Friday, 29 September 2017

How to communicate with clarity and elegance

If you think designing is just a nine to five job and then you just switch off this little book isn't for you but if you think that creativity can provide an immense amount of intellectual satisfaction then the Vignelli Canon is certainly worth a read.

The author was Italian born in 1931 and originally studied architecture, a discipline that has fundamental rules and if they are not followed buildings fall down. Nothing so drastic happens if you don't follow some of the basic design rules in these pages, you'll just end up with a dull looking bit of print (and possibly an annoyed client).

His views on design reflect a European perspective and you might think rather radical. This is what he says about pc type:
'The advent of the computer generated the phenomena called desktop publishing. This enabled anyone who could type the freedom of using any available typeface and do any kind of distortion. It was a disaster of mega proportions. The computer allowed anyone to design new typefaces and that became one of the biggest visual pollutions of all time'.
Or this on paper sizes:
'The international standard paper sizes, called the A series, are based on a golden rectangle, the divine proportion. The A4 (210 X 297 mm) is extremely handsome and practical as well. It has been adopted by many countries and is based on the German DIN metric standards. The United States uses a basic letter size (8.5 X 11 inches) of ugly proportions and results in complete chaos with an endless amount of paper sizes. It is a by-product of the culture of free enterprise, competition and waste. (Just another example of the culture of greed, irresponsibly offering more options than needed)'.

The book is divided into two parts: The Intangibles and The Tangibles. The first looks at the theory and intellectual underpinning of design in the broadest sense but also, nicely I thought, how it relates to print. In just thirty-six pages Vignelli manages to sum up some broad concepts that others take a whole book to reveal.

Part two: The Tangibles is a much more practical look at the nuts and bolts of print design. There are some very sensible points made here, especially about typography. Like most professional designers who have been working for decades a limited selection of faces is all that is needed. Vignelli says he can do most jobs with six and certainly no more than twelve. His basic six include: Garamond; Bodoni; Century Expanded; Futura; Times Roman; Helvetica. Basically who needs more than this. Another interesting section in The Tangibles looks at grids. An area that plenty of designers seem unable get to grips with. Vignelli explains their use and shows examples of books and letterheads he's designed. Throughout the book there are plenty of photos and simple graphics to support the text. Most of this material has been produced by his studio.

I enjoyed this book. It's stimulating and thought provoking but it's worth saying that the contents are not a how-to-do-it about design, though it does provide some very specific pointers. Vignelli provides a design scaffolding so that you can complete the structure with elegance and

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Graphic heroes

 The icons series is now a popular format for art book publishers, either as reference for professionals or as this Peachpit title aimed at students. I thought Clifford's book a useful introduction to the history of printed graphics. The choice of who to include (and leave out) is the author's but I doubt that most professionals would disagree with his selection.

Europeans get a worthwhile showing as the originators of good graphics taking in the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau Art Deco and the Bauhaus. These influences shifted across the Atlantic to inspire the American icons in the book. Several short illustrated essays divide the book into sections (and the last one, on the digital era, makes an interesting point about design created on the pc: 'There was a refreshing jolt of youthful experimentation as people moved past the limits of the rational and functional'. To my mind a good explanation of why the pc is responsible for a lot of bad design).

The book's accessible design has each designer starting on a spread with an essay followed examples of work over one or two additional spreads. The author has, in most cases, provided a book title or mixed media available about the person and there is also a useful bibliography of general design books in the back pages.

Overall I thought this was a good introduction to fifty great graphic designers who shaped decades of creativity.

Any big city wild life

I recently reviewed another book by Dougie Wallace (Stags, Hens & Bunnies) about groups of adults enjoying the wild life in Blackpool (a seaside vacation resort in the UK) and my criticism of that apply to this Shoreditch title. The photos are essentially snaps that anyone could have taken and apart from a couple of photos with a London Transport bus (the number eight goes through Shoreditch) these could probably be taken in Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester, cities that equally have a lively working class street culture.

The photos at least have a consistant color feel because they were taken by the same person/camera, always on the prowl for that candid shot. I've read that Wallace could be considered a Glasweegee (he grew up in Glasgow) after Weegee the street snapper who captured the grittyness of Manhattan in the thirties and forties. I feel this is over generous, Weegee concerntrated on capturing street scenes he could sell to the New York tabloids and it was important to get some feel of the location where a crime or accident had occurred. So many of Wallace's photos tend to be close-ups of people.

The book is paperback size and really should have been turned sideways so that the many lanscape photos could be much bigger than the page width here. They all butt together into the book's spine leaving an excessive chunk of white space below them.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Those greatest graphic years

A timely and lavishly illustrated book that fills a gap in American graphic design history. The period is mid-century and the authors explore the work of sixty-three designers whose work reflected the ideals of European modernism. This was based on various creative movements but in particular the Bauhaus, from the thirties and Swiss style in the fifties.

The six page illustrated introduction provides a succinct overview with some interesting observations about typography: Akzidenz Grotesk and Helvetica versus the rest. This is followed by a chapter (ninety-four pages) on eighteen emigres, designers who were born and trained in Europe but moved to America. It's probably this group who are the originators of graphic Modernism and their influence on the US born designers that feature in the 'Homegrown' chapter. Some of these foreign born designers are rightly considered part of the countries design heritage, people like Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, Alexey Brodovitch, Erik Nitsche, Ladislav Sutnar and Massimo Vignelli.

The 205 pages devoted to Homegrown designers interestingly includes some who were not particularly well known but contributed to the Modernist style, for example, John and Mary Condon, Donald and Ann Crews, Charles Goslin, Burton Kramer and Alexander Ross. Most of the names in the chapter are, of course, well known including my favorites Saul Bass, Rudolf de Harak, Lou Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin, John Massey, Reid Miles and Bradbury Thompson, designers, who in fact, influenced my creative output in the decades from 1960.

The design of the book is itself a reflection of Modernism, clean typography and straightforward, elegant page design. Each name starts on the left-hand page with a portrait and a several hundred word essay, the right has work examples and these continue onto the next spread and in some cases another spread, too. There are 765 work examples (in the two designer chapters) all sufficiently big enough to appreciate the design, captions give the date and client and nicely some include background detail about the designer's intentions. The back pages have a comprenhensive bibliography and index.

Anyone who is interested in mid-century graphic design, or who was working creatively through these years, will find this book fascinating and design students should read a copy to understand and appreciate their graphic heritage.