Talking with Ellen Lupton about Type on Screen

Editor’s Note: Interactive expert James Pannafino interviews design icon Ellen Lupton about her latest book, Type On Screen

About Ellen Lupton’s Type on Screen 

Edited by Ellen Lupton, director of the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). The book was researched, written, and designed by a team of designers at MICA, who explored the role of typography across a spectrum of contemporary digital practices.
tos_cover; ellen lupton

You recently published Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers and Students. What was the inception of the book?

Designing for screen offers unique constraints and possibilities for designers. Today, many designers come to the field directly through web and interaction design. We felt that a book about basic design and typography would speak to this new generation of digital-only designers as well as to designers who are working across media.

Many designers have a long history of communicating concepts and ideas through print-based media, what are the top 3 concepts they need to know when dealing with type on screen?

Use type to signal action. In print, we employ typographic scale, color, and style to build hierarchy. On screen, those elements signal something else as well: a potential action on the part of the user. On a web site, people expect colored type to provide a link to new content. On an iPad, a line of white text centered in a big red dot looks like a button; make sure it does something.

Stay focused on the content. Think about what potential readers want to do with your content. Are they engaged in long-form reading or are they hunting for an address? Do you want to communicate quick actions with big, simple buttons, or do you want to create a literary environment with a text-y interface that lives discreetly in the margins? Make decisions based on the behaviors you anticipate from your users.

Make content accessible. Typographic systems need to work on different output devices and communicate to people using screen readers and other assistive devices. Screen typography has a special obligation to be functional, to consider the needs of users before the needs of the designer or author.


You make it very clear that the book Type on Screen isn’t a technical manual, why do you think it’s important for designers to understand theory in the digital design world?

The technologies are changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with them, and the best information is probably found online. We hope that ideas and principles have a bit more staying power.

The book does a great job of referencing various topics in design history to help designers understand designing for the screen? What are some of the key historic topics designers need to be aware of?

It’s important for designers in any medium to acquire an understanding of type history. Even a schematic overview helps you understand that nearly all contemporary letterforms are referencing different points in history, from the humanist forms of the Renaissance to the emboldened faces of the Industrial Revolution to the more sanitized, technocratic ideals of corporate modernity. These and many other historical touchpoints remain a huge influence on type designers and graphic designers today. It is also useful to understand how the roots of modern graphic design and branding influence contemporary communication, even though some of modernism’s core values have shifted.

Chapter 5 examines icons, logotypes and writing with pictures. What different approaches should designers take when designing icons compared to logos?

Logos are branding components, whereas icons are interface elements. However, in today’s world of apps and digital media, logos and icons have become increasingly connected. An interface icon, whether it is part of a branding system or not, needs to communicate a concept clearly and simply. Often, it should also communicate a potential action from users. Alas, most application icons are a deplorable mess. Have you looked at the dock lately on your Mac OS desktop? Awful. I can’t tell what half this stuff is or does. Today’s logos and icons are not restricted to the old-school rules of black-and-white reproduction, but they should still function as concise and legible representations. Modern pictograms were invented in the 1920s by Otto Neurath, and it’s helpful to look back at his brilliant precedent as a way forward today.


I think the book is a very useful tool for design educators as the digital design field continues to grow. What advice can you give to design educators transitioning their curriculum to address screen-based design problems?

Today’s design students need to be comfortable with digital media. Type on Screen includes a number of classroom exercises that have been developed by real faculty and tested with real students. Try to keep projects focused on specific principles or outcomes. You also have to manage expectations; students won’t be able to produce a fully functional app or web site during a five-week project. One of my favorite projects from our book is designing the basic interface for a weather app. This touches on icon design and user interface in a way that is accessible to students, with a portfolio-ready outcome that everyone can understand. This outstanding project was developed by designer Javier Lopez.



Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about your new book; you have always been generous with your time and expertise.

Thanks, James!

Type on Screen is published through Princeton Architectural Press and is available for purchase through

LuptonEllen Lupton is Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Recent museum projects include “Graphic Design—Now in Production,” an exhibition on national tour through 2014, co-organized by Cooper-Hewitt and the Walker Art Center. Her exhibitions “Beautiful Users” and “Process Lab” open in December, 2014. Lupton also serves as director of the Graphic Design MFA Program at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art), where she has authored numerous books on design processes, including “Thinking with Type,” “Graphic Design Thinking,” and “Graphic Design: The New Basics.” Her latest book, “Type on Screen,” was written and designed in collaboration with graduate students at MICA.


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