Supergraphics and Computer Art: Deborah Sussman and April Greiman in L.A.

The exhibition California’s Designing Women: 1896–1986—on view at the Autry National Center, in Los Angeles, until January 6, 2013—includes 225 objects by 46 women designers. There are ceramics, clothing, furniture, jewelry, textiles, and much more. Fortunately, the graphic arts are not neglected. Although the show includes only a handful of women graphic designers, two of them are among the most influential figures in the field: Deborah Sussman and April Greiman.

A supergraphic by Deborah Sussman, recreated for the exhibition. (Sussman images courtesy the Museum of California Design)

Indeed, perhaps the most dramatic visual feature in the entire exhibition is a supergraphic by Sussman, the senior stateswoman of environmental graphic design. Her massive yellow-and-orange X is a recreation of a circa 1986 piece she installed in the Joseph Magnin Department Store in San Jose, California. Now as then, its purpose is to enhance the space while offering text-free direction. “The idea of supergraphics was not that it was just big, but that it was bigger than the architecture,” Sussman says. “That it didn’t have to fit into prescribed spaces in a traditional way. That it could have its own life and go beyond the ceiling, be cropped, be as though it had almost flown over the architecture.” Today the approach is commonplace, as Bill Stern, the executive director of the museum and the exhibition’s curator, points out. Sussman’s graphic techniques, he says, “have become ubiquitous in the graphic landscape of virtually every American and of much of the rest of the world.”

The original installation in the Joseph Magnin Department Store, in San Jose

A supergraphic by Sussman for the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival, Los Angeles

No less influential was April Greiman’s Does it make sense?, one of the earliest examples of computer-generated art, created for a 1986 issue of Design Quarterly magazine. The title comes from a quote by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “If you give it a sense, it makes sense.” Greiman’s illustration is both a personal response and  a rhetorical question about her creative and technical process. At the time, many in the design community decided that the work did not make sense; although it’s now considered a seminal work, Greiman says that she “was pushed out of the mainstream intelligentsia and dismissed as a graphic designer.”

The die-cut slip case for Greiman’s Does it make sense?, Design Quarterly #133 for the Walker Art Center, 1986. (Greiman images courtesy April Greiman/Made In Space Inc.)

The unfolded illustration

While the production method for Does it make sense? is archaic today, the process Greiman used at the time represented a truly advanced pragmatic design, and a precursor to much that followed. Greiman started the design on a Macintosh 128K, Apple’s first computer, then completed the work on the 512K model. The computer had a nine-inch, 512-by-384 monochrome display, with 72ppi resolution and a single megabyte of RAM. By today’s standards, it was prehistoric. The defining image in Does it make sense? is a nude of Greiman captured as a live video still from her Sony Beta camera with MacVision, a device that digitized stills from composite video. Once all the images where captured, she designed the layout with MacDraw. There were no digital files (no floppy disks), no paste-up. Instead, using her ImageWriter II dot-matrix printer, Greiman printed individual pages comprising the magazine on letter-size sheets of bond paper. She took them to the printer, who then tiled the pages and shot reflective film (blue replaced the black ink) to create a single source for printing, which produced a 76-by-26-inch poster. Once printed, the poster was folded and placed in a slipcase for mailing. The results, according to Stern, “confirm that design is not some discretionary luxury divorced from our daily lives, but rather an integral part of our everyday lives.”

A 3-D poster by Greiman for the Pacific Design Center, 1983. The poster was distributed by showrooms and businesses, along with a pair of 3-D glasses.

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For more pioneering female graphic designers, see Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio’s Women of Design, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com. For more Deborah Sussman, download an MP3 of her presentation at the HOW Design Conference, “The Spaces In-Between.”

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  1. April Grieman was a pioneer of digital imagery and did wonders with the very first desktop publishing technology. I also started my career on a humble Mac Plus with 9″ mono screen so know how difficult it was in the early days to pruduce work.