Andrew Blauvelt is the best example of designer as author
Last month, AIGA announced three recipients of this year’s AIGA medal, an award the organization has been distributing since 1920 for exceptional achievements in the field of design: Andrew Blauvelt, Emily Oberman, and Louise Sandhaus. I was honored to be asked to write the official biography for winner Andrew Blauvelt, which is now online both at AIGA.org and on Eye On Design. Here’s how my essay opens:
“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.
I had interviewed Andrew twice before — once for Scratching the Surface in 2018 and once again for my essay on Cranbrook in 2020 — so I was fairly conversant in his career already. But on a more personal level, Andrew’s work and career have long served as the model for the type of career I want to have. After receiving his MFA at Cranbrook, he immediately went into education, teaching at a handful of design programs before getting tenure at North Carolina State University1. He then left academia for the Walker Art Center, where he served in a variety of roles including design director, Chief of Communications, and, ultimately Senior Curator of Design, Architecture, and Publishing. After eighteen years at the Walker, he left in 2015, returning to Cranbrook to serve as the director of the Cranbrook Art Museum.
This career has spanned education, curation, writing, editing, and administration — all fields I’m deeply interested in. When I think of notions of expanded practices or ways to move beyond the confines of graphic design, I can’t think of a better example than to observe Blauvelt’s career. I’ve been following it since I was in college, when I read some of his writing in Emigre, and it’s continually proven a worthy model.
His 2003 essay, Towards a Critical Autonomy, which I used to open my essay, I think, can be read as a framework for his career so I used that to anchor the piece. Here’s my ending:
“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.”
This notion of autonomy in graphic design, in many ways, builds upon ideas of design authorship that were prevalent in the nineties, when Blauvelt was just starting his career. The difference between Blauvelt and those other theorists, however, is that his career is a model of this autonomy. In moving beyond strictly graphic design work, he’s both elevated the role of design institutions and used design to think through questions of administration, strategy, and curatorial work.
This, I think, is the crux of his work and is woven through my biography of him, alongside his interest in critical theory and under-represented voices. While at NC State, he started the critical studies track in their graduate program and a scan of his exhibitions show a recurrent interest in subcultures, minority artists, and those just outside the canon. This is embodied in his mandate at Cranbrook, where’s he’s trying to connect the museum to the larger city of Detroit.
I always love when Time Magazine releases their annual 100 Most Influential People List because I’m fascinating by the people they get to write about the people on the list. Time chooses people who either have a connection to the honoree, were their predecessor, or could be seen as someone working in the same vein. I love seeing Al Gore write about Greta Thunberg, for example, or Joe Biden on Pope Francis, or even Rem Koolhaas on Bjarke Ingles. These blurbs are not incredible pieces of writing, by any means, but the unique perspective of the author on the honoree adds a dimension to the awards. In taking the job to write Andrew’s biography, I thought a lot about those Time assignments, and what I could bring to his story that no one else could. My own interests in polymathic careers, design and administration, design writing, and authorship I hope provide a new lens to examine Andrew’s continually impressive career. I’m happy with how it turned out and am honored to tell his story for this award.
Knowing he taught at NC State twenty years ago was a draw for me to come here to teach when I applied for the position I’m in now. ↩