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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Graphic commons: Government sanctioned dérives

Making the most of the ‘sanctioned’ time I am allowed out to exercise during the UK government’s coronavirus pandemic ‘lockdown’, I have been drifting through my neighbourhood on a daily basis for the last week. Despite the awkwardness of swapping sides of the road every time I see someone coming in my direction, this has allowed me to visually re-engage with the Graphic Commons of this area of east Ipswich.

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I know these streets well from the many dog walks my wife and I have done around our locale. Or so I thought. However, with our dog a year gone, and in more recent years him being so lethargic with age we tended to take him for less lengthy walks, it appears I have either become unfamiliar with some aspects of my surroundings, or simply never spotted them in the first place. So now, under circumstances I would not choose, I have been conducting observational research on the visual culture of my immediacy.

As would be expected, the start of my walks tend to have some degree of planning; at least in respects to me deciding what direction I am going to head in before I close the front door behind me. From then though, I make my decisions on a whim—that whim is often influenced by whether there appears to be too many people for my liking walking in one particular direction—and I drift the streets based on instinct and the random thoughts that themselves drift through my mind.

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Insidiousness

In response to the worldwide epidemic of COVID-19 there is an inevitability to the words …And Wash Your Hands, replacing …And Carry On, as the coda to Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Given that news of the spread of the virus has the ability to produce widespread panic, any populist measures to get health messages across to stem a pandemic should be welcomed. However, on any mention of that original poster, I can not help but be reminded of its insidious nature.

For those unfamiliar with the origin of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, it was meant to be kept in storage and only rolled out across Britain in the event of a Nazi occupation. The premise being that we should all accept our new rulers and maintain the British notion of ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’, and simply get on with our daily lives. As an avowed anti-fascist, such a sentiment is an anathema to me.

Just how insidious the original Keep Calm poster is, was bought home to me last week when listening to Cerys Matthews interview the children’s book author Michael Rosen on her Sunday morning BBC 6music show. He was discussing his book The Missingin which he investigates his family history and those members of it who went missing during the Second World War from occupied countries, and specifically France. He recounted the tale of coming across police reports that detailed how officers of the French Gendarmerie went to his father’s uncle’s house in 1944, at 2:30 in the morning, and removed his great uncle in order to hand him over to the Nazis. He had committed no crime—he was arrested simply for the sole reason that he was Jewish.

Rosen spoke about what troubled him the most was the legality of the situation, and how these officers where just following orders. While the holocaust was an illegal act, like many other Nazi atrocities, what happened in the early hours of that morning in 1944 was legal. Given that Rosen’s relation was deported and never seen again, he goes on to say that even though the police were carrying out their duty, they were in fact conspirators to murder. This, in effect, was the French police keeping calm and carrying on. (You can listen to Michael Rosen talk about The Missing on 6music via this link—starts at around the 01:10:40 mark.)

It made me ask myself, as I listened to Rosen’s words, how the same story would have played out in Britain had we become occupied by Nazis in the 1940s. With people following the advice of keeping calm and carrying on, I suspect exactly the same would have happened. Such a depressing thought made me wonder if the poster really needs an additional line of bracketed text to make it more accurate and alert people to its insidious nature: Keep Calm and Carry On, (unless you happen to be Jewish, a gypsy, homosexual, a communist, or any other ‘undesirable’ deemed in need of eradication from society under fascist ideology, in which case you need to be very wary of a knock on the door in the middle of the night and of those who you might think are there to protect you).

Not so catchy though, is it!

A question of signs

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A couple of weeks ago I took the above picture at Felixstowe docks, finding it interesting to see a group of signs in what appeared to be a holding pen, waiting to be distributed as need-be around the busy port. After editing the image to post to Flickr at the weekend, I wondered what the collective noun was for a collection of signs, so I posted the simple question to Twitter. Below are some of the excellent replies I got.

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@gray was the first off the mark with a reference to the Signs director:
A Shyamalan of signs.

Several took the theme of the communication problems of a lot of signs in one place, including: A confusion… (@Skipratmedia); A concussion… (@Johnctarpey); A directionless… (@zimboguide); An obscuration… (@mayhematics); An assault… (@Lestaret); A cacophony… (@peter_p_light): A confusion… (@Unionbuilt); and one of my favourites along these lines; A squabble… (@ZCDunnett).

On a theoretical level, A semiotic… makes sense, (@semajrabnud). That is if it wasn’t more suited to a collection of signals.

A directory… (@SuchAndSuchDes); A tell… (@MrBoyce); and A trail… (@thepublicartco) all nicely chime with signage’s purpose.

Given their upright nature, A forest… fits visually, (@jrooneyresearch), and this was confirmed as a term used in Germany, or rather ‘Schilderwald’, which translates as ‘a forest made from signs’, (@StefanH145).

However, the one that I think is probably gets the prize, if there was a prize, is simply: A shitload… . Thanks to @JulianDGomezZ, a genuine laugh out loud from me for that response.

Thanks to all who have given some excellent suggestions so far, there are far too many to mention here, (especially if you go sideways and look at the replies to retweets). To follow the post, click here.

And thanks to Justin Hopper for pointing me in the direction of this: