuous cycle right up to the end. Other writers have to ask permission every time they want to make a change. I just do it! Bam! Needless to say, I’ve been lucky to collaborate with patient and talented editors.

Ellen's books on top of a coffee table she painted.

Are you currently working on a book? 

I’m currently finishing the third edition of Thinking with Type with Princeton Architectural Press. It will be launched in the spring of 2024, twenty years after the first edition was published in 2004. 

Thinking with Type is not a book that just sits on the shelf; it’s a tool for designers. I love updating this book and making it more inclusive and complete.
Ellen Lupton

In how many languages has Thinking with Type been published? 

This book has been used by students all around the world. It is often their first design book! Thinking with Type is not a book that just sits on the shelf; it’s a tool for designers. I love updating this book and making it more inclusive and complete. Thinking with Type has been translated into Portuguese, Chinese, French, Russian, and other languages. I love it when the translators adjust the book to fit their own context.

How has writing books—as opposed to articles, curatorial essays, or class curricula— changed your ability to think critically about your ideas and practice?

Writing books is my biggest joy. Exhibitions come and go, but books create a permanent record. A book will mean something different in fifty years, and with luck, some of my books will still be here to provoke new questions. A book takes a lot of time to create. You have to get up every day and add something to your book, even when you are busy with other things. A book demands courage and perseverance. Writing a book is an iterative process. A book thrives on revision. It teaches patience. A great chair or a stunning building results from endless trial and error—just like a book.

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