The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography is a graphic design nerd’s dreamland. In the 30 years the center’s been open, it’s collected a lot of graphic design gems—more than 7,000 pieces of ephemera to be exact (not to mention 38,000 slides).
To celebrate three decades of existence, the center has organized a sprawling exhibition appropriately titled “Thirty.” The show is split into three main sections: one featuring 30 posters from collection, another that asks designers, writers, and critics to comment on 30 pieces, and the last is a series of 30 drawers of flat files arranged by theme and designer. Seeing a theme here?
There’s a ton of stuff to go through in the exhibition (which is open until October 3), and you should really make a point of it. But for those of you who don’t have time to comb through all of the goods, we asked the center’s curator Alexander Tochilovsky to point out some of the prime pieces. Here are his picks.
In the early 1960s, publisher Ralph Ginzberg tapped Herb Lubalin to work on a controversial project. It was a quarterly magazine called Eros, and it was meant to be a direct contestation to the conservative political climate at the time. The government was deep in the throes of its flirtation with censorship thanks to the Roth Test, a test developed to judge material for obscenities, and Ginzberg developed Eros to push the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable.
The publisher brought Lubalin on board to bring an artistic flair to the magazine, which he thought might safeguard the magazine from the Roth Test, which “permitted an exclusion for things that were artistic, so to speak,” says Tochilovsky.
Tochilovsky explains that Lubalin approached designing the magazine from the intersection of art and design. “It’s very conceptual, it’s very smart, very sly, but it’s couched in this magazine,” he says. Lubalin would often use four of five different paper stocks in every magazine to guide readers through the content, and he’d find clever ways to juxtapose photos within an essay to make it feel like a melding of news and art.
Lubalin designed four issues before the government cracked down and arrested Ginzberg for pandering. Ginzberg was sentenced to five years in prison, but ultimately only served one. You can still find copies of Eros on Ebay for $10, though Tochilovsky says not many people are familiar with Lubalin’s work on the magazine. “It’s sort of fallen through the cracks of history,” he says. “Even design history.”
“Throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, pharmaceutical design was some of the best graphic design made,” says Tochilovsky. The boom in well-designed pill packs was a confluence of two young industries blossoming at the same time. Tochilovsky explains that the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t sure what it needed or wanted, and there was a lot of freedom for a designer who could help translate the blurry, abstract ideas most drug companies were trying to communicate. “It forced the designers to be a bit more abstract, a bit more conceptual in many ways,” says Tochilovsky. He points to Fred Troller’s work for Geigy, a Swiss pharma company. Troller designed the packaging for Sterazolidin, a steroid to help with arthritis. It’s gorgeously designed packaging looks less like the box for a drug and more like a Modernist music poster. “It’s a testament to the Swiss school of thinking and this idea of objectivism,” says Tochilovsky. “The aesthetic is nailed perfectly.”
Plenty of other well-known designers worked in the field, and Tochilovsky says the industry hit its design peak in the late ’60s before sliding into the sterile aesthetic we know today. “Everything since then hasn’t been quite on the same level.”
NYC Transit Graphics Standards Manual
If you live in New York City, you see the signs every day, but most people don’t know the black-and-white signs across all NYC subway stations are the product of a single manual designed by famed graphic designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark. The manual outlined the city’s transit graphics in all its Helvetica glory. Tochilovsky says when Vignelli and Noorda first published the manual, they called for the now black subway signs to be white with black lettering. Ultimately, one of the workers at the transit authority came across a legibility study that said people could read text better when it was white on black background, so the city decided to invert the designers’ plan. A hallmark of the original design—a black bar above the text which was meant to anchor the typography—is still there; you probably just don’t notice it anymore. “They just painted the bottom edge of the bar with white to create an illusion that the black bar is still there,” says Tochilovsky. “But visually it reads as a white line.”