How did you first become interested in design and typography? I hadn’t been aware of what design and typography really meant as a profession prior to college. While working towards my BFA at Cooper Union, one of my instructors in the foundation program, Margaret Morton, also taught sophomore design classes, and she brought some of that insight into our first-year coursework. She also encouraged me to look into design, as she saw potential in my work. Throughout my years of studying design, I kept finding myself drawn towards typography. There is something so simple but essential in working with letters that really appealed to me. I enjoyed thinking of design solutions that relied purely on type—it’s something I still find myself doing.
You’re the curator at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union. What misconceptions do people have about Herb Lubalin or his work? In my experience, Herb Lubalin tends to be one of the more pigeonholed designers. He is often identified by the designs that have stayed popular or the ones that have come back in vogue. Examples of this are his calligraphically inspired expressive lettering, as well as his tightly typeset logos, often using the interlocking forms of the Avant Garde typeface. A quick Google Images search proves this. In reality, his output and influence are much deeper and more immense than just those two forms. Always against seeing a single style dominate design, he was instead interested in finding the appropriate visual solution for each project.
The other misconception is that he did everything himself. Most of that very expressive lettering work that he’s so often credited with was done by his staff. His employees and business partners were some of the most skilled lettering artists working in the United States. Sadly, they don’t get as much recognition these days. People like Tom Carnase, Tony Di Spigna, Alan Peckolick and John Pistilli did much of this work. Herb had a great eye for spotting talented individuals who could execute his vision flawlessly.
What’s one object from the Study Center’s collection that has informed your understanding of history? The archive as a whole has helped me understand history in a more nuanced way. Objects of graphic design—by their nature—are made to communicate; as such, they lock in a lot of important information. Looking at any object of design can unlock the greater bit of context and history embedded in it.
One example that stands out is Fact magazine, which Herb Lubalin art directed for its entire span, from 1964 until it ended in 1967. The magazine exposed the injustices and ills that its publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, saw happening in the United States. Looking at the magazine today, you get a strong sense of how volatile and energized the ’60s were. The magazine took on such heavy topics as racial discrimination, police brutality, the Vietnam War and rising political tension in the United States. One issue from 1964 took aim at the lack of safety standards among Detroit’s auto manufacturers. The issue’s headline was “American Cars Are Death Traps.” The central article, based on research done by a young Ralph Nader, exposed the poor practices of the car companies in protecting the public. This resonated, and the following year, Nader published his findings in a book called Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. It caused a much bigger outcry and led to Senate hearings. The issue helped the passage of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, which was the first significant automobile safety legislation.
What led you to cofound the postgraduate certificate program Type@Cooper? When Cara Di Edwardo, Type@Cooper’s director, invited me and typeface and lettering designer Jesse Ragan to conceive of the program, designers had very few options to study typeface design in any serious manner in the United States since type design is only offered in a few undergrad programs. There was a strong desire and a need for such a program to exist.
Which “hidden gem” designer do you think more people should know about? There needs to be a greater focus on the many female graphic designers who get overlooked in the established canon of graphic design, like Jacqueline Casey, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Cipe Pineles and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. I would also encourage people to look into the work of Lica and Albe Steiner, the power couple of postwar Italian graphic design.
At this point, do you think it’s still possible to have an original idea in design? Yes, undoubtedly so. Designers have a lot of original thought to offer, especially since technology is rapidly changing. Every new shift in technology calls for new solutions and new forms of visual communication. Who could have predicted how much information we would be absorbing on our phones? Interaction within such a small amount of real estate necessitates new solutions.
Is there a particular piece of technology that you’re excited to incorporate into the Study Center? We are actively trying to find a good method of cataloging our collection—digitizing and making the contents of the archive available to people online. It’s also vital to preserving the collection. I don’t want a simple cataloging tool, but rather something that has the ability to create a deeper immersive experience into the content, leading to greater discovery and insight. Something that goes beyond simply tagging and that enables viewers to make connections across pieces in a richer way. I’m not sure what this will look like, but machine learning and the existing database building technology make me curious to see what happens.
What changes do you want to bring to the way designers approach design history? I want designers—and especially design students—to understand how useful design history can be. It’s not merely factual information. Designers can learn a lot from looking at historical materials. This goes beyond looking at the surface of a piece, but digging deeper and finding the context embedded in the work. Every design object’s appearance is manifest of the individual making it, the time it’s made in and the tools available at the time. But the concepts and the thinking behind those objects are often timeless. We just have to get past the way something looks and question how it got there and what caused it to look that way. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught how to look at design history. I’m trying to change that through the Study Center and its various projects.
What advice do you have for a designer who wants to start her or his own personal design archive? Start with the more accessible items. It’s surprising how much is available out there if you start looking. Visit every secondhand store you pass. Look in the sale bins at records stores and in paperback book sections. These often contain design gems that cost nearly nothing. Most of the purchases I’ve made for the Study Center over the last three or four years have come from sale bins. So many treasures lurk in there. Also, trade with your friends for their design work. It will all be really useful and important in a few years.