Ask a designer what pays their rent and they’ll probably say ‘creativity’. An ability to come at problems from unusual angles – to ‘think outside the box’ as management speak would have it – is bread and butter for a good design consultancy. Yet, for all the mould-breaking work produced each year, there are also vast quantities of material – all designed by somebody, somewhere – which fall squarely into the generic styles and conventions of a genre. When did you last see an application form that could be described as beautiful? And how many university prospectuses have you seen all featuring photographs of happy, smiling students?
Often the formats of a particular subject matter are there for a reason. Instructions and information, for example, need to be clear and legible, not buried in giddy graphics. But sometimes there are opportunities to shunt the category away from its conventions, not necessarily to perform a design revolution, but to reframe and rethink how something works.
‘We always think through a project very carefully, so we don’t use any superfluous elements,’ says Ewan Robertson, one half of graphic design duo Oscar & Ewan. ‘If the standard is flawed and can be improved, we try to push it. Where the standard works, we keep it.’
Robertson’s branding work for Dalston art gallery Terrace Studios provides a good example of subtle reinvention. The gallery’s exhibition proposal document – essentially an application form for people to propose future shows – is treated as a typographic showpiece, its bold letters printed on a transparent sheet overlaying the form’s pastel yellow paper stock. As forms go, it is wonderfully elegant. ‘They could have just stuck the logo at the top and done the rest in-house, but this looks more professional and has impact,’ says Robertson.
Returning to the college prospectus, Manchester consultancy Love’s designs for three University of the Arts London institutions move wilfully away from the norm. Dispensing with the ‘mandatory’ smiling students and smug quotes, Wimbledon College of Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design and Camberwell College of Arts instead offer printed portfolios of their students’ work. In the world of prospectuses, the booklets certainly stand out. ‘Format is part of the big idea and re-addressing the format in the case of the prospectuses came from the idea of ‘revealing’ or ‘exposing’ the true colours of the colleges and getting rid of the glossy, clichéd prospectus cover, both literally and in approach to the books as a whole – content and design,’ explains Love designer Gré Hale.
Similarly, a project by arts group Metal that engaged secondary school students in the regeneration of their towns – in Harwich, Harlow and Southend-on-Sea – required a report on their findings to be delivered to key stakeholders. Leeds consultancy Thompson Brand Partners designed a series of ‘guidebooks’ that present the students’ findings in vibrant ‘wipe clean’ coloured vinyl. ‘Often the physical output from this type of project just doesn’t reflect the ambition and fulfilment of the work, so by taking a different approach it becomes a source of pride to the students. It works well on the stakeholder and funding front too, in a way that an A4 printed report just wouldn’t,’ says Thompson partner Phil Dean.
A new view on an old print format might come as much from the way the content is generated as from a graphic designer’s input. The Urban Cookbook, for example, is a new, hybrid title from author, film director and culture vulture King Adz. He has scoured the streets of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities to concoct a series of street food recipes, all presented among snapshots of the cities’ movers and shakers in urban culture. The book lies somewhere between recipe guide, art showcase, travel chronicle and interview collection.
Designed in-house by its publisher, Thames & Hudson, The Urban Cookbook presented something of a challenge to designer Sam Clark. ‘It took an awfully long time to organise it into a cohesive book,’ he says. ‘There are about four elements in there, and it’s hard to get a handle on it – is it a cookbook, a street book, an art book? The result is quite a complex structure, although it looks simple.’
Clark notes that most cookbooks present their recipes as paragraphs of text, but was aware that this might appear daunting to the type of reader likely to pick up The Urban Cookbook. So the recipes are organised instead into a series of very simple, short bullet-point instructions, with text hand-tracked throughout to give the title a distinctive feel. ‘I wanted to get away from it being a cookbook or a street book. It’s “its own thing”,’ says Clark.
Breaking the rules can have many benefits, from commercial stand-out among competitors to simply looking at a subject with fresh eyes. ‘Deciding to break the format of the norm isn’t something that just happens, it relies on a core thought,’ says Hale. ‘It’s about being inspired to look at an object differently as a whole.’
This article was written for Design Week, 23 October 2008.