An American designer, Lauralee Alben is celebrated for playing a significant role in the digital-technology boom in California in the early 1990s. She represents the first generation of practitioners to face the challenge of designing for interactive media, as opposed to print.
Alben received a BFA in graphic design from the Rhode Island School of Design, in the the US. Under such professors as Malcolm Grear and Thomas Ockerse, she was exposed to the fundamentals of graphic design, conceptual-design thinking, and semiotic-design theory. She continued her studies on the Advanced Program for Graphic Design at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel from 1977 to 79. Her acclaimed collage series Superman, which was developed in Wolfgang Weingart’s class, appeared in Typografische Monatsblätter in 1979.
Upon finishing her studies, Alben worked in London for a year, at HDA International (Henrion Design Associates), which was founded by corporate identity pioneer FHK Henrion. She then returned to the US and settled in New York. Her experience with international corporate identity projects significantly contributed to her senior position at Siegel+Gale, where she worked on identity programs for The Rockefeller Group, Mellon Bank, and TRW, among others. In 1985, she opened the design office AlbenFaris Inc., with Jim Faris. Five years later, they moved their practice to California, and specialized in the design of interactive experiences, working for clients such as Apple, IBM, Netscape, and SONY. AlbenFaris notably designed the emblematic identity for Mac OS.
Alben describes her career accomplishments humbly as a matter of fate as much as a matter of design, explaining that she was present at the right place at the right time. Yet this modest assertion overshadows her ardor and determination, as well as her position as a strong leader at the intersection of design and technology. In the recent years, she founded AlbenDesign LLC and the Sea Change Design Institute, which generate strategic transformations in lives, organizations, and the world.
Louise Paradis You went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in the US, before attending the Schule für Gestaltung Basel. What kind of training did you receive?
Lauralee Alben Thomas Ockerse was head of the Graphic Design Department at RISD, and Hans van Dijk was also teaching, so there was a lot of Dutch influence at that time. Many were friends with the faculty at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, so there was a strong connection with Europe. I was one of the first students to go through the graphic design program, which was established in 1973. It was a very exciting time to be there. Tom had a strong semiotics background. He was very interested in the meaning of things. So I received conceptual design training, much more than in Basel, where we learned to express the essence of form with technical proficiency. For example, in Basel we mixed our colors and drew letterforms with paintbrushes and plaka paint. I came to lovingly call it “design boot camp.” Coming from RISD, I initially asked, “What I am doing here?” But I soon realized it was the ideal complement to my previous training. Everyone studied the fundamentals and strengthened their design foundation, no matter how much practical experience they had. For example, Jim Faris, who spent nine months apprenticing with Jack Stauffacher at The Greenwood Press painstakingly typesetting and hand-printing the extraordinary Phaedrus book, arrived in Wolfgang Weingart’s class in Basel and ended up hand-setting type and practicing all the same basic type exercises everyone had to do: ragged left, ragged right, centered, and justified. For me, RISD was very stimulating, because I learned how to use my intuition, how to ideate, how to communicate, how to create and iterate many complex solutions. It was a rich learning environment, being in an art school where there was cross-pollination between disciplines like architecture, ceramics, illustration, printmaking, textile design, furniture design, fashion, and film. In 1975, when I was in my junior year, Peter von Arx visited our school and showed examples of animation and film design, what we now call motion graphics. I was very interested in the intersection between graphic design, film, and video. This was before computers. After learning that there was a place to study exactly what I was fascinated by, I approached Tom Ockerse and asked, “I want to go to Basel for my senior year. Can I go with the European Honors Program?” He said, “Maybe it’s possible, but RISD has only sent students to Rome.” I responded, “Well, can we extend the program to Basel?” Tom said, “Put your portfolio together and we’ll send it to Basel and see if they accept you.” And that’s how I was fortunate enough to complete my senior year of undergraduate work in the master’s program Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik [Advanced Class for Graphic Design], at Basel.
LP How long were you in Basel for?
LA Two-and-a-half years. I didn’t want to leave. When I was there, people could stay as long as they wanted to, like Gregory Vines who studied for five years, and Michael Arent for three. They were doing the most amazing work: Michael’s Kunstkredit posters and Gregory’s TM cover series Das Tor in Bellinzona. I would watch what they were creating, and wonder how long it would take to master the basic exercises so I could advance into more creative work. In the end, I found value in both. Each teacher had something wonderful to give. At that time everybody was coming to Basel to study with Wolfgang Weingart and Armin Hofmann, designers they admired and respected, but they stayed for Kurt Hauert. Everyone loved Kurt. He was really one of the most amazing teachers of my life.
LP Gregory Vines did this really nice cover series for Typografische Monatsblätter in 1978.
LA Yes, he was an inspiration to me as a designer and teacher. Gregory helped teach the film courses with Peter Olpe and Peter von Arx. I was the first graduate student studying film animation, and after six months I realized that due to my concentration on film, I wasn’t able to take Hofmann and Weingart’s classes. I didn’t want to miss those opportunities, so I began to broaden the scope of my studies. I experimented with pushing the boundaries in film and video for a year, but I finally decided to focus on the graphic-design program.
LP Were you aware of Weingart before going to Basel?
LA Yes, I was aware of him, but he wasn’t as well known in 1976 as some of the design luminaries who were teaching there then. I was only 21 and had never experienced other cultures. In my first year, I traveled a lot in Europe. I went to London, Paris, Prague, Rome … Then, in my second year, I really worked hard, studying every day from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., and during the weekends too. That was such an exciting, creative time. I was working on my Superman project, and Jim Faris, was working on his Tool, Process, Sensibility: Images of Typography series. It was so nice to work in the type room on Sundays with Weingart, while we listened to opera and enjoyed lunches of wine, farm bread, and Gruyère or Vacherin, when it was in season.
LP Were there a lot of international students when you were there?
LA Yes. There were very few Swiss on the master’s program. Most of the Swiss were in the Fachklasse [specialized class]. There were a lot of Americans, and we studied with people from Denmark, England, India, France, Canada. What amazed me was that Hauert could go from student to student and switch languages. It was a truly multicultural class. Many of us are still friends; we keep in touch.
LP Was film a new medium when you were a student?
LA Video art started in the late 60s and early 70s. But film, no, it wasn’t new. What was interesting was the way graphics and film were being combined in new ways. Design and time complemented each other. I have the book that Peter von Arx made in 1983, Film + Design. In it are some of the films that he showed at RISD; the ones that inspired me to go to Basel. Sometimes I wonder what I would be doing now if had stayed with motion graphics, but I chose to pursue corporate identity. I went to London.
LP So you went to London after Basel?
LA Yes, I went to London to work and, eventually, teach. And once again I was fortunate and ended up working for FHK Henrion. Henri Kay Henrion was one of the grandfathers of corporate identity. I planned my life and my career so I could study and work with the greats. I have always had a deep respect for my elders. I’m not like many of the young people today who have a negative attitude towards older people, as if they don’t know anything. Now that I’m verging on being an elder, I want to share my wisdom!
LP Were there many women studying with you in Basel?
LA It was pretty balanced. The issue was more the mindset towards women. Maybe I had to work a little harder than the men, but at that time it didn’t matter; I was so fearless and gutsy. I think some of the teachers were surprised at my courage and tenacity. I saw what I wanted and I just went for it: Work with me or I will find a way to convince you! I think I have a bit of a spicy reputation in the film department, because I really wanted to make experimental films, and rules sometimes need to be broken, but in Switzerland that was a tough one. I haven’t been discriminated against in my career, perhaps because of the field I am in, perhaps because I’ve had my own business for nearly 30 years. In the end, what matters is how we relate to each other as human beings. I valued studying with Kurt Hauert, a gentle, gifted teacher, who could see what each of us needed to learn in design and life. He taught me patience while I learned to draw maple and oak leaves. We spent six months focused on one subject, and that was good because we learned things so thoroughly. For instance, we would translate leaves. We would pick a type of leaf and look at a hundred of them, in order to find the quintessential essence, the spirit. Even today, I am still learning from it. I was just thinking that I have Hauert’s book Umsetzungen (Translations). He was so humble; he made only one book—a very small one. From twenty years of his students’ work! We drew so many leaves, he could have dressed a forest. One thing that was amazing in Basel—and very different than RISD—was that the teachers were there with you every single minute. Not only were you learning from the teachers constantly as they were interacting with you, but learning as they taught other students. In Hauert’s class, one memorable day in 1977, most of us had reached the same point in the process where we were to add a letterform to our leaf translation. I heard Hauert going from student to student and saying: “You use the brush,” and to the next one, “You use a ruling pen.” And I was thinking to myself, there is no possible way I can use a brush for my project; I have really long, thin lines in this letter. So really quickly, I prepared my ruling pen and I was poised to use it when I saw his shadow over my shoulder. He said very quietly and very firmly, “Nein, you will use a brush because you must learn patience.”
LP Did each of you have your own space?
LA We didn’t have dedicated spaces, but we spent a lot of time working in room 503, on the third floor. Great design surrounded us. Outside in the courtyard were sculptures by Arp and Hofmann.
LP Did you meet André Gürtler? He seemed to have been involved in all kinds of projects. I’ve seen his name often in TM.
LA Yes, he taught me letterform design. He taught me how to see nuances in a letter. One day, I had a debate with him about half a millimeter. I insisted that the down strokes on a letter I was designing were the same width. He said, “No they aren’t. Go measure them.” Which is what I did and he was correct. The way he trained our eyes and gave us a historical and contemporary context for letterforms was wonderful. All those teachers in Basel gave us, and generations of designers, gifts that were profound and lasting. I’ve always thought it would be fun to do a project about what students learned in Basel. Not only about design, but about being human.
LP Tell me about your contribution to TM.
LA I will tell you something I’ve never told anybody. I secretly decided that I really wanted to have an article in TM. I noticed that some students had their work published in TM articles, and I wanted to design one too. By then I was in my second year, and had completed all the basics. So I began working on a series of collages about Superman that I had designed to fit within the TM format. I imagined that if Weingart thought they were worthy, then he might say, “Let’s do a TM article.” I worked in earnest and even traveled to London to photograph the distinctive phone booths there. Clark Kent was a newspaper reporter who transformed into Superman inside phone booths. I started to experiment with the comic-strip and TV images, photographs, and typography, figuring out the key concepts I wanted to communicate. The collages were a commentary on the Superman myth and legend, and the ideas of identity, transformation, and heroism. Now, looking back at it, it’s interesting that I picked Superman and not Wonder Woman. From a woman’s point of view, I examined a male superhero—and the stuff that myths, and eventually commodities, are created from. It was a social statement on the fall from grace that eventually happens to bigger-than-life illusions. I had Weingart’s class in the evenings. He would walk around and critique our work and make suggestions; his eyes were so keen. I liked him and he liked me because we were both rebels. And we’re still friends. I created eight collages and printed them in the darkroom; it wasn’t as easy to make things then as it is now on computers. We worked in the type lab on long, narrow tables where I would lay out the collages. It was a tangible, tactile experience of adding and subtracting elements and meaning. I would carefully place glass over the pieces of paper so everything would lie flat and we could see if we liked it. Then I’d lift the glass, move something a little, and put the glass back down. I remember one time, I kept struggling with a collage, with all these bits of images and type, but nothing was working. So I just picked up all the pieces of paper and threw them on the table and smacked the glass down in frustration. Weingart just happened to come over at that moment, looked at it and said: “This accident is better than all the other ones you’ve made!” Eventually, Weingart, just as I had hoped, told me that we could do a TM article of my Superman collages. It was published in 1979. Weingart designed the cover. The funny thing was that I measured the TM page size incorrectly in the very beginning, so all the collages were off by half a centimeter on either side. I had to rework them all!
LP Can you tell me more about your time in London?
LA Yes, as I told you, I worked with FHK Henrion for a year. He was a contemporary of Walter Landor and Paul Rand; they were all friends. I loved the Henrion studio. It was very small, and Henri was already 70 at the time. I traveled to Paris with him to see clients and attend the Icograda conference. He enjoyed telling me spirited stories about his life and love of design. He taught me about systems design. I worked on projects for KLM and Coopers & Lybrand. In Europe, a typical client–design-firm relationship could last a lifetime. From Henrion I learned how to think from multiple perspectives when designing something, how to think about things in systems, which was a very different approach for me. I didn’t learn that at Basel or at RISD. I was fascinated by ways to apply a brand in different applications, environments, and media. Henri became my mentor; he always believed in me. Whenever he came to the States he would want to see what I was doing, and when we started to work with computers he was fascinated. In the early 80s, when he visited New York, he would visit me at Siegel+Gale. He was a colleague of Alan Siegel. I was very sad when Henri died, but I am still friends with his wife, Marion Wesel, and his son, Max Henrion, who lives close by me in Santa Cruz. I am having dinner with him next week, and I’m sure we’ll talk about old times.
LP Did you then return to the US after London?
LA Yes, because my sister died in a bike accident. I received the call from my father on a day when I was teaching at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. Jim Faris had joined me in London and was there too, teaching full-time. I had been away for almost four years by then, and my whole world turned upside down. I said to Jim, “We’ve been away long enough.” I was 24 when I left London and went back to New York.
LP What happened in New York? Where did you work?
LA I worked at Siegel+Gale, a well-known corporate identity firm. Jim was at Ciba-Geigy for five years carrying on the Swiss-design tradition. I worked for Siegel+Gale for about a year and a half; my star was rising. I had nothing in my way and I taught myself on very big projects at a very young age. I was lead designer on major corporate identity for an insurance company. I worked on Citibank, Mellon Bank, and TRW accounts. My team would design complex guidelines and hold training seminars to explain how to use the brands. My clients were happy. I did very solid work, but I don’t think it was groundbreaking. All that stopped short, because I was in a car accident and my back was broken. All of a sudden the world turned upside down again. It was two years before I was back on my feet. I learned deeper patience. Alan Siegel kept my position for two years. In the end, when I was ready to work again, I realized I couldn’t fit into the shoes I wore two years before. I decided to start my own business in 1985. Alan was very upset about that, and I remember he said to me, “You’re a talented designer. If you stay, we can give you big-time clients to work with. If you go out on your own, you’ll end up a small-time player.” Always one to rise to a challenge, I answered: “Well, we’ll see about that.” The first AlbenFaris client was MasterCard! Jim finally left Ciba-Geigy when we got a call from a former Basel friend wondering if one of us would be interested in setting up a graphic design department and becoming a director at the Museum of Modern Art. Jim took the interview and accepted the position. At one point, the museum was beautifully designed. I will never forget how well the signage, vitrine posters, banners, print, and exhibition graphics all came together. Jim formed a great design group there with quite a few friends who had studied in Basel and were living in New York. After almost a year and a half Jim felt the department was well established and left to join me. That was in about 1987.
LP Did a lot of Basel graduates go to New York?
LA Oh, they went everywhere, which is fun, because wherever you go there is probably somebody you can contact. We network through social media and reunions. We’ve been working on creating a definitive list of all the people who went to Basel, which is difficult because some of the records are lost.
LP Weingart is sometimes cited as the father of New Wave, do you agree with that? I think New Wave, which has roots in the Basel/Weingart style, really matured in the US, particularly in New York and California.
LA I think Weingart had a huge influence in the States. Emil Ruder’s influence was functional, formal, and strict, but then Weingart came along, as a young man of 26 or 27, and broke it all open. He was generating so much work and publishing it, attracting American students to Basel who then returned to teach and practice in the US, so the ripple effect was enormous. TM was a presence then; it was a major mouthpiece for the work of the school.
LP April Greiman and Dan Friedman were also doing something very new at the time. They started to work in that way in Basel and continued to develop it in the US, which would then become associated with the New Wave. Did you feel connected to that style?
LA Somewhat. We all grew up together doing it. Dan and Libby Boyarski were teaching and working in Louisville, now Pittsburgh. Dan ended up Head of the Design Department at Carnegie Mellon University. Terry Swack has taken over that position now. Don Adleta and Tricia Hennessy taught at RISD, and now at Ohio State and Western Michigan universities, respectively. Len Stokes taught for 40 years at SUNY Purchase in New York. Jerry Kuyper taught in Hawaii, and now practices at his own firm in Connecticut. Bobbi Long has taught in many California colleges. So many of us ended up teaching. It would be fun to track where everybody taught, and their influence. The dispersing of this nucleus of people who studied with the great designers in Basel, before the second and third generations started to teach there, had a huge impact in the US. I can’t really speak for Europe, but here it was cataclysmic. It was before computers, and the Swiss reach was felt profoundly. Weingart would still come and lecture, and Hofmann was at Yale. When Weingart visited the US, he would come stay with us when he was in New York or in San Francisco. I still remember, once we were driving together to San Francisco, where Weingart was going to give a lecture at the Academy of Art University. We were driving down the street looking for parking, and noticed a huge line of people that went all the way around an impressive European-style building. We parked and walked up to the people waiting in line, which seemed to stretch forever. Weini asked what they were waiting for. And it turned out it was for him! He laughed with surprise. He was a magnet. American designers loved him: the rebel, the guy who wouldn’t conform. It resonated with the individualistic American sensibility. When somebody like that, some bad boy, comes to speak here, everybody wants a part of it. Times change. I think with computers the styles have all became a bit similar.
LP What was it like for you, going through all those technological changes?
LA I loved it, because I finally had a medium that moved yet wasn’t as complicated as film. Our firm was about five years old when we moved to Santa Cruz, California, in 1990. We had primarily been working on branding projects in New York. Part of the reason we moved to California was that Jim wanted to be closer to his family since our son had been born, and we also wanted to be at the cutting edge of computing and design. It was happening here in California. Apple was doing a lot of innovative work. The field was completely open, completely wild. Nobody knew what interactive design was, what interface design was. It was the great frontier—the computer frontier. And we had friends saying, “Get out here, you have all the training, you studied at Basel. You know about movement, you know about sequencing design and time. Let’s get some trained graphic designers working with this medium, not just engineers coming up with this system.” Our friend Michael Arent was at Apple then. We worked with Apple from about 1991 to 98. It was a great opportunity for us. We learned about working with users at very-early design stages. We worked in multidisciplinary teams, sharing design across disciplines. We worked iteratively and collaboratively with our clients in a software-development process. We saw that many great interactive ideas and innovations emerged from this novel way of working, and I’m still working that way today. We made a point of writing articles, developing interactive criteria, designing exhibits at CHI and SIGGRAPH, and giving lectures to share our growing body of knowledge.
LP Wow, you really had perfect timing.
LA I know! Either I always had, or I woke up and seized opportunities! It was really fantastic for us, but computing changed us fundamentally as designers. And, speaking for myself, working at Apple was amazing, because, as a designer I had been trained to have a brief, to do three different designs, and then go to the client and present the ideas and say, here are all the reasons why it is perfect for you, now choose one. It was different at Apple: we were working on the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines for developers who were designing applications. We were designing interactive guidelines, not print. We had a shock when our client at Apple, Harry Saddler, said, “Why are you coming back to me and asking me to vote for one of your designs? I don’t feel comfortable with that approach. Can we sit down and design together?” I remembered thinking, “This could be really great or really bad.” So we did sit down together and it was great. We learned to do participatory design; we learned to work with the people who were going to use our designs at the end; we learned to go in with blank models or prototypes with not even a piece of type on them. We went onto the tarmac and worked with the United Airline mechanics on handheld devices. We learned that brilliant design comes from the interaction between all the disciplines involved and the people who will use it long after the designers have finished. We never worked alone or isolated from our clients or their customers again.
LP Now I have to ask you about that logo. Did you design the Mac OS logo?
LA We consulted with Apple from the early 90s. One project we invested a lot in was designing a strategy and design for thematic, customizable appearances for the Macintosh operating system. We intended it to be like Swatch but for the Macintosh interface. Today, themes are commonplace, but at the time it was a novel concept. It was an amazing three-year project, where we brought together designers from the Apple Human Interface Group, as well as outside designers from Japan, England, and the US. Each one designed different interfaces that were consistent with the Macintosh behaviors. We designed a universe of interfaces focused on what users wanted, depending on their task, mood, and other preferences, as well as on Apple values. We knew Apple inside out after that project. Then the Creative Services department, led by Hugh Dubberly and Gaynelle Grover, decided they were going to run a competition to design a brand for the Mac OS since there wasn’t one. People were confused, often calling their Macs “Apples,” and there was a huge marketing opportunity. So Apple made, as Weingart would say, “a big circus” around the brand competition. We really had so much more information than the other firms that were pitching, and we ended up with the contract. I began by developing a comprehensive brand strategy. I will never forget the day after the strategy was hatched and we were sitting down at the table with our staff to begin designing the symbol when Jim said suddenly, “I know what it looks like!” He grabbed a pen and just drew it with a few swift strokes. He said, “Here, this is it. It’s done.”
LP The Mac OS logo is known worldwide. It is such a great achievement.
LA I think it works because it depicts a marriage between the user and the computer. It’s a partnership that speaks to the love affair users have with their Macs. I think Steve Jobs made a big mistake not keeping this logo on boot-up. But I didn’t get a vote on that one. Those were great years at Apple. We got to do a lot of groundbreaking work, but a lot of it you will never see: projects were killed because of fast development cycles and fierce competition. Probably half of the work we did for Apple will never been seen. I am proud of our work over the 16 years our firm, AlbenFaris, was in existence. We had great clients and great staff, and we worked on meaningful projects. We honestly tried to influence computing by making it more human-centric.
LP What are you working on now?
LA Everything changed significantly when Jim and I divorced in 2000 and we closed our firm. In the wake of those two life-altering events, a new way of designing emerged for me. I like to think of design as a vast continuum that spans the creation of innovative products, services, and environments to complex systems and dynamic processes. At its furthest frontier, design generates new ways of being and shifts in consciousness. This is where I’m working, because I do believe that together we can design the critical sea changes—positive, profound, and lasting transformations—that our world needs today.
The above conversation took place in Santa Cruz, California, in August 2010. It was copy-edited by Ariella Yedgar.