Ellen Lupton – A Case Study

Ellen Lupton – A Case Study






Between 1980 and 1995, graphic design took part in revolutionary change in communication. Ellen Lupton is a postmodern designer as she started design in the early 80’s, which was in a postmodern era. Lupton inspires a new kind of Visual Literacy, which influenced the younger generation. Visual literacy has no longer been the ability to decode images, but having the experience of creating. Ellen Lupton first confrontation of a manifesto was in the late 1980’s. The Philosophy according to Lupton (1996a) can be a manifesto, which can be neatly summarized into three nouns design, writing, and reading.

In addition to this Lupton and Miller (1996b) stated that this formulation is a less of an attempt to overturn conventional priorities than underscore their (Miller & Lupton) own primary role as designers. Lupton (1996a) also mentions that graphic design involves forging relationships between images and texts by cutting and pasting, enlarging and reducing, layering and framing, comparing and isolating. According to Armstrong (2009):

“Design is a social activity. Rarely working alone or in private, designers respond to clients, audiences… While our work is exposed and highly visible, as individual we often remain anonymous, our contribution to the texture of daily life existing below the threshold of public recognition” (p. 6). Meaning that a designer has limitations to their work, because of clients and tiring to communicate to a pacific audience. Whereby an individual has freedom to express whatever they feel like to whomever they want.






Ellen Lupton – A Case Study

Ellen Lupton’s work may be classified as postmodern, in most of its aspects. Her design often features a visually thrilling mix of elements. Her typography usually consists of colorful components that are mostly on the borderlines of luxurious. In most of her works, she avoids ludicrous styling, in the name of creativity. This approach is true to post-modern design philosophy, which opts for complex design focused on exaggeration. Her work contrasts with modernism, which focused on simplicity and functionality. However, she has maintained some ideals of Bauhausian design, especially simplicity. It is important to note that postmodernism was more of an evolution of modernism, in the field of design, unlike other occupations. Most of her developed typography has a style statement, filled with embellishment and theatricality. This is seen through her adopted letterforms and fonts (Lupton 2004). Similarly, her work is influenced by developments from the 1980s, which was a dominantly postmodern era.

Designers are often influenced by the social environments with which they interact. The postmodernist society of the late 20th century had profound effects on Lupton’s work. Postmodern design centered on the enhancement of graphical components. This is seen in most of Lupton’s works. She maintains various visual cues from the postmodernist philosophy. For instance, her typography features types that are often decorative, and visually appealing (Lupton 2004). Similarly, some of her works feature expression and diversity. Her works, especially those oriented towards web publication. For instance, postmodern design is seen through Lupton’s extensive use of serifs and uneven stroke weights. These components allude to historical types. This approach is distinctly postmodern in design.


Postmodernism has influenced the global culture, since its introduction in the post-world war 2 eras of the 60s and 70s. It changed culture with various premises. Firstly, it stated that culture offers inaccurate communications to the mind of another party. Similarly, it stated that time and cultural differences complicate communication further. Secondly, it identified meaning as a combination of objects and events, and the subjective sense of an individual. Therefore, it advocated for self-expression in design.

From postmodernism, it is seen that effective communications requires understanding of aspects such as cultural and historical backgrounds (Lupton 1996b). In postmodern design, this highlights the appreciation for historical components such as font types. Lupton’s work features such cultural influences. For instance, her work often features decorative and expressive aspects, instead of focusing on functionality. This is based on the presumption that language does not offer effective communication. Therefore, focus should be based on expressional aspects. An instance of this is her typography, titled ‘Stadsschouwburg’. It is visually appealing and creative, while maintaining complex cues.


Postmodern thought has influenced political activity throughout the world. It has advocated for the micro-politic brand, which is concerned with culture, personal identity and subjectivity. This political influence is seen through Lupton’s implementation of subjectivity and identity in her typography. Ellen Lupton has worked on various projects for her clients, as well as her own. For instance, she has developed pieces for exhibitions such as ‘Mechanical Brides’ and ‘Mixing Messages’. However, most of her work has focused on personal projects. There is limited influence from client’s projects on her work.

Ellen Lupton has maintained relatively considerable influence on the world of design. She has worked as a curator of contemporary design at the National Design Museum. Her curated exhibitions have played a significant role in the development of design throughout the world. Similarly, she is a director of the Graphic design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Lupton has contributed to the field through various scholarly publications. For instance, she has published an essay focused on how Deconstruction theory relates to graphic design. In the paper, she shows how cues from Deconstruction and post-structuralism emerge, and can be used, in contemporary design projects. Similarly, she has contributed to design thinking and theory. Lupton has influenced design towards consumers being producers, by granting them access to the fundamentals of the field (Lupton, 2004).

She has made various intellectual contributions to the study of typography. Firstly, she advocates for use of multiple typefaces. She maintains this as an approach for achieving contrast, necessary for attracting attention to the text. A typeface represents an individual’s activities of choice. Lupton has advocated for the use of clean typefaces that evoke a minimalist feel. This may be attributable to Bauhausian influences. In Web design, Lupton has advocated to use of grids. This concept has also gained traction with the mainstream (Lupton & Tobias, 2002).

Lupton has brought design to the public through various publications, bringing about social change in the process. Through her Design It Yourself (DIY) series of books, she has brought design to the mainstream. She has focused on developing various visual cues such as baselines, descenders and bowls in her typography (Lupton & Miller, 1996b). Similarly, Lupton maintains contrasting typefaces and colors in her works. Her ideas about careful and detailed use of multiple headers have gained widespread following. This is especially common in the internet. Her simplified approach towards design concepts has also broadened the field’s appeal to the masses. For instance, she relates design to the creation of a sandwich. Consequently, readers of her books have adopted these cues. In the process, Lupton has played a significant role in social change. She has participated in the creation of a global society that is more familiar with design concepts. This is seen through web platforms such as blogs like Tumblr, and other sites (Lupton 2004).

Designers often maintain unique approaches to their works. For Ellen Lupton, her focus is on the mixing of different typefaces and hand lettering. Similarly, she focuses her work on screen culture, rather than print, as it is the dominant form of information consumption in the contemporary world. Her approach centers on creativity, while conforming to the rules of typography. For instance, she advocates for careful mixing of types, as it can lead to ugly representations of subject matter. Similarly, she maintains visual eloquence in her work. She creates simple designs that offer appealing aesthetics to subjects.

Lupton views typography as the convergence of art and language forms. In ‘Thinking with Type’, she describes Typography as what language looks like (Lupton, 2004). She views it as an important tool for self-expression. Through this idea, the influence of postmodernism on her can be seen. The idea serves as the basis for her work. She finds it necessary to use artistic cues, for effective presentation of language content. Similarly, she idealizes creativity, over simplicity. Saussure’s work and postmodernism have played an influence on this idea (Armstrong, 2009). Her work uses different types to achieve creativity. On every day, a large number of typefaces are ignored around the world. Lupton maintains the idea of clean representation of content. She focuses on easy presentation to subjects, rather than creativity that is on the borderline of destructive. For instance, she states that selection of type requires knowledge of letterforms (Lupton & Jennifer, 2008). This ensures that the content is visually appealing to subjects, thus achieving communication.

Ellen Lupton has carried out a large number of projects. Through her positions as curator of various organizations, she has been able to organize a number of exhibitions. In 1993-4, she carried out the ‘Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office’ project. The exhibition focused on feminine machines of the 20th century. She displayed washing machines, telephones, and the design for her book- that goes by the same title. In 1996, she conducted the ‘Mixing Messages’ exhibition. This project displayed the advancements of typefaces through history. In 2011-12, Lupton conducted the ‘Graphic Design: Now in Production’ exhibition that centered on changes in graphic design over the 21st century.



Armstrong, H. (2009). Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field. New York: Princeton Architectural.

Lupton, E. (1996a). Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture. New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.

Lupton, E. (2004). Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students (1st ed). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Lupton, E., & Jennifer C. P. (2008). Graphic Design: The New Basics. New York: Princeton Architectural.

Lupton, E., & Miller, A. (1996b). Design, Writing, Research: Writing on Graphic Design. Hong Kong, China: Kiosk.

Lupton, E., & Tobias. J. (2002). Skin: Surface, Substance Design. New York: Princeton Architectural.


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