Ellen Lupton

As a significant contributor to the graphic design community, Ellen Lupton has served as not only a designer but a writer, curator, and critic as well. Currently, she is the curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore (“Ellen Lupton” 2018). There she also serves as the director of the Center for Design Thinking. In her role as curator at Cooper-Hewitt, she has curated multiple exhibitions and books since 1992 including, Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines from Home to Office (1993), Mixing Messages: Graphic Design and Contemporary Culture (1996), Letters from the Avant-Garde (1996), and Skin: Surface, Substance + Design (2002) (“Ellen Lupton” 2018). For her extensive work in design, writing and curating, she was recognized in 2007 as a recipient of the AIGA Gold Medal. This is one of the highest honors given to a graphic designer or design educator in the United States (Maryland Institute College of Art 2018). She continues to write today and is a contributor to the New York Times amongst other publications.

Ellen Lupton was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1963. She is a twin and has authored several works with her sister, Julia Lupton. Lupton began her studies at Cooper Union in 1981 as a Fine Arts student where she was first introduced to the field of graphic design. “Graphic design was a revelation to me,” says Lupton. “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 (Feo 2007).” She grew fascinated with typography which Lupton attributes to growing up in a family of writers. This niche of fusing words with art was her first step into graphic design as a career and continues to be an area of interest for her.

Upon graduation in 1985, Lupton was offered the role of director at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at her alma mater, which was then newly created.  It was during this time that she began to explore the idea of “do-it-yourself” curating (Feo 2007). This allowed her to join her talents in both design and writing and allow her to share the ideas of graphic design history and theory with the general public. She also found that exhibitions served a similar ability to visually communicate stories and ideas. In her early work, her talent for communicating rigorous theory in a digestible and engaging way fusing the visual and verbal aspects playfully (Feo 2007). This is also when Lupton began to establish herself as a critic by contributing to various print works such as Blueprint, Eye, Design as well as utilizing her personal projects to develop the skill

The 1980s were an extremely productive time for Lupton with regards to her early career as this is also when she co-founded the Design Writing Research Lab with J. Abbott Miller. In her own words, “We were young and had theories, so we created DWR as a thing where we could take on work with clients and do artsy-fartsy stuff for the real world (Feo 2007).” This is where she learned to merge the ideas of theory with her practice and develop a style that is uniquely her own even today. It is through her exhibitions with the DWR that she gradually gained access to larger projects and audiences. She continued to collaborate with Miller on several books and exhibitions including, Design/Writing/Research: Writing on Graphic Design (1996), The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste (1992), and Swarm (2006) (“Ellen Lupton” 2018).  While they have received many accolades professionally, personally, Lupton feels that their greatest collaboration is their two children, Ruby and Jay (Feo 2007).

It was shortly after this that Lupton began her tenure as a curator for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum where she has worked since curating and co-curating numerous exhibits in addition to her writings. Some of her most noted works for the museum include the National Design Triennial series (2000, 2003, 2006, 2010), Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005 (2006), Solos: New Design from Israel (2006), and Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age (1999) (“Ellen Lupton” 2018). The point that allows each of these exhibits to stand out from those of other designers is the unique integration of text and typography into the display of other pieces of design. By using the text as more than just a footnote next to the piece explaining its background, there is a deeper integration and level of communication with the audience that Lupton creates for visitors. She continues to produce exhibits for the museum and mentor younger curators through partnerships.

In addition to her extensive work beginning with the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the 2000s served as a period to expand on her love of writing and making design accessible to the general public. It is during this time that she wrote several books, both on her own and in conjunction with others, that now serve as standard texts in design curriculum worldwide including, Thinking with Type (2004) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself (2006) (“Ellen Lupton” 2018). The former book was co-authored with her graduate students at MICA to explain the design processes to a wider audience. In her own words, “I wanted to produce a book that addressed both the how and why of typography, with serious history and theory, and I wanted it to be fun, but not dumbed down (Feo 2007).” She used this same idea to develop a children’s version with her sister, Julia, in 2007. At this same time, Lupton was continuing her own studies in the field of design and in 2008, she received her doctorate in Communication Design from the University of Baltimore (Maryland Institute College of Art 2018).

Her work with the Maryland Institute College of Art allows her to foster the next generation of designers. Lupton’s approach is broad and works to include new media and methods that her students may encounter in the future. Most recently, she began lecturing on the use of coding in design for digital media. She has also recently begun lecturing on blogging and independent publishing for designers and writers (Feo 2007). Lupton is an avid blogger as well making her uniquely qualified to speak on these subjects and how they can be brought into the world of design.

Today, Lupton continues her work as an educator and curator of graphic design and other contemporary works. She remains an important figure in the field of graphic design in addition to serving as a supporter of design being made accessible for all. To quote Paula Scher on her contributions, “Ellen Lupton is an institution. 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 (Feo 2007).” Lupton’s idea of “think more, design less” is evident throughout her many works, both visual and written as she strives to create an inclusive environment for design and communication. Her diverse skill set and all-inclusive approach to design allow her to remain at the forefront of an ever-changing field.


“Ellen Lupton.” Ellen Lupton RSS, elupton.com/about/.

Feo, Katherine. “Ellen Lupton.” AIGA | the Professional Association for Design, AIGA, www.aiga.org/medalist-ellenlupton/.

Maryland Institute College of Art. “MICA: Maryland Institute College of Art.” Ellen Lupton | MICA, MICA, www.mica.edu/About_MICA/People/Faculty/Faculty_List_by_Last_Name/Ellen_Lupton.html.