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    Herb Lubalin

    Born
    1918, New York     
    Deceased
    1981, New York

    1980 AIGA MEDAL

    Herb Lubalin was two years old when AIGA awarded its first medal to the individual who, in the judgment of its board of directors and its membership, had distinguished himself in, and contributed significantly to, the field of graphic arts. There has been a lot of history between that moment and the evening in January 1981, when members, directors, friends and admirers gathered in the Great Hall of the New York Chamber of Commerce building to be with Lubalin as he accepted the 62nd AIGA medal.

    A lot of that history, at least in the graphic arts, had been written—and designed—by Herb Lubalin. And Lubalin has been recognized, awarded, written about, imitated and emulated for it. There's hardly anyone better known and more highly regarded in the business. Lubalin's receipt of AIGA's highest honor was never a matter of “if,” only “when.”

    Coming to terms with Herb Lubalin's work takes you quickly to the heart of a very big subject: the theory of meaning and how meaning is communicated—how an idea is moved, full and resonant, from one mind to another. Not many have been able to do that better than Lubalin.

    Typography is the key. It is where you start with Lubalin and what you eventually come back to. However, “typography” is not a word Lubalin thought should be applied to his work. “What I do is not really typography, which I think of as an essentially mechanical means of putting characters down on a page. It's designing with letters. Aaron Burns called it, 'typographics,' and since you've got to put a name on things to make them memorable, 'typographics' is as good a name for what I do as any.”

    Lubalin was a brilliant, iconoclastic advertising art director—in the 1940s with Reiss Advertising and then for twenty years with Sudler and Hennessey. Recipient of medal after medal, award after award, and in 1962 named Art Director of the Year by the National Society of Art Directors, he has also been a publication designer of great originality and distinction. He designed startling Eros in the early 60s, intellectually and visually astringent Fact in the mid-60s, lush and luscious Avant Garde late in the same decade, and founded U & lc in 1973 and saw it flourish into the 80s.

    But it is Lubalin and his typographics—words, letters, pieces of letters, additions to letters, connections and combinations, and virtuoso manipulation of letters—to which all must return. The “typographic impresario of our time,” Dorfsman called him, a man who “profoundly influenced and changed our vision and perception of letter forms, words and language.”

    Lubalin at his best delivers the shock of meaning through his typography-based design. Avant Garde literally moves ahead. The Sarah Vaughn Sings poster does just that. Ice Capades skates. There is a child in Mother & Child, and a family in Families. If words are a way of making meaning, then the shapes of their letters give voice, color, character and individuality to that meaning.

    The shock of meaning, in Lubalin's artful hands, delivers delight, as well, delight that flows from sight and insight. “Lubalin,” praises Dorfsman, “used his extraordinary talent and taste to transform words and meaning from a medium to an inextricable part of the message? and in so doing, raised typography from the level of craft to art.” And it is in his paper U & lc that a lot of threads in Lubalin's life and career get pulled together. It is publication dedicated to the joyful, riotous exploration of the complex relationships between words, letters, type and meaning—an ebullient advertisement for himself as art director, editor, publisher and purveyor of the shock and delight of meaning through typography and design. “Right now,” he said, “I have what every designer wants and few have the good fortune to achieve. I'm my own client. Nobody tells me what to do.” And 170,000 subscribers which, with a conservative pass-along estimate, yields 400,000 readers, benefit.

    Herb Lubalin's unique contribution to our times goes well beyond design in much the same way that his typographic innovations go beyond the twenty-six letters, ten numerals and the handful of punctuation marks that comprise our visual, literal vocabulary. Lubalin's imagination, sight and insight have erased boundaries and pushed back frontiers.

    As an agency art director, he pushed beyond the established norm of copy-driven advertising and added a new dimension. As a publication designer, he pushed beyond the boundaries that constrained existing magazines—both in form and content. In fact, some said he had pushed beyond the boundaries of “good taste,” though in retrospect that work is more notable today for its graphic excellence than for its purported prurience. Lubalin helped push back the boundaries of the impact and perception of design—from an ill-defined, narrowly recognized craft to a powerful communication medium that could put big, important ideas smack in the public eye.

    And finally, he pushed back what were believed to be the boundaries of design for entire generations of designers who were to follow. For such a quiet, gentle person to have accomplished so much is testimony indeed to the power of ideas in the hands of a master.

    Copyright 1981 by AIGA. 

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