Herb Lubalin

Tag Christof and Eric Gilkey

July 27 2016

A circular mark of lavish, curvaceous script declares, “Go To Hell.” Its G and T slant rightward forcefully, its H gestures with a firm hand, and its o’s, their tails jutting outward with a flourish, look for all the world like eyes, wide open and glaring sideways at its reader. It is a spurned Rita Hayworth with a long cigarette holder, admonishing a lover. It is Cruella de Vil being carted off to tribunal.

For all the rhetoric in design about using type expressively and emotively‚ deliberate attempts to inject typographic work with sentimentality almost always come across as cheesy or contrived in practice. Herb Lubalin’s work‚ on the other hand‚ punches straight at the gut. Using only letterforms‚ this mark perfectly personifies a quote from writer Caskie Stinnett: “A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.”

Lubalin’s faculty for illustrating human emotion through masterful juxtaposition‚ a slight redrawing of an arc or tail‚ or an unexpected hierarchy remains unmatched. Of course‚ most of his work is less assertive. Consider the anthropomorphic ampersand inside a very pregnant O in his famous wordmark for Mother & Child‚ his brainy PBS logo‚ and the exuberant‚ leggy mark still in use by L’eggs brand tights. His famous early 1970s work for Marriage magazine‚ with its poignant “RЯ” would’ve made a powerful statement in the present day fight for marriage equality.

Most of his script wordmarks‚ like the Go To Hell poster‚ were drawn by frequent collaborator Tom Carnase from Lubalin’s designs. Among their most well-known is the mind-boggling reverse symmetrical ’72 palindrome (p.110) that was originally drawn for a holiday greeting card from Lubalin‚ Burns & Co. in 1971 and later used in other applications. This evocative mark has achieved a minor synonymity with the 1970s and is among the cleverest of his mashups of hallucinogenic whimsy with modernist clarity. It was almost as if Lubalin knew that his designs were pitting modernity against itself.

In any case‚ by the time the 1970s had rolled around‚ his reputation as a contrarian had been well-established. Much of his work—even his commercial work—was defined by its overtones of social consciousness. He worked closely with Zebra for a time‚ the famously integrated ad agency and designed their powerful black and white logo (again with Tom Carnase‚ p.118). He was responsible for the art direction of a controversial (read: brilliant) ad campaign for Ebony‚ which made clever use of reverse psychology to affirm and empower the black audience it catered to. In one particularly memorable example‚ a photograph of a prototypical corporate fat cat was captioned by the headline‚ “Some of our best friends are bigots.” The message was resoundingly clear: whether corporate America cared to admit it or not‚ and whether or not heads of industry were‚ indeed‚ prejudiced‚ they could no longer ignore the modern black individual.

In his early career as an advertising art director‚ he struck up lifelong relationships with peers such as Seymour Chwast‚ Lou Dorfs-man‚ and George Lois. Probably Lubalin’s most defining professional relationship was one he struck up in the early 60s with a young journalist named Ralph Ginzburg. The two would become close collaborators and each is now synonymous with the other’s work. The two collaborated on three magazines‚ Eros‚ in 1962‚ fact:‚ from ’64-’67‚ and Avant Garde‚ from ’68-’71. Each one proved highly provocative‚ and Lubalin had a primo billing in all three—in other words‚ he was intimately involved with content and not merely a hapless designer subject to an editor’s bidding.

Within its sumptuous hard-cover format‚ Eros brazenly‚ frankly explored themes of sexuality that previously had no forum for discussion in puritanical postwar America. Over four issues in 1962‚ works from Mark Twain‚ Allen Ginsberg and Guy de Maupas-sant were published among topics ranging from erotic statues and interracial sex to Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. In a stroke of legend‚ Ginzburg even attempted to convince the postmasters of Intercourse‚ Pennsylvania and Blue Ball‚ Pennsylvania to allow the magazine’s mailers to be sent from their (very real) towns.

fact: was incisively political rather than risqué. Its text-heavy covers usually featured purposefully incendiary quotes. One had Joan Baez deriding the U.S. national anthem as so much trash” and another was a doctor’s florid takedown of Coca-Cola (p.107)‚ well before it became common to cite sugary soft drinks as a pillar in the obesity epidemic. The magazine happily made enemies of a number of prominent conservatives‚ most notoriously Senator Barry Goldwater‚ who successfully sued Ginzburg for defamation after the 1964 issue‚ The Unconscious of a Conservative: A special Issue on the Mind of Barry Gold-water. The salvo launched at the senator included an informal survey of psychologists‚ asking whether they felt Goldwater was a good candidate. The resulting article‚ “1‚189 Psychologists Say Goldwater Unfit for the Presidency” called him‚ among other things‚ psychotic‚ suicidal‚ and insecure.

The suit resulted in a national implementation of the so-called “Goldwater rule‚” which forbids psychiatrists from evaluating any person without first meeting them in person.

“Lubalin was…a political designer. He was never a radical‚ but a progressive liberal at a time when such sympathies were undoubtedly ‘bad for business.’ When this is compounded with his work with Ginzburg‚ which put him at the forefront of the 1960s free speech and anti-censorship movements‚ we see he was unafraid to declare his political allegiances and sympathies.” —Adrian Shaughnessy in Eye‚ 2012

Eros‚ however‚ landed Ginzburg in a lot more trouble. Robert Kennedy‚ U.S. Attorney General at the time‚ indicted Ginzburg on obscenity charges in 1963. After long and circuitous proceedings‚ the Supreme Court had the journalist hauled off to federal prison. Though Eros’ content had made it infamous—and the Monroe article had likely stoked the ire of John F.’s brother‚ Robert—the jail time was actually handed down thanks to a technicality: it was decided that Eros had sent mail that pandered‚ without solicitation‚ to “prurient interests.” Lubalin was spared any legal proceedings‚ likely because the role of a magazine’s designer was then seen as entirely subservient to its editor. Adrian Shaugnessy‚ who met Lubalin’s widow‚ Rhoda‚ while re-searching Unit Editions 2012 monograph on the designer said that years later‚ Lubalin had told her‚ “I should’ve gone to gone to jail‚ too.”

As a testament to his integrity not only as a designer‚ but as a citizen‚ Lubalin continued to make opinionated work even after his collaborator’s skirmishes with the law. It is difficult even today to imagine a commercially successful designer with such prominent politics‚ but Lubalin clearly believed in the power of his work to affect positive change.

In the lead up to the 1968 presidential election‚ Avant Garde hosted a highly-publicized antiwar poster contest (p.111) whose jury included Lubalin‚ Richard Avedon‚ Edward Steichen‚ Milton Glaser‚ Alexander Calder and several other high profile artists.

The contest garnered over 2‚000 entries from around the world. Among the winners were a UK/US entry from Billy Apple and Robert Coburn that simply placed a bold‚ sans-serif “Fuck War.” above a ledger inviting people to add their signatures‚ and another‚ by Harvey Steward and Lawrence Corby‚ was a dramatically lit coffin decked out in soldier’s regalia and standing at attention. That month‚ Nixon and his pro-war platform narrowly eked out a victory against democrat Hubert Humphrey.

Not having lost one ounce of resolve‚ four years later during the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign‚ Lubalin and another group of high-profile artists—Seymour Chwast among them—produced a newsprint pamphlet in favor of Nixon’s new democratic rival‚ George McGovern. Called McGraphic‚ the work was a paean to the candidate and his famously anti-Vietnam War stance. Conservatives‚ meanwhile‚ had branded him as a radical in favor of “amnesty‚ abortion‚ acid.” They knew that anyone seen as weak or morally compromising could not possibly win the leadership of a country that would jail a pioneering journalist for obscenity. Nixon won the election by a landslide‚ but then famously resigned in disgrace less than two years later. There could have been no more powerful vindication for McGraphic.

Other times‚ however‚ plain good design seems to have been conflated with his poli-tics. The winning solution for his 1971 PBS logo was a geometric wordmark in which the P was a blue head‚ pointing leftwards. PBS had reservations about reinforcing any leftist stereotypes about itself‚ but after many prior solutions and subsequent revisions—including changing the P from red to blue—Lubalin’s solution prevailed. (p.118) Still‚ by the mid-1980s‚ the network had commissioned a new logo from Geismar & Chermayeff‚ a purple‚ right-facing head. Pragmatic. Michael Bierut’s design this year for democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign logo‚ in which the crossbar of its H is an arrow pointing right‚ is an interesting counterpoint.

Lubalin’s later career was mostly spent hard at work at the International Typeface Corporation‚ which he cofounded in 1970. Over the subsequent decade‚ he designed several new typefaces—together with Tom Carnase‚ for instance‚ he built a full typeface out of the Avant Garde logotype. Also within ITC‚ he was the driving force behind U&lc (Upper & lowercase)‚ a magazine of typographic experimentation‚ which became something of a cult object among typography fans and the project by which generations of design students have been introduced to his work. mHe won the prestigious AIGA Medal in 1980.

“But it is Lubalin and his typographics—words‚ letters‚ pieces of letters‚ additions to letters‚ connections and combinations‚ and virtuoso manipulation of letters—to which all must return. The ‘typographic impresario of our time‚’ [Lou] Dorfsman called him‚ a man who ‘profoundly influenced and changed our vision and perception of letter forms‚ words and language.’” —David R. Brown for AIGA‚ 1981

That same year‚ he submitted an entry for a the logo of the new Music Television network (iteration sketch on p.116). Lubalin’s vision for MTV looks downright stodgy next to the winning entry‚ Frank Olinsky’s blocky oversized M spray-painted over with a smaller “TV.” That logo went on to become iconic of the 1980s “MTV Generation‚” and its success can be viewed as one decisive moment at which Lubalin’s work went out of style. His stillborn vision for MTV‚ with its mix of soft curves and clear‚ deliberate forms‚ was out of step with the fast‚ loud‚ emergent postmodern world. Sadly‚ Lubalin passed away the following year at the young age of 63.

In 1985‚ The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography opened at his alma mater‚ The Cooper Union‚ and continues to archive and share work from across his illustrious life. Among the accessible works in the archive are campaigns from his early career in advertising through his being named Art Director of the Year in 1962‚ pristine copies of many issues of the Ginzburg publications‚ and a trove of sketches of his logo‚ editorial‚ and typographic work.

Time‚ in its own funny way‚ brings things full circle. Midcentury modern is full on in vogue this decade. Its popularity is driven by style rather than for an appreciation of the ideals of rigour and order that underpinned it. We enjoy its outward simplicity and cleanliness as tonics to our frenetic‚ messy lives. But all that black and white and misguided “minimalism” now just feel anonymous and indifferent. Herb Lubalin’s much more human take on those same principles of good design are what we really need today. His work spoke clearly‚ but he gave it latitude to feel. He gave readable form to contradiction‚ emotion‚ provocation. He designed with supreme love.