054: Extra Bold with Ellen Lupton
Updated: Jan 26
Today is a special day. It’s not every day that you have the chance to sit down and chat with one of your professional idols.
“Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, educator, and designer. Lupton is the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore. She serves as a senior curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.” She has authored more than 30 books in the last 30 years on the topics of graphic design, design culture and typography. I have personally included her textbooks as required readings in courses for graphic communications management students. Ellen is a powerful voice in design and typography, who has shaped, and continues to shape, the narrative of the design industry.
I recently saw Ellen give a keynote address at a conference put on by the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD). It was there that Ellen and two of her co-authors, Kaleena Sales and Leslie Xia, shared their forthcoming book that is so relevant and so needed in our industry (and in the world!) right now. The book is called Extra Bold: a feminist, inclusive, anti-racist, nonbinary field guide for graphic designers.
I nodded along intently with the hour-long talk. I immediately pre-ordered the book that was set to release the following week. I also pre-ordered a copy for a colleague and friend, Chris Ambedkar, who sits on our school’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee, actively working to break down barriers and provide opportunities for greater inclusion throughout the school.
I was also feeling brave. I sent an email to Ellen asking her to come on this little podcast called Talk Paper Scissors and chat about her most recent book. When I received an email in my inbox from Ellen that same day agreeing to chat, I nearly jumped for joy.
And the first person I thought of was my friend Chris.
Chris and I make a great team for a lot of reasons but one of those reasons has to do with the fact that we think about things from very different perspectives. If I overlook something, he’s right there to fill in the gap. If there’s something that he doesn’t quite see, I’m right there to pick up where he left off. I wanted Chris to be a part of this special chance to chat with someone doing such great work in this area for our industry. So I am pleased to say that Chris is co-hosting this episode with me. Hey Chris, why don’t you introduce yourself?
Diana! Thank you so much for having me today! For the listeners that don’t know me, my name is Chris Ambedkar and I’m a lecturer at Ryerson University with Diana. I’ve been teaching for 5 years now and I teach courses in creativity, graphic design and digital media. And yes, Diana and I have taught together and developed courses together quite a bunch. It has been such a positive influence on me! We definitely work well together and what I love about Diana so much is that she recognizes her privilege as a white design educator, she’s done a lot of work to learn and understand anti-racist and discriminatory pedagogy, and she’s always looking to amplify BIPOC and other marginalized voices in the classroom. It’s just so refreshing to work with someone who knows and gets why this is so important! Just like our lovely guest today, Ellen! As an intersectional minority myself, I appreciate allies like this in the industry so much!
Thank you, Chris, for the exceptionally kind words.
I really and truly love Ellen’s new book, with whom she shares co-authorship with a number of diverse voices. Before we get into the interview with Ellen and she shares her incredible insights about this world of feminist, inclusive, anti-racist, nonbinary graphic design, I want to share my favourite parts of this book and I’m going to invite Chris to do the same.
I have two favourites and both will show off my inner type and printing geek. The first is around typographic binaries. In the book, Ellen describes the work of Judith Butler whose groundbreaking 1990 book, Gender Trouble, explores the concepts of “male” and “female”, which she argues are socially-constructed categories. Judith’s work rejects rigid definitions of gender and the oppressive binaries fixed gender identity upholds. Furthermore, she argues that everyone’s gender evolves overtime, which applies to transgender and cisgender people alike and that our embodiment of masculinity and femininity shift in different settings. Ellen takes it one step further and it applies it in a unique way to the world of typography. Ellen brings forth the notion that binary structures exist within the building blocks of design, including typography. She expresses that “serif” and “sans serif” typefaces exist on a spectrum. Ellen describes the work of typographer John Berry’s taxonomy of letter endings. He suggests that a serif can be many things, “from a spiky spur to a massive, blocky slab” or the fact that a serif might not be a thing at all because even letters that are considered sans serif take on many different forms. For example, “stems and strokes that swell, bend, pucker, or flair resist neat binary categories.”
Furthermore, Ellen explores the patriarchal idea of a “type family” and that the predictable and “matchy-matchy” nature of typographic families don’t mimic the reality of human family structures. She highlights type designer Leah Maldonado’s experimental typeface called Glyph World that rejects the traditional uniform members of a type family, instead favouring a much less conforming and individualistic group of letterforms.
My other favourite part of the book is a queer history of design. I love that Extra Bold helps start conversations about these important histories that better reflect the diverse makeup of students and educators in the classroom. This book is a place where these histories are documented and legitimized through ink on paper; existing in a physical book that can be read and highlighted and shared and cherished. One story in particular nearly brought me to tears. It’s the story of a woman named Ruth Ellis. Ruth was born in 1899 in Springfield, Illinois and she became the first woman in the state of Michigan to run her own printing company. Ruth was an African American woman who lived openly as a lesbian throughout her life, her father accepting her sexuality without judgement as she brought girlfriends home as a teenager. In adulthood, Ruth and her partner, Ceciline, opened a printing company that also doubled as a vibrant gathering place for Detroit’s African American queer community. Here they help young people in need of food, books or a place to stay. On Ellis’ 100th birthday, she led the annual dyke march in San Francisco. As a business woman, activist and community builder, Ruth carries an incredible legacy and she’s an inspiration to so many. I now know her story. Her story inspires me to play a role in carrying on her legacy. My future lectures about the history of printing will include Ruth’s story and others’ stories that significantly contribute to our industry’s history, as well as our collective history.
Chris, what about you? What’s your favourite part?
Ah Diana! You stole my favourite part but I agree that it’s incredibly important to bring Queer design history, black design history, indigenous design history into the classroom! So you know that I LOVE a good infographic and this book has TONS of them. They’re so well done. But I think my favourite part isn’t one specific section but the fact that the authors really did a great job by including various voices from marginalized communities throughout the book. As we know, sharing perspectives helps us to increase our understanding so that we can be more empathetic towards others and I appreciate that aspect of the book throughout. It is when we hear what others have gone through where we can really learn and understand how people feel excluded or discriminated against. It’s the amplification of marginalized voices for me!
Over the next 20 or so minutes, you’ll hear from Ellen about why this book, and the subject matter contained within, is so needed in the field of design. You’ll also hear why design is the perfect discipline to normalize the visual language of equity, diversity and inclusion. Ellen also provides insights about the way in which design is a tool for change, helping to give visual shape to social movements. And, as one of the greatest typographic minds on the planet, she gives as near a perfect answer as possible to my question about the single typeface she would use for the rest of her life.
Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, educator, and designer. Lupton is the Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in Baltimore. She serves as a senior curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.
Chris Ambedkar is an award-winning educator, creator, and communicator. His professional work bridges academia and industry. Chris has experience as the creative lead for the Ministry of Colleges & Universities in the Ontario Public Service where he leverages visual thinking and communication techniques to shape internal and external communication, including COVID-19 communications. Specifically, Chris teaches in the areas of design, graphic communications, digital media, and interdisciplinary innovation. Chris hopes to add value to the world through creativity, innovation, education, and research.
Music (public domain via freesound.org):
Crowander - Who Would Have Thought
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music:
Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle
Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash
Episode Cover Art: Canva