My Favorite Lubalin

BeardsAdrian Shaughnessy is working on a book about the great type master Herb Lubalin for his Unit Editions. When I began to contemplate design as a career, Lubalin was one of two names I knew (the other was Frank Zachary, art director of Holiday magazine) and the one I most emulated. A recent conversation with Shaughnessy got me thinking which of Lubalin’s many brilliant typographic works influenced me the most. It was a 1976 paperback book cover for the reprint Beards: Their Social Standing, Religious Involvements, Decorative Possibilities, and Value in Offence and Defence Through the Ages (1949) by Reginald Reynolds (which also made me want to grow a beard).

The cover, art directed by Harris Lewine and designed by Lubalin’s partner, Alan Peckolick, was the quintessential Lubalin conceptual idea in which type and lettering was also an illustration. Lubalin was the master of visual puns, which have returned to the design vocabulary. The lettering was done by Tom Carnese. I use this opportunity to recall an article I wrote for U&lc that I titled “Rule Basher,” referring to Lubalin’s penchant for smashing type (below):

BeardsHerb Lubalin was a basher. He bashed type. For a while it was his stock in trade. Sure he respected the integrity of letterforms, but he realized that there was more to type than purity. Like the Sixties itself, type was ready to explode off the page and into the popular culture. Through bashing, Lubalin smashed the taboos and shibboleths of type design and gave it personality. Like the rock-and-rollers of the day, he turned up the volume on letters, making them speak — and sometimes sing. It’s difficult to imagine what graphic design would be if not for Lubalin’s rule-busting. Change would inevitably occur, but would it have been as exciting?

Few graphic designers embody the aesthetics of their time as completely as Lubalin. Arguably, from the late 1950s to the late 1970s, he was American graphic design. His eclectic sensibility pervaded advertising, editorial, and package design so thoroughly that the best word to describe the era may be “Lubalinesque.” Personally, I was so smitten with his way of giving depth to a page that much of my early typography, with the wild swirling swashes, smashed shadows, overlapping ascenders and descenders — the words made into pictures — must be summed up as an homage to the master basher.

The father of conceptual typography, Lubalin helped build a bridge between the modern and late-modern schools. Letters were not merely vessels of form, they were objects of meaning. He made words emote. He came of age, fortuitously, in an epoch of technological change. Poised at the edge of typographic uncertainty, he was a pioneer of phototypography, one of its first users — or abusers, say some critics. But rules, he realized, were meant to be turned upside down. He liberated white space from the orthodox moderns, refusing to follow the edict that “less is more.” He believed that “more” was certainly better, if it enlivened the page. He was a tireless experimenter. And yet his radical approaches to type and page design became so thoroughly embraced, first in advertising and then in publication design, that it’s hard to remember that Lubalin was once a true radical.

Lubalin was known for innovative advertising — exemplary of the Creative Revolution — when working at the advertising firm Sudler & Hennessey, but by the mid-1960s he had changed the course of editorial design through two remarkable magazines, each benchmarks of Sixties American culture. Avant Garde was a visual happening, the expression of the social and cultural flux within American society, as influenced by the antiwar movement and alternative culture. It was a hybrid, crossing a magazine with a literary journal. It was square, the size of an LP record album, and its graphics evoked the revolutionary spirit of the times. Eros, America’s unexpurgated celebration of erotica between hard covers, demonstrated the most elegant magazine pacing and composition since Alexey Brodovitch’s design for Portfolio held that honor. Thanks to Lubalin, Avant Garde defined its own name, and Eros gave sex exotic allure. Both publications offered alternatives to mainstream design conventions, but without the raucous edge of the youth culture’s underground graphics.

Later, as art director of Fact, an “investigative” periodical that included a diet of consumer advocacy, liberal rhetoric, and conspiracy theorizing, Lubalin reinvented the notion of quietude. What Lubalin did with this ostensibly black-and-white, text-dominated periodical was give new meaning to the word “classical.” All the visual elments were toned down to zero decibles — one single illustrator and one typeface per issue — yet it was the most eyecatching minimalism anyone had seen.

Okay, even when Lubalin’s typography was quiet, it was never neutral. Maybe it was compensation because he was softspoken, in fact painfully shy when addressing strangers. But he spoke loudly through his design. His headlines for articles and advertisements were signs that forced the reader to halt, read, and experience, before being engrossed by the message. He would tweak and manipulate story titles until he had just the right combination of letters to make a striking composition. The graphic strength of “No More War,” originally an advertisement for Avant Garde that featured block letters forming the pattern of an American flag, with a bold black exclamation point at the end, was one of the most iconographic visual statements issued during the Vietnam War era.

Lubalin rarely missed the opportunity to make a kind of concrete poetry which expanded typographic language. In another set-piece, his bookjacket for “Yes I Can,” the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr., the yellow block letters with drop shadows that dominate the jacket do more than spell out the title of the book. By making these three words into a sculptural form, Lubalin evoked the selfconfidence suggested by the anthem: “Yes I Can.”

Some of Lubalin’s bashing, smashing, and overlapping was contrived at times, and the conceit ultimately became much too self-conscious. Even he admitted it. But Lubalin was the inventor, which means that even the excesses must be viewed as those of an experimenter who was testing the limits of his own form.

His experiments did not always work. The typeface Avant Garde, for example, was a beautiful logo, but as a commercial typeface it had contained an excessive number of ligatures that were misused by designers who had no understanding of how to employ these typographic forms. Avant Garde was Lubalin’s signature, and in his hands it had character; in others’ it was a flawed Futura-esque face.

In 1971, Herb Lubalin co-founded ITC. In 1973, he co-founded U&lc, as a sales tool that doubled as an outlet for his eclectic interests. One might argue that U&lc was the first Emigre, since it promoted ITC’s growing library of type while proffering Lubalin’s experiments with typography. In U&lc, he tested just how far smashed and expressive lettering might be taken. Under Lubalin’s tutelage, eclectic typography was firmly entrenched.

Almost two decades after Lubalin’s death, graphic design and graphic experimentation have taken a sharper turn toward distressed and illegible letterforms — perhaps the inevitable outcome of typographic evolution meeting digital technology. Lubalin pushed the limits, sometimes beyond the understanding of his contemporaries, yet he rarely went over the edge as it is defined today. With few exceptions, his experiments were conducted under marketplace conditions, which at once provided certain safeguards and made taking liberties all the more difficult. Lubalin’s work was not “design for design,” but design for communication. Even his most radical ideas never strayed.

Although today it is difficult to think of Lubalin as a young turk, he was the quintessential rule basher. Today’s new rules exist to be bashed because he bashed them first.

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