Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Runner's World

Another magazine to look out for if you're a designer with or without any interest in running, Runner's World.

Although the cover is nothing to shout about (it's very busy and, although I'm not an enemy of white backgrounds, it just lacks kapow) when you look through the inner pages, there are usually lots of great infographics that use bright bold colours and some really refined creative work in the main articles. The last image below shows the title design for an article called 'The sum of your parts'. On the same spread, they've created images of bio-mechanical people doing whatever runners do when they're not running. Really interesting stuff – get yourself a copy – you can pretend you're into running and that you're ultra fit.

Friday, 22 February 2013

'Leonardo da Vinci' - Frank Zöllner

Zöllner's 'The Complete Paintings and Drawings', published by Taschen, is one of my favourite books. In fact, it's two books – one for paintings, and one for drawings – and a complete collection of everything that survives from Leonardo's work. There are apparently still lots of codices that are missing, unless they've already been destroyed.

As it's a full collection, everything from the scrappy doodles to the finished paintings is included. Modern exhibitions of his work lead us to believe he was a portrait artist who achieved nothing but perfection. So, it's amazing to see some of the more amateur drawings he produced (which we never find on display) and to notice that so many of his drawings were actually mechanical schematics which were the result of his working for Cesare Borgia and other military leaders.

The only downfall to the books is that they're presented inside a cardboard casing that isn't the best quality. If you look closely at the first image, you can see the vertical lines in the cover – the cardboard texture showing through. Not the best design decision given the price of this otherwise brilliant book.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Hierarchy in design

The idea of hierarchy is a major part of design. It can be 'invisible', just like good typography, which is why inexperienced designers don't always have a good eye for it. Whether its achieved with the layout, the type size, colours or other means, hierarchy always plays a role in design.

I stick to the motto 'if you try to make everything stand out, nothing will stand out' because I've come to realise that people often confuse two separate issues: making text big enough to read, and making text big enough to be seen. Putting a telephone number on an advert, for instance, is not going to make people pick up the phone – it's purely information. It needs to be large enough to be read – and no larger. Whereas, if you had a unique selling proposition to shout about, it makes sense to bump up the type size.

I find that, especially when you're designing an advert for print, you should be able to first make a list of all of the text information in order of most- to least important. The text that's written to grab attention will be at the top: the text that is solely information, will go at the bottom.

The advert below shouts out 'vote yes' but it's unclear where to look next because of the confusion between the two columns – one is left aligned, the other centre aligned, and neither takes charge over the other because the contrast in type sizes is too subtle and the layout is inconsistent. It's an important message that was perhaps weakened by a design that was of a lesser standard that it should have been.

In this advert, right from the beginning the meaningful text struggles against the logo (because a poor decision was taken to add a tag line underneath it that requires the logo to be at least big enough for the tag line to be read). The designer was very reserved in their use of colour but there's a definite case of wanting-everything-to-stand-out-syndrome. The telephone number is some of the largest text on the design – but is it really going to sell holidays?

Ogilvy is the master of adverts that don't shy away from giving readers something to read. The headline is engaging, and the introduction gives you a reason to read the bulk of text that follows it. The visual hierarchy is admittedly simple, but there's no reason to ditch simplicity for 'creativity' when it comes to selling an idea or a product.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Lives of Others & Stasiland

The Lives of Others is a 2006 German-language film about East Berlin during the 80s. It follows a playwright and an actress whose apartment is placed under full surveillance by the Stasi (the then Ministry for State Security). You get a real sense of their rigid and obsessive methods for gathering information about their own people, and Ulrich Mühe does an amazing job in portraying the main Stasi operative. I'd never seen Mühe in anything before, but after watching this, it was no surprise to read how popular he was as an actor – and that he'd had first-hand experience of the Stasi earlier in his life. I couldn't believe it when I read that he had passed away in 2007.

Although there is hardly any graphic design featured in the film, there are plenty of examples of severe minimalism and neutrality - be it in the architecture, the way people speak, the suppression of emotion, the order and discipline. All this makes me think of a visual graphic equivalent, like Jan Tschichold's early work – which he is said to have later described as being akin to fascism because of it's overly strict approach. It isn't something I've considered before – is it realistic to suggest that the obsessive nature of a designer could spill over into society and wreak havoc?

I was interested in learning more about the Stasi and the Berlin Wall, so I got a copy of Stasiland by Anna Funder. The edition featured here is really well designed – only two colours throughout. It is described as a collection of accounts by both victims and members of the Stasi, so I was expecting quite a linear chapter-by-chapter structure but actually the author blends all of the accounts into one long narrative with herself at the centre – as she goes along meeting new people in Berlin. It was interesting to see how many things from the book carried over into The Lives of Others, or vice versa, e.g. how the odd Stasi member might joke about their superiors and the sudden effects that doing so might have on their career.

YouTube, of course, has loads of videos about the Berlin Wall and the prison in East Berlin, and the links will take you to a couple that I recommend. In this video, you'll meet one of the people from Anna Funder's book – her story is totally heartbreaking.

Out of interest, I had a look on Eye Magazine and came across this article and this article, both of which offer a small insight into the design world of the GDR.

The history of the GDR has made me consider the effects of being overly scientific in anything I do – not only design – and that designers must be aware of the world around them, whether they 'like' politics or not. Maybe history shows us that imposing strict order is only healthy for as long as you can indulge in a little chaos along the way.


I read somewhere that you can find some great design in magazines that appeal to a smaller or more specific readership. So, ever since, I've flicked through every magazine I've come across in search of inspiration. It's not always convenient though - standing in Sainsbury's perusing Marie Claire gets me some funny looks.

I didn't find anything in Marie Claire, but I did in Jamie Oliver's magazine 'Jamie'. Could I be right in thinking it's the only magazine ever to have been given a first name as its title? Hmmm.

The way the dots on the masthead are allowed to be sliced off by the top of the page is a nice touch – you probably couldn't do this with whole letters but it's a good idea that you can call upon if ever the ascenders/descenders/dots in a word are getting in the way or using too much space.

The magazine is given a minimal look for the longer articles and then a more scatty layout for pages with lots of little bits of information. I say scatty but I know from experience that getting something to look scatty without looking as if it's just been thrown down is among the tougher jobs in magazine layouts.

Colour is abundant on most pages - maybe to emulate the hodgepodge of hues found in your average dish – and lots of the typography/illustration is rough-and-ready and has a hand-drawn look (reflecting the emphasis on using your hands while you're cooking). Ben Mounsey contributed to the issue featured below.






Wednesday, 6 February 2013

'Graphic Design Theory' - Helen Armstrong

This book is a great record of many of the theories put forward by graphic designers since the early 1900s. It weighs in at 150 pages and features just enough full colour images to avoid monotony.

The design is handled cleverly, given the nature of the content. Quotations run up the left side of the asymmetrical page layouts, probably to allow for a comfortable line length and text size. Mini biographies are set in a cedar brown and, interestingly, the body copy doesn't use a sans-serif. The passage by Herbert Bayer is set without any use of capitals, as a nod to his practice of never using them, but again a serif font is used (not that I'm complaining). Each new section is heralded by a double-page: the left being a full-bleed image, and the right, an introduction on a solid colour background. Also, the inside cover pages (see last image) show an abstract illustration of an eye built up by various symbols, including a representation of Phi, to visualize the book's title – understated but beautiful.

The actual content of the book is, as mentioned, a collection of writings by different designers. Something about the more scientific movements, up to 1940, really resonates with me – work by Jan Tschichold and Josef Muller-Brockmann just seems so timeless. It's the scientific approach that they, and others before them, took to design that appeals to me. The justification of every single design decision – I guess it's what caused one modern-day agency to call itself Why Not Associates, presumably in revolt of that practice (it doesn't say on their website, but I noticed they don't use capitals in the text either).

One thing I did notice about some of the writings from modern designers is the irony that, while they make a living out of visual communication, their written communication is dire. It actually seems to be a past-time for many people in the design world to write bull***t like 'cryptic, poker-faced juxtapositions' when they're trying to make a point. Perhaps they just enjoy writing with an airy-fairy pomposity (as I do, evidently), and have no real desire to persuade their audience of anything. Personally, I was always taught that, even if your vocabulary meets the standard of that of Will Self, if you can't/won't say something in plain language, it's usually not worth saying.

Still, the irritating authors featured within the book shouldn't reflect on the design of the book, which is superb for the reasons I mentioned. I guess it has a bitter-sweet nature for me – bitter in that it gives voice to people whose favourite book is a thesaurus, and sweet because it celebrates some amazing designers from the early half of the 20th century, among others.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Thomas Oliver's design collection

This collection of graphic design, from Thomas Oliver, is a refreshing one – it doesn't feature any of the usual examples of avant-garde design. I liked this post about Karel Teige in particular, who was an artist/designer from Czechoslovakia (now a republic).

The post behind the image below is on Alexander Girard, whose wooden dolls are unlike anything I've ever seen before. Definitely worth a look.

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