By: Jessica Farris | May 8, 2015
Enter the Print Regional Design Annual to be highlighted in the pages of our milestone RDA issue, which celebrates 75 years of Print.
Each year, AIGA selects a series of designers and visual artists to present with the AIGA Medal. A truly distinguished honor, the medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication.
Marcia Lausen, one of this year’s five medalists, was chosen for her leadership in design education, and for her work demonstrating the importance of design. Lausen is the director of the School of Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and a co-founder of design firm Studio/lab, which recently served as the base of operations for the design and development of UIC/North Lawndale bid to host the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
Lausen earned recognition through her seven-year dedication to a ballot and election project with Design for Democracy. Lausen believed that contested presidential elections related to problematic ballots—beginning with Florida’s notable ballot issues—were ultimately design-related problems. With the help of students at UIC, she rallied the support of AIGA and redesigned the ballots for Illinois’ Cook County. Her book Democracy: Ballot and Election Design, shown below, explores this process.
Lausen and Studio/lab have also created other globally-recognized work, including Hot Wheels packaging for Mattel, identity design for the American Alzheimer’s Association, a pierscape for Chicago’s Navy Pier, branding for Motorola, and publication design for the American Institute of Architects—among much, much more.
I had the distinct pleasure of learning from Lausen, who told me about her career, her design philosophy, and what she’s working on now.
Q&A with Marcia Lausen
How do you feel about being honored as an AIGA Medalist?
It is surprising, humbling, and heartwarming! I am surprised by the news and overwhelmed by the honor and the outpouring of congratulations from all directions.
How would you describe your design work?
Based in form-making and typographic expression. Conceptually and contextually engaged. Intent to experiment with emerging forms of practice and to advance the discipline.
Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?
My favorite designers are my close colleagues, those that I am lucky enough to work with and learn from on a regular basis. Philip Burton, my former teacher and chair of UIC Graphic Design. Former Yale classmates Susan Verba, Studio/lab co-founder, and David Williams, head of design at Morningstar.
If you could sum up your design philosophy into a single sentence, what would it be?
Designers are compelled to make progress.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the subject matter of a project and from experts on the topic. Diving deep into a subject generally involves a mix of inspirations from literature, history, art, architecture, and sometimes other works of design. Technology and materiality can also inspire emerging solutions.
Which medium (or media) do you enjoy working in the most?
Any. All. My deepest experience is in print but I am less interested in media than ideas.
I was reading about your spacious studio in your AIGA bio. How does your 8,000 square-foot studio facilitate your work?
At Studio/lab our permanent team is small relative to the amount of space and this is true in both locations. This allows us to expand in numbers to suit a project or a process. An example: In Chicago, during our recent work to lead the development of the University of Illinois at Chicago proposal to host the Barack Obama Presidential Library, we were able to serve as the base of operations for a team of architects and urban planners. We were also able to host meetings in the space where work in process was visible to academic and community collaborators. And we were able to offer workspaces for those who needed to get away from daily demands in order to make contributions to the project.
Studio/lab is decidedly “unbranded”. Our space has amazing views of Chicago. More than anything else, our space (and its views!) define our identity.
What was it like learning from Paul Rand?
I am often asked this. Paul Rand was a true master. Being in his presence was the learning. While at Yale I also studied with Bradbury Thompson, who was, perhaps, a greater influence on my work. Both greatly inspired my own teaching. Rand taught through the intellect, by masterful example and critical discourse. Thompson through the heart, by personal engagement and thoughtful encouragement.
Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
I am probably best know for my work in election design reform, but I’m not sure I can that say this a favorite project. I am truly proud of what we accomplished for the profession and we did make an impact on the election world, but the work took over my l
ife for far too long a period.
I am interested in many subjects and I like to dive deep into learning. One of the things I love most about design is that I don’t know what I’ll learn next.
When we worked on Workspring for Steelcase, we had unlimited access to years of research on how people work. We were able to directly apply learnings and insights gleaned from the research to the brand and experience design.
When we were invited to use design to support a University of Washington initiative to develop a College of the Environment, we were in sessions with experts who truly understand the grand environmental challenges of our time. We worked with academic leaders in fields that ranged from architecture to civil engineering, from earth and space to forestry, from global health to public affairs, from economics to philosophy to geography to oceans and fishes…
For the Hot Wheels brand of Mattel we learned about play patterns of young boys and we developed a custom typeface to support difference and to manage visual noise of competing sub-brands. (This was never used but it is very cool.)
When we were invited by Krueck and Sexton architects to develop wayfinding for the Spertus Institute, we expanded our cultural understandings as we developed newly acquired expertise in environmental graphics.
This is a different kind of design, but I am also tremendously proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done at the University of Illinois at Chicago to establish a School of Design.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
The current challenge always seems the biggest. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to grow an amazing school with ever-dwindling state funds, and how best to describe Studio/lab, which is an ever-evolving form of design practice.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Design is the focus of my life. I am always working but it very rarely feels like work.When I’m not designing something, which these days is most likely a plan or a proposal ora presentation, then I am generally seeking some form of quality immersive experience to be shared with friends and family: films, television, travel, food, conversation…
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
What advice would you give other designers and creatives?
Read about more 2015 AIGA Medalists: