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.