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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

My Debt To Herb Lubalin

It wasn’t long after I decided by accident that I wanted to design and art direct newspaper/magazines that I learned that the process was more complicated than just cutting and pasting pictures and words on paper. My first efforts looked like kindergarten collages, although not as charming or savvy. Stage two of my career was when illustrator Brad Holland introduced me to Herb Lubalin‘s work. Without a clue as to what typography entailed, I was drawn to how Lubalin used letters and typefaces to create patterns that read as words and headlines. The notion of type as expression was lost on this naif, yet it was alluring enough that I instinctively knew that’s what I should do. I had my chance with a few periodicals that hired me freshly kicked out of both NYU and The School of Visual Arts (SVA) to play, experiment and otherwise hone my skill.

There were a few underground newspapers I worked on, but the one that allowed me the widest berth was not technically an underground. ROCK was a Rolling Stone wannabe that covered rock and roll as serious culture. On our writing staff were such names as Lenny Kaye (that’s where he met his longtime collaborator Patti Smith, who was briefly a writer/editor); Steve Reiner, who became one of the first producers for NPR’s “All Things Considered”; and David Reitman, who jocked for a very popular radio show on WFMU. We also produced rock and oldies shows.

I was art director. I had free reign over the design. I had my own Phototypositor and Stat King, so I could set and manipulate type photographically and revel in the surprises and mistakes that were inevitable in everything I tried. I had a special fondness for Kabel, News Gothic, Busarama, Windsor, shadow types of all kinds, Lightline Gothic and other (buck-a-word) novelties. I also had copies of Avant Garde and Fact magazine, so I could see and copy Lubalin’s unique typographic style. I was obsessed with smashing and overlapping letters, and made easy with the tools at my disposal. One of them was the options with the Stat King to use various screens to make continuous tone, high contrast and linear veloxes that could then be manipulated even more.

The pages below, done between 1968 and 1970, may look crude, but I think they weren’t bad for a guy without design training. They may never have passed Lubalin’s standards. But being able to do them without anyone saying they looked crude or amateurish allowed me to learn as I earned (a paltry $50 a week).

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