— Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram and a simply wonderful writer. In Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport, he takes on the thorny topic of untrained amateurs daring to voice an opinion on graphic design. Thankfully, he doesn’t come to the traditional designerly conclusion that such interlopers clearly don’t get it, but instead offers a nuanced argument and a call to action for design professionals to step up and do a part of the job they too often don’t consider or relish. As he writes, “perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?” Important questions, all.
— A somewhat surprising assertion from well-known graphic designer, James Victore, speaking at the recent 99% Conference. Victore went on to describe his work for the NYC Department of Probation (see a slideshow of the work in the spacecontext designed by Jim Biber of Biber Architects.) It’s clear that Victore does think that design can make a difference when considered holistically, and he closed with a piece of encouraging advice for the assembled design-centric crowd: “Just ask! Ask for more time. Ask for more creativity. Ask for more money. We always ask, and we sometimes get it.” And, he concluded: “at the risk of sounding like a Miss America runner up, your work is a gift. My work is a gift. My work for the DOP was a gift… The world is waiting for your gift. Give it to them with both barrels.”
— In Graphic Designers Are Ruining The Web, Observer writer John Naughton outlines his dismay that so many webpages have turned into so much bloat (over the last decade, the size of web pages has more than septupled.) He has a point, and designers and developers certainly need to work together to create streamlined pages that work whether you have broadband or dial-up. But don’t you find the quote above peculiar? It’s like he has no idea that minimalism is itself a design choice. The pages he professes to adore all accord with a set of design principles, even if those principles are to include a whole boatload of information (and, as it happens, have nothing whatsoever to do with minimalism.) Craigslist may be designed according to “un-design” principles, but it’s designed nonetheless. It’s a shame that more people don’t understand this, and it’s somewhat infuriating to hear designers equated, as here, with dumb maniacs who gleefully refuse to understand how the web works. Some of them are, of course. But it’s an unhelpful generalization, and makes for an irritating read. Don’t know about you, but I value content and I value aesthetics, and I firmly believe that the two can co-exist. </rant>
This is so, so weird. Disney is selling this Mickey Mouse T-shirt, “inspired by” Peter Saville’s iconic graphic design for Joy Division’s equally iconic album, Unknown Pleasures. As Jenn Pelly writes on Pitchfork, incredulously, “We are not making this up” and Pelly goes on to describe its incongruities (including the tragic suicide of the band’s lead singer and, well, you know, the Nazi connotations of the band’s name.) I can’t help but imagine that Disney somehow acquired the rights to use the graphic, but all the same: file under WTF?
[Story via Matt Garrahan.]
— In Power By Design, British writer and design critic Rick Poynor breaks down the tension between design and management. Thoughtful, precise, and a continued issue for those looking to build any kind of design presence in the world’s C-suites.
Love this, the story of the evolution of the PBS logo, as told by its designer, Herb Lubalin.
Wait. What year is this? Surely the story, Velvet Underground Sues Warhol Foundation isn’t contemporary? You know, what with the band no longer existing and Andy Warhol being long dead? Not so. Turns out, the group’s founding musicians Lou Reed and John Cale filed a complaint in Manhattan on January 11th, 2012, arguing that Warhol’s foundation infringed the design that adorned their epically brilliant album, The Velvet Underground and Nico “by licensing it to third parties.”
I can’t tell whether the musicians want to free the banana back to the public domain from whence they argue it came, or if they simply want a slice of the banana proceedings. But it certainly raises questions about the provenance, use of graphic imagery and other copyright laws. And while it might seem trivial to some, there are real financial issues at stake here. As the Bloomberg story reports: "Warhol’s copyrighted works have a market value of $120 million and the foundation has earned more than $2.5 million a year licensing rights to those works."
Much of the argument seems to have been sparked by the decision by the Warhol Foundation to license the banana image for a series of iPhone and iPad cases, sleeves and bags, as reported in the New York Times last year. What was there a fluffy style piece has now become a matter of litigation, surely not the first time we’ll see such action in a newly digitally driven world.
An aside. The screenshot shown here is taken from my own digital copy of the album. Does that infringe someone’s rights? I’m honestly not sure.
[Story via Rob Walker.]
- An untended garden quickly becomes a field: plant what you want to grow.
- Have partners, but don’t do the same things: make sure you both do something you enjoy.
- Hire people for what they can teach you, not for what you can teach them.
- Everyone should be able to take criticism: creative trust is built on critical honesty.
- Design is only one part of the puzzle: savor the discussion, development, debate, and dissemination of your work just as much as the making of it.
- Goals may be arbitrary, but not having them will be maddening when there’s no one else to tell you if you’re doing a good job: set 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year goals at the outset.
- When you take your favorite clients out to lunch, it’s a good time to propose what you’d like to do together next.
- Knowing more designers doesn’t necessarily translate into having good clients: spend your development time wisely.
- Be known for something: it helps.
- You will never work harder than when you’re building something: find balance. Sometimes the best way to solve a creative problem is to take a vacation or read a book.
Most designers would allow that Bob Gill is a pioneer of the industry, particularly in the realm of communications design. The founder of esteemed consultancy, Pentagram, Gill has a new book out from Laurence King (my own some time publisher). Fast Company has an excerpt from Bob Gill, So Far.
Most designers, truth be known, would likely consider his statement above to be a bit harsh, or, at least, no longer quite as true as it perhaps used to be. I for one like to think that designers have matured as the industry has evolved and that designers have become more adept at explaining their process and its connection to problem solving. Nonetheless, Gill’s is an opinion that’s worth bearing in mind (not least because the last sentence, in particular, is still many non-designers’ opinion of the discipline). I also liked Gill’s common sense (but so often overlooked) advice:
The more you research the subject, the more likely you are to discover something really interesting, or better yet, something original, something that no one has ever noticed before.
The other day, TechCrunch writer Robin Wauters flagged a company, Boundary. “Nice logo,” he tweeted, and I agreed. So I got in touch with the company to get the story, and what I got provides, I think, a salient lesson in the process, application and reality of identity design in the digital era. Boundary’s Stephen Boak gave me the lowdown:
We were initially running with another concept that came from a T-shirt everybody liked [an appropriation of Peter Saville’s iconic design for Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division]. We actually released this and had it up on the website for a little while. After we released it I can remember saying to Ben [Black, company CEO] something like “I like it, but it’s not something I’d want to put on a T-shirt”, and I asked to take some time to work on other concepts.
I started sketching in my notebook. The scanned page here is one of three or four filled with ideas generated over a couple of days. I slapped this page down in front of Ben and asked what he thought. He said he didn’t like any of them. I remember REALLY liking the one on the top left because of that one continuous line between the letters — the wave. I pointed to it and Ben’s response was that it looked like one of those barbed-wire tattoos you see on the arms of guys at the Jersey Shore.”
I love this. Now, granted, the feedback came from the company CEO, and was shared with a trusted team member, but this is the kind of brutally honest feedback that designers have to learn to love. For design to flourish in the real world, it has to exist in multiple contexts, and somehow transcend the fact that everyone viewing it will see through the lens of their own biases and backgrounds. One man’s Jersey Shore tattoo is another’s sine wave is another’s elaborate type treatment. The trick for designers is to deal with this without ending up with something that has been neutered or diluted to the point of blandness. And a critical way to ensure that is for the designer to have a keen idea of his or her own intent. In this case, to reflect the meaning of the company name, a reference to the “boundary layer” of fluid dynamics which protects order from chaos. A pretty powerful concept for a design brief, in other words. Back to Boak:
My first concept in Illustrator was pretty awful, as you can see. I did many more iterations varying line-weight and appearance of the letters. In these concepts, I’ve got gray on both sides of the red, but decided that the red line should be the “boundary” and that gray should only appear on one side for each letter.
When I got to something very close to what you see now, I asked everyone what they thought. There were six of us in the company at the time, so a team of systems and operations engineers gathered around the monitor and said “yeah, sure”. One of the guys on the team said he thought it was really clever — that made me proud. We all sat down and went back to work. It was up on the site later that day.
The logo’s not perfect. As Boak himself admitted, he’s “haunted" by the "ry" of the logo, which isn’t dead on. But the speed, iteration and flexibility of the company’s approach to its own identity design (including the lack of fireworks and rolled out bunting once it was agreed upon) provides a useful snapshot of the world in which we live. The first public beta of Boundary’s own product, "a platform for visualizing, exploring and troubleshooting data networks" is due to go live in the next month or so. I for one am curious to see it.
One for graphic design buffs: PHARMA is an exhibition of mid-20th century graphic design and advertising created on behalf of the flourishing pharmaceutical industry. Fans of some of the discipline’s true pioneers, including Herb Lubalin and Paul Rand, can feast their eyes on posters, marketing and ephemera that shows the world of corporate druggery in a nascent state. As curator Alexander Tochilovsky writes in the exhibition blurb:
"The exhibition highlights a defining change, as the marketing of brand name drugs to the consumer marked a paradigm shift in medicine away from physicians and into the hands of pliable public opinion. The actions of the pharmaceutical industry reflect both a reactive response to increased government regulation and a proactive attention to the demands of American consumerism."
PHARMA is on show at 41 Cooper Gallery at The Cooper Union in New York City through December 3rd. Click the images to see larger scale slideshow.
Images: Top Row, L-R:
Ad for Geigy, c. 1954-55; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Mailer for Geigy by Max Schmid, 1951; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Ad for Geigy, c. 1958; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Images: Middle Row, L-R:
Ad for Dompe by Franco Grignani, 1954; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Ad for Dompe by Franco Grignani, 1955; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Ad for Dompe by Franco Grignani, 1954; c/o Display – Graphic Design Collection.
Images: Bottom Row, L-R:
Ad for Wm. S. Merrell Company by Herb Lubalin, photo by Carl Fischer, 1954
Ad for Roche by Aldo Calabresi for Studio Boggeri, photo by Sergio Libis, 1959
Promotional mailer for Ciba by Jerome Snyder, 1950s
Pentagram partner, Michael Bierut closed the first day of Design at Scale, and did so with mastery and aplomb. He laid out the cliches of what designers supposedly like… and then neatly shot down each one, with a series of things he actually loves. Hugely entertaining and, as with all the best presentations, also educational. Here’s a brief recap of things Bierut truly loves about design:
1. Incredibly Short [Design] Briefs
When Robert Stern became the head of Yale School of Architecture, there was panic in the halls that a new reign of fusty neoclassicism dawned. Instead, when commissioning Bierut to work on a new identity for the school, Stern simply said “I just want to surprise people.” The result: an identity which never uses the same typeface twice. The only consistency, said Bierut, is “lack of consistency.” Bold, memorable, clever.
2. Briefs that are Filled with Paradox and Internal Contradiction
Bierut trotted out some of the classic contradictory desires clients can express when trying to commission a design. They want old and new; male and female; consistent and ever-changing; timeless and surprising. “A lot of designers hear this and roll their eyes,” he said. But he gets to thinking about a way to hit both ideas. He showed work for Saks Fifth Avenue, most recently designed by Bierut’s former boss, Massimo Vignelli and which he updated to include a world of vigorous modern abstraction that also nods to the heritage of the department store. (Read Logo A-Go-Go, a NYT story from 2007 with details of the project.)
3. Working on Things I Don’t Know Anything About
Bierut told the story of working on the Harley-Davidson museum, confessing that he himself is not much of a hardcore biker, having never actually sat on a motorbike before. But rather than let this be a cause for dismay, he instead got to play the role of reluctant spouse to his partner, Jim Bieber. In the process, the museum became a destination for more than just those obsessed with every nut and bolt of the Harley machine. An important nuance here: you might not know anything about a subject, but you have to have passion for discovery. Not knowing and not caring is a recipe for disaster.
4. Working with Impossible Restrictions
This is a common theme from designers, who often recoil in horror at the nightmare of an open brief calling on them to do whatever they like. Bierut talked of the challenge of putting a sign on Renzo Piano’s building for the New York Times. Times Square isn’t known for its subtlety, while the occupants of the NYT building wanted the fancy exterior of their fancy building to speak for itself. Bierut helped devise a cunning plan to hack up the Times’ logo into 923 pieces and then mount said pieces onto the rods already covering the building. Cunning and ingenious.
5. The Very First Idea
Another great story, of the challenge when Citibank merged with Travelers back in 1998. On the very first meeting of the first day they worked on the project, Bierut doodled the “T” of the word “Travelers” as an umbrella handle. Now, he said, you see pretty much that exact idea everywhere. “99% of the word was done on the first morning.” He also good-humoredly acknowledged that partner Paula Scher insists she did the fateful doodle.
6. When the Very First Idea Gets Thrown Away
Bierut told of his desperate attempts to get the Museum of Art and Design to see sense and buy into a logo he’d developed which involved the lettering “A+D.” Despite his valiant efforts, they weren’t buying it, and the eventual solution, a typeface that recalls the architecture of the original building while providing a legible alphabet to write in, was clearly superior. Stop digging, said Bierut. Accept you’re not always right.
7. Being Told Exactly What To Do
Another project that caused heartache and teeth gnashing was the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida. Asked to create a logo for the Frank Gehry building, Bierut came up with a series of solutions that the client absolutely hated. Having presented one idea, he recalled, “they were supposed to see it and ask ‘how can we thank you?’ Instead the question was ‘is this supposed to make us feel nauseous?” In the end, the company founder Michael Tilson Thomas sent a series of his own scrawled ideas. Usually a cue for designers to feel uppity and upset that a client is trading on their toes, Bierut welcomed the input, and used it to come up with the final (gorgeous) solution. See a video of the process here.
[Image c/o DMI.]