Yale Years


An expanded and revised version
of the keynote address presented at
the Graphic Design Education Association Conference
Chicago, Illinois, June 23rd, 1989

Yale University was the first in this country to establish a degree program in Graphic Design.1 The term Graphic Design had been used earlier by professionals such as William Dwiggins, Alvin Lustig, Herbet Bayer, Ladislav Sutnar, Lester Beale and William Golden among others. During the 1930s, there was a high school program in Graphic Design at Brooklyn taught by Leon Friend who also co-authored a book titled Graphic Design.2 Alvin Lustig taught a summer course at Black Mountain college called Graphic Design prior to coming to Yale. Institutions such as Cooper Union, Cranbrook and the Institute of Design offered courses in Graphic Design, but not a degree. The Yale program was unique at the time, and its graduates were instrumental to establishing the profession of Graphic Design in the United States during the 1960s. The origins and early years of Graphic Design at Yale University are therefore of historic importance.

The defining years were between 1950 and 1955 when the program was established, took shape and set a course. Between 1955 and 1965, it matured and the majority of graduates moved into professional practice while others were recruited to teach in design programs around the country.

On July 15, 1950, the New York Times reported an announcement by Dr. Charles Sawyer, Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Director of the Division of the Arts, regarding a new Department of Design at Yale University with Josef Albers as chairman. Instruction in the new program was to begin during the 1950-51 academic year.

The explanation given today by Dr. Sawyer for a “Department of Design” was to disassociate the new program from the existing one in fine art, and to better identify it with architecture. Of no small consequence was the fact that it also permitted Albers to develop curriculum and hire new faculty without interference from tenured faculty members.

The program was described as a four year course with a revised professional curriculum in painting, sculpture and the Graphic Arts. The design program would culminate in a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In a letter from Josef Albers to Alvin Lustig, dated February 23rd, 1951, Albers explains, “so far, all students are working together in only two rooms of which one is the printing shop. This may indicate again that we are very much at the beginning, though there are even a few who do graduate work.” 3

Following its inception as a four year program, Graphic Arts soon changed from an undergraduate to a graduate program. For a short period of time, graduates from art schools with certificates were accepted into the program and required to complete one year for a BFA and an additional two years to receive the MFA degree. Those with an undergraduate degree completed the program in two.

The Graphic Arts program at Yale was introduced to the profession during 1951 at the initial Aspen Design Conference. Dean Sawyer and Egbert Jacobson were cochairmen of the Conference, which was sponsored by Walter Paepke of Container Corporation of America. It was a landmark occasion for design as major professionals, industrialists and educators came together for the first time in the United States. The conference served as an outstanding opportunity to introduce the new program in design at Yale University. Dean Sawyer and Alvin Eisenman spent two weeks in Aspen planning the introduction. Josef Albers and the architect Lou Kahn from Yale were also participants. Eero Saarinen, Charles Eames, Herbert Bayer, Leo Lionni and Dino Olivetti were in attendance. Harley Earle of General Motors and Walter B. Ford of Ford Motors along with Frank Stanton, President of CBS, Hank Brennan of Life Magazine, Stanley Marcus of Nieman Marcus and Walter Howe of R.R. Donnelly were among the many prominent business leaders attending the conference. It is unfortunate that the proceedings did not have wider distribution or publication because it was a lost opportunity for establishing Yale’s role in the United States as a leader within the design field.4

By the late 1940s, most teachers in the Division of the Arts at Yale University were older, tenured and had not practiced in years. The Yale administration brought in Charles H. Sawyer as Dean for the express purpose of effecting change. In the words of Dean Sawyer, “The faculty and administration knew pretty well what our objectives were; a rather moribund school needed a good shaking up and we invited new students to participate in the process. We met stout resistance from several of the senior faculty and some from students. We newcomers were united in our belief as to the importance of breaking down the walls which had grown up between departments and giving students an opportunity to learn from each other.” 5

Dean Sawyer was influenced in his views to a great extent through his interaction with Bauhaus principals who had emigrated to the United States. First at Andover during the late 1930s, and later at Worcester, Massachusetts, he was in contact with Walter Gropius and Josef Albers among others. He was well acquainted with Bauhaus pedagogy and was greatly impressed by the integration of several disciplines within design.


Development of the Department of Design >


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1 Yale did not invent graphic design, its origins are European and date back to the turn of the century. Prior to the 1960s in America, graphic design was perhaps more of a label than a profession, but by the 1960s, graphic design was clearly a profession. No other institution had the same impact on the profession and education as Yale University. This claim is based on graphic design at Yale as a sequential program in itself, and not as a course or courses within a broader program; it was a regionally accredited degree program, and it was Yale graduates who were directly responsible for establishing graphic design as a profession separate from advertising during the 1950s and 1960s. The Yale graphic design curriculum was the model for most educational institutions changing from advertising to graphic design educational programs during the 1960s. It was Yale graduates who established and staffed many of these educational programs.

2 Graphic Design: A Library of Old and New Masters in the Graphic Arts, Leon Friend and Joseph Hefter. McGrawHill, New York, 1936.

3 Personal papers of Elaine Lustig Cohen.

4 Dr. Sawyer was bitterly disappointed that the Yale University Press refused to print the Aspen Design Conference proceedings on the grounds that they “were not sufficiently scholarly.”

5 Correspondence from Dr. Sawyer.



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