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.

King is Creative Director at the London office of branding agency Dragon Rouge, 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, where I felt the real impact of what she was producing was in publishing 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 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 rhetorically 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 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. 2020 XXXX is all of those, and I particularly like the phrase ‘mumblings’. The frivolity of such an adjective, coming directly 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.

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.

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.

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.

Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.

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This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.

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.

Graphic commons: progress and an Essex drift

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Notes on current research
As my graphic commons project grows and I’m formulating links between different urban studies and theories, I’m finding out how little research there appears to be into graphic design in shared environments, (within both current or historic thinking around the topic). This may obviously be because I just haven’t found it yet, and others may be able to fill the holes in my studies, (please post in comments or DM me via the contacts page if you do have any research pointers). A 2017 report by the Design Commission titled People & Places: Design of the Built Environment and Behaviour, makes reference to how urban environments can influence mental health, but fails to mention anything in regard to how everyday visual culture may impact on this. Such references tend to be more explicitly discussed in anti-advertising doctrines such as the excellent Advertising Shits In Your Head. However, in doing so, such texts tend to be polemic and agitational in nature and do not make a wider connection to urbanism as a theoretical study.

Others discuss the visualisation of environments in passing, but do so more abstractly by talking either about visual pollution or the commercialisation of space without reference to specific pictorial material, (see Fezer’s Design In & Against the Neoliberal City, obviously Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life—in particular volume 2: Foundations Of Study For A Sociology of the Everyday—and visual pollution is discussed in the introduction to the recent republication of Nelson’s How To See). In relation to how my research on the ground is going, it fits more with some of the projects I am reading about in Campkin and Duijzings’ 2016 publication: Engaged Urbanism: Cities & Methodologies, although none of the featured work is studying graphic design in shared environments per se.

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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