Lubalin at Thirty - Photo Credit Brenda So EE'18

Professor Tochilovsky on Thirty Years of The Herb Lubalin Center

By: Anthony Passalacqua (ME ’18)

Photo by Brenda So (EE ’18)

Curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, Professor Alexander Tochilovsky sat down with The Pioneer last week to discuss the Center’s thirty-year history, expound on the significance of typography to design and tell us about legendary designer Herb Lubalin himself.

An overview of the Center

The Center opened September 10, 1985, and we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary with a glimpse into the collection here. The collection has grown immensely over 30 years and we wanted to do an exhibition showing that.

The stuff that we have is predominantly archival graphic design work. But we’ve been very active in trying to find a balance of material that’s more contemporary: books and magazines on designs and well-designed books and magazines; things that tend to be useful to students. It’s just such a great collection that students are always welcome to use.

Pulling books and resources for students is one of the main things we do, since we like to facilitate access to students and make it easy for them. We’re even open to researchers in the general public by appointment.

The exhibition is going to be on display until October 3, and is open ten to seven Monday through Saturday, and twelve to five on Sundays. We’re going to do something with the gallery that we haven’t done in the past: we’re going to swap out a big chunk of the show with new work halfway through so people get to see twice as much work.

On putting the gallery together

There were three people, including myself, who are curating the show, and we all worked on selection and curation. Several Cooper students helped as well and we have a thank you panel that lists them and other contributors. Whenever we do exhibitions it’s almost impossible to do them without student help, plus it’s a great way for students to get involved and see things behind the scene.

On the designers currently showcased

The show is broken into segments, and each segment uses the theme of thirty – so for the thirty posters that’s thirty designers. There are also thirty drawers pulled into the space that we use when researchers come. Each drawer has 15 individual designers, and with 9 drawers that makes about 150 different designers on view right now.

When we swap everything out there will be not quite double, but about 200 individual designers on view over the totality of the show.

 On the significance of typography to design

Typography is integral to design. There is always language in graphic design, and typography is what shapes that language, it’s what gives it form. When it’s done well, typography allows the viewer to access the information faster, better and to get as much out of it as they can.

A lot of small details that go into how we read are understood intimately by typographers. For example, many books are set where the column width is too wide, and that makes it harder for the eye to follow along. Most people have experienced this: you’ll be in school, reading, and you have kind of a glitch. You read a line twice or three times over and that is usually caused by a flaw in the typography. If typography is done well, reading is long and uninterrupted because you’re not aware of the shapes of letters. If people can get information out of text language in the quickest and easiest way possible means the typographer did a good job.

Graphic design is very much about ideas; about visual description and aesthetics. You don’t want the typography to be in the way, but you want it to be a cohesive and harmonious part of the overall design. There is a legacy and history of typographic posters — work that doesn’t have any imagery except typography. A lot of designers specialize in finding solutions without having to rely on images or illustrations. The whole thing is language.

Herb Lubalin was one of the people who opened the boundaries for graphic design. Without Herb, typography would not be such an integral part of graphic design. Today it’s a very valid way of working, where you can say I don’t need an illustration or a photograph, I’m going to make the whole thing conceptually through type. And it’s huge! Before 1950, that didn’t exist.

On the work of Herb Lubalin

Herb was one of the people who was influential in creating that shift into typography and starting to make work that was conceptually all typographic. It was still playful, interesting, and engaging, but he was making type do things that type didn’t do before. He was really, really good at it. He was good with language: he was sensitive about how things were phrased, an understanding of the brevity of language, and was an expressive writer. Fundamentally, he understood the balance between what words said and what they look like.

He created a huge body of work that is based on that balance between meaning and form, but he also took on a lot of really interesting projects that were socially very important. He is a good model of designers to follow — for how to do good work, and how to find clients that are not necessarily chasing the money. He was never about the money, but rather in just doing good work.

He had a very varied career. He created a number of typefaces with collaborators, and designed magazines, books, book jackets and logos. A lot of the design work that he did is still in use. Once in awhile, people come to the Center to look through work, and they find a logo that they never knew was a piece by Lubalin. They’re stunned something is still being used since they 60’s. Even his editorial design, which is less known, is equally as strong.  He left a great legacy within typography.

On his personal favorite works

There are a lot, and it was very difficult to make the final selection for the show because there’s so much stuff that I like, but I had to make tough choices due to space constraints. In particular there’s a drawer of the work by Fred Troller, a Swiss born designer who worked in New York.

We have the work that he did for a pharmaceutical company in the sixties. His pharmaceutical design was some of the best design made anywhere – it was that good but rarely seen. Most pharmaceutical design was made and sent directly to doctors so it was rare for the general public to see these things. Sadly most of the work has disappeared, because even if it was really beautiful, it has a different kind of dynamic and doctors just didn’t keep it.

However, we have things that are really, really beautiful, and we are fortunate to have those pieces in our collection. It’s stuff that very few people have seen before, an amazing glimpse into a very vibrant industry, of how good graphic design was within the pharmaceutical industry versus how poor it is now. So we have a drawer of Fred’s work, and we have another drawer just dedicated to pharmaceutical design.

In general, my favorites are pieces that don’t necessarily get into design books, but are just amazing pieces. I try to pull the hidden gems people haven’t seen before so people can experience beautiful work.

 On design outside of the art school

I think because there are so many moments in the architecture and engineering career that you have to present work and projects to a small audience, a good sense of typography makes it so much easier to present information in a clear way.

An understanding of typography also means a better understanding of visual hierarchy. Being able to use typography to your advantage to highlight things that are more important and downplay things that are less important can be used to lead the viewer through the presentations in a very clear and concise manner. Type is built for that.

A lot of the things that architects and engineers do, specifically for students, can use typography to make information come through much faster. Placement, size, color of type, typeface choice; they accentuate the visual hierarchy in an easy manner.

Even going as basic as a PowerPoint, presentation tools have pretty sophisticated control of typography. Unfortunately the defaults and templates that are built into Power Point and others are clunky. But if there’s a good understanding of how type is utilized, then all of these presentations and documents can be done in a much more clear and productive way. Ultimately, you want people to get as much information as they can out of the presentation.

When it isn’t used well, typography creates distracting moments, preventing the viewer from penetrating the work and extract information. That’s crucial everywhere, but especially so in engineering and architecture, where there are sort of shiny flashing types of things that can distract the viewer.

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