01 November 2010

Tales from the flat file II: back into hell

Cleaning up my office today, and ran across some of the greatest hits of yesterday...





24 September 2010

Matthew Carter, et moi?

Tonight, I'll be at the Cambridge Public Library, as AIGA Boston honors Matthew Carter with its Fellow Award. Sometime back in June, thirteen Boston-based designers (including yours truly) were each invited by AIGA Boston to design a different letter from Mr. Carter's name, in poster form, to honor his new status as AIGA Fellow. I was honored to be included in this group, and to have the chance to celebrate a design icon whose work I have long admired. If you've ever had a chance to hear Carter speak, you know he's a real designer's designer—thoughtful, witty and humble—which are certainly qualities to be admired, and inspired by.

I was randomly assigned "T" (high probability of that—there being three of those in MATTHEW CARTER!), and ended up with a design that references Carter's noted range of experience in designing letterforms for every (with the exception of wood type, I guess) method of typesetting. I also wanted to merge the traditional/classical and cutting-edge/digital qualities of his range of typefaces somehow, and talk about his knack for reconciling those two worlds—every typeface he creates is made first and foremost to serve both the end user and a specific technical application, while still preserving some essential traits that make each letter—unmistakably—what it is. As a framework, I imposed forms from Carter's Bell Centennial on a classical, humanist construction of the letter T (or was it the other way around?). An abstraction of a piece of hot metal type, in profile—among other things—grew out of that . . . Anyway, here it is:

 

Here's a few more from the series, by (clockwise from top left) Stoltze Design and Randal Thurston, Fritz Klaetke, Adam Larson, and Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell:

 

In the course of working on the poster, I also had occasion to exchange a couple of e-mails with Chris Pullman, who was directing this poster-palooza—a 2-for-1 brush with greatness!

The posters (17" x 22") were printed in editions of five on an archival-quality inkjet by Singer Editions, and will be on the block at tonight's ceremony in a silent auction to benefit AIGA Boston. If you're attending, you'll also get to hear presentations by David Berlow, Cyrus Highsmith, and Tobias Frere-Jones. More info about the event, and thumbnails of all of the posters in the series (good company, in my opinion) are here.

13 September 2010

Octobucks, or: Krakens will be Krakens

Here's an illustration I recently completed for the September/October issue of Boston Review:


This issue is the first to be housed in a brilliant new redesign by my friends George Restrepo and Lisa Diercks. For a few years now (since 2006), George and I have been collaborating on covers for the Review's books. That gig grew out of his long-standing role as the designer of their magazine covers, which have won their share of design awards.

I had heard that a major overhaul of the Review was in the works, and when I found out George and Lisa were taking it on AND wanted me to do an illustration for the issue's Forum article, I said hell, yeah! Illustrations are not my usual thing, of course, but it's good to spread your wings (or tentacles?) now and then, right?

The first link in this post goes directly to the article—an interesting take on "institutional corruption" in U.S. government. That's corruption of the government as a system, mind you, not corruption of individuals within that system. A difficult concept to interpret visually, but it was the author's somewhat eloquent version of the tip-of-the-iceberg metaphor that helped me conjure the above image.


We experimented with more than a few heads for the many-armed beast. All were misleading, in the way that they seemed to assign the corruption to one group or influence over another. In the end, we decided to just let a Kraken be a Kraken. George sort of informally christened the concept "Octobucks", and that was that.

Here's how the piece looks in situ, as the opening spread for the Forum piece. I'm also showing George and Lisa's layout for the Editor's Note, which includes a companion spot illo:


05 August 2010

Tales from the flat file

Continuing my trip down memory lane, here are a few moldy-oldies I dug up recently and scanned. All from the early half of the past decade—some with spines, some without...





02 August 2010

teenage kicks—and sit-ups, and leg-lifts



I found my wife Jennifer paging through one of my sample copies of Punk Rock Aerobics recently (more on why later), and I got to thinking about what a fun book it was to design...one of those projects that are one of a kind. At first glance, it might look like a joke—a National Lampoons-style situational goof or something—but this was a real exercise book for those of us anti-establishment types that brought notes from the school nurse to gym class, instead of sweatpants.


Punk Rock Aerobics—the movement—was the brainchild of Maura Jasper and Hilken Mancini, who are veterans of the Boston music scene. Wanting to get in shape, but not wanting anything to do with gym membership, tan-in-a-can spandex-wearing step or spin gurus and their equally synthetic soundtracks, the girls decided to become certified aerobics instructors, so they could bring their own punk-inspired classes to the masses. Prior to inking their book deal with Da Capo in 2004, they had been profiled in local and national media, and had been teaching their exercise classes at the legendary Middle East, and had even taken their show on the road to CBGB, among other places.


The challenge for me was to design a book that would be punk-derived and flyer-inspired, but also informative, instructional, and demonstrative, like a real exercise book—so, in other words, information design in ripped jeans and black lipstick.



One of the most important components were the step-by-step photographs, which were made in an exhausting 3-day shoot by Liz Linder, who has since become a great friend and collaborator on several other projects. Everyone on the shoot contributed, worked hard, and most importantly had a lot of fun (I mean, how could you not, really?).

In the end, the book wasn't a best-seller or anything, but that's not how a designer should measure success. For us, the reward is in the end-product, yes, but the bigger reward is often in the process. Adrian Shaughnessy, in How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, advises designers (and I'm either paraphrasing, or making this up—because I can't, for the life of me, find the exact passage in either that book or his other great book Graphic Design: A User's Manual, but this fairly summarizes a portion of his good advice) only to work on projects that possess or produce two out of three components: 1. Good People, 2. Good Work, 3. Good Pay. I have always found this to be true. Any project that has only one of these features simply won't be fulfilling. You can deal with an asshole client if he's paying you through the nose to produce award-winning work. You can probably suffer through creating something totally out-of-character and basically unremarkable for a client who is a sweetheart if it also means keeping the lights on for another month. Finally, collaborating with an awesome client to create something truly brilliant will allow you deal with the fact that little-to-no money is involved.


In the case of Punk Rock Aerobics, it was definitely the first two conditions that were present and accounted for: good people and good—I think, at least—work (fun is good, right?). Liz probably took way to many photos for what she was paid, and I stole way too much time (on my publishing salary, no less) from other projects to art direct and design a book seen as having limited potential by the publisher. And everyone else involved, including musicians who came in to demonstrate moves for the camera (like J Mascis—pictured below, on the verso side—of Dinosaur Junior) gave freely of themselves.


The best part of projects with no budget and low expectations is that they are also typically rounded out with zero supervision. This allows a designer to editorialize, take ownership over the project, etc. AND to accept, when the authors ask you to appear as yourself in a "geek-to-freak" makeover sidebar (I guess they took me for some sort of nerd—wha?)!


Now when I said I found my wife "paging through", I meant that she was looking for this page in particular—she thinks it's cute (awww!), and that alone is worth way more than all the design awards this book never won!

09 June 2010

overdue book review / Graphic Forms

In January, 1949 The Bookbuilders of Boston and Harvard University Press presented a series of lectures on "The Arts As Related to the Book". The list of speakers reads like a who's who of post-war book design, including W.A. Dwiggins, Paul Rand, Donald Klopfer (co-founder of Random House), Edna and Peter Beilenson (founders of the Peter Pauper Press), and Merle Armitage (book designer and Art Director for Look Magazine), among others. Later that same year, HUP published a collection of written versions of all the talks in Graphic Forms.


I first discovered the book while working for Michaela Sullivan in Houghton Mifflin's trade art department back in 1998-9. Being my first job, there was plenty for me to learn, and arguably no better place to study than at a house where the presses had been running for over 150 years. For me, a simple walk through the halls to perform some errand or another had the potential to be an education in itself. Framed correspondence from Emerson on a wall here, a storied piece of furniture rescued from the old Park Street offices there, etc. My favorite resource was a sort of art department "library" that housed a jumble of treasures including type specimens from defunct Boston foundries, Dover clip-art, out-dated Pocket Pals and other printing handbooks, AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers catalogs dating back to who-knows-when, old typography manuals, Letraset and photo type catalogs, copies of U&lc from the 70s—you get the idea.

It was in this randomized collection of design documents and that I found a copy of Graphic Forms: The Arts As Related To the Book. I was struck at once by the title—Graphic Forms—it seemed to set a decidedly theoretical tone, given the obvious vintage of the book. I had just come from art school, where a book was revered as the ultimate form of graphic design—a pure, physical manifestation of form following content—and book design (as a practice) viewed as one of the more noble pursuits one could embark on as a young designer. So, for me, the title was right in line with the potential books have to be graphic design, incarnate.


This book—as an object—also just seemed like a cool thing. For me, it embodied the 20th century American style(s) that I had already come to love: new—and sometimes quirky—takes on classicism (Dwiggins, Goudy), and less severe (more humane and fun) modernism (Rand, Lustig). It was like holding a time capsule in my hands—better yet, a time machine that could take me back to a few evenings in 1949, where I could pick the brains of legendary designers in an intimate setting.

Before leaving Houghton for good, I photocopied a few of the articles (the names I recognized at the time—Dwiggins, Rand, Armitage), and read them on the train. And then I filed the discovery neatly away in the section of my memory labeled "cool things I have seen."


A couple of years ago, in the midst of cleaning my office, I unearthed these very same photocopies and was reminded of how special, exclusive and obscure this "find" seemed to me at the time, and what it represented as both as a document and an object. Unlike 1998, 2008 afforded me a small amount of disposable income, along with far more fruitful internet searches—so I looked it up, and found a copy of my own on Alibris, which is the one pictured here. The copy I saw at Houghton didn't have a dust jacket—this one does (bonus)!


The essays offer a fascinating snapshot of mid-century book design. And even while some of the technological and cultural references can't help but date the material, many of the questions posed and issues grappled with still seem relevant today. I am encouraged by this feeling of currency in much of the writing—if we're still considering similar issues some 60 years later, maybe the printed book isn't dying so quick a death after all? Here's a sampling:

"Today's obsession with speed and quantity has profoundly influenced the ways in which we think and feel. Mass production and mass communication, with their characteristic standardized thoughts and vision, have overworked ideas, making of them exhausted stereotypes.... The words design and function are prominent in our daily vocabulary.... Has the term functional design escaped the fate of other repeated terms? Battles are still fought, and the last skirmishes under the banner 'form follows function' are still with us; but there is reason for believing that the underlying thought has lost its living strength."
—from Function in Modern Design by György Kepes

"I have been given the assignment of discussing 'function' in connection with the design of trade edition books. But it requires to be said that mu knowledge of trade edition books isn't quite as extensive as it might seem, for the reason that practically all my trade edition books have been made for a publisher who is liberal enough in his attitude toward sales to leave me alone, [that publisher was Alfred A. Knopf—A.] so I haven't been faced by the need to solve one part of the problem, that is, the part concerned with making a "package" that would be sure fire with the customer. For there are two parts to the question of function in trade edition book design...one element asks for an article to be used...the other element demands a sales "package"—an object to catch the customer's eye and persuade him to buy.... And, though you may not be willing to believe it, those two demands do not usually combine to make the best kind of product for either use or sales."
—from Trade Book Design by W. A. Dwiggins

"Many of us who love the book are greatly troubled. But we are not without hope as we face the fact that the contemporary book is in danger, perhaps the greatest danger it has ever encountered. The book, as we know it, has lost its direction, its leadership. It faces new and potent rivals for its place as the king of all media and communication."
—from The New Forms—and Books by Merle Armitage


Graphic Forms is also pleasing as an object: A 6" x 9-1/4" 8vo Designed by Burton J. Jones, The 3-piece case has boards covered in greenish-gray cloth and a black spine stamped with gold foil. The title is stamped in black pigment on the front of the case. Printed on uncoated stock, the 2-color jacket matches the case colors, and functions as an understated (but not too understated) set-up for the proportions found in the text layout. The head of the book block sports a black tint, which is offset nicely with a white headband. The text is set in Dwiggins's Caledonia and the design represents what I believe are some of the best qualities of book design in the years following World War II: classic proportions (page division based on the golden mean), the sensitive use of a typeface cut specifically for machine setting (in this case, Linotype), and the use of quiet but definite typographic contrasts—a sort of lively, warm modernism.





At the moment, between Alibris and Amazon there are 4-5 copies out there for anybody wanting one of their own. You can also read Rand's essay Black in the Visual Arts from Graphic Forms here.

01 December 2009

GOD: What's the Big Idea?


My most recent foray into the rapidly expanding or—depending on your perspective—overly saturated god-or-no-god book market has made me aware of a trend (or a tendency, maybe), in cover designs for this genre. I get the sense that if the word "god" is in the title, you either go big—or go to hell, I suppose.

Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God was a late addition to the Fall 2009 list at Da Capo, and I must confess that I didn't fully research the covers of many competing titles before rushing to work on the design. Perhaps I was feeling holier-than-thou or something after achieving happy results with my last god-thought cover, The Portable Atheist .

I was reminded of the cost of working in a vacuum  when, after sending the design to the author, the editor pointed out some obvious similarities between my design (on the left) and the cover for the (at the time) forthcoming The Evolution of God (a nice design by Keith Hayes). When I (finally) looked around, I found that—more often than not—Jehovah gets jammed in our faces on books about the big guy, at an average of 120 point display or more. Here's a few examples:



What is it about the word (the idea, really of) GOD that makes us act like we're designing billboards for a political candidate, or the cover of some diet manifesto? Maybe the word inspires an American brand of graphic respect: bigger = more badass. After all, god is big. S/he can be threatening (old testament), omnipresent (new testament), and—according to most associated belief systems (which do not necessarily reflect the belief system of this blog), the ultimate designer! Most importantly, GOD usually blesses publishers with BIG book sales—and is therefore truly miraculous!

But do all these big, bold, grotesque and gothic typo-manifestations represent intelligent design (forgive me)? Going big when it comes to god seems to be a given, but it can't be the best solution. For all the books that the contemporary school of god-or-no-god thought has sent forth to multiply, we still don't seem to be able to deal with god as a concept. All we cover designers know is that s/he's important, all-caps, and really big. And sometimes condensed. In order to be bigger.


One exception to all of the towering, godly type in this genre is the cover for God Is Not Great, designed by Anne Twomey . The hierarchy is intentionally reversed, making "god" the most diminutive word in the title (and it's even lacking an initial cap—blasphemy!). When you consider this book's message, and what the holy spirit seems to trigger in all of us other designers, you can't help but appreciate the cover even more. It succeeds for standing in contrast—as a natural reaction—to the other covers in the genre, a nice graphic counter-point which successfully functions as an interpretation of the book itself.

In the end, the author and publisher liked my original design for Patience With God enough to approve it, in spite of the near-identical publishing schedule of The Evolution of God. I'm happy with the design (if a little deflated); the author, editor and—more importantly—my boss (who is not, incidentally, a Jewish carpenter) are all happy with it. The only downside is that I've basically damned myself to a cliché purgatory, guilty of super-sizing the lord's name in vain—at least I'm not the only born sinner to do so.