Ten (or More) Things You Didn’t Know About Herb Lubalin

1. His name was pronounced Loo-ball-in, with the accent on the loo.

2. He was color-blind and ambidextrous.

3. Although he ultimately rejected advertising in favor of graphic design, as an agency art director at Sudler & Hennessey he was a key figure in advertising in the 1960s, introducing expressive typography into print advertising.

4. He rejected Swiss modernism, which he felt was ill-suited to the popular American imagination, in favor of vernacular, decorative, and humanistic approaches to visual expression.

5. He was a designer with political convictions, a supporter of liberal causes.

6. Anyone given a Lubalin “tissue” (his hand-drawn layout) to see through to production could not claim to be the piece’s designer.

7. By the time the MTV logo was designed in 1981, Lubalin and his signature style were no longer seen as avant-garde.

8. He freely acknowledged his many collaborators.

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

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

Alas, retiring and painting were not to happen. Herb Lubalin died 31 years ago at the young-ish age of 63. On October 26 and 27, his life and work were celebrated at a two-day symposium at the Cooper Union in New York City. It was a free public event, a family reunion, a party, and a book launch—the book being Herb Lubalin, American Graphic Designer, 1918-1981 by Adrian Shaughnessy, the event’s moderator and host, who opened day one, “Lubalin Then,” by making the above ten points.

Adrian Shaughnessy describes researching and photographing works preserved at the Herb Lubalin Study Center at the Cooper Union.

George Lois makes a point as Bernie Zlotnick, Fay Barrows, Steve Heller, and Louise Fili look on.

The Great Hall was filled with design students and veteran designers who’d made their mark through the decades. The Lubalin family was there, too—sons Peter and Robbie—and many of Herb’s old colleagues and friends, including panelists Bernie Zlotnick, who worked with Lubalin in the ’60s at Sudler & Hennessey; Fay Barrows, Lubalin’s assistant at S&H; ad man George Lois; author and educator Steve Heller; and designer Louise Fili, who in the mid ’70s launched her career at Lubalin, Smith, Carnase. The panelists spoke about the man and his work, affectionately sharing memories and stories. For example:

Lois: I almost opened an office with Herb and Lou Dorfsman in the Seagram Building. It was the only thing I didn’t do that I wish happened in my life. Herb was the only art director who could write headlines.

Heller: That’s why they fit the layout.

Lois: Louie, Herbie, and Georgie. Our company would have been two Jews and a Greek.

Fili: He liked my chicken soup and had me make vats of it for office holiday gifts. That wasn’t so much fun, but I loved designing the labels, especially turning the x in “Rx” into a Jewish star.

Shaughnessy, a design critic and the author of several other books, including How To Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, posited that in the late ’80s, with the rise of Emigre, David Carson, Neville Brody, etc., Lubalin’s work was seen by many as passé, but is now enjoying an unprecedented revival of global interest. Heller fielded questions from the audience about this, explaining that graphic design is about style as much as it is about ideas, “and now it’s time to embrace this body of work and have it take its rightful place in design history.”

Attendees lined up for signed copies of the (now sold-out) “deluxe” numbered and boxed limited-edition Herb Lubalin, American Graphic Designer, 1918-1981, published by Shaugnnesy’s newly formed, London-based company, Unit Editions.

It was an especially nostalgic evening for me. I worked as Herb’s assistant before Louise Fili joined the office, interpreting and overseeing production of some of those famous “tissues”—in my case, for the first two issues of U&lc and various annual report and identity projects. I respectfully disagree with Shaughnessy’s point #5, that “anyone given a Lubalin tissue could not claim to be the piece’s designer.” Although the tissues indicated exactly what Herb envisioned, he was generous with creative freedom. He often said, “Finish this one up and then see what you can do.” Most of the time, he did better and his designs were presented to the client. But if he liked your idea, he would embrace it and sell it. I’m not sure I totally agree with point #3, either—that Herb rejected advertising. He ultimately chose not to work inside the agency system, but his design firm had many advertising agency clients. And he did great ads.

I was in love with Herb’s work from the minute “The First Typo-Graphic’s Agency” brochure for Lubalin Burns & Co., Herb’s typesetting company/custom typography partnership with Aaron Burns, came across my desk in Los Angeles in 1972. With that little brochure in hand, I visited New York for the first time, dropping in at Lubalin, Smith, Carnase on East 31st Street, where I was introduced as “a designer from the coast.” It was the ultimate lucky break. I told Herb about how I’d been keeping track of all terrible ways the ligatures in his then-new typeface, Avant Garde Gothic, were being misused. I think he liked that, and he  liked my work, which I’d brought along on 35mm slides. He said he’d offer me a job—if he had an opening. I went back to L.A., thought about it, and, egged on by my friends, wrote to him and sent printed samples. Herb wrote back, “My partner Ernie Smith is retiring. Can you start April first?”

So I traded my Santa Monica apartment and my Karmann Ghia for an L-shaped studio on East 18th Street, and gave up my cushy job at UCLA to become a designer at Lubalin, Smith, Carnase. New York was exciting but lonely. I wasn’t used to having three locks on the door and not having a bunch of friends to drop in on. Herb was my boss and mentor, but also my surrogate father. He was about the same age as my father. (Funny, we young designers thought he was “old.” Maybe it was the white beard; he was in his early fifties). Herb encouraged me in a way my own father never did, came to dinner and parties at my apartment, brought his friends over. Knowing I missed L.A., he invited me to spend a weekend afternoon or two at the pool with his family on Long Island. And the whole office went for long weekends on Lake George in the Adirondacks, where former partner Ernie Smith ran Port Jerry, a resort with cabins and canoes.

There is the ultimate lucky break, and then there is the ultimate dumb move. Why did I leave after two years? Well, there is the glamorous, award-winning work you see on the pages of Shaughnessy’s book. And then there is the everyday bread-and-butter work that keeps the office running. In my case it was The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sports Champions. Page after page, volume after volume of articles about football, basketball, and baseball players, tennis stars and skiers, black-and-white glossies to size and send out for stats, galleys of type to cut apart and lay out. Just like Louise made the chicken soup, I sewed the felt numbers for the covers. That was the fun part. But I soon got bored with encyclopedia layouts, and was too young and impatient to appreciate that something more interesting might soon present itself. I wanted to art-direct photography, to work with more color, and ultimately to open my own office. That I did. But in retrospect I think was a mistake not to take better advantage of the opportunity, and especially not to remain in an office where I could work side-by-side with big talents like Tony DiSpigna, Tom Carnase, Alan Peckolick, and many others. I could have figured out how to make a bigger contribution there.

Something else important about Herb: As Shaughnessy pointed out in #5, Herb was a designer with political convictions, a supporter of liberal causes. But he wasn’t just a supporter in the sense of signing petitions or sending contributions, or even publishing (with Seymour Chwast) the “McGraphic,” an anti-war, anti-Nixon, pro–George McGovern tabloid. He did what he could to change the world. And that was nowhere more apparent than in his hiring practices. As George Lois noted with a big wink, there were lots of women around the office. And that wasn’t just because Herb liked women. It was because he wanted to give women jobs. There were African-Americans, too, office staff and young designers who might not have gotten a job somewhere else. He wanted to give them a break and nurture their talent. He hired designers from uptown housing projects, from Jamaica, Queens, and Jamaica, West Indies. Herb didn’t discriminate, except on talent. The atmosphere and cultural mix was nothing like the L.A. design offices I’d visited, hoping to find the right job, where the principals all were WASP-y white men and the only women in view were blondes in miniskirts, at reception desks or bringing chilled white wine to the clients.

Luckily, hiring practices have changed a lot, on both coasts. Some things endure. Such as the original and brilliant work of Herb Lubalin. What made me happiest about the “Lubalin Then” seminar at Cooper was learning that his work is enjoying a much-deserved revival of interest among young designers around the world. And that there’s the new book (unboxed and still very  much available) from which they can learn all about it.

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For more George Lois, download his recent webcast, Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent). For more on 20th-century type design, check out Steven Heller’s Texts on Type: Critical Writings on Typography—or purchase the limited-edition Mastering Typography Ultimate Collection, with five essential type-design resources bundled together for one low price.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I attended Herb Lubalin: Then. It was very nostalgic and quite entertaining. I was fortunate enough to meet Herb when he was in his studio on 30th Street. I got my first job with Bonder & Carnase who occupied the same building on the second floor. It was 1965 and I was a mere 19 years old. After some time Bonder & Carnase split up and Tom Carnase became Herb’s partner and I wnet on Herb’s payroll. That’s when I really got to know him, found out he was color blind, and that he was ambidextrous. He used to let me sit on a stool behind him and watch him work his magic. He also used to come down to the bull pin and gave me tissue designs but he did say that I could use it as my own, which I never did. He was a very generous man. It was a great experience working for him.

  2. I remember an evening with Herb at his home. He had invited Ken Hiebert, Wofgang Weingart, and me for a discussion. He was open to “Swiss Design”and wanted to hear our point of view. I don’t remember how it turned out, but he was very friendly, entertaining and a great host. He contributed a lot to the discourse on typography and some of his trademarks and logos are timeless.

  3. Hi Deborah,
    I neglected to mention in the piece that when I visited Herb for the first time as “a designer from the coast” (the coast?) I was wearing a miniskirt. Isn’t it what we all wore then? And I
    guess it didn’t hurt.

  4. a little story about herb lubalin and me :
    when he came to show ‘n tell in los angeles , probably in the 60′s, we met. probably i was wearing a mini skirt.

    herb was staying at a very important hotel (bel air ? other?) and invited me to dinner in his suite. we had lamb chops.

    word got around, and george tscherny commented that i not only met lubalin but had dinner in his suite. ! however, we only shared the lambchops,

    deborah

  5. Ellen, I enjoyed your reminiscences about your time with Herb. I wish I had interviewed you for my book!

    You mention that you disagree with my point #5, that “anyone given a Lubalin tissue could not claim to be the piece’s designer.” As I make clear in the book, this is not my view. In fact, it is a quote from Ernie Smith, who as you know was Herb’s partner and friend. I think it might have been true in the early days of the Lubalin studio, but it certainly became less true as time went by.