March 15, 2021No Comments

Design Confession

I hardly knew anything about graphic design, or its history, as an art student in the college of Visual and Performing Arts. As part of my work-study program, I was getting paid $5 an hour to assist students load Microfilm and Microfiche machines in the basement of Byrd Library. The “computer consultant,” who sat on the other side of the desk from me, helped visitors copy photos on the flatbed scanner and import them into a program called, “Photoshop.” She made $7.50 an hour. 

I wrote an essay about Nike in high school, so I suppose I knew what a logo was. I was also once asked to develop a “graphic” for a T-Shirt that would include type on it. That vague understanding of how design works, plus the allure of a sweet $7.50 an hour salary, lead me to declare “Communications Design,” as a major my Sophomore year. But, to tell you the truth, I still couldn’t name one professional designer if my life depended on it. 

So you can imagine the horror I faced, when, on my first day of Intro to Communications Design I (CMD 251), our professor, @wonderingthealphabet, played a bit of an ice-breaker with the class: let’s go around the room, introduce yourself and name your favorite graphic designer.

I drew a complete blank.

Luckily, the library was right next door the Schine Student center, where I had just picked up my stack of required  textbooks the week before. Among them, “The Elements of Typographic Style,” by Robert Bringhurst, “Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works,” by the genius, Erik Spiekermann, and “The History of Graphic Design,” by the saint, Phillip Meggs. I had thumbed through all of them because, to tell you the truth, students weren’t exactly clamoring to scan Microfilm.

As we went around the room, my classmates confidently claimed their design heroes. I was nervous, perhaps a little sweaty. Who declares a major they hardly know anything about? Think, John, think!

“Josef... Müller... Brockmann? Yeah, Josef Müller-Brockmann.” That’s what I said. 

My professor said he respected that response, made some remark about the grid and his education in the International Typographic Style, and the class moved along. Josef Müller-Brockmann saved me from embarrassment. To this day, I have no idea how a hyphenated name, complete with umlaut, popped into my head.

After class, I rode my skateboard back to my apartment, looked up the Swiss Style in my textbooks, and vowed to learn more about the history of graphic design.

March 4, 2021No Comments

King Gets His Due

Brody, Saville, even Bubbles ­— All British designers whose work pushed established norms and helped define graphic movements in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At least within the pages of history, they each became synonymous with a certain look or style — Bubbles is to Punk what Brody is to New Wave Typography. Perhaps their status is a result of the genres in which they helped define.

There is another Brit, though, that possessed a certain fashion, but designed the power of message in a way that eclipsed trend — Dave King. The name may be unfamiliar, but as art direct of the London Sunday Times Magazine, his Constructivist-inspired solutions were certainly recognizable. And, thanks to Rick Poynor’s monograph, “David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian,” (2020) this graphic design genius may finally be getting the recognition he deserves.

Let there be no doubt, King was a well-respected and award-winning designer during his practice. As he shifted his focus to collecting artifacts from the Russian Revolution and authoring books, he became less relevant in the rampant discussion about design authorship during the age of computer-generated design. In hindsight, this is unfortunate. His work as an activist should have been at the center of any such deliberation.

While his approach to design was certainly influence by the Russian Constructivists, and therefore could be interpreted as “post-modern,” they were also done with purpose. For example, “Demonstrate!” a poster King designs for the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1978, clearly made reference to Rodchenko (and, to a lesser extent, Lissitsky) in order to deliver a powerful, politically-driven rally cry, in a similar way that design was harnessed for the Russian Revolution. King was not interested in design for the sake of design.

Primarily, history relegates the importance of this time period to advances in the medium, rather than the message, focusing on style and graphic surface, rather than substance and content. While it is somewhat expected, given the extreme graphic break that the computer allowed, it unfortunately left the important work of King to be an afterthought in dialogue and most publications.

That is, hopefully, until now.  In an interview with Steven Heller, Poynor proudly says of King, “He is one of Britain’s finest designers.”  

February 27, 2021No Comments

The Fox and the Bird

Context is important when we look back at the history of branding and design.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s, American Corporate identity was heavily influenced by the Swiss International Style, the wordmark having largely replaced pictorial representation of companies and brands. Recall, Vignelli introduced American Airlines to Helvetica in 1967, and Rand streamlined IBM in 1956. But, as we’ve come to better understand, trends provide the perfect opportunity to Zag, which is exactly what WolffOlins did across the pond. 

As the logotype became pervasive, WolffOlins, founded in 1965, convinced paint manufacturer Hadfields to trademark an illustration of a fox. However, they did maintain the obligatory Akidenz Grotesk logotype to accompany the curious fellow. It wasn’t until 1972 that they eschewed sans-serif altogether for the construction company Bovis. In addition, Wolff pitched an intricate illustration of a hummingbird. The client had been expecting “a bull or some other metaphor for male physical strength.” As one could imagine, strength is what every other company in the trade represented. The hummingbird, instead, could act as a metaphor that symbolized and represented a company focused on delicate precision. It was the perfect Zag.

Wolff admits, though, that the idea was nearly lost due to his inability or, perhaps, unwillingness to sell the concept. After listening to the presentation, Bovis chairman, Sir Keith Joseph, asked for an explanation of the hummingbird. Wolff responded that he “just really liked it.”

February 24, 2021No Comments

A Sip from the Crystal Goblet

When I first read Beatrice Warde’s 1930 lecture on printing, “The Crystal Goblet” (in Helen Armstrongs’ crucial  Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field, 2009), I thought, fuck that shit.

Mind you, I was just a few years removed from design education at Syracuse, a concept school with heavy Swiss influences. My heroes at the time were the antithesis of my schooling — Stefan Sagmeister, David Carson, and Art Chantry. All designers who used expressive typography (albeit in extremely different ways) to communicate powerful messages on an emotional level. Their work had profound influence in the field, and lead to a personal epiphany: the objective of graphic design in the 21st Century wasn’t to plaster the world with Univers. Plus, they were winning design awards up the wazoo.

Perhaps I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

For context, Warde was a scholar, writer, and historian for typography. In 1930, she was the marketing manager for the British Monotype Corporation. A monumental influence in the design industry, she championed higher printing standards, revival typefaces like Bodoni (hooray!) and new fonts like Gill Sans (woof!). But make no mistake, it was Warde’s vocation to hawk fonts to print shops throughout Europe, and she did that through lectures and essays.

“The Crystal Goblet,” then, was a metaphor used to convince printers and advertising agencies that typography aught to be treated like a crystal clear glass, beautifully constructed, yet transparent. Warde explains, “There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought.” It’s an easy argument that transparent typography allows for a seamless transferal of message, hence, clearer communication.

She continues, “If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e., that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds.” In retrospect, how could 25-year-old me have ever argued with this idea?

With all due respect to Weingart, Greiman, McCoy — any designer with a penchant for typographic fashion, really — Beatrice Warde’s unforgiving lecture aught to be recited in all design classes today, a short Zoom meeting being sufficient. Not because designer’s opinions or preferences don’t matter — in many cases, they most certainly do — but because the underlying lesson is extremely relevant. That is, compelling ideas should be communicated clearly to the intended audience.

Of course, questions remain: whose message deserves clarity, and what content constitutes the intellectual criteria for such important communication? In the words of the late Michael Jackson:

I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
Na-na-na, na-na-na
(No chance this song doesn’t get stuck in your head today.)

In other words, start internally. Check out your social media feeds: Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. Your online portfolio. Have an idea worth sharing? Make it clearer. If you are in the business of communicating messages for brands or other people, this isn’t a novel idea. However, we live in the Golden age of Typography, with literally thousands of more fonts to choose from than Warde’s audience. Selecting an inappropriate typeface has never been easier. Drop some typographic knowledge with your clients on why clean, transparent typography is so important today.

Expressive typography isn’t dying. There are an abundance of designers using type in really interesting and progressive ways. But clean type is timeless. There exists a place in the designer’s toolkit for both. Fair warning: not all designers are created equal. And not every designer possesses the skill set, or the right client, to appropriately fuck with good ideas, and clear communication. And to those, might I suggest occasionally taking a sip from the Crystal Goblet?

February 20, 2021No Comments

Art Direct America

In America, the occupational title of the art director preceded that of the graphic designer.

While the lines between roles have been blurred today, the importance of advertising in editorial created a more specific need for the Art Director in early 20th Century. It wasn’t until the Art Director’s Club of New York, formed in 1920, started publishing its famous Annual that recognition was given for achievements in graphic design created outside of advertising – primarily letterhead and display materials.

Among the earliest art directors was M.F. Agha, a Russian who came to America while working at the German edition of Vogue. While his name is rarely mentioned in design history classes, he’s featured prominently in Hollis’ Graphic Design: A Concise History (the source and inspiration for this post), and his work was ubiquitous in America, gracing the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. 

February 18, 2021No Comments

Vision in Motion

Kenneth Hine, a professor at Syracuse University, kept a bibliography of the most important books on design, cleverly titled, “Hine Sight.” He sold perfect-bound versions of it at the copy center, and I believe even offered course credit to anybody that read every book listed. Of course, the task was impossible – the book is 137 pages, and lists over 300 resources.

I’ve kept it, of course, just like every book I’ve ever purchased. Over the past 20 years, it’s been packed in a box 5 times, and hauled to each new apartment, living for the past 6 years in the basement of our house. Occasionally, I still dust it off, bound and determined to at least make a dent in it.

Most of the books still remain elusive to me. For example, Vision in Motion, by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, which is listed on the very first page. Hine describes it as “The most important book ever written about design philosophy, education, and practice.” So you can imagine my guilt for not having read it.

There was a time, though, in 2010, that I actually held the book in my hands. I was in a rare bookstore in San Francisco, perusing the design section. I happened upon the hardcover and, though it was in a plastic sleeve, it was immediately recognizable to me. I looked at my wife – girlfriend at the time – and said, “I’ve been looking for this book a long time.” 

“You should get it,” she said.

I can’t recall the price listed on the back, but I know it was well out of reach. I slowly placed the book back on the shelf, and shortly after we caught a plane back to New York. 

Today, you can find used copies of “Vision in Motion” on Amazon for $45, though there are 4 copies listed at over $400. I’ve never really thought about purchasing one, because it doesn’t seem like a book that should arrive in the mail. Or maybe it should. Either way, I do think about the version I held in my hands once. In hind site, perhaps I should have purchased it.

February 17, 2021No Comments

Master of Imperfection

In the early 2000’s, Art Chantry was experiencing somewhat of a revival in popularity, partially due to the release of his recent monograph. In retrospect, the overwhelming response in awards can be seen as expected, after almost a decade of computer-generated design. His low-tech approach for album covers associated with the grunge scene was fresh again.

Nearly a Century earlier, H.N. Werkman also decidedly eschewed advances in technology and printing. While other Dutch designers were taking advantage of the precision of metal type and sophisticated new photographic techniques, Werkman took the opposite approach. Often working without a press, his hands-on approach resulted in ink blots, smudging, rough edges, and overlapping shapes – a slap in the face to commercial design, and nothing short of glorious. 

Sadly, Werkman was executed by the Nazi police for running a clandestine publishing house during WWII. Is it time for a Werkman revival in 2021?

January 12, 2021No Comments

Private Label Revolution

Introducing 4 ways brands can shift their marketing approach to keep up with Private Label success

Branded packaged goods have dominated retail for almost a century, while private-label products have been seen as the lower-quality value option for thrifty shoppers who sacrifice quality to keep a few extra bucks in their pockets. But things are changing: Private label brands are set to double sales growth (3.8%) vs. national brands in 2020 and are forecasted to capture 25% of dollars in the next 10 years.  This growth is driven by shoppers’ shift in mindset about the quality of private label brands and the propensity towards greater value regardless of the state of the economy. 

So, why the shift? Retailers are getting smarter – they’re investing in higher-quality manufacturing, implementing more efficient logistical processes and leveraging their ownership of shopper data. These changes are resulting in 25-30% higher profit margins from their brands vs. national brands and are giving retailers more control over their suppliers. 

What does this mean? A partner is now alsoa competitor. 

In this hyper-competitive retail landscape, one of the biggest challenges we face is navigating the shelf at retailers whose growth strategies depend heavily on promoting their own brands. In years past, brands needed to align their own objectives with retailer objectives, marry their targets with the retailer’s shopper, and show how their brand could grow the category. Now, we need to strategize ways in which the brand grows the category at the retailer without directly competing against private label. A tough job got tougher. But, with a little homework and some creative strategies, this challenge becomes a huge opportunity.  Read below to find out ways we're suggesting to combat.

Importantly, keep in mind that these are just a few thought starters to combat the steal of share private label brands are starting to take. As we head into 2020, there remains ample room for ideation, but developing innovative strategies to address retailers’ increased focus on private label will become a critical component in shopper agency-national brand relationships.The key, in almost every solution, will be to arm the agency and your client with in-depth knowledge of the retailer, with transparency and visibility in order to react in a timely fashion. Understand that private label – while a growing competitive threat – can provide clients with an incredible opportunity to connect with shoppers.

January 9, 2021No Comments

Invest in Design

Historically, one area private label fell short was design. Shoppers didn’t believe the store brand packaging reflect high-quality products. But the Revolution is being led with strong design. Shoprite just debuted “bowl & basket,” its new food and beverage private label brand. Handsomely designed with a simple bespoke typeface, a warm color pallet, and understated photography, “bowl & basket” could be viewed by shoppers as a local craft company. A simple brow at the top of the package subtly states, “A Shoprite Brand,” without the dated logo that adorns over 300 stores nationwide. Shoprite, along with many competitors in grocery, have come to understand that unique, ownable, and strong design doesn’t cost any more than generic, same-old design. In fact, poor design could cost more in the long run, if you consider that customers won’t purchase products they have no interest in testing. National brands should take note, and ensure that the quality of their packaging should match the quality of their products. Want to really get a retailer’s interest? Design a package that’s retail-specific. Not only are you more likely to sell-in a shopper program, you’ll also gain the interest of shoppers. 

January 3, 2021No Comments

Leverage Retailers’ Cause Marketing Plans

Retailers, no matter how big or small, are starting to realize the impact they are expected to have in their communities. For example, Family Dollar partnered with local Boys and Girls Clubs of America to produce a custom SKU of private label paper towels designed by kids. Kids got their designs featured on a product nation-wide, while proceeds went towards local chapters of BGCA. An added bonus: shoppers felt good about contributing to their neighborhood when they bought the product.  Of course, there remains opportunity for national brands to buy-in to this initiative and elevate the exposure of a charitable cause, drive more traffic to the retailer, and still align with FD’s objective of increasing sales of its private label products.