I wrote a series of case studies about the nominees for this year’s Prince Philip Designers Prize, a long-standing competition run by the Design Council. You can read these case studies here.
Like most channels of popular culture, graphic design is a scavenger of ideas and material. The visual landscape is crammed full of references pointing in all sorts of directions, often simultaneously.
The same thing happens in pop music, perhaps the ultimate forager of styles. Building on the widespread use of sampling in the 1980s, the borrowing and stealing of material has reached a new level over the past few years with the emergence of mash-ups – a technique in which whole elements of songs are combined and overlaid to create a new, composite track.
Design and music are kith and kin, of course, so it’s no surprise that an analogous trend has bubbled up in graphics, fuelled by the viral interactions of the Internet. A series of design mash-ups has seen the style of one medium combined or overlaid with content from somewhere else. Imagine a film or record title reconceived as a vintage book cover.
It all seems to have started in January, when freelance graphic designer Olly Moss created a Flickr group called Make Something Cool Everyday. On here, Moss posted his designs for classic videogame titles, restyled as if drawn by Saul Bass for 1960s Penguin. Translating each game’s core element into a single graphic illustration, Moss produced a series of six ‘covers’ for titles including Half- Life, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto IV. ‘I went to a Design Museum exhibition which showed some Penguin book designs and thought I’d like to do something with that,’ says Moss. ‘Video games often have this fairly naff design behind them, so I decided to appropriate the great design history of Penguin, but also to rethink the graphic, to come up with a neat way of capturing the game.’
Earlier reworkings of film posters by Moss had already inspired Ohio-based freelance designer Mitch Ansara (aka Spacesick) to create his I Can Read Movies series. Again influenced by Bass, as well as Paul Rand, Ansara posted his ‘vintage movie books’ – one per day – to the same Flickr group. With similar two-colour graphic interpretations of films including Highlander and Face/Off, his book covers sit neatly alongside Moss’s ‘Penguin’ video games.
‘In January, I made a 1960s-style Space Jam book cover as a oneoff joke. But I thought it was a lot of fun, and people seemed to like it, so I continued. Fast-forward a month or so and all kinds of talented folks were doing vintage book covers of all kinds of things: video games, music albums, other books, vintage album covers for movies, vintage breakfast cereal boxes for albums – you name it,’ says Ansara.
The idea of distilling a title into a graphic icon is taken a step further in the Modernist Editions, a series of album-covers-as-pictograms created by Heath Killen, director of Australian design group Illumination Ink. As a reflection on the future of album art, Killen’s approach is not a mash-up and avoids appropriation. ‘Everyday signage is a big inspiration and pictograms in general – everything from road signs to dingbats. But I’m not really interested in pastiche and I like to think that these designs stand up without a reference point,’ he says.
Back in the UK, Littlepixel Design director Huw Gwilliam turned directly to pastiche after seeing Ansara’s I Can Read Movies series. His mash-ups of classic album covers imitate an offset, two- or threecolour print process to reference classic Pelican books, where the original album artwork is overlaid on a dog-eared jacket. ‘I spent a lot of time getting the typography right – a special form of Akzidenz Grotesk – and tried to make it look like it was photoset and distressed,’ he says.
As the meme spread, many similar ‘reimaginings’ have followed, some more accomplished than others. But for Moss the trend has more or less run its course. ‘I feel it would be derivative to work on it any more,’ he says. Nonetheless, just as music evolves through remixing and sampling, other designers will no doubt continue to take from the takers, scavenging, adding and reinventing all the way.
This article was written for Design Week, 28 May 2009.
In 2007’s Helvetica, a feature film daringly organised around the sheer preponderance of one typeface, director Gary Hustwit pointed his lens at an urban landscape that has become dominated by the clean, open shapes of the eponymous sans serif. Among other things, the film showed how Helvetica’s clear, balanced form has become a typographic synonym for the spirit of the times, particularly for global business, confidently expressing modernity, approachability and reliability. As designer Neville Brody explains in the film, ‘Helvetica is a mark of membership; it’s a badge that says we’re part of modern society, we share the same ideals.’
Helvetica (the typeface) may be the standard-bearer, but the qualities of a number of sans serifs have been beloved by many designers (and their clients) for similar reasons/ they are seen as contemporary and clean, and are often boldly graphical. Geometric Futura and humanist Frutiger abound; Verdana and Arial are all over the Web.
‘Some design consultancies – which will remain nameless – are probably at fault for an entire generation of designers going through a phase of using Helvetica for everything – me included. Maybe what designers are starting to consider is the idea of creating something more bespoke and fit for a purpose,’ says Dwayne Lewars, director at design consultancy Blacklabs. He recently found inspiration in local architectural flourishes when designing letterforms for a poster celebrating the character of Blacklabs’ neighbourhood in London’s Soho. Perhaps tiring of the serif-free scenery, some designers are turning more to serif fonts and reframing what a contemporary
typeface might look like. ‘I think there is a tendency for designers to start working with serifs again. People eventually get a bit bored – we’ve had Frutiger and Helvetica and so on everywhere; it creates a barren visual landscape,’ says Bruno Maag, director of type design consultancy Dalton Maag.
Like all elements of visual culture, type is subject to the whims of fashion. Not month-to-month (or even season-to-season) fashion, granted, but a rider on the waves of alternating trends and styles nonetheless. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, serif typefaces such as Didot and Bodoni were perceived (and categorised) as ‘modern’, thanks to the high contrast between the thick and thin elements of their letters. Vogue magazine uses a version of Didot on its masthead, although to contemporary eyes this arguably looks more classic than modern.
In fact, it is in magazine design especially, that typographic elements can be seen denoting and reflecting what’s in fashion, says Freda Sack, director of Foundry Types and president of the International Society of Typographic Designers. ‘I saw serifs coming as a trend about 18 months ago. You’re starting to see it more in magazines and newspapers, particularly the use of slab serifs and modern serifs,’ she says.
Encapsulating this shift nicely is The Guardian’s 2005 repackaging in the Berliner format, which saw the iconic Helvetica headers removed in favour of slab serif font Guardian Egyptian, created especially by Paul Barnes and Christian Schwartz. Sack also cites fashion weekly Grazia as an example of serif fonts being used in a contemporary, bold way (incidentally, Grazia’s editorial design was trumped in the 2006 D&AD Awards by The Guardian’s). ‘People are using serifs now in a much bolder and in-your-face way, even though they are still traditional in some ways,’ she says.
Anticipating more demand for flexible, contemporary serif faces, both Dalton Maag and Foundry Types have just released new designs, Cordale and Foundry Origin, respectively. ‘Our Foundry Form typeface is a sans serif and serif that work together, but we noticed that people were starting to want the serif version more. We’ve also found that, over the past year, people have started asking for Foundry Wilson – which is more classical, like Baskerville – after a period in the wilderness. So Foundry Origin has really come out of a sixth sense that this is a coming thing,’ says Sack.
According to Maag, most contemporary serifs are softer and more humanist in style than their forebears, with slab serifs now being used much more frequently in display and advertising. Sack agrees, saying, ‘Most serif typefaces that are being designed or redesigned now need to be used in different environments and contexts than earlier serifs.’
In a rebranding exercise last year, building society Norwich Union began using the slab serif Clarendon in advertising created by ad agency AMV BBDO. But imminent integration with the Aviva insurance group will see a return to Frutiger, considered a more globally suitable corporate font. ‘People see everything that is geometric and squeezed to a grid as contemporary, and everything with curves as old-fashioned,’ says Maag. ‘But harmonious proportions in shapes are also dead contemporary, depending on how you treat them.’
It should also be said that Adrian Frutiger himself recently worked on a serif version of the classic sans serif Frutiger, released as Frutiger Serif by Linotype only six months ago – further evidence of the return of the serif, perhaps.
This article was written for Design Week, 8 January 2009.
Anyone familiar with the world of typographic design will know that it’s an art form for the obsessive. And the obsession lies, along with the devil, deeply in the detail. Tuning and balancing each element of each character in a set – their ascenders and descenders, shoulders and spines – is not for the faint-hearted. Add to the bargain the likely demand for multiple language support and the task of creating a harmonious set of letterforms is, to the outsider at least, somewhat daunting.
It’s a frustration, then, that despite the sterling efforts of type designers to control every detail of a font set, proliferating publishing platforms still lack a standard system to determine how characters will be displayed on screen. PCs, Macs, web browsers, PDAs, mobile phones – the list goes on – all carry type that publishers need to be reproduced to the highest possible standard of legibility and design. But huge variations in font size, reading environments and users mean that achieving top quality and consistency across platforms can be a challenge. To make matters more complicated, the way that a character’s original outline shape is converted into pixels for display on a screen is determined by software called a rasterizer – and, you guessed it, different systems use different rasterisers.
‘There isn’t a single decent, proper display standard that takes advantage of all the good technologies which are emerging, and the majority of fonts are not designed to be optimum on all platforms. This means that you end up with a narrower set of available fonts at the highest quality,’ explains Bruno Maag, director of type design studio Dalton Maag.
When it comes to displaying fonts on a screen, the art (and difficulties) lie in the process of hinting: a set of instructions from the designer which tell a font how to behave at various sizes. If a system can’t read these instructions, then it might ‘auto-hint’ the letters. But with the devil in the detail, this doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal legibility. ‘Auto-hinting takes care of the worst case of display problems, but for high quality publishing fonts need to be hinted by hand for all the display types they’ll be used on, which can be costly,’ explains Maag.
Research Studios designer Luke Prowse, designer of The Times newspaper’s headline font Times Modern, believes that the degree of control over type is set by the commitment of the client. ‘Specific use requires specific modification of the base brand style. But like anything, it depends on timeframes, cost and how responsible the client is. The Guardian is an example where the type family works across all the paper’s requirements – headlines, body text, race results and so on.’
Towards the end of last year, the picture arguably became even more complicated with the US launch of the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle eBook readers. Using ‘electronic paper’ and a display technology developed by eInk, these handheld screens claim to deliver an experience akin to reading from paper, coupled with the benefits of digital storage. eInk itself is tiny black and white ink particles, charged negatively and positively and embedded in the screen ‘paper’. An electric current then causes black or white particles to rise to the top and display on screen as characters. Although purportedly more pleasant to read, eInk particles still function as pixels, meaning the letterforms are determined by a particular rasterizer.
But with newspapers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal already delivering eBook editions alongside newsprint and online versions, it’s clear that publishers should consider the complexities of porting typography across platforms. And it’s not just publishers: BMW wanted to take its Dalton Maag-designed typeface into the car’s interior screens, but found that the Freetype rasterizer it uses cannot read the hinting instructions without an extra licence from Apple, which has patented certain processes. Complexities and proprietary squabbles abound.
So what to do? Allan Haley, director of words and letters at Monotype Imaging, sounds a final word of caution when it comes to the myriad platforms. Type designers, he says, should focus on the requirements of the typeface, rather than its display process. ‘If you design for a particular technology, the technology will change and your design will have problems in the future. The best thing you can do is create the best design for the [client’s] application and then the technology will make it perform.’
This article was written for Design Week, 7 February 2008.