Friday, 7 January 2011

Illustration on the doorstep

Aubrey Beardsley, Arbuscula, proof copy from the Leonard Smithers Collection, 1898. (University of Leeds Special Collections)

The exhibition over at the University of Leeds’ Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, ‘Fancy and Imagination’ profiles book illustration in England at the turn of the last century. It is well worth a visit. Although centred on Beardsley’s style and his grotesque erotica, other less well known illustrators are also on display with good examples of the actual books. I was interested in particular in William Morris’s vision of the integrity of book binding, design, type-setting and illustration which is clearly in evidence as they have several examples of embossed book covers, bindings and actual pages as well as the illustrations themselves.
One other issue that is of continuing interest is the integration of contemporary technologies with older formats. This is something every designer and illustrator has to contend with and is of particular relevance today. The late 19th century innovations in photomechanical methods of reproduction were integrated with traditional techniques such as woodblock engraving. Line block work could be positioned alongside woodblocks on a letterpress bed and locked together with both metal and wood type. The techniques of relief printing could also be harnessed in cover embossing and there are several beautiful examples of embossed covers on display in the exhibition.

The illustrated quarterly, such as the Yellow Book, could be seen as an early example of zine type formats, again the integration of illustration and text being vital to the ‘feel’ and the signification that this was at the time new, raw and vital.

Thinking of raw and vital images from the same time of these book illustrations, I saw an example of the suffragette penny recently. Stamped over a 1903 penny, the words ‘Votes for Women’ still resonate through time. The idea still comes through almost as powerfully as it must have done at then, the ringing hammer blows of the maker as she stamped each letter right across the copper face of the then king, reverberate and chime with more contemporary concerns with subvertising and the use of banknotes to signify ideas.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dymo Tapes

Just before Christmas I was wondering around Smiths doing some last minute shopping and came across Dymo tapes and the little handset used to punch them out. They have now been re-packaged for children, but they are still basically the same as the ones used for Punk graphics in the 1980s.

Dymo tape machine

Strange how typefaces move around in public consciousness. Dymo embossed tape lettering became common during the 1970s and was ubiquitous as a workshop/work based information tool. Its raised surface meant that lettering stayed legible longer and the plastic tape was hard to destroy when touching surfaces with dirty greasy hands. The simple colour offer; black, red, yellow, blue and green was used to provide a basic easy to read coding that could be positioned on the edge of storage bays or around the various dials or switches of an appliance.

By the end of the 70s the tape had become synonymous with manual work. It was also used by non designers (especially by those who worked in industries where a knocked off Dymo might be available) as a lettering tool and you can often find examples in old photo albums or other home based image systems that needed labels.

Then in the early 1980s along came punk graphics and Dymo tape lettering became a symbol for working class revolt and the typeface found its way into the world of the graphic designer.

It was soon overused and dropped out of sight; in the industrial world Dymo all but replacing it with non embossed printed lettering machines.
But now it’s back and being put to use by children and because of its new positioning some, (for me at least) weird associations are being made. In particular this Christmas card. The incompatibility of typefaces creating a meaning that is rooted in classic post-modernist kitsch.

Kitsch is a form of art or design that is considered an inferior, tasteless copy of an extant style or a worthless imitation of art or design of recognised value. The concept is associated with the deliberate use of elements that may be thought of as cultural icons while making cheap mass-produced objects that are unoriginal. Kitsch also refers to the types of art or design that are aesthetically deficient and that make creative gestures which merely imitate the superficial appearances of art or design through repeated conventions and formulae.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Coming up for air. Drowning in Baudrillard.

Image above taken from the Matrix.

The problem with Baudrillard is that the proliferation of simulacra gives us nothing to grasp, no reality with which to forge weapons that can be used to fight back against the prevailing conditions of consumerism. However Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus find a way to think about levels of representation rather than simulations. Thus a double becoming looks towards the growth of potential. By combining ideas that are embedded within the representations that surround us, we can start to create anchor points. Then, Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of rhizomatic connections can be envisioned as a sort of flexible underlying grid, each intellectual move taking up another position on the grid that had not previously been used. These then become the lever points for new fables and stories created from unforeseen amalgamations of potential. (This could be seen as a type of philosophical big bang). From these new positions of leverage you can then fight back against Capitalism’s simulacra and overturn simulation with representation. Deleuze and Guattari state that this resistance is a collective project and locally the rise of new cooperatives such as the Leeds Creative Time-bank could be the type of organization from within which these changes might happen. Eventually these working bodies of self-supporting groups of connected individuals may inject themselves into the body of Capitalism as antibodies designed to eliminate and protect us against false consciousness.
What Deleuze and Guattari offer is a theoretical standpoint capable of re-reading Baudrillard's hapless world of illusion as a type of metamorphosis that offers up a range of leverage points for change. Set against the cynicism of postmodern ethics a new moral landscape emerges of hope and new possibilities. As artists and designers we can combine our talents and seek to re-touch the real through making and constructing our own narratives of representation. In the world of the Matrix it is interesting to see that the hollow book that represents simulacra and simulacrum is handmade with a green cloth binding with its title in embossed type. The prop no doubt made by an expert craftsperson. This craft is of course linked to the crafts of camera work, editing, special effects creation and all the other skills required by the community of film-makers. Debates in seminars have suggested to me that our ethical and moral world is one that needs rebuilding and perhaps one avenue we can take as artists and designers is to do this collectively alongside the collective sharing of our individual crafts. Is this perhaps a move towards a new type of guild system?

Friday, 3 December 2010

Conflict resolution and metaphor

The images of H block point out just how emotively powerful a simple letter can be. However typography can also be used to resolve conflict as well as being able to identify it.
Metaphor is not just a rhetoric trope. It achieves its effects via association, comparison or resemblance and the concept of understanding one thing in terms of another is very powerful. One area that this has been used is in conflict resolution. The diagram below is part of a conversation with an IRA prisoner in one of the H blocks Her Majesty’s Prison Maze.

Each line is numbered so that it can be recorded and easily retrieved. The numbering acts as a spine and the other person in the conversation has their speech set out to the left of the numerical column.
As a conversation evolves the task of the observer (this could be a computer analysing the data) is to highlight the way that metaphors become common to the two speakers.
Lynne J Cameron and Juurd H. Stelma’s paper 'Metaphor Clusters in Discourse' can be found in the Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol 1, No 2 (2004)

The article points out that they have developed software to examine the clustering of metaphors as they occur but the reality is that they are not a graphic designers and therefore the images created by the software lack clarity and have no sense of how typography can be used to represent voice.
If only a good type designer had been taken on board. This could have been resolved either in moving type by using ideas similar to: Where’s my money? or Who’s on First? or Pirates of the Caribbean text

Or the problem could have been solved using static type in a traditional way and thinking about the grid, typeface, size and colour as ways to structure and point out relationships as metaphors cluster.
The point for me is that this is a really useful tool and that a good typographer could make it even more useful. Lynne J Cameron teaches at the University of Leeds, perhaps someone should contact her and suggest that they could use the services of a good typographer.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Thoughts on Communication Theory

Frame from the film: High on Hope

The interesting thing about communication is that it is a process by which we assign and convey meaning in an attempt to create a shared understanding. It requires both intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and it is through communication that we can develop collaboration and cooperation. As an old fashioned Socialist I strongly believe in communication as being at the core of all political activity and a lack of communication is usually at the core of organisational dysfunctionality and poor politics.
As Graphic Students you specialise in Visual communication or communication using visual aids. We presume that a visual message with text has a greater power to inform, educate or persuade a person than the written language on its own. I.e. it is a synchronistic concept, whereby two forms of communication come together in order to achieve a more powerful effect. In The Mind in the Cave by Lewis Williams (essential reading) it is pointed out that sound, vision, dance and touch were all used to convey shamanistic messages to the tribe. Perhaps the rave is the clearest modern format for this. The film/music documentary ‘High On Hope’ which commemorates the 20th anniversary of acid house, telling the story of the infamous ‘Hardcore Uproar’ warehouse parties in Blackburn in the late nineteen eighties is a good illustration of this. Over 10,000 people dancing in cavernous warehouses across the north-west every week was the nearest to a Shamanistic experience I think we could get.
You could say that one implication of communication theory is that evaluation of a good visual design/communication can be done by measuring the comprehension by its audience, not by aesthetic or artistic preference. In this case the problem in terms of communication theory is that if the people evaluating the design are themselves design professionals they are too 'attuned' to design to be aware of how a non designer would receive the communication.
However it is the old history of rhetoric that really interests me. It is strange and wonderful and as it covers memory training, body language, voice projection as well as the well known 'rhetoric tropes'. It is indeed a deep river to fish. (To use the rhetoric trope 'metaphor'.)
A key book is the 'Art of Memory' by Yates. For designers this book can be an entry into a way of thinking of design as a memory tool or navigation theory for web design.

An image from Digital “Computers” 1450-1750: Memory and Calculating on the Fingers and Hands

Friday, 19 November 2010

Thoughts on Helvetica

Above: Univers

Above: Helvetica

I was talking to the designer Will Holder this week and the old chestnut about Helvetica’s popularity came up. Will works as a book designer/typographer and is mainly based in Holland, but also does a lot of work in Germany. He is very interested in how the sound of languages can influence type. He is also really into poetry and we had a fascinating discussion on American poets and how their voices are materialised in verse. In particular the ‘sound’ of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings.
For some reason we started talking about Futura and that without it we wouldn’t have Frutiger’s Univers and this brought us to Helvetica. It has often been said that Helvetica was drawn by an idealist and that Univers was drawn by a type designer, but there is something that links the two and that is that besides the fact the fonts were designed in the 1950s, both designers were Swiss and the Swiss have to cope with three national languages; German, Italian and French.
Helvetica could be seen as a cleaning up of a Grotesque typeface from the 19th century and it is this ‘sanitisation’ that interested me. Is it in fact to do with the ‘voice in the head’ that all fonts give us? Futura is in effect still German, even though it is trying to be modern, its weight and tone is still Blackletter and above all the designer ‘sounded’ the text that would be set in Futura in German. I think this is why Helvetica is used more than Univers and why Univers is liked by typographers more than designers. It could be that Frutiger was consciously ‘designing’ Univers with that Futura German voice in his head and that Helvetica is truly Swiss and is ‘sounded’ across all three languages and is therefore in effect ‘polyglot’. The fact that Helvetica’s designer Miedinger used to be a customer counsellor for the Globus department store and typeface sales representative perhaps meaning that his ‘voice in the head’ was more user friendly or more like ‘Esperanto’ that failed aspiration of a common language.
Helvetica is very ‘one size fits all’. Most of the individual letters when laid on top of each other can be seen to be basically the same width and proportion. In Univers you have far more adjustment of width and stroke. Apertures are designed to be read as if you are organically adjusting a relationship rather than closing one form off from another. Univers uses classic roman proportions; and Helvetica relies on a basic consistency of proportion that runs throughout the typeface. Univers is also spaced for text, which means you can use it in small sizes, which I would say is Helvetica’s great weakness.
However perhaps Helvetica is the real Esperanto for our time.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

McSweeny’s politics and format

Typical McSweeney's cover design. A threequarters wraparound.

An example of using three wrap around bands for one cover.

The last two lectures have been about how sight itself can be used as a structuring device that can change the way we react to the world. Both lectures have looked at the gaze (the institutional gaze, Foucault, Bentham etc) where you were introduced to how the disciplining power of looking can shape behaviour and the psychoanalytic gaze which is more interpersonal, and about the power relationship between genders. Both these ways of thinking however link visual structures to forms of control.
I have been looking at McSweeney’s recently. The Dave Eggars’ led publication. The relationship between the formats of visual structures is something Eggars is always pushing the boundaries of and it is possible to think about how the subverting of visual structures can be linked to the way we think about power relationships.
You could think about the designer / audience /user relationship as being a power model. The accepted conventions of print based layout (the grid etc) and format (magazines/catalogues/pamphlets etc) being the equivalent to the existing dominant social forms (late Capitalism/consumerism etc)
However if we want to suggest a break with existing norms, such as perhaps the ‘making of a new political imaginary’ as Gibson-Graham suggests, we might need new formats to contain this new imaginary world.
We have an expectation as to how to read documents that are driven by the layout. The left to right convention, the breaking down of visual hierarchies into headings, sub-headings, bullet points, paragraphs etc, together with type size and type selection based on a particular set of conventions designed to stabilise and order information are all conventions designed to control the viewer. The designer’s training ensuring that the visual ‘knowledge’ therefore ‘power’ is firmly in the hands of the designer. However when something changes it causes discomfort. Especially if we are so used to it we don’t notice it.
We live in a particular Capital dominated political world; we are so used to this that it seems to be the ‘norm’. We are also very used to the left’s critique of Capitalism and this too has now become part of the norm. This is the same with most of the printed documentation we use. If though, for instance, the Zapatista’s goal of autonomous counterpower was realised; “by asserting and creating multiple other ways of being in the world…while at the same time furnishing new tools to address the complex set of problematic power relations it confronts us with…” (Osterwell 2004, p8) we might be asked to revision and rethink our traditional relationships.
So what’s this got to do with McSweeny’s which is about as far away typographically from the traditional anarchist zine as you can get?
For me it’s that “furnishing of new tools” for thinking that lies at the core of what Dave Eggers supports in McSweeny’s. He asks people to test out the boundaries of existing formats, not to destroy them but to see how they can cope with complexities of meaning. That old chestnut “how does the format of a printed publication reflect its content” being central to the debate.
In particular the reinvention of wraparound covers, embossing and the use of traditional typesetting, (It’s great the way they use hermeneutic text, often taken straight from the type setting of old bibles).
I would love to see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia and A Thousand Plateaus typeset by Eggers team and illustrated by Chris Ware.

Chris Ware, cover for McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, issue 13, London, Hamish Hamilton, 2004 (top left quarter)

As their writing attempts to breakdown academic conventions (another form of invested power) the existing format and text layout serves to reinforce old patterns of thinking. But what is needed are formats that link different types of thinking. An example of this is Eggers’ cover for Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends.

Three die cut wrap around covers are used, one nesting inside the other to create a totality composed of separate parts. As a concept this could be used as a central device to construct a book about rhizomatic connections. A book could be mined, (i.e. cut into and holes bored to link other pages) paper stock altered to reflect types of ideas coming through and inserts or foldouts constructed to reflect parallel thinking. Kerning could be seen as a type of stuttering, introduced as a device to slow the reading down or express contextual worry. The grid molded into perspective devices to squeeze text and image into no spaces. Hmmm now the academic / practice divide starts to look interesting.

“A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organisations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences and social struggles." Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.

Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006) Postcapitalist Politics Minneapolis: Minnesota Press