Five Design Tips from Ellen Lupton's "Ask Me Anything" - Skillshare
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Five Design Tips from Ellen Lupton's "Ask Me Anything"

Five Design Tips from Ellen Lupton's "Ask Me Anything"


Meet Ellen Lupton, an icon in the world of graphic design.

Known for her fascination and study of typography, Ellen is currently curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and director of the graphic design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. Her numerous books, articles, and lectures on design have been wildly successful graphic design primers for students as well as reference tools for designers worldwide. She was awarded the gold medal from AIGA in 2007.

Ellen's recent Skillshare AMA was filled with insights on her design process, inspiration, book recommendations, and more. Here are some of the highlights!

On the design process 

Q: When you are first thinking of a project, what are your first steps? Do you start sketching your own ideas first? Are there a few places you go to for inspiration? What steps do you take if you get to a place where you are "stuck"?

Lupton: I usually start with research, learning as much as I can about the problem or subject. Then sketching is super important because it keeps your process casual and low-cost. Often, my sketches have a directness and energy that gets lost in the real thing. It's a mystery. I try to keep those sketches in front of me so that I can try to regain that original energy. I also do a lot of verbal brainstorming to get ideas, such as making lists of nouns and verbs. Nouns are important because designers communicate well through concrete things. Verbs are important because they remind us to include action in our work. We want viewers to see action and take action.

On choosing type for design

Q: I have read many of your books on typography, and I've realized choosing typefaces is a skill that takes a lot of practice. Other than contrast, x-heights, etc., do you have any other tips for making the best choices when trying to choose type for design, excluding the myriad of decorative choices out there now? i.e. what is your process?

Lupton: If you are designing a brand identity, you should set the name of the company (as well as a bunch of words associated with the brand) in multiple typefaces to see what works with those particular words. If you are designing a publication or website, try applying different typefaces to blocks of text related to your project. Some people choose typefaces based on some historical or cultural connection. You might want a nineteenth-century feel, or an Italian feel, or an Art Deco feel. These explorations can be a way into the project. Ultimately, you end up going with your gut, but looking at history and context can be a starting point.

On perfection in design

Q: How do you deal with perfectionism in design? Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the possibility of different ideas. I am curious on what sort of discipline it takes to stay focused and decide.

Lupton: Design is, in many ways, a process of decision-making. Designers are constantly making choices between this typeface and that typeface, this color and that color, this layout option and that one. It can be overwhelming because the combinations are literally infinite, even when you narrow down the field that you are exploring to a few variables. So, as a designer, you need to learn to choose. However, you shouldn't fight your own personality either. Some people are naturally inclined to perfectionism, and many of these people are great designers. (I married one.) So if you are a perfectionist, make the most of it and do beautiful stuff. But be aware that perfectionism can sometimes stand in the way of success. Perfectionism is a piece of you to cultivate but also to watch out for. At the end of the day, you do have to choose a solution.

On the past, present, and future of design 

Q: Typography and design in general are changing so fast both for designers and their audience. The work methods are evolving, and the ways people perceive the design are changing too. What do you miss most from the past and what do you like about the present and the future?

Lupton: I love how tools like InDesign and web publishing software (from Wordpress to CSS) help writers to directly give shape to content. This is so amazing! Of course, designers could do that in the 1920s by working with a printer in the metal type shop or learning to print themselves, but now the ability to directly manipulate content is so much more accessible and easy to grasp. I don't miss the "old days" of creating paste-up mechanicals and having to rely on a typesetter to get type. Who knows what the future will hold? I hope people will keep reading and writing.

On her favorite typography books

Q: What books, websites and/or tutorials — besides Skillshare :) — do you recommend for learning typography?

Lupton: One of the greatest books ever on typography is by Emil Ruder; it's called, quite simply, Typography. This is a classic of Swiss design theory and practice. It's both rational and poetic. On the more technical side, there is a very useful book called InDesign Type, by Nigel French. It has a lot of great detailed info about type, tied directly to the tools we use to work with type. And for a wonderful poetic and philosophical approach, read Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style.

To learn more about Ellen's classes and to enroll, click here

Photo Credit: "The Birds" poster, Ellen Lupton.

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