People you should know about: Earnest Elmo Calkins, the Father of Modern Advertising (the grandfather of graphic design?)

December 30, 2008


C.L. Barber’s The Commercial Messenger

One of my favorite podcasts is SVA’s MFA Designer As Author: Paul Rand Lecture Series. Each podcast, most of which are lectures by Steven Heller, covers a topic in the history of graphic design. This morning, I watched Earnest Elmo Calkins and the Birth of Commercial Modernism. In it Heller discusses Calkins and how he is responsible for commercial modernism in America, or more precisely the melding of art and advertising to create the early manifestations of the industry that now drives American culture.

Calkins, an ad man, sought to advance the profession of advertising with an almost idealist bent. He believed advertising had the potential to uplift culture. While the goal of advertising is to sell, a result is also an implicit agreement between manufacturer and consumer that what is advertised lives up to its promise. This leads to higher quality products. In a consumerist culture, I guess that could be considered ‘uplifting.’ Calkins also believed in the modernist idea of the amalgamation of art and industry. Apparently his first exposure to the world of art was at the Pratt Institute (*cough* I went there) School of Design Exhibition(source). In the MFA podcast, Heller attributes Calkins interests in art to his visit to The 1925 Exposition of Art and Industrial Products in Paris. It was there that Calkins discovered modern art (Art Deco), and subsequently brought it back to the states and began incorporating the style into advertising.

Modern art reflected the monumental change that was happening in the early 1900s as the world shifted out of the industrial age and into the machine age. The motifs of modern art were reactions as well as celebrations of new distinctly modern phenomena like airplanes, trains, and even motion itself. By advocating this idea of art in industry, Calkins brought this new and exciting art to the masses via advertising. It must be noted though, that Calkins aim wasn’t only to bring together style or art and commerce, but to use the art to alter the perception of goods, which in turn promoted sales. This was done through not only the implementation of the modern style but the style adapted to what we now refer to in the creative process as the concept. This is essentially the birth of the creative team. Calkins employed artists and assigned them briefs which they would then solve using their style. The style reflected the times but also invoked an emotion that could be used to stimulate consumption, thus, the birth of modern advertising.

You could say Earnest Elmo Calkins wrote the book on modern advertising. Actually, he did; it’s called Modern Advertising. Written with partner Ralph Holden, Modern Advertising details the mechanisms of advertising. It is essentially the blueprint for advertising as it has been for almost a century.

I’m still reading through the book as well as learning about Calkins, but I just wanted to bring attention to Earnest Elmo Calkins, as he is partly responsible for our very profession, graphic design.

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Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2008


The Other Side of Paradise

December 23, 2008

To continue today’s poetry theme, poet and activist Staceyann Chin recently finished her memoir, The Other Side of Paradise. The actual release date is April 4th, but you can preorder now on amazon.

If you don’t know who she is, school yourself with this wiki page. Staceyann is among a few poets I consider friends here in NYC. Definitely looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.


Poetry, Guns, and Graphic Design: Good Morning To You Too!

December 23, 2008

This morning I woke up and began my usual rounds of the design blogs. Of course, there are the year-end round-ups. Brand New does its Best Logos of The Year post. Design Observer has a great review of Reasons To Be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles, a monograph of a fairly obscure British designer whose work is now getting widespread attention, due in part to a blog entry from early 2007 which apparently led to the monograph itself.

Still, it’s not a design morning for me.

A client once mentioned to me how it seemed a lot of designers were also writers (or at least want to be). Not too surprising, I thought. It’s been said that graphic design and the written word go hand in hand, both being conduits of language and communication. So it’s natural that many designers have an affinity for not just the letterforms but the words the letterforms create. Some designers have such a profound love for the written word that it becomes an overarching theme in the narrative of their work (Linda Zacks comes to mind). Others have taken things even beyond that. With his 2001 book, The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters, Chip Kidd has done what, for me, would be my piano necktie achievement as a designer/writer. Lets face it. We’re all working on novels. We only keep these blogs because marketing publications say its good for business.

piano-piano-tie
Piano Necktie

As I said, this morning is not a design morning for me. Instead, I want to take a look at poetry. If this were the first day of classes, this would be the moment you calmly gathered your things and made a hasty exit towards the registrar’s office.

First, let me set things up for you. Every morning, I start my day by reading a poem aloud. Usually, it’s whatever poem is on The Writer’s Almanac, since it’s set as my default homepage. This morning, however, my browser had stayed open all night. So after reading a bit on the design blogs and realizing I wasn’t in the mood, I remembered how the other day it had come to my attention that Robert Bringhurst (Yes, that Robert Bringhurst), is also a poet, and a serious one at that. I did a quick google search for his poetry, which led me to a few of his poems. Holy buttbuckets! Bringhurst is a poetry beast. Below is The Beauty of Weapons, a poem Bringhurst wrote about an UZI. A f*cking UZI.

The Beauty of Weapons
by Robert Bringhurst

El-Arish, 1967

A long-armed man can
carry the nine-millimeter
automatic gun slung
backward over the right shoulder.

With the truncated butt
caught in the cocked
elbow, the trigger
falls exactly to hand.

These things I remember,
and the fuel-pump gasket cut
from one of the innumerable
gas masks in the roadside dump.

I bring back manuscript picked
up around incinerated trucks
and notes tacked next
to automatic track controls.

Fruits of the excavation.
This is our archaeology.
A dig in the debris
of a civilization six weeks old.

The paper is crisp and brittle
with the dry rock and the weather.
The Arabic is brittle
with the students’ first exposure

to air-war technology and speed.
Ridiculous to say so, but
the thought occurs,
that Descartes would be pleased:

the calculus is the language
of the latest Palestinian
disputations
in the field of theology.

The satisfying feel
of the fast traverse
on the anti-aircraft guns
is not in the notes.

It lies latent and cool
in the steel, like the intricate
mathematics
incarnate in the radar:

the antennae folded and rolled
like a soldier’s tent,
sweeping the empty
sky and the barren horizon,

the azimuth and the elevation,
sweeping the empty air
into naked abstraction,
leading the guns.

The signal is swirled until it
flies over the lip like
white, weightless
wine from the canteen cup.

Invisibly, the mechanism sings.
It sings. It sings like a six-ton flute:
east, west, always the same
note stuck in the rivetless throat.

And yet, a song as intricate
as any composition by Varese,
and seeming, for the moment, still
more beautiful, because,

to us, more deadly.
Therefore purer, more
private, more familiar,
more readily feared, or desired:

a dark beauty, with a steel sheen,
caught in the cocked
mind’s eye and brought
down with an extension of the hand.

from The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems, 1972-82. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982. (View book)

It’s remarkably beautiful, yet his choice of words and the way he stacks the consonants against one another capture, not only the brutality of the subject matter, but the very sound the weapon creates. But don’t take my word for it.

Read this assessment of the poem by Canadian poet, David Seymour.


Tropicana: Side by Side (old news with a new “twist”)

December 20, 2008

Back in October, PepsiCo shook up the (design) world with its immense overhaul of the Pepsi brand. The blogs had a lot to say, and as you can imagine, much of it was not positive. Firstly, I must note that I do not drink Pepsi. Not because I have some aversion to soda, but because my blog is actually sponsored by the color red, which any self-respecting designer should know was invented and owned exclusively by the Coca-Cola company. Thus, my ties to PepsiCo’s competition are sweet, dark brown, and deep. Naturally, I paid very little attention to the new Pepsi logo and packaging redesign, citing it as yet another reason to not drink Pepsi. I had no relationship with the brand, so I didn’t really care.

Well, like any huge corporation PepsiCo owns quite a few other brands, and the corporate nip/tuck was rippling its way through PepsiCo’s other brands and onto my breakfast table. Tropicana, Pepsi’s squarer more nutritious cousin and my go-to brand for ‘Pure Premium’ OJ, had also been given a 2.0ver. You can read all about it here. This was news I cared about! I can’t say I loved the old Tropicana carton but over the years it and I had bonded over many western omelets. I had come to know, love, and trust the little straw sticking out of the orange. It signaled the dawn and its infinite possibilities. I was sad to see it go.

At the same time, I embraced the new Tropicana cartons. Not because they feature a near erotic close up of a just poured glass of orange juice, or because they unabashedly lower case and sans serif the ‘orange’ in my OJ, but simply because they’re new, and with every new brand overhaul comes the awkward rollout phase, when the old packaging gets to share shelf space with the new packaging. This period offers a unique opportunity to do the most rudimentary of experiments: the shelf-off. Pictured above is a shelf-off in progress. While the cartons on the right aren’t, in fact, orange juice, they still have the old design and if you look closely you can even see the little straw sticking out of the orange (how my heart longs for it). Looking at the two side by side, I’d have to say I’m drawn more to the new cartons. If I were to pin it down to any one thing, it would be the fact that the photo made me want orange juice more than the strawrange. At the same time, the design of the older cartons makes me think this orange juice is probably going to taste better. I can’t really pinpoint why that is, but I’d venture to say it has something to do with the sans serifs and the kinds of brands I relate them to.

At any rate, I can’t decide if there’s a clear winner here, or if it even matters. What I do find lamentable, however, is the omission of ‘Pure Premium’ on the new cartons. It deeply saddens me that my orange juice is now only ‘pure and natural.’ I guess I’ll have to start looking elsewhere for the premium stuff.


Time Magazine Interviews Shepard Fairey

December 19, 2008

Time Magazine interviews Shepard Fairey about his iconic Obama poster. Fairey discusses how he created the poster, even touching on the process of cutting the layers out of rubylith. And here I thought the guy was just nasty in illustrator. Take a peek at his studio walls — fun stuff.

watch the interview here


It was on this day

December 19, 2008

from today’s Writers Almanac:

It was on this day in 1941 that the Office of Censorship was created. It was a special emergency wartime agency ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He appointed Byron Price to head the agency. Price was a veteran journalist, the general manager of the Associated Press.

Price advocated a system of voluntary censorship for the presses, and it was successful during World War II because the war had popular support. In general, most reporters — as citizens and as journalists — shared in the prevailing sense of sacrifice and patriotism that the government encouraged.

The press refrained from reporting information about troop movements, the locations of forts, and the development of weapons — most notably of the atomic bomb. Many members of the press knew about the “Manhattan Project,” which Price later called the war’s “best-kept secret.”

It’s not design related, but it’s certainly interesting.