Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Elusive Type

There is a dizzying array of typefaces available to designers. Whether bought, stolen, donated or actually free, there are myriad sources from which to acquire typefaces. But which ones are the right ones? Different designers stand by different versions of different typefaces. All we have is our varying literature, design forums and sources of instruction from which we can gleen a sense of which typefaces are the purest representation of the original cut, the most emphatic reinterpretation or the most iconic modern rendition.
Many rely on Robert Bringhurst's book (cum type-bible), The Elements of Typographic Style for all type-related advice. Some turn to the jedi-esque council on Typophile for a more democratic opinion, though most of its members are inherently purists. Some choose for themselves, and this can have a variety of results ranging from inspired to disastrous.
Ultimately, typography is intended to do justice to the message it is communicating. All of our classical typefaces and some newer ones were created to serve specific purposes. Whether it be for headlines or body text, to deliver a range of weights for multi-dimensional information architecture, or to display legibly in web situations, they have a reason for being. Many typefaces come in a cascade of versions because they have been hosted by different foundries over the years. Nowadays, there are people who are just obsessed with typography and draw horrendous, unstudied typefaces all day long. To purists, this is type-heresy of the highest order. But who's to stop the defamers? All a designer can do is be educated enough to choose and use the right typefaces.
Garamond is a great example of a historic typeface with a hundred and one renditions that have been drawn throughout the ages. There isn't an original, honest-to-goodness, Claude Garamond cut of Garamond that we use on our computers today. But according to Bringhurst, the three adaptations worthy of note are Stempel Garamond, Adobe Garamond, and Granjon.
It should be noted that Berthold Garamond is strong and carefully tooled, but seems stiff and lacks the poetry of the three mentioned above. And though Garamond 3 has its moments, it can be a bit awkward and unruly. Then there are Ludlow Garamond, American Garamond, Italian Garamond and ITC Garamond, all of which are difficult to look at.
The great Jan Tschichold drew Sabon in 1964. It is extremely reverent to the idea of Garamond, and very true to its forms. And it is exquisite in its own right.
But more forms are constantly generated. For example, Karl Moller has taken it upon himself to review past versions of Garamond and create a version that is ideal for setting Swedish text.
Michael Bierut has a lot to say about ITC Garamond and new typefaces. One particularly astute observation is that unlike new architecture (which is usually met with initial disgust and then slowly accepted over time), new typefaces are typically received with zeal but then wear out and lose their hold on our interest. Of course, there are typefaces which have been around for centuries and look as fresh now as they ever have. Several appear here in a great survey of serifed text faces.
What begins to become apparent is that typefaces are more like philosophies than shapes. They have applications which dictate their appearance and give rise to their personality. But down the road, their personalities dictate their uses. They seem to grow up and their uses and experiences become inextricable aspects to their character.
It is of the highest importance that designers know the history of the language they employ. One does not speak without knowing the words, or else the meaning is lost. Likewise, a designer shouldn't communicate without understanding the typographic nuances and visual cues that are manifest in their executions.
By learning as much as we can and staying informed, we elevate the discipline of design to its highest point, where science and art synchronize.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Take a trip without moving your feet

Presented below is a small sampling from one of the most important photo documentaries, A westward study in Asia by Ian Allen. In its course, you journey from bustling Tokyo to rural Tibet in a massive, sweeping odyssey.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Battling Entropy

We sweep dust out of corners. We repair our belongings. We trim our hair. We bathe, mow the lawn, and wash our clothes. We categorize and alphabetize. We create order. We order everything. And yet things rust. Old clothes wear holes. Our fingernails grow to lengths undesirable. And the upkeep of everything is constant. We grow old. Our backs begin to hurt. Our hair falls out. Spots appear -- dark ones on our skin and empty ones in our brain. We try to cope. We try to make it easier. We try, always, to simplify. But isn't chaos prevailing somehow? Aren't we always in pursuit of an order that nature seems to object to?
As you glance around you, there are probably many straight lines. There are groupings of things. Books together, but separated from magazines. Pens in a cup or holder. Glyphs that, strung together, form meaning. There is, perhaps, a filing cabinet with some sort of system, a clock, a calendar, this computer in front of you. There is a sense of order.
But when you leave your dwelling, and go into nature, let's say. The glyphs aren't there. The clock isn't there. The straight lines aren't there. None of the order is there. It is spell-binding. It is "organic". Amorphous and unpredictable lines flow in abundance. There is shade, gradation and texture. Birds and animals are driven by fear and pleasure and pain. There is something indescribable happening everywhere.
This indescribability impels the way we function in the world. And for practicality's sake, the human brain has become a very good machine. Essentially, the human brain works so that it doesn't have to work. It is efficient in storing information so that it doesn't need to relearn things constantly. Neurological pathways are established to make life easier. If you had to learn how to tie your shoes every time you had to tie your shoes, life would be very tedious. Just getting out the door would prove difficult. The same goes for more complex thinking as well. If you had to learn how to type every time you wrote an email, you'd never get through it. And if you had to start from square 1 with friends, coworkers or classrooms every time you met, you'd never get very far. The brain, and its memory, are cumulative. And so are all our modes of thought. For better or worse, we don't forget everything we know -- even though it would be better in some problem-solving situations.
This characteristic of the human brain translates into our sense of truth because our basis for truth has much more to do with common and accepted standards. Just like tying our shoes, if we had to debate what "REALITY" was every time we had a conversation, we'd never get to the conversation. This is true of all understanding. We have to agree on certain basic premises before we move into the more esoteric climes of thought.
This is what Linnaeus did for biology. He set out a structure for us to build on. But nature doesn't seem to think like us. Without Linnaeus' structure, we're left with nature's wild, undisciplined procreation -- it's inexplicable, hit-or-miss style. Linnaeus affected biology, but he didn't change nature.
Take the Fibonacci Sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89...). In this sequence, each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. This sequence has been proven to exist in the organization of a good deal of plant life, the shapes of shells, the genealogical patterns of rabbits and bees, etc. Without this sequence of numbers, and our theory about its importance, nature would go on the way it is. It is just our way of understanding it. Nature continues with or without our foisting a sense of order onto it.
Consider this:
Imagine you throw a box of spools of ribbon into the air. The box flies open and all the ribbons unravel and fall pell mell to the ground. There is a chance, however small, that with the proper confluence of physics, wind gusts, friction, etc, that the ribbons could roll up and set neatly into the box and the box could be blown back together and land perfectly in your hands again. However, that chance is so small, that physicists consider it negligible. Hence, the idea of entropy. Nature has a tendency towards chaos, and disorder. The human mind, towards order. So, in essence, man's life is a struggle against entropy.
Why is this? Aren't we a product of nature? Didn't we come from the swirling evolution? Why is our sense of organization in opposition to that of the rest of existence?
We seem to want to preserve and order things. We archive and alphabetize. We write and speak and communicate. Clarity and comprehension are manifest in this. So, of all the things to pursue in life, design and communication are the most difficult because they are the biggest rebellions against chaos. But they are also the biggest assets to humanity. The choice to design is not a choice to make things attractive (though that is often an important by-product). The choice to design is a choice to fight hard against degeneration. Our designs are our evolutions to survive -- our constantly refined tools. Believe that design, be it born of experimentation or refinement, is the most truly human act. It is design which molds the future of the human race.

(photo by Martin Klimas)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Wim Crouwel & Massimo Vignelli in conversation at The New School (AIGA)

It is the attitudes of designers like Crouwel and Vignelli that breathe intensity into the world of design. Both are modernists and have established a strict set of rules for themselves when thinking about design. Their personalities are very different however, and it shows in their work and philosophies.
Vignelli is an absolutist, a purist and a staunch adherent to his rules about responsible design. He works with 5 typefaces that he feels very strongly about (Garamond, Bodoni, Helvetica, Univers, Century) and , if pushed to it, a couple of others. He works only with the grid. That pin at his throat is a Grid-pin that he designed and wears every day. His confidence is unwavering and his work backs up his philosophy. He spoke out about Emigre and Rudy van der Lans, saying that it is the worst thing to happen to typography. But he gestured repeatedly toward Jonathan Hoefler (in the crowd) as someone who is carrying the typographic torch. Agreed.
Crouwel, another man of strict conduct, is however, more of a seeker. It is clear that he is trying (and has always tried) to find something new. Throughout his career, Crouwel has developed new typefaces, and redefined applications for the Grid. He has been adventurous with color and our perception of typography. And his philosophies have, admittedly, changed over the years.
Both designers have advanced the visual state and mentality of design -- Crouwel through expansion, and Vignelli through refinement. Both, of course, are mandatory aspects of growth.
It is refreshing to hear the voices of these designers in the midst of a design world that is losing its sense of craft and its adherence to the fundamentals of typographic communication. Things that were said:
Fashion is the enemy of design, because fashion equals obsolescence.
Contemporary is the opposite of Modern.
The fundamental idea in all this is to use design-thinking to create logical, lasting constructs for the world. Flashy, fashionable approaches don't last and don't work, because they don't create a deep-running, emotional connection with the viewer.
Cleverness and fashionability will be forgotten while intelligence and style live forever.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Far from the Madding Clutter

As an organization, The People are optimistic and try to avoid negativity at every turn.
As a designer though, going to a magazine store is a pretty difficult experience. It is a typographic acid trip.
There is a vast sea of niche lifestyle magazines, which, for the most part, lack any real savvy but are honest and maintain a readership through consistent content.
Then there are the self-conscious, fashion-y magazines that try to out-avant-garde each other every month or quarter. They cost loads to make. And deliver little. And there's a new one every time you turn around.
And for some reason, there are very few magazines that offer great content AND design.
In terms of content, Esquire, Arena, and Wallpaper bring something to the table.
When considering design, Purple Fashion Magazine, Cabinet and, the ever-inventive Visionaire are quite stunning.
There are only a few magazines that have a great offering i
n both categories.
Dwell is well-shot with good writing and engaging subjects specifically for people with an interest in architecture, design and interiors.
Swindle is a wide-ranging youth culture magazine which is edited by Roger Gastman (of While you Were Sleeping...) and art directed by Sheppard Fairey (Obey). There is a rotating door of guest writers, illustrators and photographers that maintain a newness necessary in any culture magazine. Many of them are young and ambitious, and there is something intrinsically "good" about that.
Stopsmiling is an excellent publication. The writing, photography and design is top-notch and consistent. What makes it really unique is that the focus shifts per issue and keeps the content fresh.
Icon was just guest edited by Peter Saville a couple of months ago. And though that issue was really good, many other issues are bogged down by articles about the design emporers. In general, it is well-shot and well-designed.
The best covers, however, are coming from a UK magazine called Exit. When every other magazine is zigging and zagging, maybe it's best to just _____. The content is ambitious. The photography is high-quality and in many cases, truly artistic. But mostly, it's the cover. The confidence to avoid the crash!, pow!, zing! of the magazine market is admirable. No photos. No feature-teasers. Just beautiful, iconic colors. And now with gradients! A salute to Exit.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Contrast Theory, Typography, and the Human Mind

The human brain searches for definition. In everything. And it's no wonder. We seek to understand the world around us, because this allows us to understand ourselves. John Fowles, the fiction writer, wrote a book of philosophy called The Aristos, in which he discusses the matter of what he calls 'counterpoles'. Counterpoles allow us to define ourselves. "I am not the earth or moon. I am not that tree. I am not this computer or this desk." That is a simple way of setting things apart. Furthermore, "I am not you. I am not my mother or father. I am not Martin Luther. I am not my wife." And this allows us to know which specific human we are. Then, to go one step further, we look at ideas and notions and ways of being. And we further distinguish who we are.
It is also important to note that many people DON'T distinguish themselves. They stand very close to certain philosophies, to other people, to art movements, to certain clubs, to their church (or temple or whatever) in order to blend in. They escape notice. Entertain, for a moment, the form of a school of fish. In order to escape attack, all the little fish move and zag together to give the impression of being a bigger, scarier fish. They are all safer in the collective. This school-of-fish mentality is not too dissimilar from how groups of people act and move. I digress, sort of.
Back to understanding the world. So we look at all the things that are 'not us' in order to gain clarity on who and what we are. Once we have gained this clarity of 'what I am' v. 'what I am not', we delve into the world of 'what I am not'. Enter Linnaeus, the father of binomial nomenclature. He constructed a system to classify all the living things -- to give each one its unique identity. This kind of a system makes the world more manageable. We can mentally disseminate everything more easily in this way. If all of nature, in its strange swirling progeny, were not broken down, we couldn't wrap our brains around it. We need to draw lines, create thresholds and hold absolutes in order to deal with all of it.
Look at how we build our dwellings. We draw straight lines everywhere. We create edges. Look at maps and how we decide who governs what area of our earth. We have property lines, roads, lines on the road, and laws that correspond to those lines. They are everywhere. It's how we think and make sense of an overwhelming existence.
The reason lines work is because of contrast. We need contrast to notice things. Contrasts occur to a point where a threshold is met. Then a line is drawn, visually or theoretically. The mind is more comfortable with this constant process of incision, followed by decision. As we take note of contrasts, we judge the differences. We decide how we feel about them. Our world is created by how we honor these absolutes, when and how we draw lines.
In visual art, we love the way Matisse, or Picasso, or any number of others drew lines to create contrast and heighten drama. The human mind desires this drama. We see this in our favorite stories. The most engaging ones involve the most drama. Imagine the line of the edge of the boat in Moby Dick. Beyond that line is danger, the vast and endless unknown. This line is a physical one. But in stories by the Marquis De Sade, he describes people caught in situations of moral imbalance, where they must make drastic decisions, sometimes between compromising their integrity or death. Think of the absolutes in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Two families, forbidden to one another. Two lovers cross that line -- the high drama that ensues. Then as one takes a false death potion, the other cannot live, and commits suicide. They both die (sorry for the spoiler). Always, we need the contrast. The mind is engaged by judgement and choice.
Take a look at the growing, believe me, GROWING obsession with celebrities, their lifestyles, and how we judge them. Who is together? Who breaks up? Has an eating disorder? Goes insane? Fights for charity? Crashed their car? Dies from a drug overdose? Tries to die from a drug overdose? Etc? All high drama. And why do we pay more attention to Britney Spears than we do to Courtney Cox? When was the last time Courtney Cox had an insane, deceitful love affair, involving children, a dramatic change in weight, drug problems, then shows up at a tattoo parlor at three in the morning with a shaved head?! I can't remember. Because she isn't as interesting.
All this stark contrast draws interest from people because it causes the brain to make a choice. Do you support or oppose? Agree or disagree? Allow or deny? The threshold engages. We've seen how this is true in our art, our growing dramatic reality, in our stories, in our decisions on laws, in how we understand nature and define our place in it. Communication is no different. In order to communicate things most clearly, stark contrast is imperative. Strong positions, strong language, and strong imagery take hold of the brain because they ask (no, force) the viewer to judge and make a decision. As this is true in all things in life, it is true in the lowly letterform -- our secondary (to language) form of communication, because it becomes the written word. Strength in the letter is something the casual viewer may not care much about, for they are more concerned with the word strung into a sentence with meaning. But to a designer, or typographer, the letter (which becomes the word in the sentence with meaning) is HOW the sentence with meaning is said. Letterforms, and the lines that govern their shape, are a constant source of visual drama. I have included some examples of high-drama typography. Though the executions are stark and minimal, the contrast is high and fuels the intensity.
These tiny 2 and 3-d sculptures using line define our world, and an enormous aspect of how we take it in. Across this line from white to black, meaning is established. Across millions of sections of line, this little piece has been written, creating another, larger definition, and has changed something about how you perceive the world.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis

He's more than a designer or image maker. Each piece of work is an occurence. It isn't just a THOUGHT that hasn't occured, but a REAL, NEW OCCURENCE. His work doesn't seem to emulate anything. It's new art, sprung from a bizarre and inspired world of dreams and psychotropic hallucinations.
My interest in music got me into Thorgerson's work at a young age, and it couples so perfectly with the sound, that it becomes an entirety. I remember the images from the inside of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. There was the half-submerged diver perfectly reflected in the water's surface, the swimmer in the sand dune, and of course, the red scarf blowing in the wind.
Thorgerson's images are complete both conceptually and visually. They don't seem to be a reflection of reality. They are something entirely different. They are surreal and beautiful, and to me, perfect.
One of the best stories about Thorgerson's album covers is one about Pink Floyd's Animals. In the distance, above Battersea Power Station, there is a flying pig. The pig was tethered to the power station but apparently broke loose, and floated away. It continued to float until it entered the flight path of a plane trying to land at Heathrow Airport. It actually stopped air traffic for about an hour before it landed somewhere in Kent. During follow-up shoots for the cover (since the first one didn't go so well), sharpshooters were on hand to take down the balloon, in case it got any ideas. Ultimately, the cover is a composite, but the legend lives well beyond.
Thorgerson has produced album covers and music videos for the likes of Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Phish, The 13th Floor Elevators, Black Sabbath, Yes, Ween, The Cranberries, The Scorpions, The Mars Volta, etc. Often, I find myself saying "He did that too?!" Here is a small gallery of his work.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Strapped to the Gills with Great Ideas

Bob Gill has a great story. And he does great work. Constantly. But his work isn't great because he relies on some amazing aesthetic, or some tantalizing subject matter (though he did direct a hardcore porno movie called Double Exposure of Holly). His work is great because his thinking is great. And it's original. And by virtue of not relying on a hip aesthetic, his work stays original-looking. The thinking is right, regardless of time.

He began his career in America, moved to England on a whim and stayed for a decade and a half. It was during this time that he built Fletcher/Forbes/Gill which ultimately became Pentagram. He sees much of his success as a byproduct of having been in the right place at the right time. He is one of those designers that seems to leave personal taste out of it. Except of course his personal taste for leaving personal taste out of it. His work is buoyant and playful but witty in a way many try to assume but few manage to. It seems to come easy for him. I sort of doubt he thinks it's easy though. And he thinks a lot. So I've included some of these lucid thoughts on design:

This is an excerpt from his interview of himself for Graphis Magazine (Gill on Gill)

Gill: The only way that graphic designers can hope to compete with the dazzling special effects of music videos, television and films is by going to the other extreme. We have to go to reality... to "unspecial" effects. We have to take a careful look at the real world and, in effect, say to our audience, "Hey! have you ever noticed this before? Even though it wasa right under your nose."
Have you ever noticed that when pictures are removed from a wall, they leave marks? These marks can become a way to communicate that an art gallery has moved. Or the scale in the lower right hand corner of every map can be a fresh logo for a map=making company. The images that we see every day in the real world are just aching to be exploited. The most ordinary image becomes exotic if it turns up in an unexpected environment.
If I have to design an ad for, let's say, a dry cleaner, I don't sit and stare out the window until lightning strikes. I don't thumb through old copies of Graphis for inspiration. I go to a dry cleaner, and I sit there until I have something interesting–or even better–something original to say about dry cleaning. I still don't know exactly how to do this, but that's good. If I had a fool-proof system for making original statements, it would become too much of a routine. And that's boring.

Bob: Where does design come in?
Gill: I don't think about design until I have something to say. And then, I let the statement suggest how it should look. Graphic design, to me, is a process of organizing imagery and/or typography to make statements. A poster with lots of white space and the hottest typeface is neither good nor bad. Good design says exactly what the designer intends. (It could be anything from a dog turd to a glorious sunset.) Bad design is the opposite. (It could be anything from a dog turd to a glorious sunset.) You can't tell if design is good, just by its appearance, unless you know its purpose. That's why I don't think there should be any absolutes in design. Incidentally, I might go to a dry cleaner, even if the job has nothing to do with dry cleaning. Have you ever inhaled naphtha?

And this one from tipoGrafica 59:

Neil Postman, in his brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, points out that when 1984 came, we boasted that the ominous prediction by Orwell in 1984, that we would all be enslaved by Big Brother, never happened. Postman also said that Aldous Huxley's prediction in Brave New World, that "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think," did come true.

It is not Big Brother who's watching you, it's a few super-national mega-corporations.

The culture which they inflict on us, through their virtual monopoly of television, cable, radio, film, theatre, publishing, CD's etc., is designed, almost exclusively, to appeal to the lowest common denominator which, in turn, allows them to sell us the largest amount of stuff. Of course, they allow just enough high culture to sneak through, to show that they are not Philistines.

The Culture gives us preconceptions about what's exciting, what's interesting; and most designers spend their time trying to emulate what's supposed to be hot, what's current, what's trendy.

The Culture tells all of us the same thing.

But just think, if we want to do something the computer can't do, something that's original, how can we rely on what the culture tells us?

The problem is the problem.

How can we extricate ourselves from the mega-corporations' avalanche of white bread?

Assuming that you and your client have agreed upon what is to be communicated, the first step has nothing to do with design. Design has nothing to do with deciding what the problem is. Design has also nothing to do with taking the problem, which is invariably boring, and somehow redefining it, so that it is interesting. That's the second step.

Unless you can begin with an interesting problem, it is unlikely that you will end up with an interesting solution. It is only after you have changed a boring problem into an interesting one that thinking about design makes any sense.

So many designers spend (should I say waste?) their time trying to make un-great ideas look great. Here we see how instrumental a smart designer can be. Instead of filling the world with more pretty clutter, Gill challenges the content and the context to reach a more fulfilling concept.

Thank you Mr. Gill.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Good typography belongs everywhere. And by good, I mean appropriate. And by typography, I mean communications.
If you were to see the side of a garage in a rural area with horribly rendered block-lettering, it would be wrong to think that it is bad. It makes sense. Maybe if it were too sophisticated, it would be jarring.
Bad typography (communication) is generally produced by bad designers, not necessarily by people untrained in design. Good communication, design, art, and production is accomplished by a sound and uncluttered mind.
Being overly self-conscious, or egocentric, or unclear leads to shoddy work. Because this is when the mind loses focus about what it is trying to accomplish.
If you are thinking about yourself, or your career, then you are not thinking about the task at hand. And you will fail. Think only about the thing at hand. Apply all of yourself to what is in front of you, and success is yours.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Style or "No" to Style

I have been reading The Elements of Typographic Style for about six years now. I am constantly reading it. It sometimes reminds me of Borges' Book of Sand -- new pages appear, some are lost for a while, new charts, proportions and insights show up like they've never existed before. And this is a fine way to read it. It is a companion to the designer. In fact, it is a bible. You can pick up anywhere, and find truths, and valuable thoughts on the complexity of design. It reminds you not to ride roughshod through the design process. And mind you, it does not prescribe HOW to design, but how to THINK about design. Because design, unlike fine art, comes with a great deal of responsibility to the audience, and the thing being designed. Mr. Bringhurst...

Typography exists to honor content.

Like oratory, music, dance, calligraphy – like anything that lends its grace to language – typography is an art that can be deliberately misused. It is a craft by which the meanings of a text (or its absence of meaning) can be clarified, honored and shared, or knowingly disguised.
In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn. Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency. Its other traditional goal is durability: not immunity to change, but a clear superiority to fashion. Typography at its best is a visual form of language linking timelessness and time.
One of the principles of durable typography is always legibility: some earned or unearned interest that gives its living energy to the page. It takes various forms and goes by various names, including serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace and joy.
These principles apply, in different ways, to the typography of business cards, instruction sheets and postage stamps, as well as editions of religious scriptures, literary classics and other books that aspire to join their ranks. Within limits, the same principles apply even to stock market reports, airline schedules, milk cartons, classified ads. But laughter, grace and joy, like legibility itself, all feed on meaning, which the writer, the words and the subject, not the typographer, must generally provide.
In 1770, a bill was introduced in the English Parliament with the following provisions:

...all women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgins, maids, widows, that shall ... impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty's subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic wahes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high heeled shoes [or] bolstered hips shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witchcraft ... and ... the marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.

The function of typography, as I understand it, is neither to further the power of witches nor to bolster the defences of those, like this unfortunate parliamentarian, who live in terror of being tempted and deceived. The satisfactions of the craft not from deluding the unwary reader by applying scents, paints and iron stays to empty prose. But humble texts, such as classified ads or the telephone directory, may profit as much as anything else from a good typographical bath and a change of clothes. And many a book, like many a warrior or dancer or priest of either sex, may look well with some paint on its face, or with a bone in its nose.

I intend to include selections from this book regularly to remind us that just as attention to detail is important in good design, attention to every aspect of thinking is vital to our livelihoods. We stay aware to stay in control.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Somewhere, time is being wasted at an ad agency

Often, I post successful design and communication because I like to see what's going right.
I have a particularly strong opinion that design and advertising that has no message is a phenomenal waste of energy.
Sometimes the vernacular of advertising can be used in excessively stupid ways. Here is an example of that.
Since we can assume that this is a spec ad, let's try to decipher what message the originators (whoever they are) were trying to communicate:
A) Smith & Wesson makes great guns.
B) Nothing is sacred anymore.
C) We're a couple of assholes. Yeah, you can close our book now.
D) Maybe this is deeply anti-gun and I'm too dumn to see it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Type Making Sense

In the 15th and 16th century (though it still occurs, but rarely) all books were handset with lead type. One can understand that a printer, who undertook the massive task of setting every single page of a book, by hand, could use a shout-out somewhere. And so a colophon page served this purpose.
The colophon (example at left) is a portion of books which is rarely included these days. One could view it as a prose version of a copyright page. The most comprehensive colophon outlines the typeface, paper and manner of printing used, and the printer or printing house, and publishing house responsible for the book's existence.
I have set type by hand. In fact, I do so with some regularity and I really enjoy it. But having dealt with business cards, greeting cards and various pieces of correspondence, I have only a vague idea of what it would be like to set an entire book.
It takes a special passion. Setting type is a very mechanical undertaking with a final product that is a piece of art. So the process of production requires a person with not only the patience and diligence to get through it, but someone who can evaluate a typographic layout, and adjust it according to an artful eye.
This scan was sent in by Peter Ahlberg, a great designer who I have known for many years. He thought that the last line was really important.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Let me tell you a great story.

Jamie Reid is an extremely important designer. He designed the cover for "God Save the Queen", the pivotal Sex Pistols album from 1977, which was released to coincide with the Queen's Silver Jubilee Celebrations, and was subsequently banned from all airwaves. At the time, it was all seen as a pretty fucked-up thing to do.
In 2001, a panel of English judges (composed of editors and artists) agreed that it was the "best record cover ever produced." Apparently, over the Beatles White Album. The point is, times change, and revolution metamorphoses into art. That's how stuff happens.
So here's what I want to tell you about Jamie Reid. Whether this is true or not, I don't know. But lore is sometimes more powerful than reality.
When Reid was doing the bulk of his punk, DIY work; when he was fighting uniformity; he wrote a manifesto. The first copy of this manifesto was produced on a typer. The next copy was a photocopy of the first. The next, a photocopy of the second, and the ninth, a copy of the eighth. You have gotten the picture. If you have ever played with a photocopying machine (especially an older one), you know that as you copy things, they degrade. So as each copy of this manifesto was produced, it was more and more corroded and destroyed-looking. But then, to wrap it up, he bound it in sandpaper. So as it was shelved, being removed and put back in place, it would destroy the shelf and every book it touched. It corroded the other books. It destroyed the world around it. It had a vicious personality.
And there.
One of the most complete, most satisfying conceptual executions ever created.
That is design at its apex. That is thinking.

Design Excellence Compiled Week 2: 07/04 - 07/11

I had a teacher in college who said that a great ad was something you could describe to a friend at a bar and elicit the same response as the ad itself. This teacher was not Paul Sahre, but Paul designed this book cover for Killing the Buddha - A Heretic's Bible.
A friend told me about it before I ever saw it. It gave me chills then and so it did when I finally saw it myself.
The book is a collection of 13 reinterpretations of bible stories by 13 different writers. They were given "a solo, a single book from the Bible to be remade, revealed, replaced, inverted, perverted, or born again, however the spirit so led them."
The solution for the cover is genius. Paul Sahre is one of the rare individuals who works hard at, and has the talent to, achieve conceptual profundity while maintaining aesthetic excellence.

Christian Helms is really good.
I know him personally and I know he's really good, but if you look at any of his work, you'll know it too (link at left).
I was looking through a Communication Arts annual at Barnes & Noble one day, depressed about being under the fluorescence at B&N, and depressed about the state of design. It happens. Sometimes everything is bad.

Then I came to this poster, read the line, swooned, read the credits, closed the annual, and walked out of B&N.
And THAT'S the power of good design. It makes you FEEL good.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Rdfnng Rdng - rk Spkrmnn

The function of typography is to communicate messages effectively. Erik Spiekermann, a VERY well-regarded designer, communications expert, and pioneer in the field of typography and type design, has created a typeface that reevaluates how we access information.
The typeface, FF Mt, as you will read below in an excerpt from typographica.org, uses some innovative tactics to economize messages, and physicalities such as paper, ink and signage.

"April 1, 2007, Berlin — FSI FontShop International proudly announces FF Mt™, Erik Spiekermann’s most economical typeface ever. Employing obscure but powerful techniques like vwl mmssn and cap reduction, FF Mt uses up to 50% less paper, screen real estate, and wall space than other text faces without a single condensed letter.

The German government has already incorporated FF Mt in their road sign system.

German road signs using FF Mt

Before (left): Inconsistent hierarchy. Is Mönchengladbach less important than Münster or Dortmond? After (right): Clean hierarchy, increased legibility, 15% smaller sign saves costs.

In addition to its conservationist benefits, FF Mt also enables the generation of buzzwords, product names, and Web 2.0 domains as the user types.

FF Mt prepares us for the future. English is changing. With the popularity of MMS and internet chat, spelling reform is occurring at a quickened pace. FF Mt accommodates this new condensed written language now. Any copy set in this advanced font will conform to next-generation standards, yet still pass present-day spell checkers.

FSI FontShop International believes this tool is so revolutionary and beneficial to the Earth that access should not be limited to the few. Starting today, April 1 2007, the cross-platform OpenType font is available for free at FontFont.com."