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:

The times they are a-changin’

Music

I recently wrote here about frustrations I was having with how my iPhone displayed album sleeves on its Music app. Since then I’ve been somewhat forced to sign-up to Apple Music to get over this, (and other), issues with the app. In doing so it feels like I have made a major shift in some of my long-held behaviours; this is not just in regard to how I listen to music, but also to my relationship with music visuals.

In discussing this personal cultural change to how I ‘buy’ and own music over on A Different Kitchen, I pondered whether I had bought my last CD in pre-ordering Wire’s forthcoming release Mind Hive prior to signing up to Apple Music. Since then, I have bought other music physically, but these haven’t been for my usual choices of wanting better sound quality when I listen to certain artists, (a CD on a good stereo is, to my ears, is far superior than a download), but because these recordings were not available via Apple. 

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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.

Mainly Museums: PHM

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I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.

The article itself is an expanded rewrite of a Field Readings’ post I wrote about the People’s History Museum after I visited many years ago. The new version was first published on Mainly Museums website in July 2019.

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My iPhone hates me

I think my iPhone hates me, it has recently been swapping the album artwork of one band for another.

This is very much a first world problem, I know. But it does feel very personal. My phone, for all its ‘smartness’, must know how important graphic design and music are to me. I use the Music app everyday of the week to listen to new and old sounds on my walk to work. I post and read about graphic design on many social media apps and blogs I follow just as often. My phone won’t know that it was album sleeves that got me into graphic design in the first place, but there are obvious clues. So forgive me if I feel aggrieved. 
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In the above screenshot of the ‘Recently Added’ section of the Music app, you can see the sleeve for the Birdman OST replacing what should be Gaye Su Akyol’s recent release. Likewise, a Peter Perrett album becomes Creep Show’s Mr Dynamite, while Dead Rat Orchestra become David Byrne and Kaddal Merrill becomes Young Fathers.

It is annoying not just because of the misrepresentation, but because I use the images for searching for the albums I want to listen to. I know this as a way of looking for music could be deemed outmoded, but that is how I operate my technology and I’m sure many others do too.

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Aesthetics of convenience

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In the first of a series of publications that investigate different aspects of the graphic commons, Aesthetics of Convenience explores the vinyl window displays of convenience stores. Through a photographic and textual discussion of how these ‘little and often’ shop window displays affect human behaviour and environmental ambiences, the paper seeks to encourage a discussion about the visual culture of public spaces, as imposed on those that live in, or pass through them.

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Published as a 20 page numbered limited edition tabloid newspaper, Aesthetics of Convenience brings together my own explorative photographs taken on numerous dérives, and a 1250 word essay which pieces together my thoughts when out traversing the graphic commons.

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Aesthetics of Convenience is published as a limited edition of 100, and costs £3, (plus £2 postage in the UK, and £5 postage everywhere else). To buy a copy, follow the Paypal link, leaving your name and postal and email addresses in the notes section when paying: PayPal.me/paynigelball

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Graphic commons: Tunnel and peripheral vision

Distance: 3.7 miles
Steps: 8113
Start: 06:25
Ground covered: Feeder roads into and out of Ipswich town centre; pedestrianised shopping precincts; town centre.

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It has been a while since I last did a dedicated graphic commons walk; 2017 in fact. More recent graphic commons posts have mainly been about walks taken as part of other activities. This reengagement is due to the resurrection of a graphic commons project that was put on-hold a few years ago—that of a series of publications dedicated to specific categories of the commons as I see them. The other commitments that took precedent over that project have now been completed, and it seems like a good time to jump back in. I will post more news here soon as it develops, but for now, here is a more generalised document of yesterday’s dérive.

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The walk’s territory is very familiar to me, and picks up from two I conducted in 2016, peripheral visions and dérive of convenience. Although the walk was specifically to record more convenience store window displays, of which I got plenty, other categories presented themselves to me, with abundance: vinyl banners, telephone booth adverts, fly posters, etc. Ipswich, it appears, is the graphic commons gift that keeps on giving. While the delivery mechanisms themselves hadn’t changed much, some of the graphics had.

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One person’s ordinary…

My father, a commercial photographer, subscribed to the British Journal of Photography and from a very young age I used to love flicking through its pages. While over the last ten years I have maintained a sporadic subscription to the magazine, it has never been as satisfying to my adult eyes as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, photo-books have become my photography drug of choice and I find immersing myself in the vision of one particular photographer at a time gives me a much deeper connection with the work shown. One particular photographer whose output I have become fascinated by in recent years is Iain Sarjeant. Since 2016 I have been collecting his Out Of The Ordinary volume of books, the series now in its third and final iteration. These titles document the spontaneous shots he has taken as he journey’s through everyday Scotland as part of a long-term project.

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What first attracted me to his work was that I could see something in his photos that mirrored my own interests in the overlooked. But this soon became more than just an interest in the subject matter and as much about his approach to it—he has an eye that looks to make order out of what other’s would pass by.

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Proposing the Graphic Commons

This text was first published as a pamphlet of the same name in August 2017. It is republished here for the first time online. Copies of the original pamphlet, as a numbered limited edition of 300, are still available on request. Please get in contact if you would like a copy.

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This essay introduces the term Graphic Commons as an identifier with which to discuss graphic design within shared public environments. It sets out why a new linguistic term in contemporary graphic design discourse is required, and situates this as part of wider discussions surrounding urbanism and social responsibility.

Much has changed since Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration that: “…there is no architectural or urbanistic criticism on a par with the criticism of art, literature, music and theatre.” (1991, p92) Some 43 years later urbanism is studied in renowned academic centres such as University College London’s UrbanLab. However, graphic design as a discipline is often overlooked as part of ongoing critical urban dialogues. While anti-advertising rhetoric is in rude health within academic, design and political circles, advertising remains its focus. Although a critique of advertising is an important aspect of the Graphic Commons, and therefore appropriate to discuss under the term’s usage, this proposal considers a much wider remit of study. As Lefebvre stated: “There would certainly seem to be a need for such a criticism… We are talking, after all, of the setting in which we live.” (1991, p92)

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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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