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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The Fundamentals of Graphic Design

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It was an honour to have my revision of The Fundamentals of Graphic Design published by Bloomsbury recently.

It was a daunting job to take on, given how good the original edition by Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris was. Early on I decided I didn’t want to radically alter vast amounts of what they had written—after all, most of the fundamentals haven’t changed. However, given the advances in technology since the first edition, it was clear my main job was to make sure the title reflected contemporary design contexts. In my first research sessions for the title in 2017, it was interesting to note that in 2009 when The Fundamentals of Graphic Design was first published, it came out only one year after Apple’s App Store first opened its digital doors. It was also one year before the iPad was released and Instagram had been heard of, (both 2010). I quickly established there were some important revisions needed.

There have been many other changes elsewhere in our industry: font files are now universal across operating systems; brand guidelines have gone digital with many now having dedicated websites; and audio and visual entertainment is streamed ‘on-the-go’ as physical media and TV schedules become a lesser part of people’s everyday lives. There has also been an explosion in niche publishing. However, possibly one of the biggest contextual shifts is that social media is a very different beast now than it was a decade ago, (remember MySpace anyone?), and as a result, how graphic designers market themselves and their clients has changed forever.

I cannot thank everyone at Bloomsbury enough for all the support they gave me in revising Fundamentals, as well as to all who agreed to provide new images. I am particularly grateful to O Street for artworking images of their website especially for a feature I wanted to include on them; and to Lawrence Woolston, head Arts technician at University of Suffolk, for helping me with some studio photography. Most of all though, I would like to thank Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris for producing such an excellent text and structure for the book in the first place.

The Fundamentals of Graphic Design: Second Edition was published in October 2019, and was featured as one of five recommended reads in Creative Boom‘s Books For November.

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Copies can be purchased directly from Bloomsbury in a variety of formats. Follow this link for more details.

Common affairs

The state of design criticism, it could be argued, has never been in better shape. There are the big guns, such as Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand’s printed compilation of fifteen years of online discourse at the Design Observer with Culture Is Not Always Popular. Likewise, AIGA’s Eye On Design magazine which covers topics interrogated on a given theme, (see previous Field Readings post Thoughts on discussions on criticism). Mike Monteiro’s recent Ruined By Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, is an accessible takedown of poor design choices and the importance of ethics to design decisions, while Mode of Criticism‘s self-titled publication is a diversely rich academic and theoretical critique of design in a time of neoliberalism.

One publication that caught my eye recently that I wanted to specifically highlight is the House of Common Affairs journal. It comes out of a forum held at the Royal College of Art in London, and moderated by the journal’s editor Paula Minelgaite, that sought to question the relationship between creative practice, current affairs and the way information is communicated to the general public. The journal specifically looks to discuss Fourth Estate utopias.

An image of the House of Common Affairs journal cover
Image © Paula Minelgaite

In the introduction of issue one, Minelgaite says: “HOCA journal provides an opportunity to challenge the niche and yet popular field that exists in the overlap between the arts and journalism. HOCA attempts to address the issues it presents to its readers by avoiding elitist design snobbery that perpetuates discrimination, dogmatism and self-righteousness. It does this this by moving the project outside the RCA and inviting a more diverse range of voices into the conversation.”

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The Guardian is dead, long live The Guardian

Today sees the last copy of The Guardian in its Berliner format.

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What is about to follow will be known by those that come to this blog post after Monday 15 January 2018, when the new look Guardian is launched. But for now, only the new masthead has been revealed in a video teaser.

The teaser, and its corresponding print campaign, demonstrates some interesting references to John Stezaker covering found photographs with white squares, (and Jonathan Barnbrook’s subsequent ‘borrowing’ of this for David Bowie’s The Next Day), see Field Readings’ post Graphic obscura.

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The campaign cleverly suggests that The Guardian will still reserve space for commentary and opinions that tend not to be heard in other areas of the mainstream media, (with maybe the exception of the Channel 4 News). This, I believe, is the result of a sense of responsibility the paper feels to report accurately and critically in the face of an otherwise largely right-wing and conservative media. Its investigative journalism has broken some of the most important and disruptive news stories of the last decade, from Milly Dowler to Panama Papers. In these supposed post-truth times, long may this continue.

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The definitive article

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The Guardian have done it again in creating dynamic and impactful graphics to carry a story.  But then I would have been disappointed had the triggering of article 50 for the formal start of Brexit been visualised by the paper in anything less than a dramatic style.

While I have some sympathy with some design criticism on Twitter about a jigsaw being an overused metaphor, I think this doesn’t give credit for the colour treatment making it look like a forgotten 1950s puzzle found in a charity shop. This helps to give the concept greater credence in relation to Brexit. That, and the exaggerated staggering of the typography to form an approximation of the shape of the British Isles. This in itself is a mark of typographic brilliance.

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With apologies, (there’s nothing new)

“There’s nothing new in this world…” is a phrase attributed to Harry S Truman on the Brainyquote.com website. In this post-truth world, who knows whether this was actually said by him or not. I do, however, know the content of the phrase itself to be true, post-truth or not.

In June last year I made a book for a project I was working on for my Masters degree. It was called Graphic Interruptions, and it collected together photographs I had taken of items of graphic design that had been visually interrupted in some way, thus affecting their communication potential. I also wrote an essay about it, and the whole thing looked like this:

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Bullying tactics

It is not too bold a statement to claim that advertising is designed to interrupt our vision and assert itself into our conscious and subconscious minds. If it didn’t, corporations would not devote huge budgets to it. But recently I have observed a growth online of adverts that actually disrupt host content, in what can only be described as visual bullying. This is no more obvious than on newspaper websites that remain free from subscription.

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Above the mast—a narrow advert banner

Looking at the instances of this dominating behaviour there is a clear hierarchy of worst offenders, with banner adverts being the most benign but none-the-less annoying for the reader. Many people will be familiar with websites jumping up and down while a browser decides what advert is going to be placed in the header. This appears worse on tablets as responsive websites rearrange themselves to suit a specific device. Add to this a slow internet connection, and such visual gymnastics can make a reader abandon before everything has settled down.

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Press release

I’ve long believed The Guardian to be the best designed newspaper in the country, which is convenient for me considering some may think I fit the profile of a typical reader—feminist liberal-left vegetarian art teacher. It would be difficult for me to take if the Daily Mail fitted this design accolade.

But I like The Guardian for more than its graphic design; the fact its investigative journalism helps to keep in check those in power is equally as important to me, particularly in these days of party political impotence. Simon Jenkins summed this up well this week in From Snowden to Panama, all hail the power of the press during the breaking revelations about tax evasion.

But journalism with integrity isn’t enough on its own, just as great graphic design isn’t enough on its own. You have to be able to engage readers in your content or it won’t gain the attention it requires. And this is where The Guardian really sets itself apart from pretty much all other news vendors, (with the exception of Channel 4 News, albeit via a different medium). The marriage of purpose and presentation is given equal respect in this daily paper, and the approach is integrated across all of its platforms, from newsprint to website to app.

If anybody should need a case study to prove my point, the Panama Papers story this week should be a convincing one. Deputy Creative Director of the Guardian, Chris Clarke, tweeted the next day’s front page every evening, and there were many of his followers waiting for the reveal each night as the story broke, (and continued to break throughout the week). If the awkward adjective ‘impactful’ can be ascribed to anything, it is the design decisions the creative team at the Guardian took to grab their readership’s attention.

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Monday. Source: @chrisclarkcc

Monday’s front page was really brave, dropping the masthead from its usual position at the top to halfway down the page. All advertising was removed, and using the daffodil yellow to punch out of the grey, as Clarke’s choice of a ‘punching fist’ emoticon to accompany his tweets accurately indicated, had real visual impact to match the world leader shaking story.

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They who have no name

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The US and UK book jacket designs for Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. Picture: L—HarperCollins / R—William Heinemann. Source: guardian.com

I’ve written here and elsewhere before about how graphic design is overlooked in favour of other arts disciplines. I’ve come to expect this, so when Will Gompertz—the BBC’s Arts Correspondent—recorded a piece for the Six O’Clock News this week about the Design of the Year Awards at The Design Museum, I wasn’t surprised that the graphic design nominations weren’t mentioned at all.

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