“Graphic design must be seen as a discipline capable of generating meaning on its own terms without undue reliance on commissions, prescriptive social functions, or specific media or styles,” wrote designer, curator, and writer Andrew Satake Blauvelt in 2003.
His influential essay “Towards Critical Autonomy or Can Graphic Design Save Itself?” was published in Emigre magazine alongside a body of other writing on the notion of “design authorship.” It was an idea that gained prominence in the 1990s when Blauvelt, along with a small but engaged group of other designer-writers, became interested in approaching graphic design not simply as a container for content — but as a way to create cultural meaning on its own terms, elevating graphic design beyond notions of “problem solving” and the constraints of commercial practice. Blauvelt, however, was not satisfied with simply writing about these ideas. His nearly thirty-year career has become an embodiment of them.
Throughout this working life, Blauvelt has moved between traditional design practice, design education, historical research, writing and criticism, and museum curation and administration. This polymathic work — which includes eighteen years at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as well as Blauvelt’s current appointment as director of the Cranbrook Art Museum — is united by a continual search for the autonomy he first wrote about in that 2003 essay. Throughout his extensive career, he’s continued to critique, analyze, and elevate graphic design and its discourse.
Born in West Point, New York in 1964 and raised in Indianapolis, Blauvelt studied visual communication and photography at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. As an undergraduate, he was exposed to a rare-at-the-time design program that wasn’t simply commerce-focused, but also incorporated the history and theory of graphic design. Blauvelt, who developed an immediate interest in this side of the practice, quickly continued his education at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where the design department was led by Katherine and Micheal McCoy. Their program had made a name for itself as the epicenter of progressive graphic design and a hotbed for the intersection of design and critical theory.
Upon graduation, Blauvelt spent a year teaching in Florida and another two back at Herron before making his way to Raleigh, North Carolina to teach in North Carolina State University’s College of Design. Already a prolific writer, Blauvelt focused his research on publishing, design history, and cultural theory, alongside running an active freelance practice. His writing appeared in a variety of design journals and publications, and he guest-edited three seminal issues of the academic journal Visible Language, all focused on design history. “He brought an interest in theory, high standards for master’s student performance, and articulate arguments the department needed to reach parity with the more established programs in architecture,” said Meredith Davis, professor emerita and former department head of graphic design at NC State. “Andrew didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he quickly earned the respect of faculty in the College of Design and students welcomed his patient but honest critiques.”
Blauvelt recalls two moments that proved pivotal to his thinking about graphic design and design education at the time. The first was a 1991 AIGA symposium that asked “Why is graphic design 93% white?,” a question that resonated with Blauvelt’s own experiences as a Japanese American working in design. The second was a Time magazine article: it predicted that by 2040, the United States would be a majority-minority country. Fascinated by this datapoint, he immediately saw the implications for his design students: whether they went on to teach or to practice, they’d have to understand how to communicate with people from differing backgrounds. This became the foundation of the revised graduate graphic design program he helped develop and focused on cultural studies (cultural studies became one track of the program, alongside two others in visual cognition and new media).
“This was the era of AIDS, Jesse Helms, and what people now call ‘critical race theory,’” said Blauvelt. “And because we were located in the Research Triangle, Duke University was nearby and was the epicenter for where these discourses were emerging. My interest was in how those critical theories shaped social action.”
The NC State Masters in Graphic Design program became what is believed to be the first design program in the country to focus on issues of class, gender, and race and how they intersect within and around design practice, serving in many ways as a precursor to the contemporary discourse around decolonization, identity, and expanded canons in design programs today. “We didn’t have the term intersectionality then but that’s what it was,” said Blauvelt. “We were interested in the overlaps between, say, being female and being Black, being gay, and being whatever, and what that meant for design.”
In 1998, Blauvelt, then a tenured professor who also served as chair of the department and director of the graduate programs, left North Carolina for Minneapolis to serve as Design Director at the Walker Art Center. Romanced by the famed art museum almost a decade earlier, when he applied — and didn’t get — a designer position in the late eighties, Blauvelt saw this as an opportunity to blend his research and practice. “I had a hesitation to leave teaching,” he said. “But I knew this could be an intellectually stimulating environment in a different way.” The design department had achieved national recognition, first under the direction of Mildred Friedman, the museum’s design curator and a former editor of their publication Design Quarterly, and later under Laurie Haycock Makela and Matt Eller.
“Andrew was really good at creating an environment for talent to really thrive and for design ideas to thrive,” said Emmet Bryne, a designer Blauvelt hired twice — first as an intern and then as a designer — before succeeding him as design director. “I never saw him as this hardcore art director. He was really doing the work to create a space for a bunch of interesting design to happen.” Under Blauvelt’s direction, the design studio’s influence spread across the museum; the team became involved in a variety of aspects beyond branding, including marketing, publishing, public programming, and even the museum’s building expansion. He helped lead an initiative to turn the museum’s website into a publication platform, making it one of the first museums in the country to use its website as a place for publishing and exhibition making independent of the physical location. He also began an event program focused on design for the city.
Blauvelt’s work at the Walker inevitably led him to begin curating, later serving as the Senior Curator of Design, Research, and Publishing. He curated a range of shows, not only about graphic design but also architecture, media, and art, including: Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes in 2008, an exhibition about the architecture and art of the American suburb; Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia, 1964–1974 in 2015, about the US counterculture movement; and Graphic Design: Now In Production in 2011, a landmark graphic design exhibition co-curated with Ellen Lupton and co-sponsored by both the Walker and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. In this curatorial work, one can see his interests in identity and intersectionality emerge again: his shows often focus on subcultures and underrepresented groups, whether that’s the counterculture movement in Hippie Modernism or punk culture and DIY aesthetics in the 2018 exhibition Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976–1986.
After eighteen years, Blauvelt left the Walker to return to Cranbrook, where he assumed the directorship of the Cranbrook Art Museum in 2015. Back where he’d first begun his own studies, Blauvelt again expanded his influence, both managing the on-campus art museum and continuing to curate shows. Here, many of the threads of Blauvelt’s polymorphic career tie together. Situated in a wealthy Detroit suburb, Cranbrook is inaccessible to many in the city, as there is no public transportation to the campus; in response, Blauvelt and his team have set up public programming in and around Detroit, taking the museum into the city. The museum also set up a new permanent collection focused on Detroit artists (the museum previously focused only on Cranbrook artists). The shows that the museum has staged under Blauvelt’s direction have also increasingly focused on underrepresented groups and artists, including the massive exhibition in 2021 on the history of the school, With Eyes Opened: Cranbrook Academy of Art Since 1932. This exhibition could also be read as an act of intersectional feminist intervention, as it re-centered the numerous women and people of color who studied at the school but were often written out or overlooked in its history.
“A space of autonomy for graphic design,” Blauvelt continued in his 2003 essay, “affords an opportunity to engage in a more critical examination of its practice.” To trace the arc of Blauvelt’s career is to trace a career of increasing autonomy — just as he wrote about nearly twenty years ago — not only for himself, but for others as well, helping to create a strong critical discourse around graphic design. In this sense, design is still core to his work.
“Whether I’m thinking about how to frame an artist’s work in a show, or plan a budget, or organize a program, those still feel like design decisions,” he said. “Design is primary for me.”
Learn more about Andrew Blauvelt and the AIGA Medal.
Blauvelt, Andrew. “An Afterword: Graphic Design: Now In Production.” Filmed October 01, 2012 at UCLA Digital Media Arts, Los Angeles, CA. Video, 1:10:36. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8kBSF_r5B8.
———. “Episode 97: Andrew Blauvelt.” Interview by Jarrett Fuller. Scratching the Surface, October 24, 2018. Audio, 1:05:38. https://scratchingthesurface.fm/post/179371830350/97-andrew-blauvelt.
———. “Everyone’s a Designer, Critic, Curator.” Filmed October 18, 2016 at the 2016 AIGA Design Conference, Las Vegas, NV. Video, 30:26. https://www.aiga.org/inspiration/talks/andrew-blauvelt-everyones-a-designer-critic-curator.
———. “ A Selection of Design Quarterly.” The Gradient, Oct 10, 2014. http://walkerart.org/magazine/design-quarterly-andrew-blauvelt.
———. “The Uncollectibles: Andrew Blauvelt on Minnesota by Design.” The Gradient, March 23, 2015. https://walkerart.org/magazine/the-uncollectibles-andrew-blauvelt-on-minnesota-by-design.
Camhi, Leslie. “The Story of Modern Art and Design, Housed in a Suburban Detroit Basement.” New York Times, June 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/17/multimedia/cranbrook-art-gallery.html.
Sheets, Hilarie M. “A Utopian Art School in Michigan Looks Back and Ahead.” New York Times, May 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/20/arts/design/michigan-cranbook-art.html.