The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt and the package design brief

LeWitt BWWe seem to be living in an age where strategy trumps craft, and in a world where, it is said in most of the current writings on brand design, the project brief drives the creative execution, where beauty is secondary to intent. If this is the case, Sol LeWitt has a lot to teach us.

One of his guiding principles for over 40 years was, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”.

Last week I was up in the Berkshires and saw a staggering installation of Sol LeWitt’s work at MASS MoCA called “A Wall Drawing Retrospective”. It will be on exhibit until 2033, yes . . . for the next 24 years!

The installation occupies nearly an acre of specially built interior walls that have been installed, per LeWitt’s own specifications, over three stories of a historic mill building situated at the heart of MASS MoCA’s campus. The 27,000-square-foot installation, completed after the artist’s death in 2007, took nearly six months of intensive drafting and painting by a team of some sixty-five artists and art students.

Each wall drawing begins as a set of instructions or simple diagram to be followed in executing the work. As the exhibition makes clear, these straightforward instructions yield an astonishing, and stunningly beautiful, variety of work that is at once simple and highly complex, rigorous and sensual.

It is clear from his lifetime of work, that LeWitt always had a plan. And that plan drove the design, creation, and final installation of his work. Very little was ever left to chance, even if much of the work has, at times, a stunning lyricism. This is the result of the plan, not his, or an artist that may have helped him render the piece, aesthetic judgement along the way.

Again his Principle A, first described by in 1967, is simple but revolutionary, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art”. When I read the details of this first principal it became instantly clear that, well before package designers had institutionalized the use of the design brief to drive the creation of their work, LeWitt had already begun to use this as a life-long guiding principal for his work.

As an aside, also in the early 1970s, about the same time that LeWitt created some of his most influential early conceptual work based on his principles, Benoit Mandelbrot was first publishing his theories of fractal geometry. Fractal theory, the realization that things are made of infinitely small little bits all similar in shape, also creates a kind of visual lyricism based on a very specific mathematical plan. And without it, much of the modern magic of computer animation would not have been possible.

The Williams College Museum of Art had an exhibition earlier this year that supported the MASS MoCA installation. In the catalogue for this show, Erica DiBenedetto talks about the four guiding principles that supported his work, described as “The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt”.

I think LeWitt’s principals have a very direct application to the role of a package design brief in our current business climate, and will be discussing the application of these four principals in the next week or so.


DiBenedetto, Erica. 2008. The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt. Williamstown, MA. Williams College Museum of Art


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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