Ellen Lupton is a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and chair of the Graduate Graphic Design program at MICA.
Tell me a little bit about your background in design and education.
Well I studied art and design at Cooper Union and I became a curator after that, really putting together exhibitions and books about design. I did that at the school for a while and then I started working at Cooper Hewitt Museum in 1992. Really, being a museum curator is a type of educator because you’re creating exhibitions that have to communicate to a public. And from the beginning, I collaborated a lot with the education department at Cooper Hewitt, and I’m still very closely involved with what they do. As a curator I’ve always felt very connected to education and to that division of the institution and a lot of museums there’s a divide between curatorial and education. There probably is to some degree at Cooper Hewitt, but I feel very connected with the education mission and the staff and their point of view.
Cooper Hewitt does a lot with education. Do you take part in any of that?
I do, I do. So the last five years or so the museum has had a big focus on k-12 education and has a built a pretty impressive website where we post lesson plans that are created by teachers, often, working with our staff and with consultants for the museum. We do a lot of teacher training where we bring teachers to an event, like a week-long event, at the museum or in a different city. We’ve been to San Antonio, Minneapolis, and New Orleans, so the museum will actually go to cities and meet with teachers there. And then the teachers as part of what they do is that they create lesson plans that we then post on our website and then it becomes a website for everybody. It’s not just art teachers, it’s teachers in any discipline. I get involved in that. I do lectures and workshops with teachers. I’m not an organizer of it, but I participated in a lot of those events but it’s a lot of fun.
I saw a video of you bringing Graphic Design to Education and it was about designing covers. Is this one of those workshops?
Right. We do a thing with the New York City School System. They have a competition every year where students compete to do the book cover of the high school program guide, which is a big book for the city of New York. Cooper Hewitt works with the Department of Education to help run the competition and try to raise the quality of the entries and raise the level of the design opportunity for that competition that they do. I do stuff with the teachers and then they put it online.
What led you to doing education work at MICA?
Well, I came to MICA in 1997. It was an opportunity to come and try something new. I still work for Cooper Hewitt, but I’m just part time there. I’m full time at MICA and I came here as chair of the undergraduate program, which at the time had about 10 majors in the senior year, and now we have between 40 and 50. So it was an interesting time where design was becoming more attractive to more people because of the computer. It had really opened up and students were coming to art school actually knowing about design and wanting to be designers, whereas before then, it was more of a hidden option. Certainly at MICA, we weren’t known for design. So I helped build up a program and in 2003 we created a graduate program which I am director of and I still teach in the undergraduate program, also, but mostly I run the graduate MFA program.
So what’s really interesting, is after having been a museum curator for a number of years, which is really about education at a mass level, because at a Cooper Hewitt show we might get 150,000 people coming to an exhibition. It could be anybody, you have no idea what their experience is. Some of them are experts. Some read every label, some are just going to the gift shop, but somehow they walk through. And education in a classroom is really intimate. You really spend time with people, but it’s a small number. So it’s sort of a trade off. So when I started the graduate program, we started publishing books about design. The grad students work on those books. They help create the content, they design it, and they really learn about the publishing process. It’s actually a way to take that intimate experience of educating in the classroom and then creating this other product that is then mass again, where you are broadcasting, so that’s been very fun for me and has been something that is very unique in having a grad program that produces books.
How many books have you produced thus far with the program?
Well we’ve made quite a few, I can show you. Graphic Design Thinking is our latest which we think will be really good for K-12 and a number of these are used in high school. It’s really about thinking strategies. Some of them I’ve done with high school students, I’ve done them with younger kids and college and graduate school, so they have a real range. It’s really been interesting you know, teaching someone, which is very one on and one, and then a book, where, you don’t know them, but it’s coming out of the classroom and it’s coming out of what we’re learning, and then the students are creating knowledge, that’s design education knowledge. There’s no one else really doing that. We’re pretty proud of this endeavor.
In terms of the Graphic Design Thinking book, is that more of core concepts, or how would you sum that up?
It has stuff about different kinds of brainstorming. Brainstorming is a particular technique, but there are a lot of other varieties of that. And then there are some research techniques like focus groups, and then there’s ways that you can use thinking and research to define your problem and make it clear. We look at form, different ways that you can jump-start process. I think it will do well in the k-12 environment. [Graphic Design Basics] (one of Lupton’s other books) is also used frequently in art high schools. It’s pretty advanced. This one, (Graphic Design Thinking), is more approachable, and Graphic Design Basics is more formal and sort of European. But it’s a good one. It gets used in more sophisticated high school art situations.
Do you think it’s important to bring design to K-12 students?
I think it’s incredible, because design is critical thinking. It isn’t just making art, and I think making art is great, but I think the way art generally is taught within the art education establishment is really about self-expression and helping students to explore themselves and about identity or you know, it’s personal. Design isn’t personal. It’s about looking at the world, looking at a problem, looking at materials. It’s a very different vocabulary; and a more outward activity. It relates to big problems in society and it relates to small things like creating your own identity or making a website where you can gather your research. So, it’s a way to empower students and also to open their thinking about the world. Every time they go shopping they’re making decisions about design. They do PowerPoint reports. It’s so different from when I was a kid and you had to do everything by hand. Everything is at such a different level now. Design is really a part of that.
What do you think design could do for teachers in other subjects?
Well I think it’s really valuable. We do a lot at Cooper Hewitt with it. Design is part of social studies, it’s part of English, it’s part of Science.
If you think about environmental issues, for example, and getting students to look at alternative energy, that’s a design problem that also relates to scientific knowledge.
I think you could say that about a lot of innovation—it ends up being a design problem, or any time you’re making something you’re going to think about how it will be constructed with is a lot of what designers do.
Yeah, and also looking at the problem from an innovative angle instead of a “let’s look at the solutions we already have.”
What core values does design teach?
I think the big one is critical thinking and that it teaches you to not take a question at face value – to look sideways at things – to try to look at the context around a problem and not just at what the final solution will be. I think design often has to do with simplifying, with getting rid of unnecessary details, but also with trying to make elements serve more than one purpose. So that’s a very important moment for students looking at design and also teachers, is when suddenly a logo or a piece of furniture or anything — elements have multiple functions, and that’s a type of simplifying, a type of focusing in – Doing more with less.
What formal design principles and concepts would you most what students to learn?
In Graphic Design, the big challenge is to get students to have less stuff on the page, and this is just what Graphic Designers do. You know, how do you create focus? How do you make sure that the decisions you make are supporting an essential idea as opposed to just being thrown all over the place? There’s some concept and that concept helps drive your decisions. It gets back to this idea of simplicity, but it’s simplicity with a purpose. You’re trying to convey a message and that can be challenging.
What can design professionals offer to students? Do you think they should have a role in education?
I think it would be great to bring professional designers into the classroom as mentors or the give talks about careers. I think a lot of kids don’t realize that design is a career in the visual arts and they might be interested in art but not understand that artists can work in other ways — they don’t just make paintings for museums, which we all know, but they’re not exposed to that. Meeting a fashion designer, meeting a graphic designer, web designers, architects, could be really inspiring to kids.
Say you were to talk to an art teacher who had never done design themselves but wanted to get their students designing. What would you tell them to help them get started?
I think kids like to design logos for themselves. I think lettering is a fun experimental thing where you don’t need a computer. Mike Perry and people are looking at hand lettering – it can be a fun way to engage students — you know, tweens and junior high level. I’d do projects with tote bags and things where they can put art on something that they’re going to use. That’s really easy and fun, kind of low pressure. I think the Designing with Materials book has a lot of projects that are more 3-d and have more 3-d problem solving.
I’ve had projects where kids had to come up with editorial illustrations for their school newspaper. So they had an issue – like police directing the traffic in front of the school and a lot of students were upset that this was like a “police state” and they weren’t being trusted. So we brainstormed on how you could represent that. What says police, what says traffic, what are the elements even if you don’t draw very well? How do you get past the cliché or how does the cliché offer you humor be twisting it?