• Steven Heller

Missing Ralph Caplan

Photo by Judith Ramquist

A few weeks ago, during self-isolation, I was rereading a delightful article that Ralph Caplan had written for me in 1995 when I was editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design. “Zoned For Weird” was a feature in the second of two special issues devoted to eccentricity. Ralph, whose business card read “Director, Center for Peripheral Studies”—which we used as the illustration in the article—was the perfect choice for this subject, since, as stated in his bio, “Ralph Caplan’s work has been located consistently at the cutting center, or the misleading edge, whichever is closer.”


His voice was distinctly his own and it was a pleasure to read. “Once again, the quirky editor of this journal has asked me to write about eccentricity,” he began. “Maybe he didn’t read what I wrote the first time. Namely, that designers are a corporate marginal note, the off-center denizens of unpatrolled borderlands.” This defined Ralph’s position in design, except he was anything but a marginal note.


Ralph was a valued contributor to many publications—the most droll, erudite, witty and insightful design commentator and editor I knew. He was revered by colleagues as the pioneer of critical design writing; a frequent conference speaker, he was, you might say, the design world’s exclusive master of ceremonies (as funny as Groucho Marx and Johnny Carson combined). He was befriended and beloved by the most prominent industrial, product, type and graphic designers practicing across the Modern, Mid-century Modern and Postmodern generations. As editor of Industrial Design magazine from the late ’50s to 1963 (when he left to write a novel), he had examined the whys and wherefores of form, content and aesthetics, which helped situate many of the greats, including Charles Eames, Eliot Noyes, George Nelson, Milton Glaser and Jane Thompson, on the map. He was also great with School of Visual Arts students, to whom his generosity of spirit and talent knew few bounds.


Sadly, I had not seen or talked with him for the past few years, but as I read the article, I thought that I should do so now before it was too late. The last time I saw him he was recovering from illness, a stroke I believe, but was not too ill to crack wise through his sly, famously lopsided grin. So, when I received an email Friday morning that he had died the prior day at 95½ years “young,” my heart sank. I know many others feel the same loss.


The inevitability of mortality at such a long and well-lived age does not soften the blow of his passing. The ending of a rich and valued life is inevitably painful and leaves a void. I valued our lunches, casual meetings and the opinionated talks we’d share. Most of all, I will miss that wry sense of humor that not only emerged from the page but from every pore on his diminutive body and huge soul. Ralph commanded such a respected place in and around the design worlds (and deservedly received its highest honors, the Smithsonian National Design Award and the AIGA Medal of lifetime achievement) that long before meeting him, I hoped I would at some point. Frankly, I don’t recall when exactly that moment arrived but I know it was unforgettable.


So too was his style; Ralph had great timing one-to-one, on stage and in print (and in PRINT, where he wrote a column). His plays on words were Wordsworthian. Just read the titles of his two books of essays (which you should all read, by the way): By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons (St. Martin’s Press, 1982) and Cracking the Whip: Essays On Design and Its Side Effects (Fairchild, 2005). While hunting around the internet for Caplan bits to appropriate, I came across this piece that was written for me in the AIGA Journal in 2000. It was his reflection on a panel at one of the AIGA national conferences (I don’t recall the date, but I was there, watching his slight form tower over me in the front row). The piece, titled “If the Truth Be Known,” is a small taste that I am happy to remember him by:

For an AIGA conference long ago, I was asked to moderate a panel of designers talking openly and candidly about their careers. “I’m not sure they’re ready to replace show and tell with kiss and tell,” I objected. The program chairman was indignant. “You don’t think designers can tell the truth?” “Oh, designers can tell the truth,” I said. “There just isn’t much call for it in their line of work.” That mock cynicism reflected a perfectly reasonable skepticism of graphic design being so closely allied to enterprises historically grounded in a calculated indifference to verity. The oxymoronic call for “truth in advertising” acknowledges the scarcity of the former and the latter where designers are regularly charged with communicating the wholesomeness of unsavory foods, the reliability of unreliable products, and the uniqueness of brands that are indistinguishable from competing ones except for the branding itself. The nation of Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels have no word for lying because they cannot conceive of conditions under which anyone would do it. What possible reason, they ask, could there be for saying, “That which is not?” We could give them both reasons and words for our own vocabularies loaded with synonyms and euphemisms for that which is not and we need every last one of them. The magazine PR Week reports that one out of every four PR persons says he or she lies professionally. This is a truly astonishing statistic for it implies that three out of four PR persons say they don’t lie professionally, a position curiously archaic in an age when so many of us have become truthful about our lies.

The theme of the piece is, of course, as classic and classy as the now late 95½-year-old. And speaking of classy, I close with the last email I received from Ralph, the tone of which I adore:

Of all the working cliches, the most readily validated is the advice that if you want to get something done, the best bet is to find a man too busy to do it. So it makes sense for me to turn for advice to the busiest person on the planet. I will mail you a copy of a speech I gave in 2011 at Design West Michigan. … After reading it, I said “This is the kind of thing that I would like to have in my archives.” The idea that I would have archives or even have the right to any is not mine. Every so often someone comes by and asks what plans have I have made for my archives?I have made no such plans, but maybe I should. In discussing the matter with Judith, it occurred to us both that you might be able to give me some guidance. …

I will miss him. I hope those archives will find a good home.

Editor’s Note: As a complement to Steven Heller’s piece, here is Debbie Millman’s archival Design Matters episode featuring Caplan—plus, 15 bonus bon mots from the master, beginning with arguably his most famous.

Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous.
The question persists: Why should people who happen to be good at sketching, handling materials, creating physical forms, anticipating and exploiting new markets and new technologies, have any particular contribution to make to human situations? I suspect it is chiefly because design is a problem-solving process that begins with a human being.
If nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come, nothing is so enervating as an idea that’s been sitting around for years like money not earning any interest.
Art, in other words, was realizing the best of yourself, and then sharing it. Sharing it was not necessarily art. Neither was excellence, until it had been shaped into a form that let you share it with someone. Quality, then, was a matter not only of how well you did something, but of how well you were able to communicate it.
Genius is not merely an infinite capacity for taking pains, but certainly the fruition of genius requires such a capacity. And taking pains can help make up for the lack of genius.
All art, and most knowledge, entails either seeing connections or making them.
[Designers’] primary competence lies not in the technicalities of a craft but in the mastery of a process.
The very nature of the product designer’s role in industry tends to militate against his effectiveness. He is schooled—and presumably motivated—to design things for people; but he is retained to design things for the market.
Designers study materials and methods, but craft begins with them, just as poetry begins with words and feelings, not with projecting how readers will respond to the finished product. Craft, like art, has a market, but it comes after the fact.
What begins as the process of changing the guard can deteriorate into a process of guarding the change.
Chairs are not artifacts of function but artifacts of culture, and their absence is a serious cultural deprivation, as the designers of prisons and army barracks know. A chair is the first thing you need when you don’t really need anything. As such, it is a peculiarly compelling symbol of civilization. And it is civilization, not survival, that uses design.
If all the world’s a stage, then all designers are set designers and the chair is the basic prop.
Chair design is humbled by our being able to sit on almost anything but a cactus plant.
The most elegant design solution of the 1950s was not the molded plywood chair or the Olivetti Lettera 22 or the chapel at Ronchamp. It was the sit-in. Achieved with a stunning economy of means, and a complete understanding of the function intended and the resources available, it is a form beautifully suited to its urgent task.
Casey Stengel once startled a visitor to the Mets locker room with the remark, “We was just reminiscing about tomorrow’s game.” As with many of Stengel’s funniest lines, it is absurd in a way we recognize as applicable to reality: Reminiscence can be one of life’s more rewarding pleasures, as long as we keep it out of tomorrow’s game. The past is a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there.

#RalphCaplan #StevenHeller

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