Skip to content

Johanna Drucker Wins AIGA Steven Heller Award for Cultural Commentary

By Joanie Harmon

UCLA’s inaugural Breslauer Professor of Bibliography lauded for her work in the look of language and how it adds to its meaning.

UCLA Distinguished Professor of Information Studies Johanna Drucker was honored with the 2021 Steven Heller Award for Cultural Commentary from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) in a virtual ceremony on Sept. 22. The award is named for Heller, a former New York Times art director, instructor at the School of Visual Arts, and a prolific author of anthologies, criticism, and other publications on graphic design.

“I am very honored by this award, and particularly honored by the association with Steve Heller,” said Professor Drucker in her acceptance remarks. “When I started working in this field several decades ago, he was already publishing prolifically. I thought, ‘Wow.’ Then, later, I got to meet him and appreciate his generosity of spirit as well as his erudition. ‘Wow again.’ The award marks for me the distance I’ve come since the 1970s, when as a typographer among poets I was chastised for suggesting that the look of language was part of its meaning.”

Drucker, who is the inaugural Bernard and Martin Breslauer Professor of Bibliography in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, has focused much of her work on that very concept, as well as the history of the book, artists’ books, visual images and their relationship to knowledge, and frameworks for digital humanities tools and platforms across a wide range of disciplines.

“Visual language is everywhere around us—on streets, surfaces, screens,” Drucker noted in her remarks. “Anyone who glibly imagines ‘print’ has disappeared has not looked in their grocery bag lately, even if digital technologies have proliferated the formats and sites in which language is present in our world. Design has a direct impact on daily life—as I was keenly aware trying to decipher what felt like a deliberately poor format on the California recall ballot, or, more positively, appreciating the impact made when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned around at the Met Gala last week. 

“These examples make clear that we have to create the contexts of reception, as well as conditions of production, in our work. A greater challenge is to expose the lifecycles of production within the systems of global industries of extraction, exploitation, human rights abuse, and ecological costs with which we are all complicit. Our habitual practices are not sustainable in their current form. Much work lies ahead.”

Professor Drucker’s most recent books include “The Digital Humanities Coursebook: An Introduction to Digital Methods for Research and Scholarship,” (2021, Routledge) and “Iliazd: A Meta-Biography of a Modernist” (2020, Johns Hopkins University Press). Her other publications include “Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide,” with Emily McVarish (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008); “SpecLab: Projects in Digital Aesthetics and Speculative Computing” (Chicago, 2009); "What Is?: Nine Epistemological Essays" (Cuneiform Press, 2013); and “In Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production” (Harvard University Press, 2014). She is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Riot Material.

Drucker’s own artwork can be found in museum and library collections at the Getty Center for the Humanities, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Marvin and Ruth Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the New York Public Library, and the Houghton Library at Harvard, among many others. In 2012, a comprehensive retrospective of her books, graphic art, and visual projects titled, "Druckworks: 40 Years of Books and Projects," opened at Columbia College and traveled throughout the country for two years.

For a Q&A with Professor Drucker, visit this link.