Posts filed under 'creativity'

The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design Companion, Part VI Identity

1 comment March 20th, 2013

The next category in The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design is Identity. To the extent that a book cover, for instance, establishes identity and can be part of a larger “package” that could include ads, posters, websites, etc., I guess I understand the idea of Identity. But a true Identity element is used in those different ways: in print, packaging, video, and so on.

The Archive shows some powerful and effective pieces. They demonstrate some very well-known examples of brand in the twentieth century.








As book design is my area, this category is the first one I viewed a something of an outsider. Even film graphics were something I felt common ground with, as I once wrote film criticism for a couple of arts papers and remain a real movie buff. But from “outside” this category I still see a number of impressive examples of typography and graphics working together.






All the pieces, including ones I have not displayed here, can serve to stimulate both students and practicing graphic artists. And inspiration is almost always worth the price of admission. Even—or perhaps especially—when the identity established is a horror, there is something to be learned about how visuals can move us.


The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design Companion, Part I

Add comment December 28th, 2012

I must say, the experience of viewing and reading The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design leaves me with the uneasy sense that I possessed the capability, after all, to do a whole lot more with my work life. Not that I, in any way, cannot appreciate all of the graphic design work in the Archive. Nor do I mean that just anyone can create such graphic art. Rather the whole package breathes such creativity, I wish I had tried harder earlier. But I digress.

*  *  *

I came home to find a box, fourteen, maybe sixteen, inches high; a bit more than ten inches wide and eight or so inches deep. It weighed what seemed like fifteen or so pounds. I opened the box, removed some styrofoam packing on top and pulled another box out of the shipping box. I pulled it out by a felt-like, cloth handle that snapped around two loops of an intricate harness. It still felt heavy, substantial. The weight was not packing material.



I unsnapped the handle, took it off, and put it aside. I pulled back the cover and, on the inside of that cover found a sticker with three paragraphs of introduction. The first thing you see in the front of the box is a booklet measuring about 93/8″ × 121/4″. It is only forty pages long, but is stitched rather than stapled. Inside the front cover are Acknowledgements, the roster of authors, a Table of Contents, a Foreword, multiple listings of each piece of art on the 500 cards, an Index, and Picture credits. On the back cover is all the information one would find on the copyright page of a book.



Behind the booklet were divider cards, fifteen of them.


The first one was a dark kind of olive green. From the second divider on, the green got progressively lighter. The last one was much lighter, almost, but not quite white. At the top of the cards, on one side, were letters, for filing the pieces in alphabetical order. Some of the cards had more than a single letter on them. On the other side was a single category per card:

• Advertising

• Book

• Book Cover

• Film Graphics

• Identity

• Information Design

• Logo

• Magazine and Newspaper

• Magazine Cover

• Money

• Packaging Graphics

• Poster

• Record and CD Cover

• Symbol

• Typeface


The cards that each piece of graphic art has been printed on arrive packed in chronological order. But since each piece carries an ID number, title, designer’s name, year done, client name, and category, there are a host of ways to divide the pieces. The methods that the divider cards encourage are alphabetically by title or designer, or by category. I went with the latter, dropping each card behind the appropriate category as I  read.

The breakdown of pieces into each category was not even. I suppose this holds no surprise, as an even breakdown would make one wonder whether some pieces were not included simply to keep the categories even. But perhaps the actual numbers held a little surprise. They ran like this: Advertising, 24; Book, 81; Book Cover, 9; Film Graphics, 5; Identity, 21; Information Design, 25; Logo, 44; Magazine and Newspaper, 77; Magazine Cover, 20; Money, 3; Packaging Graphics, 5; Poster, 116; Record and CD Cover, 6; Symbol, 7; Typeface, 57.

*  *  *

The individual cards themselves are put together in an interesting, attractive, and occasionally puzzling manner. God help me if I am wrong, but it appeared to me on first blush—and I admit to not double-checking to make sure, but instead deciding to live with my eye, whether or not it is an accurate one for type—that the card text is set in Helvetica in two 23p8 or 9 justified columns. Now, you would not ordinarily think almost 24 picas is too narrow a column for justified text. But, oddly, there is a little bit of inconsistency with the typography. In most every card the wordspacing is fine; every once in a while, however, it is surprisingly wide. I can only imagine that in a project this size, different people were responsible for the typesetting. I bring this up only because it surprised me, given that this whole project is about design and, at least partly, how things look.





But that is just the back of the cards. The card fronts are filled with wonderful shots of the graphics themselves. Large creative pictures, often photographs, always from eye-catching angles or in powerful silhouettes, fill the fronts of the cards.





In a nutshell, the graphics are inspiring. Whether or not I “liked” each and every one, they caught my eye and I can see where this will be an indispensable aid to me in my book design practice when I am stuck or need a jolt toward a design choice on a project.

The beauty of these cards is in how they bring together aesthetics and a sense of history about what was done by whom, when and in what cultural context. They admirably represent a cross-section of the fairly known design universe along with more obscure work that will both surprise and delight the student, the seasoned design professional, and the casual viewer of art. This boxed set is worth the price of admission.

*  *  *

 In future pieces I plan to discuss the individual categories and some of the works themselves. I look forward to discussion with those who have viewed and read through the collection, as well as to any questions raised by those thinking of getting the set.

My Book Designer’s Resolution for 2012

4 comments January 2nd, 2012

Amidst all my kvetching about whether or not ebooks would kill the desire for print books, I always seem to miss an even bigger issue: the possibility that all the short-form reading we do nowadays—blogs, emails, texts—is killing our taste for reading books.

That will most certainly dry up any appreciation we have for print books. Worse, the less we read well-thought out, well-written long-form writing, the more likely it is we will no longer learn how to write well.

I just read a book review that began:

It’s not often that I finish a book.

WTF, I wanted to comment, resorting to textspeak.

First of all, the irony of my commenting about the lack of patience for lasting through reading a whole book by using the kind of texting abbreviation that is so common but also a sign of a perhaps growing disinterest in focusing long enough to write well made me laugh. But then I read the rest of the review, which revealed that the writer has little idea what goes into this kind of writing.

No point in insulting anyone, I decided.

Besides, there are still people out here putting all their effort into making us want to read their writing. And these people are working through their writing to make sure it’s done with an eye toward writing correctly and having deliberate reasons for and knowing why when they break grammatical rules, misspell, and punctuate badly. Aren’t they?

So when I think of the book design and page composition work I have done on self-published writing that manages to get it right, writing done well about things I think many readers would be interested in, I wonder if I am just incredibly lucky, this is the last gasp before the barbarians at the gate win, or my concern is an overreaction.

Either way, if someone takes the time to write well and pays attention to what readers want to read, I hope there is also a growing appreciation for how much needs to go into a do-it-yourself effort that looks professional and not one-size-fits-all. This weekend, reading through a lot of material posted by self-publishers and self-publishers’ help companies, I followed a lot of links to see what these books looked like.

Most of them looked the same. Oh, the type and titles and cover art were different; but they all had that—again I use the phrase—one-size-fits-all look. And they were crowing about their work. Many will say—and I admit, as I always do—that I have a vested interest in the continued need for professional, freelance book design and layout. After all, that is what I do. But I got into all this because I love books, reading, and good writing.

I think there is a growing segment of people writing who don’t know writing from a hole in the ground. Yet they somehow find their way to mastering the marketing of mediocre books. This year I am making it part of my work to get involved with books that really make a case for why books matter and why the printed book is more than a container for words.

Ideal Clients/Ideal Vendors

Add comment May 9th, 2011

Another piece from the old, hacked-into blog, this one raises the issue of the conndrum designers—not just book designers—face when the choice to simply get through a job bumps into the creative urge to do something better and the client doesn’t want “better”.

Last week, John Boardley, the owner-proprietor of the very fine blog, I love typography, brought me into a discussion about difficult book design clients. Someone, in the course of a comment, mentioned that they were in the middle of a difficult book design project, where the client was dead-set against a spec that he (the designer) knew would make the book look immeasurably better than what the client demanded.

Less than helpful, I pointed out—in a less trite manner—that the customer is always right. It’s their dime. And yadda yadda.

It got me thinking about the mindset of publishers—usually smaller ones, as the larger publishers generally understand why they hire designers—and self-publishing authors when they engage the services of a book designer. I remarked that I often work on what I refer to as “straight layout” projects, from templates supplied by publishers. Often, these projects go the most smoothly, as the templates are tried and true, having been used for long-running series of books. But as a designer, while they pay the bills, the books on which I do “straight layout” are usually not the most fun, as they require no exercise of creativity from me.

I ended up posting to the maillist for the Yahoo group for self-publishers. I pretty much asked it all in my subject line, “How Much Leeway Do You Give a Book Designer?” The answers were interesting to the point that they addressed the question; and varied. To sum up, some publishers agreed that to get what they pay for, to some degree it is necessary to step out of the way at some point and let the designer design. And the designer point of view, that working for a publisher or self-publishing author who is stubbornly set on things in opposition to the designer’s best judgment is best avoided, was also represented.

But I never felt as if anyone got out of their own corner. That is, no one addressed my real question about how they strike a balance between the publisher’s need to have some control over the designer they hire while giving that designer the freedom to do great work. And having been extremely fortunate in working for nearly all first-rate clients who viewed me as a member of their team, I came away with nothing more concrete than the notion that the more successful I am at giving the client exactly what pleases them, the more likely it is that they will remain clients with whom I choose to work.

Four Questions for Book Designers

24 comments April 3rd, 2011

In July of 2007, I ran my little survey for the first time, getting the idea from something similar that Smashing Magazine addressed to web designers. Little did I know that I would later find value in running it annually. That is, until my website, blog, and Twitter account were hacked into and I got kind of turned around from anything that called for comments.

But it’s back, primarily because a lot has come and gone since the last time I asked these questions. I won’t give my answers yet, but some comments after each one.

  1. Name the first aspect of designing a book that you give priority to once you accept a project and sit down to start. Originally I was thinking of things like page size and proportion, font choices, and the like. These days a few other things come to mind, such as whether an ebook edition is in the cards.
  2. Has InDesign proven to be the Quark killer for you; and, if so, what was the feature that did it; or do your clients determine which software you use?Again, when I first asked this question, I was not at all pleased with the early InDesign’s handling of type. I was even defensive about the possibility that Quark’s time might be running out. Although I still continue Quark a capable tool, and I know there are plenty of Quark users still out there, I think the fight has passed. InDesign prevails … mostly. The more interesting source of competition for InDesign comes from open source software: there are a number of flavors of TeX and I wonder whether many professional book designers use any of them?
  3. What’s the first font comes to mind for body text each time you begin a book design project; and do you usually stick with that choice or say something like, “Yes, I really like that font, but it’s time to work with something else”?Nowadays, I find myself interested in how you buy your fonts. I mean, do you buy one font family at a time or do you look for collections of type? For instance, the bedrock of my typeface library has been the bundle of fonts Adobe includes with Creative Studio (and before that, Illustrator).
  4. Name one design-related book you highly recommend to book designers—please don’t suggest Tschichold’s The New Typography (Die neue Typographie), as I am just up to here with that book, as much of an earth-shaker as it was.I cannot get over how rudely I put that: up to here with Tschichold. So I will try to be clear.  I have nothing against the books below. I have always regarded them as my core references. But I’m ready to consider some new ones. Five Hundred Years of Book Design proved a little disappointing. And I have high hopes for one I just ordered, Joost Grootens’ I swear I use no art at all. Still, I would rather not hear about the following books for this little questionnaire.

    • The Elements of Typographic Style
    • On Book Design
    • Book design: practice and theory
    • The Design of Books
    • Bookdesign: A comprehensive guide

So … what do you have to say?

Degrees of Difficulty

Add comment January 31st, 2011

I find myself guilty once again of sporadic blogging, if not outright neglect of this blog. For that I apologize. In my defense, I have been consumed by work. And the latest book, another self-published tome by a professional, has brought some new issues into focus.

Primarily, I wonder why a difficult client is automatically considered a negative, whereas a difficult project can actually prove the best kind of fun. Interestingly, I think there’s something to be said for the ideal combination being a client who is easy to work with—and this does not mean the client cannot be demanding—and a really difficult book to bring to press.

That ideal combination is the one I labor under at the moment. This latest client has written a book that I’m not sure I understand, but that seems to have elements of memoir, spiritual growth, and metaphysical philosophy to it. He also possesses a rock-steady certainty about how a number of things ought to flow across and look on my pages. There are times when I don’t agree; some of his ideas seem jarring to me, like they might interrupt the reader’s flow. But, then, I can’t be sure that’s not intended.

Altogether I have found that whether I like a client’s ideas or not, it is far better to have a client who does not shy from telling you, very specifically, what he’s looking for. And this while I also remember how, as a novice designer, the urge to put one’s own stamp, and only one’s own, on a project, is often overwhelming.

Working at book design and layout as many years as I have, I want to tell new book designers—primarily those who work with self-publishing authors—a few things about situations like this.

It’s okay to have clients who are active in the design process. It’s not necessary that you feel every book you work on is a product solely of your own art. No arguing that it feels a lot more like fun when you get to be The Creative Force. But not every client will hire you for that. You can, of course, turn down such jobs. However, I’m a believer in the desirability of constant paying work. I also think the flexibility you grow by working with these two kinds of clients likely prepares you for a longer career in that it helps you to function under different circumstances. And longevity, after paying clients, is what it’s all about.

On Creativity

Add comment November 7th, 2010

And another old piece, where I muse on the creative process.

Every so often the urge strikes to create something new. Usually this occurs when I most resemble a blank slate, dazed and logy upon waking from sleep, or when I am lunching at my marina spot, seated at a small table and staring aimlessly at tied-down boats bobbing in the water. An idea will hit and, sometimes only in my minds eye, I’ll sketch out the look of a spread that I fancy I might like to use for a book someday. And voila! A concept emerges.

I should own up right here and now that, generally, as I cannot—how you say?—draw a whit, the only sketching I ever tended to do was in my mind’s eye. Until, that is, it occurred to me that using type can be a kind of drawing. Further, geometric shapes, white space, and placement are other tools to be used in making the pictures that pages can be.

These notions are not entirely new to me, of course, after 17 years of setting type on a Macintosh. During that very first phase of the computer typesetting experience, when, I can proudly say, I learned quite on my own that one need not—indeed must not—use every typeface and effect in one’s arsenal simply because one can, I designed a certain flyer for a fundraiser. It was kind of a wretched attempt at a joke; and the fundraiser it supposedly publicized was a fiction. The subject of the flyer was to make fun of some news that the top-level people at the place I worked were getting restless over not having received pay raises in a few years at the same time that those of us nowhere near the top level, employees with a union contract, had gotten a number of 1.5% and 2% raises that were less than what the top level folks spent on tips.

But I digress.

My point is that, in this pretend flyer I played with one style of one typeface. Size and placement provided variety, along with a couple of homemade dingbats, which were sized and placed for effect.

This makes me wonder whether any young student of typography just naturally rebels against ornamentation. I mean, there’s me; and then there was—you guessed it—Tschichold. Okay, I’m kidding. Honest, I meant it in fun mentioning myself in the same sentence as Jan Tschichold. But I do have to consider that the natural order might be to reject unnecessary flourishes and pointless decoration.

I have only one reservation about shooting for the cleanest, most functional looking page I can. Sometimes ornamentation is simply fun. For the reader, as well as the designer. I realize that no one ever said any of us must have fun. But I got to thinking about this while beginning to read Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1990). In this wonderful book, one thing Tufte does is rail against ornament that serves no point, or is “chockablock with cliché and stereotype, coarse humor, and ‘content-empty.'” He likens such display to “a duck.” And he illustrates the point with a graphic, a photo of a building that is a duck.

Now, how ridiculous is a building in the shape of a duck?

Except that it turns out “the Duck,” as it’s known, sits about 20 or so minutes from where I live in Suffolk County, on Long Island, in New York. And, while I’ve always laughed at it as a bit of local lunacy, it really is a landmark and part of the fabric of what makes out here so uniquely out here.

Which goes to show that most any guideline or rule may be broken in a way that seems reasoned and natural to some, while at the same time arbitrary and an act of quackery to others.


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