A Conversation with Ellen Lupton

The director of the MFA in Graphic Design talks about the current state of the field and MICA’s graduate program.

How Posters Work exhibition

The name Ellen Lupton has long been synonymous with graphic design. As director of the MFA Graphic Design program, Lupton is well-known NOT only as a designer, but as a curator of international status, an author, and an educator as well. Commotion sat down with her recently to talk about the current state of the field and the unique aspects of the MFA program here at MICA.

Commotion What are the key trends occurring in graphic design now?

Ellen Lupton Our program is embracing the influence of digital media, social media, and the convergence of graphic design with video and filmmaking. All graphic designers are now learning motion design skills and video editing skills. Designers have become adept at producing complex projects across media. That’s how we teach design today. Our students are creating visual assets they can use in print, in branding campaigns, in interaction design, in film and video, in animation — everything. The materials they create graphically can live across media.

COYour accomplishments span numerous fields. You’re a designer, a writer, a curator, and an educator. You have written many books, most recently, How Posters Work, Beautiful Users, and Type on Screen. What are some of the basic principles in your recent books?

ELWe have published many books that invite students and designers to grasp ideas and concepts that they can use in their work. Some of these books are published with students here at MICA. Type on Screen, a book from 2014, provides an overview of digital design principles. The book was written, researched, and designed with MICA graduate students. We’ve published half a dozen books now that are created by our students and faculty. These books are popular with young designers all around the world because they are invitations to engage.

COWhat do these student collaborators bring to these projects?

ELOur classrooms at MICA are laboratories for design research. Our graduate students and graduate faculty — and even the undergraduate students — aren’t just creating their own work. They’re creating knowledge to share with the profession. It raises the expectations of everyone in the room when you understand that your work might be published and that it might be shared with a worldwide design community. It takes the project out of the limited world of your portfolio to become a contribution to our field. One of our mottos in the graduate program is “Engage the discourse.” You’re not here just to build your own career or to find your own style. You’re here to take part in an international conversation about the future of design. Publishing is a powerful way to do that.

COWhat is the goal of MICA’s Center for Design Thinking?

ELThe main outcome for the Center for Design Thinking is the books that we publish. These books are both practical and intellectual. All of them are about ideas and principles in design practice presented in a high-level way. These are college-level or graduate-level books that inquire about how design works.

Publishing is very labor intensive, and the process demands a lot from our students. Some students work on their projects as part of a class; some get grants that enable them to work in the Center outside of class time. The books earn some income that is used to develop new research projects or to help faculty with their research. These are all professionally published books that are distributed worldwide.

COWhat has been the impact of this publishing work?

ELIncreasingly, our students come to MICA with ideas for their own books. And they see MICA as a place where the faculty is very active in the design field. We can make connections for a graduate student who has the ability to write and publish. Increasingly, our alums are going out and publishing their own books in addition to working as designers in a range of studios and companies.

COHow is curriculum developed for the program?

ELThe program is growing and expanding. Curriculum is developed by me and Jennifer Cole Phillips, who directs the program with me. This year, we hired a new full-time faculty member, Jason Gottlieb ’13 (Graphic Design MFA). The three of us are responsible for creating the curriculum. Our program offers opportunities to produce personally driven work that’s very individual, allowing the students to define a sensibility in a design problem and even choose the medium they want to work with. We balance that personal work with public work that has a service element and contributes to society and that is often collaborative in nature.

COWhy do you think this curriculum sets MICA apart from other art and design schools?

ELOur practical emphasis is unique among graduate programs. Our program is geared towards graphic design as a legible, understandable, practical discipline. The work that our students do is grounded in the reality of design practice. The work is self-motivated and experimental but it has its feet on the ground. We’re interested in confronting the world of design as it exists and not so much in creating an art-based experience for our students.

Also, our program is quite structured. Many other graduate programs are looser and more about creating a space for students to do what they want to do. But we feel that the practice of design is problem-oriented and that designers thrive when they’re given a situation or a challenge or a prompt as opposed to always defining their own problem.

COHow are you preparing designers to be leaders?

ELAs graduate students, most of our MFA candidates come to MICA with advanced skills. Every year, we accept a few students who come from a different discipline, because that creates variety and diversity in our program. We’ll accept some people from environmental design or illustration or journalism, but most of our students come to us with a strong design portfolio. What they do in graduate school is get ready to shift the direction of their career or re-enter the profession at a different level. Nearly all our alumni are working in the field.

And they work in diverse areas after graduating — interactive media, digital product design, and web design, but also in print and branding and exhibition design and environmental graphics. We have students working in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Many of our international students are able to stay and work in the United States, which is quite an achievement.

COYou have been curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum since 1992. Tell US about your tenure at the museum.

ELI organize exhibitions on contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt. My most recent exhibition is called How Posters Work. It’s a survey of poster design that’s presented to the public as a primer in visual thinking. It’s a kind of dictionary of design concepts that has been very popular with our audiences. The exhibition is open until Friday, January 29, 2016.

COAnd what do you think visiting artists bring to the MICA educational experience?

ELHaving a visiting artist on campus is like having a party. Our visitors present a lecture but also work actively with the students, who get to know them and see how they work. Visiting artists create variety and vitality in our studio culture.

COYou recently wrote an article about success for a graphic designer. How do you define success?

ELTo me, success is being part of a community and engaging in a conversation about what you do. That community can be large or small. It can be focused around something narrow and professional like typeface design or publication design, or it could be more outward and social, like exploring “slow design” or building up the cycling community where you live. Success means being part of a conversation. You’re not just going to work every day and getting stuff done for clients; you’re contributing to something bigger. You’re engaged in the AIGA or in community organizing around design or social issues or national politics — anything.

COSo since 1997, when you first arrived on MICA’s campus as chair of the undergraduate graphic design program, what are your assessments about the state of the field?

ELI have seen the Dot Com bubble come and go. I have seen the recession of 2008 and then the recovery that took place afterwards, which has been quite strong for graphic designers. We have seen our alums, both graduate and undergraduate, leave MICA and get employed in the industry of graphic design, and we’re really happy about that. We want to prepare students to go work in the field and also be independent thinkers who know how to apply design more broadly to their lives by engaging in conversations and not just being a cog in the wheel of commerce.

Design has become more digital. It has become more accessible to the public — better known to the public. The field has gotten larger, not smaller, despite the dissemination of software tools into the hands of everyone. My kids learned Photoshop in third grade. That fact makes them more knowledgeable about design. The dissemination of tools doesn’t diminish the importance of expertise — professional expertise. That professional expertise is what we give our students here.