Ellen Lupton. Mixing Messages. Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture

Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture
Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture

Lupton’s exploration of graphic design in modern culture uses numerous color graphic design examples to trace the social and artistic function of graphic design in society. Chapters examine both intellectual and artistic messages inherent in graphic artists’ productions, using examples of modern works to consider mediums and messages. An intriguing survey any designer will want to consult.

How do we disseminate information? And what does it look like? Ellen Kupton answers that in her new book, Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. Lupton looks at the mission of design through discussions about publishing, signage, typography, corporate identity and the use of design in public places. Mixing Messages will fascinate fans of design, culture or social history.

Every library contains myriad books documenting the impact of technology in the emerging information age and the parallel evolution of a media-saturated culture over the last two decades. But even as pundits so often discuss the increasing centrality of image and form in our world, too few works exist that either document the recent changes in the field of design or analyze the ubiquity of visual expression. Integrating both these goals successfully, as this catalog to an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum does, is a feat worthy of attention. Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt and author of Design Writing Research, one of the most incisive and far-ranging works on graphic design in recent years, is uniquely qualified to bring these issues to a larger public. Individual chapters look at broad developments in design culture and trends in visual expression in public space, typography, corporate identity, and publishing. Innumerable examples range from billboards and book jackets to palm cards for clubs and fanzines. Lupton’s trenchant text makes this more than just a best-of collection, however, giving readers a comprehensive context for understanding designers’ hidden meanings.

Image from the exhibition at the Smithsonian
Image from the exhibition at the Smithsonian

Demystifying the position of the designer

From the book, an edited version of the interview with Lorraine Wild:

“Since 1984, 85, the big story in design education has been the reworking of design curriculum. There has been a movement away from two main tracks: commercial formalism and the straightforward modernist program. Post-modernism has had an effect on design curriculum. I am thinking particularly of Cranbrook, Cal Arts, and RISD, where there has been a turning away from a purely formal approach to a more literary one.

In our graduate program at Cal Arts, we still have people read Terry Eagleton on literary theory. We handle theory in a non-academic way, however. The first project we do is called “The Lexicon.” We start with all the words used to describe literary as well as visual form—metaphor, ambiguity, etc. Students research the meaning and use of these terms. It sets the tone immediately that we’re going to look at everything in literary as well as visual terms. [Jeff Keedy talks about this problem in his special issue of Emigre.]

We want people to think in terms of audience, and the degree to which you can’t control what people will make of the design you produce. Cal Arts has a great humanities and art history/theory faculty. We encourage our students to get this kind of information from that direction as well, and not just from our studio perspective.

We’re trying to demystify the position of the designer as the absolute authority, the idea that the point of view of the designer is the sole source of meaning. This is very different from how I was trained at Yale. I was never asked to consider that what I was making might be read in a different way. In fact, I don’t remember being asked to consider that my work would be read at all. Meanwhile, across campus all that amazing stuff was happening in Comp Lit—Umberto Eco, etc.

One thing I don’t like in art and design education is to watch design teachers try to present critical theory in a diluted way. Designers should be able to use theory, but not see themselves as the ultimate authorities in this area. Theory is next to design; it’s enlivened by it, but it’s not design itself. Yet the connection between theory and design has to be made; we have to let theory into the studio.

We were alienated from history and theory at Yale. Alvin Eisenman did amazing presentations on the history of writing, and yet in our studio practice we were locked into the present. Some of the curricula being developed now acknowledge that design has a past. At the same time, technology is pushing students to think about the future, imagining a non-print world. Instead of a set of universal rules, we have to talk about guidelines that will help students work through specifics that can’t be predicted. This new element in the curriculum is what rattles practitioners who think it doesn’t apply to practice, and yet they are out there practicing it everyday.”

Author: Ellen Lupton
Title: Mixing Messages. Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Year: 1996
ISBN: 9781568980997