Graphic commons: End of year dérive

Date: 29.12.2020
Distance: 5 miles
Steps: 10,812
Start: 13:34
Ground covered: Residential to industrial area to dockside, return via town centre side-streets and residential areas

As the end of the year looms I felt it was appropriate to head out into Tier 4 territory for one last dérive of 2020. Fearing a Tier 5 being implemented, given the dramatic increase in Covid-19 cases in Ipswich, this may also be my last chance for a while.

While I didn’t set out to end up at the quay again, my feet took me there anyway. And as familiar as this territory is after my last drift only 19 days ago, I took a wider berth there and back this time. Doing so has opened up to me an area of Ipswich I haven’t explored for many years and I have made a mental note to steer myself in that direction next time I head out, whenever that may be.

Side streets lead to a main road out of Ipswich with a parallel access-road for the semi-detacheds that run alongside it. Handsomely tree-lined, with a generous grass-verge, it exemplifies one of the things I love about Ipswich, its green spaces. This road gives access to a park I have only been through once before, on one of The Rough Band’s psychogeographical silent walks, Strand, performed as part of Spill Festival in 2016.

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200 2020 days

As we head towards the end of 2020, I predict many write-ups will state it was a year like no other. I’ll hold judgement on that—we haven’t had 2021 yet, after all. December is, however, the time of year when annual round-ups happen, and for me, one of the most interesting projects I have seen in the last 12 months has been by Becky King.

Becky King is Creative Director at branding agency Dragon Rouge’s London office, and has spent much of this year sharing her responses to being in lockdown on her Instagram account. While this itself has been hugely engaging, on an almost daily basis, where I felt the real impact of what she was producing was when she published a newspaper collecting together most of her experiments.

Titled 2020 XXXX, and wrapped by a cover of photographs taken on her #coronawalks, the inside is a 60 page visual riot of graphic design with King responding to events daily through type, colour and shape. Although she claims in the opening pages that this is a ‘short visual diary’, the word ‘short’ seems misjudged given the extent of the explorations that follow.

“What can I say?”, King asks in the newspaper’s opening pages. “2020. It’s been emotional. Antibacterial. Irrational. Mental. Physical. Political. Antisocial. Dysfunctional. Unnatural. Controversial. Economical. Visual. Inspirational.” That such a statement starts this document is entirely appropriate, given the fact that word-play is at the heart of much of what follows. Focussing in on specific aspects of the language evolving out of living through Covid-19, pushing the textual and visual possibilities of specific phrases, King leaves no word unturned.

Claiming this collection as: “200+ posters of thoughts, emotions, mumblings, experiments and graphic sketches”, King has used well chosen descriptors here. 2020 XXXX is all of those, and I particularly like the phrase ‘mumblings’. The frivolity of such an adjective after the word emotion lightens the tone, but King’s emotions are in plain sight throughout. The visual over-load in itself reminds the viewer of what we have, and continue to, collectively live through. The ‘new normal’ is a moniker I have come to despise, but if we all relaxed as we get used to our new normal, this is, collectively at least, a powerful reminder of the reality of our circumstances.

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Graphic commons: an unexpected drift

Date: 10.12.2020
Distance: 2.4 miles
Steps: 5271
Start: 07:37
Ground covered: Residential area to dockside, return via university campus

What started as simple exercise, to try to stave off a bad back from sitting at a desk for far too many hours, turned into a drift; the first one proper since my Lockdown 1.0 Constitutionals side project back in April.

Although I have been out walking for exercise now and again in recent months, these occasions have been few and far between, and mostly involved a round-about trip to one of our many local Coops. And while I started on this occasion only intending to go around the houses, I instead ended up down by Ipswich docks staring across the water.

The territory is very familiar, but I have not walked it for a while. It took me close to my place of work, where I haven’t ventured since the last week of October. An accidental collage I had discovered in the summer was still on the side of an old phonebox, (see below), it was a little bit more decayed than when it first caught my eye, but still resolutely stuck in its vinyl resistance to the elements.

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We are type—125 years of St Bride Library

I have been fortunate enough to visit St Bride Library a number of times. I’ve mostly been for graphic design conferences or evening talks hosted by Eye Magazine. For the uninitiated, St Bride Library, just off Fleet Street in London, includes an events hall, a large archive of typographic, graphic design and publishing related books, and a printshop that hosts hands-on letterpress, engraving and book-binding workshops. It is so steeped in all-things print, that I am always disappointed that Swarfega doesn’t come out to the soap dispensers in the toilets whenever I have been there.

2020 sees the library celebrate its 125th year. Like most cultural organisations, this year has been a challenging one. That hasn’t dampened the St Bride team’s ambitions though, and recent months has seen a relaunch of its journal, Ultrabold, (the first issue in 4 years), and they have plans to digitise their impressive archive. To see them through this precarious time, St Bride have also launched a crowdfunding campaign with the hope of further supporting these ventures and to help secure the future of the library.

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Fluff and nonsense

Recently on Facebook I posted the following video by Mike Rich from the Steering YouTube channel. In it he discusses whether Graphic Design could be considered art.

This is an often discussed topic, particularly amongst design students. I certainly have very firm views on the subject, and contend that they are different disciplines. As a result I find it difficult not to be drawn in to such debates.

In response to posting the video, several friends commented with their views—some defensively, some more measured. Most were people who identify themselves as artists, or designer/artists, and their different takes on the topic are interesting.

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First Things First: 2020

In amongst recent events, maybe for good reason, I missed that a new First Things First manifesto was launched in May. A more radical and critical version, and one that certainly gets my signature.

This time around, as well as signing your support, you can help to rewrite the manifesto itself by submitting your opinions. There are also links to the history of the manifesto over its previous iterations of 1964, 2000 and 2014, and links to resources to help support the conscious designer.

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Virtually speaking

I recently wrote an article for Eye magazine’s blog about the wealth of online talks and interviews that have sprung up as a result of Covid-19 and lockdown.

These have been a godsend to my students, and I’m sure a great many more. I go on to write about my hope that such initiatives continue post-Covid, in particular for the sake of students from the regions, (and around the world), who can’t afford to access talks in London and other big cities.

You can read the post here.

Mainstream discussions on graphic design

Mainstream media doesn’t often do graphic design, and when it does it rarely does it seriously. Preference is more often given over to art, architecture, interior design, photography and fashion.

On the odd occasion when an appropriately critical article does appear, (one that does not claim that the journalist’s 6 year old daughter could have done a better job at designing a logo), then graphic design as a discipline is not mentioned. Take this report from November 2019 about Facebook’s rebrand, which covers the topics of typography, colour, semiotics and visual identity. In the post’s category tags, technology and business are mentioned, but graphic design and typography are not. Articles around this time from the same publication about art and architecture did have accompanying discipline tags.

It was therefore refreshing to read a serious discussion in The Observer last weekend about the government’s visual approach to imparting important information to the public about Covid-19: The UK government’s coronavirus strategy: shoddy by design?

Interviewing Simon Esterson, art director and co-owner of Eye Magazine, and Eliza Williams of Creative Review—two of the most prominent graphic design publications in Britain—the piece discusses how UK government sanctioned visuals fail in communicating their desired message, and at times, send mixed messages.

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ACDHE review—The graphic design process

Image: Bloomsbury

I recently wrote a review of the 2019 Bloomsbury title: The Graphic Design Process: How to be Successful in Design School by Anitra Nottingham and Jeremy Stout, for the journal Art, Communication & Design in Higher Education.

The book explores the design process through varying approaches to graphic design education—from brief to crit to exploratory practice to presenting outcomes—with contributions from university and college lecturers from around the world.

The review is available to purchase here, and the journal here.

Newsprint isn’t dead, yet

Just before lockdown I had several conversations with colleagues and students about whether newspapers would survive Covid-19. At the prospect of newsagents and train stations closing for months on end, and assuming these are the prime retailers for newspapers outside of people having them delivered, I predicted the situation could be devastating for printed journalism. As people who are used to consuming their news through inkies are forced to switch to app and online counterparts, I wondered whether they would ever go back to print, post-pandemic.

Despite the fact that printed papers aren’t financially sustainable in the modern age anyway, and tend to only survive due to backers—whether wealthy media moguls or through supporter sponsorship—if their audience does shift its consumer habits then there is only so much money a publisher will throw at a loss leader.

If there is to be any saviour for news in printed form, it is likely to be due to graphic design and the impact a well considered layout with a strong concept can bring to the reader experience. If an example is needed, then you need look no further than The New York Times. In March it used playful typography to effectively illustrate an article about social distancing with circles of space created around the typography.

Wondering About Social Distancing? in print. Image: The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas
Wondering About Social Distancing? online. March 2020

In looking at how the article appears online, there is no comparison in regard to visual impact. In the printed examples, even without reading the text the narrative is still delivered. Given there is something of the petri dish in this circular depiction, an additional layer of subconscious messaging is added that it is difficult to reproduce in templated girds used for websites. Because they are updated on a regular basis throughout the day, there is less room for such sites to be playful with the text itself. That’s not to say apps and webpages can’t be inventive, far from it, but user engagement is more likely to be delivered via stand-alone animated / interactive content and video that sits alongside the story.

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