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Ten Things You Should Know About Herb Lubalin

Our Kickstarter campaign to republish our 2012 book on US designer and typographer Herb Lubalin is live – and we still need your help to reprint this important monograph. Recently, Units Adrian Shaughnessy talked to the #Lubalin100 project about writing and researching the book and what he discovered about this legendary figure of American graphic design. By way of an introduction to Lubalin – that also sheds light on a few surprises – we present the full text, here.

Prior to writing a book on Herb Lubalin (1918–81), I had a rather sketchy opinion of him, writes Shaughnessy. Of course, I recognised that he was a significant American typographer and designer, responsible for some high quality typographic logos and a handful of era-defining typefaces. 

Yet the more I delved into the life and work of Lubalin, the more interesting he became. He emerged as a sophisticated and surprisingly progressive designer. Gradually, I became seduced by the typographic poise and power of expression that he brought to every project that bore his – or his studio’s – name. 

It is against the backdrop of this journey from skepticism to admiration, that I offer you ten things that you should know about Herbert Frederick Lubalin. 

Above: Typographic self-portrait by Lubalin for an exhibit at the American Institute of Graphic Arts

1. The correct way to pronounce ‘Lubalin’. 

His name is pronounced ‘Loo-baa-lin’, with the accent on the ‘baa’. Like most Brits, I had always referred to him as ‘Loo-b’lin’ (accent on ‘Loo’), and it took many months of interviewing Lubalin family members and former colleagues, to break the habit. 

2. He was colour-blind and ambidextrous. 

An inability to distinguish colours is a severe handicap for a graphic designer, yet Lubalin seems to have negotiated professional life without being greatly hampered by this inability. In fact, it could be argued that his colour blindness contributed to his genius for incisive black and white imagery.

His ambidextrousness, however, was seen as a sign of virtuosity. He was famously known to sketch all his ideas on ‘tissues’ that were then passed to lettering artists to turn into highly polished artwork. So great was his virtuosity that he could draw with his right hand while signing cheques with his left. 

3. He was a key figure in the ‘creative revolution’ that transformed American advertising in the 1960s. 

After Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the most important agency in the creative revolution that took place in mid-century American advertising was Sudler & Hennessey. Lubalin worked at S&H from 1949 to 1964.

During that time he became one of the pioneers of expressive typography (‘word pictures’, to use his phrase): his print ads for leading pharmaceutical companies radicalised advertising at a time when press ads featured people in evening dress standing next to Cadillacs.

But although Lubalin became a partner in the firm – and hired many of the smartest brains of the ‘new advertising’ movement (George Lois, Helmut Krone, amongst others) – he ultimately rejected a career in advertising in favour of graphic design.

Later, he outlined his objection to advertising: his opposition was partly moralistic ("I don’t particularly like to advertise products and help clients sell products that I have no particular use for. And very often I turn down a product because I just think it detrimental for people to buy certain products") and partly creative ("At an agency there are no individuals … and all those who stick to it become anonymous"). 

4. He was a generous acknowledger of the contribution made by his employees and partners. 

As with many graphic design studios – especially those run by celebrated designers – the question of authorship arises: the ‘who did what?’ question. In the case of Lubalin, the matter is further complicated by the fact that, as has already been noted, he only ever produced ‘tissues’ – sketches done with a cheap Pentel pen and then passed over to highly skilled lettering artists such as John Pistilli, Tom Carnase and Tony DiSpigna. 

This process made authorship questionable. Was Lubalin the sole author of his work, or was he part of a team? In interviews he always paid humble tribute to his many collaborators. Their names frequently appeared on studio promotional literature, and in the case of Carnase, DiSpigna, Ernie Smith and Alan Peckolick, he also made them partners.

For Smith, however, there was no doubt about the central role Lubalin played in the studio’s creative output: "The art director who got a Lubalin tissue couldn’t take credit as the designer," he said. "You tightened it up and refined it; but the idea, the major spatial relationships, the elegance, was built into it. Once Herb made the tissue, the ad or booklet was designed."

5. Sometimes a phone call was all that was needed.

A key member of the Lubalin studio in its final days was Mike Aron. I interviewed Mike for my book, and he told me this story.

He was struggling with a design for the masthead of a new magazine called Families. As the deadline drew near, he began to panic. Nothing was working. Then he received an internal phone call from Lubalin. In his customary gruff manner, Herb said, "Dot the ‘L’".

By dotting the lowercase ‘L’, which on both sides was accompanied by the lowercase letter ‘i’, a graphic representation of a family – mother father and child – was created. The logo is now considered a classic. But it only took a phone call. 

6. He rejected Swiss modernism in favour of a more humanistic ‘graphic expressionism’. 

Unlike Paul Rand or Lester Beall, Lubalin rejected the ‘Swiss Style’. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate Swiss rigour, or that he knew nothing about it, it was just that he thought it was unsuited to the mainstream American imagination.

As he told IDEA magazine: "The American people react to ideas. We are a concept-conscious society." So rather than pursue European minimalism, Lubalin gave birth to a new conceptual typography which he called ‘graphic expressionism’.

In an essay he wrote in 1979 for Print magazine he said: "Graphic Expressionism is my euphemism for the use of typography, or letterforms, not just as a mechanical means for setting words on a page, but rather as another creative way of expressing an idea, telling a story, amplifying the meaning of a word or a phrase, to elicit an emotional response from the viewer."

7. He was a designer with a political conscience at a time when it was not fashionable to have one. 

Lubalin was never a shout-out-loud political revolutionary and he didn’t go on protest marches, but he frequently used his talents to support causes that appealed to his liberal sensibilities.

He designed a number of left-leaning publications (often, it must be admitted, for reasons as much to do with the artistic freedom these small magazines gave him as for their political complexions). He co-designed The McGraphic which has been described as a pro-McGovern/anti-Nixon/anti-Vietnam War publication.

As an employer, he hired African American women at a time when this was not common. And for Ebony magazine, he produced one of the most effective advertising campaigns, exposing discrimination amongst US corporations, reluctant to spend ad dollars in a magazine for black readers. This was a man with a political and moral view of the world that was not common amongst prominent graphic designers of the period.

8. He ‘nearly’ designed the MTV logo.

In 1980, the year before his death, Lubalin was asked to do some spec ideas for a new broadcast company – MTV. Lublin sketched some ideas in his usual manner – interlocking letters and sharp angles. As we now know, he wasn’t awarded the job, and it went to a design company called Manhattan Design, who recognised that the broadcast landscape was changing – and designed one of the first mutable logos.

Suddenly, Lubalin’s signature style was no longer seen as avant-garde. Had he lived, it's interesting to speculate whether he would have been able to adapt to the new design environment? We will never know.

9. Reflecting on the obscenity conviction of his friend and client Ralph Ginzberg, Herb said, “I should have gone to jail too.

One of the longest professional associations in Lubalin’s life was with his friend the publisher and editor Ralph Ginzberg. Ginzberg was the editor of three great publications that Lubalin designed: Eros, Avant Garde and Fact. All three publications were radical, controversial and ahead of their time. 

But in 1972, Ralph Ginzberg was jailed for obscenity, over an issue of Eros. By today’s standards it was mild, but the issue in question showed an African American man and a white woman embracing. The couple were nude, but no genitalia were visible. Herb’s wife told me that, after Ginzburg’s jailing, he'd told her that he should have gone to jail too. 

What does this tell us? It tells us that Lubalin was more than just Ginzberg’s designer, he was a true partner, and the publications they worked on were the product of collaboration of a sophisticated kind. 

10. Lubalin often said that when he retired he would devote his life to painting.

This is something else that Herb’s wife Rhoda told me. Lots of designers have a secret – or not so secret – desire to be an artist. But I always think of Herb Lubalin as the ultimate graphic designer. Someone who loved lettering, typography, and the processes and craft of graphic communication.

But it seems he had a secret desire to paint. This surprised me. But, as I said at the beginning of this text, most of what I learned about Herb Lubalin surprised me. 

Our Kickstarter campaign to reprint Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer is live at kickstarter.com – and we need your help to bring this important monograph back into print. An audio version of this post, published as part of the #Lubalin100 project, can be found at lubalin100.com.