Celebrating women in design: Ellen Lupton

Welcome back to part four of our five-part blog post series about influential woman designers. Today, we would like to write about the woman who is credited for “making this industry [graphic design] smarter,” Ellen Lupton. She is a writer, designer, educator & curator. Her name is no stranger to graphic design students and professors in the 21st century.

The beginnings

The Philadelphia-native began her interest in design as a field of study in 1981 when she was a fine art student at Cooper Union. Coming from a family of English teachers, Lupton was inspired by the expressive potential and nature of typography. This later evoked a shift in her career and ambitions.

Design really wasn’t in the mainstream back then. It was esoteric. It was the thing you did if you were very ‘neat,’ which I wasn’t.

—Ellen Lupton

After graduating in 1985, Lupton accepted an offer to be in charge of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union. Curatorial work came naturally as second nature to her foundational skills as a writer and an artist. Her approach of bringing the visual elements of objects and images and rigorous verbal communication and theory together in a playful and engaging way surprised a lot of her academic peers. During this time, Lupton also established herself as a critic. She offered a leading voice in the publications field such as Blueprint, Eye Design Review, I.D., Print, Emigre and Assemblage.

Founding years

In the mid-1980s, Lupton and her partner J.Abbott co-founded Writing Research (DWR) lab. Here they combined theory and practice in adjunction to their working lives. The research-driven work at DWR and her curatorial work at the Lubalin Center later formed the foundation for their 1996’s book “Design/Writing/Research: Writing on Graphic Design”. In 1992, Lupton became the contemporary design curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. This gained her broader audiences and larger-scaled projects. She has organized numerous exhibitions and major publications during her continued tenure at the museum, such as 1996’s “Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture” and the first National Design Triennial in 2000.

Mixing Messages: Graphic Design and Contemporary Culture exhibition, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 1996. Image credit: AIGA
Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office exhibition, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 1993. Image credits: AIGA.org
Design Writing Research cover, 1996

The Present

Since 2003, Ellen Lupton has been serving as director of the graphic design MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She joined the school as chair of the undergraduate design program in 1996. She is, still, one of the most active voices in the conversation about design. This is shown in the number of books and publications over the course of her career as an educator and critic. Some of her best-selling titles include:

  • 2004’s Thinking with Type
  • 2008’s Graphic Design The New Basics
  • 2017’s Design Is Storytelling—her most current book

She also co-created D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself—a manual aims to empower non-designers with basic design skills—with her grad students from MICA.

Graphic Design Thinking, 2011
Graphic Design The New Basics, 2008
Thinking with Type, 2004

Her Writing

Lupton’s writing is smart with a balance between humor and sophistication. This makes it engaging, informative and entertaining to read. Her work brings design theory and history relevant and closer to contemporary designers and readers while contributes greatly to the collective resource of design history. Through her work, Ellen Lupton encourages designers to “think more, design less,” to think smart and to strive for more profound and conceptual depth in our work. In addition, she is also an advocate for making design literacy part of mainstream culture and expressing her desire to making design a less exclusive club.

Design in Storytelling, 2017

In 2007, Lupton was awarded the AIGA Gold Medal for her work in “making this industry smarter.”

In a time when design writing has moved to the blogosphere—and is more democratic, but more idiotic—Ellen’s clear voice is even more valuable.

—Paula Scher

I had a privilege to attend one of Ellen Lupton’s lectures in my junior year of college when she was giving us a sneak peek into her soon-to-published book Design is Storytelling. I highly recommend her lectures to everyone, especially young designers. To give you a quick taste of what her lecture is like, it involved ginger candies, lots of chuckles and laughter, and endless eye-opening new ideas and inspirations.

Read about Another Featured Woman