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The typographic Times
Ellen Lupton


[November 2007]
Educator in typography
Ellen Lupton interview


Why have you developped  an interest for typograpy ?

As a child, I loved art. I also developed an interest in writing and language. Typography is where the two come together.

You were the curator of  the Herb Lubalin Study Center for Design & Typography. What  is exactly this institution ?

I was curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center from 1985 to 1992. It is a gallery and collection at The Cooper Union, a school of art, architecture, and engineering in New York City. I am now Curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, also in New York City. This is the only museum in the U.S. Devoted exclusively to historical and contemporary design. I create exhibitions, publications, and public programs.

As an educator, on which  aspect of design you put a special emphasis ?

I emphasize design as living practice—not theoretical debates, but doing work in the studio. I emphasize the public, communications value of design not inward personal expression.

Can you comment your “think more, design less” ?

Students often do too much “design.” By this, I mean that they make a page complicated and busy with drop shadows, gradients, transparent boxes, and the like, because there is not a strong idea or they are not interested in the content that needs to be communicated. I argue that it is there job to make the message interesting and compelling, not to bury it with empty visual gestures.

Can you present your  galaxy of websites ?

Thinking with typeMy galaxy of web sites includes the following: my personal web site, which is a “storefront” for my ideas, (formerly; my blog,, about design and everyday life; and two Web sites about my books, and I believe every book and project should have its own Web site.

In your “Thinking with  type”, you propose a section dedicated on the ‘grid’. Is this concept so  central in the typographic education ?

GridGrids are central to our writing system itself, which consists of rows of letters arranged into columns. It is important for designers to understand the grid as both an “invisible” tool that is embedded into our writing and software systems and as an a theoretical device that can be used with great deliberation.

You seem to have a special attention to the Scala typeface. Why ?

I started using Scala in the early 1990s, when Robin Kinross brought it to my attention and we used it in a small book called “Graphic Design from the Netherlands: A View of Recent Work.” I have used it ever since. I love its mix of geometry and humanism. I love the crisp serif and big x-height.

What the web has brought to the typographic art ?

The Web has helped us think again about systems and about the dream of universal communication. CSS and Web standards are powerful social and theoretical tools. Just when we thought all the rules had disappeared, we have new rules that have a tremendous social purpose.

You are at the origins of  two original concepts linked to typography: the notion of “Crimes against  typography” and the “Free font manifesto”. The first one can be seen as an  natural extension of your educational program, but the second seems to be a  little bit controversial ?

Free Font ManifestoI think it is more interesting to find controversy inside your profession than outside it. The idea of “free fonts” touches on the social issues of our day. I learned a lot from engaging directly with typographers on this question. I have kept a record of the debate on my Web site because I think it will all mean something else in twenty years. Who knows what? It’s good for students to think about these issues.

Related page: Thinking with type page in Books/Typo