Ralph Caplan, one of the United States’ most prominent design writers, died last week. He was 95 years old.
The 2011 winner of one of the field’s highest honors, the medal from AIGA, the professional association for design, Caplan had a long and influential career writing and teaching in the design criticism program at New York’s School of the Visual Arts.
In a 2012 essay commemorating Caplan’s AIGA medal win, design writer and editor Julie Lasky compiled some of her favorite apothegms from Caplan, including, “Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous,” and “Nothing is more to the point than a good digression.”
Caplan was born in 1925 and grew up in a steel town in the Pittsburgh area. After serving in a Marine Corps entertainment troupe during World War II, Caplan graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and then went on to graduate studies at Indiana University, where he wrote a book of poetry for his master’s thesis. After working at a New York humor magazine, he became the editor in chief of the magazine I.D., formerly known as International Design, and then went on to publish the novel Say Yes! He did not write more novels, but instead focused on writing about design. He published several books on the topic, including By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons and Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and its Side Effects.
He was also director emeritus of the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, and an honorary member of the Industrial Designers Society of America. In 2010, Caplan won the Design Mind National Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.