As head of the Design Studio at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, ANDREW BLAUVELT is one of the most influential figures in US graphic design both as a practising designer and as a creative director commissioning other designers' work.
Ever since the 1930s, design has played a critical role in the development of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Every element of design at the Walker – from its design exhibitions to functional graphics like signage - is co-ordinated by the Design Studio under the Walker’s design director Andrew Blauvelt.
Regarded as a role model for best practise in design, the Design Studio at the Walker Art Center has won more than fifty design awards and was nominated in 2001 for the Chrysler Award for Innovation. With a staff of six full-time designers, two editors and two interns, it is responsible for everything from exhibition catalogues to monthly calendars and invitations.
Blauvelt and his team also collaborate frequently with specialists in different fields, notably Matthew Carter, the acclaimed typographer whose Walker typeface, created specially for the Walker Art Center, is not only renowned for its pleasing appearance and legibility but is seen as one of the most innovative typefaces of the 1990s.
See Andrew Blauvelt's work at: http://www.walkerart.org
Q: What were the origins of the Design Studio at the Walker Art Center?
A: The Walker since the late 1940s has always had some version of in-house design. The contemporary version of the Design Studio was born in the 1970s and was the work of Mildred Friedman, former design curator at the Walker.
Q: What is the relationship of Studio to the rest of the Walker? How does design relate to the curatorial programme?
A: We have a dual role within the Walker providing both design services and programming. The Studio designs all the printed materials for the institution. Additionally, I contribute programming to the Walker such as lecture series and exhibitions in partnership with our public programmes and visual arts departments.
Q: Do the members of the Design Studio come from similar design backgrounds?
A: The Studio includes both editors and designers, so it is already mixed in that sense. All the designers share a common background in graphic design with an undergraduate degree or a graduate degree. Everyone has studied at a different school or programme.
Q: What were your early design influences? What drew you to graphic design?
A: I think I’ve always been attracted to art and design (furniture, architecture and graphics) although I started college in pre-law, but quickly transferred to the art school. I studied both photography and typography, which seemed complementary to me and this combination of type and image led naturally to my pursuing graphic design.
Q: You run an internship programme at the Studio taking on two design interns for a period of twelve months. Do you find teaching and practice complementary?
A: Very complementary in the case of the Walker. Since I came to the Walker after teaching graphic design for ten years, I approach the role of design director more like a teacher than a traditional art director. Right now, it is difficult for me to both design and teach, although I do lectures, workshops and act as a guest critic at several schools.
Q: The Walker does not just house a Design Studio, it also hosts major design events such as lectures and conferences and stages design exhibitions. How does your role as part of the design establishment combine with the day-to-day work of the studio?
A: Well, the day-to-day practice of making design is viewed as a way of leading by example, I suppose ... to practise what you preach. At the same time we are in contact with leading thinkers and practitioners of design and this provides an excellent climate in which to challenge our practice. Most days it is a rather bizarre form of multi-tasking, shifting between pondering issues of design philosophy and looking at the kerning of some letterforms.
A: The Design Studio works closely with the Walker’s New Media Initiative. How do you perceive the relationship between print and digital media?
A: I was fortunate enough to teach in a programme that stressed both print and digital design. We emphasised that there are differences and that in each medium you should try to capitalise on these. The challenge at the Walker is to try to synchronise both print and digital design without subsuming one or the other. We are just starting that kind of dialogue.
Q: Your catalogue for the 21st Annual 100 Show, a major North American design competition, broke down information about the winning entries into twenty-six statistical analyses. What is it about information design that drove you to such lengths?
A: I think it was the idea of having to produce another design annual that drove me to those lengths! I didn’t want to make a typical picture book, I wanted to tell a story about the competition itself, but I didn’t want to write an essay (which I think people were expecting since I write about design). So it’s a visual essay or argument that examines the show giving you a series of very different perspectives on the same body of work. Since the 100 Show isn’t judged by genre, it made sense to look at the work comparatively in that way – for instance, how many posters were chosen and what do they look like together? It’s like curating an exhibition but instead of only hanging the work in one configuration, I could hang it in twenty-six ways.
Q: The Walker’s programme is characterised by film and video work, artist in residence programme and performance pieces. How do you go about creating a printed record of these kinds of events?
A: It’s very difficult precisely because these particular areas see their design needs, quite rightly, in terms of promoting events. The value of creating a print document of such an event is less attractive and possibly redundant since they are usually videotaped. There is, however, a real value in having a print document of these departments’ activities because it gives body to their efforts as a whole instead of event by event. The book Magnetic North was an attempt at grappling with the issues of representing video in print but also provided an important documentation of what would normally be ephemeral.
Q: Is expressing the identity of the Walker an important element of the design work of the Studio?
A: Very much so. It’s difficult to articulate because the Walker is so multi-faceted – five major progamming departments, hundreds of events, a variety of audiences. What is shown in the exhibition (Design Now – Graphics at the Design Museum) is only a fragment of the hundreds of projects we do each year. We believe in designing for specific content and context rather than applying the same solution and look to everything. That kind of monolithic approach to identity dissolved a long time ago. I think the Walker’s design approach to museum identity is more responsive and nuanced and ultimately more appropriate for a cultural institution interested in a diverse visual world.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: It’s an odd mix of things. I’m in the midst of curating an exhibition of contemporary design, planning for a design lecture series this summer, working on issues related to how we use technologies to communicate information in a building expansion, and I’m starting to design a catalogue about issues of globalisation and the arts.
Q: How do you see the future of the Design Studio at the Walker?
A: I see us at a very exciting time, especially as we move towards the completion of the expansion project. My intent is to expand the idea of design beyond a printed piece to a more general notion of communication. We look forward to extending our practice in the area of motion graphics and expanding the idea of design for ourselves and our colleagues beyond a product to a form of thinking or a process.