Way back in 1999 I was reading Design Writing Research – Abbott Miller and Ellen Lupton's collection of essays on graphic design (and also the name of their design practise at the time). This was the first time I'm read anything from either author – to a large extent, it was the first time I'd enjoyed writing of this kind. It was Lupton's name that had drawn me in – I wasn't so familier with Miller – and semi-youthful enthusiasm for the subject (I wasn't that young) drove me on to consume both author's nuanced thoughts and ideas. It was full of insightful articles that helped me view the discipline of design in a more informed way.
That same year Abbott Miller joined Pentagram and slipped off my radar. Well, that's what I thought. His new book, Abbott Miller: Design and Content reveals a slightly different perspective. It turns out, I've been well aware of Miller's work throughout the last fifteen years, I'd just been missing the credit.
Written and designed by Miller, Design and Content shows diverse and intelligent design; mature work that demonstrates both masterful visual creativity and skilful wordsmithery – an essential and balanced approach that can be sadly under appreciated by those with a bias towards one or the other.
Miller and his team have worked across many specialisms which Design and Content bears witness to. Projects include branding, print, editorial and exhibition design and features collaborations with artists like Yoko Ono, Philip Glass and Nan June Paiik. Miller's work is introduced by Rick Poyner and includes essays by Miller and Lupton – and converstations with fellow Pentagramers Michael Bierut, Eddie Opera and Paula Scher.
It's a handsome volume too.
Everyone's got it, haven't they? It's a piece of graphic design history and a super-fast/low-cost read. And a useful reminder of what it's all about; I for one benefit greatly from this kind of reminder, distracted as I can be by technology and the latest this and that. Rand's "Thoughts on Design", first published in 1947, is like the Hovis bread of the design world, "As good for us today as it's always been". It reminds us, succinctly and intelligently, of the importance of study, observation, relevance and purpose; the nutrients of good design.
Secondhand Bookshop loiterers will relate to this:
I was at a nearby National Trust property, mooching around the secondhand bookshop, when I spied a scruffy oddity. A strangely tall volume wrapped in an interesting elk-based photo dust jacket that was topped off with a nasty piece of outline type.
If it wasn't for the unusual format I'd have passed it by but it was poking up, head and shoulders above the other odds and ends. So I did the thing you do – we all do it, don't we? – I slipped its jacket off.
Boy am I glad I did.
I've got this side project on at the moment; a writing project. It's taking me flippin' ages to be honest but it's bringing me into contact with some really interesting people. People I have to interview, about their jobs. So far, I've met a few people in the film industry, a basket maker, a theatre lighting technician, a set designer and last Friday, a joiner working on restoration projects for the National Trust. We met in his workshop. His workshop made of wood, that smells of wood and is full of tools…and wood.
Now you may remember, I have carpentry in my blood. Sawdust runs through my veins. The sight of a vintage Spear & Jackson saw or a handsome flat blade wood plane is enough to make me reach for my beechwood mortice and marking gauge. It's THAT exciting.
Designers, writers, coders; we're all making stuff. We all manipulate materials – either physical or metaphysical – chiselling away at things, dovetailing seperates into connecteds. Sawing things into sections before shaving away layers. Drilling into the undrilled. Finely sanding before waxing and polishing.
Whether it's words, pictures or commands, it's not that different to wood. Not really. It's just less natural, less grown. Manufactured material instead of harvested material. A few more steps away from the natural order of things.
I think the reason why woodwork has prevailing appeal, to me at least, is because of its proximity to nature and our more instinctive side. It's hunter gatherer stuff and once we've grown weary of the glossy mass produced world, the hand made and downright wonky, if I have anything to do with it, tuggs at our hearts.
You can’t hope to improve, significantly, as a designer by merely practicing design. You’ll get better at Photoshop as you find your way around its hidden depths, your typography might creep forward with exposure to its challenges, you might have a natural grasp of colour, but progress will be slow unless you look further afield for your influences. Latching onto a sage-like mentor of some kind or bathing in the foamy mix of design history are hard to better.
Same goes for writing. Writing in isolation is unlikely to lead you along the twisty-turny, bramble-blocked path that the writer has to follow in order to hone his or her wordsmithery. Better to latch onto a sage-like mentor or bathe in the foamy mix of literary history.
Maybe, even, read a book about writing.
A friend of mine, clearly trying to tell me something, sent me Roy Peter Clarke’s book Writing Tools at Christmas. Never has a book sustained my interest so effectively. Juggling a few volumes on unconnected subjects, my pace through Writing Tools has been gentle. But that’s just heightened my enjoyment. I’ve been taking each chapter, each strategy, slowly. And with each comes a beautifully useful nugget of writing wisdom.
I’m a better writer for reading Writing Tools.
There I was, minding my own business, searching the outer reaches of the digital realm for post-1922/pre-now images of Dublin's O'Connell Bridge and where should I find myself? Only on John Hinde's really quite marvellous postcard archive, that's where.
Interpretive design is a great field of work for a graphic designer. By it's nature you're more than likely to be delving into the printed past for artefacts, references or relics. There's almost always some moment in the past (or for that matter, the present) that leads you to some interesting image, design or whatchamacallit.
I'm all over Dublin at the moment: either fighting the damned oppressive British or annoying the intolerant Irish; ousting uncooperative tennents or trembling at the might of those inconsiderate and really quite rude Vikings.
And, as I've mentioned before, it's hard not to get distracted by the other stuff you pass or trip over along the way.
Back in November 2012 I posted about Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s book, Sign Painters. It’s a fabulous book, you should probably buy it. But the book was really a mere forerunner, a prelude, to their film of the same name.
The film, like the book, is a celebration of the challenged world of hand-painted signs in the US. As it says on the movie’s website, “What was once a common job has now become a highly specialized trade, a unique craft struggling with technological advances”.
With contributions from some of the trade’s most skilled practitioners and characters, Sign Painters is beautifully filmed and gives brilliant insight into a hidden culture of craft, adversity and precariously balanced paint pots.
The book is superb – the film is even better. You can watch it now online here.
I shouldn't reveal my sources really. But then this was an exceptional case and I don't expect it to be repeated any time soon. 99p. OK, plus £5 postage but still, 99p. Ebay. Expect to pay more. I could not believe my luck. 99p and with it not only did I get Volume 58 but I also completed the 1960s section of my collection. Probably the best era for Penrose…maybe the best era for the graphic arts in general (at least from an historical point of view).
In The Design Method Eric Karjaluoto meticulously and generously details the journey he and his team at smashLAB follow through the creative quagmire. From a project’s early research stages; through strategies and cunning plans; past top-level conceptualisation and onwards, far beyond the edges of iterating, prototyping and more iterating; Karjaluoto’s design methods, rightly, leave little to fortuitous happenstance or creative genius.
It's tough out there. When you’re being paid to deliver great creative, on demand, everyday, you need a system. You need a design method; to manage the process, your client, your employer, your stress levels and your sanity. Methodology guides you through the blocks, around the obstacles and under the aquaducts of distraction.
I’ve introduced methods and systems into studios. Some have even worked. Some have been welcomed, some rejected. Others have been fought and a few have been embraced. I believe in processes because I’m not a creative genius; I’ve experienced the pressure and stress of demand. Due diligence has helped me to deliver sound creative – on time and to budget. What’s that thing Einstein said? About spending most of his time thinking about the problem and only a tiny bit of time thinking about the solution. The Design Method is all about that sort of thing. It's about following sensible procedures to take care of the business of design.
The Design Method describes more processes than you may ever be likely to eat. In doing that it might just help you find the ones that will work for you. It touches on things you’ll know, that’s what it did for me – Karjaluoto describes much that I already do, more that I wish I did do and a lot that I know I should do. On top of that it did one really great and helpful thing: it reaffirmed my faith in systems.
The Design Method provides the designer with the opportunity to find order in the creative mess. Not to stifle or restrict but to enable and liberate. If you’re starting out it could prove especially helpful – although it's likely to require discipline and diligence if you are to benefit most from what it offers. If you’ve been at it for a while, it might help you fine tune how you practise your craft.
We're just about to start work on a project for the NLI. In preparation for this I dived head first, into their digitised archive – their online catalogue – of print material. They have loads of stuff archived and much more still to do. It was hard not to get distracted. So I did…get distracted I mean.
One of the first really interesting things I learned about the discipline of interpretive design was that it has principles – and I love a principle: fundamental, underlying, guiding ideas. The six principles of heritage interpretation were first expressed by Freeman Tilden who is basically the father of interpretive design. He is The Man.
A couple of weeks ago I delivered a lecture to first year IMD students, introducing them to the idea of art direction. When I was preparing it; trying to find ways to describe the art of art direction; one of Tilden's principles sprang to mind. All six go like this:
Number one is brilliant. In number two, the idea that interpretation is "revelation based on information" is equally powerful. But for the task at hand, number four jumped out. Paraphrasing somewhat, I concluded that "the chief aim of art direction is [in a way] to provoke".
I mentioned a while back that I'm working in a studio that specialises in interpretive design. There aren't really that many specialists in the UK; in Northern Ireland, Tandem is the only one. I'm there for just a while and the specialism is new to me – but I have to say, it's very interesting work.
The discipline of interpretive design is, in itself, interesting and I'll say more about that another time. What's immediately interesting is the material it brings you into contact with – whether by chance or by design (pardon the pun).
Earlier today I was trying to find a map of Dublin, circa 1916. What I found was an online archive of historical maps of Ohio (there's a Dublin in Ohio) from the early part of the twentieth century.
If you click on these snippets of mappage you'll be able to scrutinise the beautiful details.
We were researching illustrators recently, for a project we might be working on. Can't say much about the actual project but it could be amazing. While I was digging around, I remembered Eyvind Earle.
Artist, author and illustrator, you might know Earle's work for Disney from around the 50s; he worked on background illustrations and styling for things like Sleeping Beauty.
Earle died in 2000 but he left behind a stunning legacy of artwork. You can see lots of it here and watch a revealing autobiographical video. I think it's his serigraphs (screen prints) that are the most remarkable. Astonishing work.
It was ages before I got around to buying Lars Müller's Lufthansa + Graphic Design – edition 05 from their A5 series. And I completely missed edition 06: HfG Ulm. Well, I wasn't going to make the same mistake with edition 07.
This is from the Lars Müller website:
This book is the first monograph dedicated to the designer Rolf Müller who is known above all for his design of the visual identity of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Shortly after graduating from the famous Ulm School of Design, his former professor Otl Aicher entrusted him with this work, which set new standards in international design. In parallel, he established his design firm Büro Rolf Müller in Munich.
On the basis of selected projects, the book attempts to sketch the mentality and methods of his design: For nearly four decades, the firm developed corporate identities, books, magazines and signage systems on the highest level. The firm’s projects include the visual identity of the City of Leverkusen, forged over several decades, and the magazine HQ High Quality for the company Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, of which 39 issues were published.
As a storyteller and system designer, Rolf Müller has left his mark on international design history with his work. His stance has had a decisive impact in shaping the way in which today’s communications designers view their profession.