Influential author and design advocate, Ralph Caplan is recognized for turning his discerning eye, deftness with words and wonderful sense of humor toward defining design over half a century through writing, editing and teaching.
Patti LaBelle has just been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and
it’s your job to belt out a little song in celebration. That’s how it feels to
write about Ralph Caplan and his AIGA Medal.
It feels so
humbling you reach for another writer’s words to cover up your inadequacy.
Unfortunately, the writer who best expresses what you want to say, and how—with
plainspoken good sense and with wit as playful and incisive as puppy teeth—is
example, from his 1982 book By Design:
Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other
A chair is the first thing you
need when you don’t really need anything, and is therefore a peculiarly
compelling symbol of civilization. For it is civilization, not survival, that
If you’re a
writer who specializes in design (which is unlikely because the tribe has very
few members, although their number is growing), Ralph Caplan is your model. If
you’re lucky enough to study with him at the School of Visual Arts, where he
teaches in the Design Criticism MFA program, he may even be your mentor.
I can say with
confidence, however, that you will never match him. Design has always resisted
definition, but was never so open as it was in the postwar era when Caplan
began to give it contours. In books and essays ever since, he has explained
what design is:
A process for making things right
An instrument for making
If it were a religious
denomination, Design would be Unitarianism.
He has also
about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous.
‘Attention must be paid’ is the
cardinal rule of design discipline, for the designer is above all someone who
pays attention to the situation at hand.
Designers shouldn’t design for
museums any more than mummies should die for them.
There are many
reasons why the practice of design has changed in the past five decades. I
would argue that Ralph Caplan is one of them. His formulations have not only
helped designers make persuasive cases to clients and explain their jobs to
their own mothers; they have also brought consciousness and conscience to the
discipline. As a result of this sui
generis enterprise, design writing can never be the same. If Caplan didn’t
say it first, he said it early, and he has pretty much said it all.
instance, is what he wrote about design thinking 30 years ago, long before that
phrase started tumbling from designers’ lips:
…no industrial designer worth his
salt, or our attention, has been trained to work exclusively on any particular
product, unless by accident. What he has been trained to do is practice a
process called design, a process that includes esthetic choices but does not
consist only of them.
Here’s his take on branding at its worst, though no one called it
branding at the time:
We are … the un-proud
non-possessors of objects whose chief substance is that of the transient
symbol. Our Puritan fear of the love of things turns out to have been
groundless after all, for we do not love things or even possess them: they pass
through our lives as barium passes through the digestive tract, unassimilated,
their function merely to flash signals along the way.
insights have been sharpened by the fact that he came to design from the
outside. He was born in 1925 and grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near
Pittsburgh. His father owned a butcher shop, and later a wholesale grocery
business; his mother worked as a bookkeeper. Ambridge, Caplan points out,
sounds elite (it’s just a consonant shy of Cambridge), but it was a steelmaking
town that was named after its main employer, American Bridge. “There was so
much soot in the air that there were no white shirts in town,” he recalls. Referring to the rusting industrial
landscape of his youth, he once wrote, “Richard Serra’s sculpture makes me
student, he was suspended from high school at 16 after his teachers discovered
that he had been collaborating in a school play—and claiming he had to skip
class to rehearse it—though he wasn’t a cast or crew member. He maintained the
charade of attending school each day, but instead hitchhiked the 18 miles to
Pittsburgh to train, briefly but unsuccessfully, as a boxer. His parents
eventually caught on and threatened to send him to a military academy. After
perusing lavishly printed brochures showing uniformed cadets attending dances,
he was only too happy to go. His parents compromised on a nonmilitary school
with an ROTC program.
If design is
intention—another definition that crops up in his writings—then Caplan’s career
has been governed by happenstance. By his own account, he floated like milkweed
from Earlham College (early 1940s) to a Marine Corps entertainment troupe in
the South Pacific (World War II) to graduate study with the eminent poet John
Crowe Ransom at Indiana University (Caplan’s master’s thesis, completed in
1950, was a book of poetry) to an academic career teaching English literature
at a liberal arts college in Indiana (early 1950s) to the editing staff of a
short-lived New York humor magazine (late 1950s) to the eventual helm of
another New York magazine called Industrial
Design, which he left in 1963 in order to write a novel, Say Yes!
point, Caplan stuck with design, spending the next several decades consulting
for dozens of corporations and design firms, including the Eames Office, IBM,
Westinghouse and Herman Miller. He was a board member and director of the
International Design Conference in Aspen. Since the 1980s, he has issued his
wonderful essays in a procession that hasn’t faltered, though the publishing
venues have changed.
I have a theory
that Caplan found a home in design because it’s filled with like-minded
milkweeds, who drifted gracefully into their practices and established the
templates that generations would follow: people like Charles Eames, Eliot
Noyes, George Nelson, Milton Glaser, Jane Thompson and many others who brought
the best out of commerce and industry. He must have appreciated that design is
a humanistic pursuit not just because it serves people but also because it
pulls in diverse branches of learning; the greats are knowledge gluttons and
experience junkies. Caplan has barhopped with Dylan Thomas, kibbitzed with
Rocky Graziano (who teasingly asked him upon being introduced, “Didn’ I fi’ you
in Clevlan’?) and sung “Sonny Boy” with Saul Bass on a Japanese tour bus.
The author of By Design
jokes that his memoir, when he gets around to writing it, will be called By Accident. You don’t have to go very
far into Caplan’s work, however, to see that design is more than intention.
It’s also spontaneous mastery. It’s making the most of raw materials and unpredictable
situations. It’s following not just the external dictates of a brief, but also
the inner philosophy that consistently underwrites every one of your actions.
For Caplan, that philosophy is transparency: revealing the workings, giving
credit where credit is due, bringing to light the humor, absurdity, usefulness,
generosity or hypocrisy of a condition. He agreed to write the 1976 book The Design of Herman Miller, only if he
were allowed complete editorial freedom. “It turned out to be probably the only
corporate book ever written that got a bad review in the company newspaper,” he
jokes, but it led to a consulting relationship that lasted nearly 25 years.
non-designer immersed in the design world has left Caplan with two choices. He
can highlight the qualities that make designers extraordinary compared to the
rest of the human race, or he can remove boundaries and demonstrate how
everything in the world really is just design, which makes everyone a
you-know-what. He takes the second path. In the foreword to Caplan’s 2006 essay
collection Cracking the Whip, Glaser
wrote, “At heart Caplan is a moralist, who understands that the subject of
‘design’ permits him to write about anything from an ethical point of view. He
writes as though he believes that there is no such thing as popular culture,
only culture itself.”
Caplan is an
enemy of the impassive, a foe of detachment and numbness. His essays make
frequent unsmirking references to the body and sex because like anyone who is
properly attuned to design, he is a sensualist. This may be one reason Glaser
has called him “our Jonathan Swift,” but he is equal part Oscar Wilde, a
manufacturer of verbal paradoxes that turn sentences into little whiplashes. (Cracking the Whip was named for one
reader’s experience of his narrative techniques.)
Nothing is more to the point than a good digression.
All our media are given over to
things that are better left unsaid.
We should plead not guilty by
reason of inanity…
Try to top
that, if you dare.
Ralph Caplan was presented with the AIGA Medal at “Bright Lights: The AIGA Awards” on April 19, 2012, in New York City. Check out the video about Caplan’s life that debuted at the event.
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