Type Faces

An Interview With Ellen Lupton
Graphic designer, curator, artist, educator and writer, Ellen Lupton is perhaps best known for her Thinking With Type—a book that in many respects opened up typography to a wider audience. Many have remarked that she made learning about typography fun; and ‘do I look fat in this paragraph’ and ‘typography is what language looks like’ are now oft-quoted phrases. She also stirred up some controversy over her Free Fonts Manifesto, which you can read about here.

How did you become interested in typography?

I discovered typography as an art student in the early 1980s. I had played around with lettering in an amateur way as a teenager, but I had no notion of typography until I was exposed to it in a typography course taught by George Sadek and William Bevington at Cooper Union. I was stunned.


Why the fascination with type?

Typography is the convergence of art and language. This makes it hugely powerful as a tool and a means of expression. As someone who had always been interested in writing yet had identified herself as an “artist,” this was a huge personal discovery.

Typography is what language looks like.—Thinking With Type

Where do you find your inspiration?

I am inspired by magazines and newspapers, by movies and television, by reading, by looking at what designers are doing. I’m inspired by my students. I love art and painting.

What would be your biggest piece of advice for aspiring type users/typographers?

Spell check.

What common mistake(s) do you see designers making that could be easily remedied?

Newcomers to design do things like mixing larger capital letters with lowercase, supposedly for emphasis, resulting in ugly mismatched weights. My students avoid printing out their work, to save time and money, but then they are disappointed that it doesn’t look good. I explain to them that everything looks good on the screen, because of the glowing light and the way we are constantly adjusting the scale of the image to suit ourselves. The same layout may die on the printed page.

Do you have favourite type designers and typefaces?

I am a huge fan of Martin Majoor, who created Scala, Seria, and other typefaces. I also love Lucas de Groot, and I have been using his typeface Thesis for many projects. It’s a slab serif that comes in many wonderful weights as well as a sans version—wonderful for book design.

Scala by Martin Majoor

Seria by Martin Majoor

Are you working on any type-related projects right now? A follow-up to Thinking With Type, perhaps?

I am working on an expanded edition of Thinking with Type, which will come out in 2010.

If you missed the link to Martin Majoor’s article, My Design Philosophy, then you can read it here (an excellent piece).

Other Ellen Lupton-related resources:

Ellen Lupton—the movie
Thinking With Type—book review
Thinking With Type—web site
design*sponge: Inside Ellen’s home

[Thanks to .com/" title="Creative Curio. The Graphic Design Blog" target="_blank">Lauren for composing the interview questions].


  1. Tomer

    Good read! Thanks.

    Just wanted to say that I was never really interested in typography, until recently when I came across this site. Thanks again!

  2. Tomer
    That really is wonderful to hear. Made my day :)

  3. Aww, your welcome for the questions, John! Thanks for the mention :) Did you just add those “share” icons? Great idea! The easier you make it for people to share, the more they will! I added the Share This plugin a couple days ago. We’ll see if it helps!

    I absolutely love that Word Book 2008 design. Is that just for her class? (Oh, I see now, it’s a calendar that her class produced! I downloaded it and am looking through it) How awesome would it be to learn typography from Ellen! Even her syllubus is beautiful! Well, I suppose it better be or students would question the value of the class at the beginning. I was reading through some of the projects and they sound really helpful for understanding letterforms. Makes me want to take a typography class!

    My students avoid printing out their work, to save time and money, but then they are disappointed that it doesn’t look good. I explain to them that everything looks good on the screen, because of the glowing light and the way we are constantly adjusting the scale of the image to suit ourselves.

    That was my experience in school, too. Well, not mine, but I saw others doing it. I always printed my stuff 3-5 times as I worked and adjusted the type. It’s true that we don’t get a good sense of the size and scale in relation to the page and other elements until we can see it printed. Sound advice!

    I will have to look a little more closely at those fonts Ellen has recommended. I like collecting faces that are good for body copy; it’s amazing how much the right look can change the whole piece! I suppose that’s true with any and all of the typography in the layout, though.

    Ooo, and expanded edition of Thinking with Type! When can I pre-order? ;)

    Thanks for these great interviews with typographers and type designers. It’s very enlightening and I enjoy them very much.

  4. Expanded edition of Thinking with Type!, I’m drooling already :)
    Really good interview though, Ellen Lupton has been one of my biggest inspirations. Her books have opened my eyes to a whole other world of type and design. :) Good Stuff!

  5. I remember back a few months ago watching the video of her that was posted. She had a great sense of humor there and I’m happy it showed through in the interview: “Spell check.” Priceless!

    The thinking with type website has been a long top of the list bookmark in my firefox. I remember when I was a student in design school I used to double check with the site all the time to make sure I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

    Great things from her and great interview. Hopefully we see some more soon!

    PS - Johno, a little busy are we? Haven’t seen you on AIM

  6. I love typography so much, it bothers me so much to see a poster or book with the most beautiful content and then some haphazard font just slapped on to it at the last minute. Great site!


  7. I wonder if she ever felt like designing her own typeface.

    I’m glad there will be an expanded edition of “Thinking with type”. It seemed too short when I read it and I often felt I’d like to know more about some things.

  8. If you have a hunger to know more about some things - as we are all aware - there is a plethora of ‘further reading’ material available. Ellen’s book, ‘Thinking with type’ serves as an introduction to type, which anyone can enjoy.

    Thank you for the excellent piece.

  9. Barney

    I got Thinking with type on your (John’s) recommendation. It’s an absolutely fantastic, consistently beautiful book and the resounding clarity of language really helped me re-assess some old notions that I’d misinterpreted the first time around. In particular, the grids section was a valuable re-education.

    What would be your biggest piece of advice for aspiring type users/typographers?
    Spell check.


  10. Thomas
    That’s why the next book I bought was “The Elements of Typographic Style”. If “Thinking With Type” left me wanting more, then, I suppose, it means it has fulfilled its role.

  11. Lauren
    Thank you. The Scala sisters are definitely worth taking a closer look at. Scla especially looks pretty awful on-screen, I think, but once she’s on paper, she looks gorgeous. And of course they work really well together.

    Yes, very busy. However, I’ll take a day one day soon, and I’ll be sure to sign-in :)

    Thanks for the link; however, it’s not working for me.

    Yes, I think anyone would enjoy reading it; a bit of everything in there, from type history to layout, the anatomy of type…

    That’s great to hear. Which is next on your list?

    How are you getting on with The Elements of Typographic Style? I hope to do a review of here.

  12. Jeremy

    Spell Check…

    That should be taught as well! On a final project of mine in school I had a small sign with about a dozen or so words. I was so involved with the style and colors of the sign that I misspelled the word “instruments”… It was instead “intruments”. My professor nor fellow students noticed, as we were all looking for design issues.

    When it was hung in the gallery for my final show, my mother (of all people) pointed out the grammatical error!

  13. Jeremy
    A similar thing happened to me, though fortunately my mother never saw it. I’m the typo-king, so I always have others (usually non-designers) proof read for me. Hope you still have that poster :)

  14. Great interview, John. (And on the questions too, Lauren)

    Thinking with Type was the first typography book that I purchased. And I’ve learned a great deal from it! So if Ellen happens to read this, thanks!

  15. Jeremy

    Actually I do. I’ll snap a photo of it this weekend and send it along. It’s nothing special, but seeing the typo makes me laugh every time. :)

  16. I once did a new header for this site and misspelled ‘typography’; I noticed just in the nick of time—now that would have been embarrassing.

    BTW, who can name the font used for the header?

  17. Right now? It’s Scala Sans, isn’t it?

  18. Dan
    Good to see you again. How did that essay go?
    It is indeed Scala Sans.

  19. I still can’t get over that Omnes Typeface you showed us on sunday. That would work perfect for this school project I’m working on. Why do all the beautiful fonts have to cost so much :(

  20. Any kind donors out there? It is a great face.

  21. Johno
    err… the essay isn’t finished yet. I still have about 48 hours before it is due. Right now, it is spawning out of control like an untamed beast.

  22. Dan
    Here’s hoping it spawns into an A.

  23. RogueJunkie

    Great interview John (as always), but a bit short….much like her book, left me wanting more. Job well done Ellen!

    And I totally get the whole “It looks great on screen but crap on paper” issue; happens to me all the time.

    Keep the good stuff coming.

  24. Is it just me, or could Hilary Swank play Ellen Lupton in the movie of her life? (At least, in the photo by Abbott Miller from 2002, where she has brown hair.)

    Yes, that is technically not a typographic comment, but I had to say it, although I risk making myself sound just a bit superficial. :)

    I would love to read this book. I’m thinking that if the library doesn’t have it I may just order it, or request it for my birthday (coming up in April).

    Also, pedagogically, she sounds like the woman who taught me Latin in first-year university, meaning strict in the good way, the way that makes you want to be the best you can be.

  25. “What would be your biggest piece of advice for aspiring type users/typographers?

    Spell check.”

    That’s an odd answer. Can someone shed some light on why she might have answered that way?

  26. Roger
    Think about this. You are setting an entire poster and you happen to miss the second “r” in tomorrow. Lucky for you, it is part of your sub-head which you happen to be setting perfectly to fit within some kind of alloted space. Before print you look, “DAMMIT, now I have to re-arrange everything again!” You would be surprised how much it happens.

    Also, students don’t tend to think about the actual copy, just the way it looks. So if you’re typing out things like an address (spelling obviously important) for the back of a brochure and hand it in with the wrong information of the company, that doesn’t look to good.

    “Typography is what language looks like.” - It wouldn’t look so good if your language was wrong, right? Haha

  27. I’ve been working like crazy. First time ever, straight through the holidays and into the New Year. Still going, too, with two book layout projects in the oven. But I needed a break and had to check in at iLT.

    Johno, excellent interview with Ms. Lupton. I wish it had been longer, actually. Here’s an idea for an interview—I somehow doubt it’s possible—or at least an article … on Carol Twombley. She apparently was a designer of type at Adobe, according to a thread on another forum devoted to typography and type design. As described in the thread, she left Adobe—and maybe type designing—under circumstances that sound very cloudy. Piqued my interest, I must say.

    Roger, just look around at how careless many of us—myself included—can be, just with our postings. It’s not hard to imagine that extending into printed works. Who hasn’t spotted typos and misspellings in books or newspaper articles? Makes me cringe, because I wonder what—despite how careful I genuinely try to be in my book design and layout work—foul-ups I am guilty of.

    Cody, as for typography not looking so hot if the language used were wrong … Dunno about that one. You may have just been throwing out a good walkaway line, but it’s the kind of thing a coupla inebriated college men might’ve kicked around for hours back in ’60s.

    Oh … Helvetica arrived and I watched it a week or so ago with my wife. Now she’s an artist. Worked in advertising years ago, pre-computer, doing so much over the course of, say, a week on a project … work that would take me, maybe, a few hours, (And I’m someone who sometimes employs the SIstine Chapel method of setting type—that is, I can be damned slow at times.) Anyway, my wife “got it,” but found my enthusiasm for the movie a tad excessive, I think.

    I blogged about some of my thoughts on the movie. Primarily, it reminded me of my ambivalence for the typeface Helvetica. Still, the movie was great fun.

    Okay, back to work. Or maybe sleep. One or the other. I think.

  28. Stephen
    It’s been a while. Good to see you back, and good to hear that work is busy.

    I’m heading over to your blog to read your thoughts on the Helvetica documentary. Don’t work too hard.

  29. Yup. Work is good. And I’m glad to have iLT for when I come up for air. I hope you got to my Helvetica entry okay. Since WordPress came up with an upgrade, they seem to be encouraging me to upgrade by somehow making all my entries display oldest one first. It’s something I’ll have to do—upgrade to the newest version of WordPress when I have time to sort thru the process. Meantime … back to work.

  30. Speaking of Helvetica. John, I have yet to send your package! I meant to have it in before Christmas, but things haven’t worked out so much in my favor the past few weeks. (crisis at work, late nights…) — needless to say, I apologize for it’s lateness. Tomorrow is looking better, I’ll have it shipped this week, for sure!

  31. Leah
    Your birthday is in April. Noted;)
    Hilary Swank! Well, that one hadn’t crossed my mind before. I’ll need to do a photo comparison and get back to you.

    Perhaps Ellen would like to answer that. if she’s reading this.
    However, I guess that what’s she’s getting at is that one can spend hours agonizing over the design, the layout, choice of type, etc., and yet fail to notice the message. Even the most beautifully designed page can be ruined by a small spelling mistake; these kinds of errors can overshadow the design. Perhaps Ellen has a different take on it.

    I blame all my typos on my keyboard. I have one of those fancy new Mac keyboards; since I got it, I’m making about 50% more typing errors. Either it’s the keyboard or the onset of dementia.

    No problem at all. You’ve just reminded me that I need to send out a package to someone too! Any time is fine. Thanks.

  32. Johno, Oops! That sounded like I was requesting it from you for my birthday, which I was not! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s inadvertent imposition. I meant, requesting it from people such as my Grandmaman. We’ll see what happens. Yes, my birthday is in April. The 22nd, actually, which also happens to be Earth Day. :) What an environmentally-friendly coincidence!

    Oh and on the Hilary Swank thing, it was one specific photo in which Ellen has brown hair. They’re not twins, but there’s enough there that the comparison sprung to my mind. Also, in the movie “Freedom Writers”, Swank plays a real-life woman who only looks somewhat like her, so clearly Hollywood’s not looking for exact doppelgangers here.

    “Freedom Typographers” ??? :) Hehe..

  33. Nice interview. John (and others), have you seen a Sneak Peek into Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller’s house over at Design*Sponge?

  34. Vivien (inspirationbit)
    Thanks. No, I don’t think I’ve seen that. I’m off to take a look now…

  35. Vivien
    Goodness! design sponge has changed a lot since I last saw it. Thanks for the link; I really enjoyed the peek behind the scenes.

  36. you’re welcome, John. Yes, they have a rather nice looking design now. Did you notice that posters in Lupton’s house cover even the fireplace? ;-)

    btw, perhaps you should do the same on iLT, get a sneak peak into the offices of Type designers, so we can see what kind of surrounding inspires them to come up with those beauties.

  37. Vivien
    That’s a wonderful idea! I’d especially like to see inside Erik Spiekermann’s and Jean François Porchez’s houses.

  38. Thanks for that link, Vivien! It lead me around all sorts of interesting places and did you realize that Ellen is an identical twin?!

    I second seeing type designer’s homes! Ellen’s was sure fascinating!

  1. mark larson |—Jan 13, 2008

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