By Ellen Lupton
During the last fifteen years, graphic design in America has been a little mixed up. On the streets, stringent political posters coexisted beside high-budget fashion campaigns. Cutting-edge typefaces such as Emigre’s Matrix quickly dulled and graced the pages of annual reports and luxury car advertisements. Cold War kitsch was recycled to promote the latest Internet innovation and a rock band appropriated an Oscar Meyer bacon package for its album cover. Small, independent publishers put out ‘zines catering to esoteric interests, while mainstream magazines were compelled to reformat and redesign in an attempt to reach wider audiences.

These are just a few of the numerous examples in Ellen Lupton’s Mixing Messages, an overview of the design which came out of this period of irony and innovation. Lupton reveals that while many graphic styles flourished, no single one dominated. Rather, contemporary design in America is characterized by mixing—a collision of ideals and traditions, nostalgia and technology, rebellion and conformity.

The book highlights major developments in visual communication, including the construction of corporate identities through logos and packaging; the use of design in public space; the proliferation of typefaces and typefoundries; and changes in the publishing industry. Well-read designers may already be familiar with material reproduced in the book—much of it has been showcased in annuals and exhibits—and because the work is current, some of it is still in print. However, Mixing Messages offers a coherent and accessible look at American graphic design created during the past fifteen years. The book also introduces many names and concepts that will inspire further investigation.

As graphic designers draw from an increasingly diverse range of influences, the trend toward mixing will continue. Mixing Messages reminds us that while this process may create innovative, exciting solutions, the outcome can often be confusing or ineffective. The challenge of design remains in conveying a message.

—Philip Krayna

Cover, Mixing Messages © 1996 Chronicle Books
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Related Links:
Mixing Messages Website
Related Publications
Letters from the Avant-Garde by Ellen Lupton and Elaine Lustig Cohen.

Typography in Asia by Ellen Lupton, K. Asaba, et al.

Numbers by Ellen Lupton, A. Corwin, et al.

Period Styles by Ellen Lupton, J. P. Levinson, et al.
Philip Krayna is the head of Philip Krayna Design in San Francisco and publisher of Type-High.

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Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture
Author: Ellen Lupton
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press/Chronicle Books [1996]
ISBN: 1-56898-099-X
Binding: Paperback, 176pp, 10 3/4" x 8 1/2"

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