Christmas In March!

March 6, 2009


If you live in NYC, one look outside the window this week and you’d think it was December. Last weekend brought us our second “storm of the century” this winter. Classes were canceled. Employers declared it a Snow Day, named after the long-forgotten turn of the century film starring Chris Elliot, Chevy Chase, and to a lesser extent, Iggy Pop.

For me, the snow day wasn’t quite the celebration it was for everyone else. I had an appointment with my amazing tax lady whose offices are in a lost section of Brooklyn that I suspect hasn’t changed much since the Reagan years. Not only did I have to leave the apartment, something I try to do once every month, but my plan to bike there was pretty much derailed (you know how long I been sitting on that pun!). At any rate, the appointment went well and it looks like I don’t owe that drunken sailor of an uncle too much this year. Looks like I’ll be getting some thing back too. Schwing!

Oh, but my friends, it only gets better. A nice little man in a white truck rang my doorbell yesterday morning and placed in the hands of my bath-robed and fuzzy-slippered neighbor (because delivery guys have a ring every doorbell policy) a package containing the late Tibor Kalman’s monograph, Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist. Schwing! I remember seeing this book around when I was in college. The particularly striking cover is what caught my attention. Back then, the only thing I knew about Tibor Kalman was that he had something to do with the magazine Colors and he was kind of a big deal. Beyond that, I had no real grasp of his contribution to graphic design, so the book didn’t much interest me. Still, the image of that cover, the smiling face, the warm hues that make me think of 85 degree weather and farms I’ve never been to, had somehow been sandblasted into my memory.

It wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about Tibor Kalman, partly due to the hours spent gathering content for this blog. I came across a story about how to celebrate the launch of Perverse Optimist, he held a party in a supermarket and gave away signed canned goods as party favors. I wanted to know more about the mind and work of a man who was obviously experiencing the world differently than your average person. And so, I ordered the hardcover and it came yesterday! Schwing!

I got through the first 75 pages last night and I can definitely see why the reviews for this book are so good. Since I haven’t read through it I wont try to do a review but the AIGA Design Archives has a great description here.

photo by Andre-Myopia Pix

Also, picked up Print & Finish, a handsome little book which details various printing and finishing techniques. Schwing! Nicely designed and filled with great technical information, I’d definitely recommend you get yourself a copy. The one I snagged was the last one on the shelf at B&N, and it seems Amazon only has 1 copy in stock. Better hurry!

By the way, I did some cleaning up around here. Let me know what you think of the new look. I’m still tweaking it so some of the old entries look a little wonky but in due time.

Happy Friday!

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.

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 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
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
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.

People you should know about

December 15, 2008

When I think of design authors, the first person who comes to mind is Steven Heller. After that I got nothin’. In the past, it wasn’t something I’d given much attention. Lately, however, I’m finding myself just as interested in the author of an essay as I am its content. My guess is there are definitely some “heavy hitters” out there, the folks who write about design, and write about design A LOT. Ellen Lupton is one such heavy hitter.

Author of eight books on design, and countless articles and essays, her bio reads like a bibliography of design institutions and resources. She’s contributed to Print, ID, Eye, Metropolis, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Even more incredible, she not only writes about design but is fully active in the community as a designer, curator, and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at MICA.

In her bio it says she has ‘recently focused on bringing design awareness to broader audiences’ and it’s apparent even on her site. It includes an essays section featuring writings on a variety of topics pertinent to design, an interviews section with interviews she has done with notable graphic designers (Michael Bierut, Carin Goldberg, Jonathan Hoefler, Paula Scher), and even a section with tips on how to become a design author. It’s an incredible resource for designers, or anyone interested in design at all.

I’m going to continue my search for heavy hitters and posting about them here. In the meantime, check out Ellen Lupton’s site, and definitely bookmark it.

How Many Voltas Does It Take? Album Art and You

November 24, 2008

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of The Moon cover design by Hipgnosis

No matter what it is I’m doing, I almost always have music playing. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Mars Volta. I’m not sure I’m even a fan of this band, but I can definitely appreciate their music. I have no idea what the guy is singing about but the intensity of his voice and the music surrounding it have me convinced that whatever it is, it’s really important and deserves my attention. Plus, it’s great music to do anything to. Try crocheting to the song Vermicide and you’ll see what I mean.

Alas, this is a design blog, so I mustn’t stray too far from the topic at hand. Came across this review of For The Love Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis on Speak Up this morning. As the title suggests, it’s a monograph featuring the work of Hipgnosis, a now defunct design firm that created HUNDREDS of album art from the sixties through the eighties. Don’t know who they were? It’s okay, neither did I, but you definitely know their work. They were responsible for Pink Floyd’s iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover, which was rated the fourth best album cover of all time by VH1, the venerable pop culture museum and the de-facto authority on all things countdown-able. While Hipgnosis is no longer in existence, one of its founding members, Storm Thorgerson is still working today. In fact, he designed the cover for Mars Volta’s 2004 release, De-Loused in the Comatorium, one of the albums in heavy rotation in my workspace right now.

Originally, this post was going to be a compilation of my favorite album covers growing up. I was specifically going to find covers from the late eighties into the nineties, and only ones that I found striking, not because of the lore surrounding it, but simply because I dug them. I sat to brainstorm but after coming up with four albums, I couldn’t think of anything else. What happened? Were there no iconic album covers done in my lifetime? I seriously doubt this is the case, however, what is true is that album covers no longer have the same power as in the past. There are obvious reasons for this: the ‘death’ of vinyl, the rise of the mp3, and the enormous amount of music being released today. While many album covers are well designed, and thoughtfully considered, they no longer serve as the Point-of-Sale advertising they used to. Instead, they are more a supplement to the music. This means less is riding on the album artwork, and thus it often goes unnoticed. There are definitely exceptions to this. The cover for Bjork’s Volta comes to mind. Tons of great new album covers have also been produced by folks like Non-Format, Hort, Karlssonwilker, and many others, but outside of the design community, much of it isn’t even given a second thought.

I’m wondering if there’s a way to elevate the album cover back to where it once was, not just something a handful of designers care about, rather something that captures the imaginations of everyday people. Maybe it’s through large-scale exhibitions, monographis, and yes, even VH1 countdowns. I suppose the key is to get people talking about NEW album covers, and not just the classics. If album art is no longer helping to sell the music, maybe it could help sell itself.

Why Helvetica and not, well, anything else.

November 20, 2008

Having seen this on several blogs, I almost didn’t post it. After reading it, however, I managed to relate it to my own experiences in graphic design, which is what this blog is all about.

In 2001, when I moved to New York to attend Pratt, I had only a minimal interest in graphic design. I was a computer graphics major, though my passions were somewhere between computer animation and fine art. My roommate was a graphic design major, however, and it was conversations with him that first brought the New York City Subway signage system to my attention.

Like most college freshmen, we had the perfect blend of bravado and naiveté to believe we could do a better job of designing the signage system, a task so complex that it took the MTA, with the help of several notable designers, several decades to complete. I remember sitting on the G Train, looking at the signs and saying, “Man, these things are so ugly.” We assumed the signage was of little thought to the MTA, and was probably done in-house by a lone accountant who had a bit of extra time on his hands. We even proposed writing the MTA and offering them our services, because “something had to be done.” I was particularly troubled by the usage of the typeface Helvetica (what I then called Arial because I didn’t know the difference between the two and a font because, at that point, I had never even heard the word typeface). What would we have done? Replace Helvetica with Times New Roman? Or better yet, Impact? (Actually, that might be an interesting experiment. Let me write that on a post-it.)

Seven years down the line, and after a woefully necessary education in typography and the history of graphic design, it’s safe to say I no longer have such misguided (pun intended) ambitions. I am now able to appreciate the perceived candor of Helvetica, as well as the design climate and technological advances (or limitations depending on how you view it) that led to its usage as the MTA’s standard typeface. Conversely, I can truly appreciate the beauty of the mosaic tile and hand-drawn signage of the subway’s darker, seedier past. While my wilder side may gravitate towards the hand-drawn signage, I have a secret love affair with Helvetica. In fact, I used to carry Lars Muller’s Helvetica: Homage To A Typeface with me at all times, akin to the way young English majors carry Catcher In The Rye around in their back pockets.

Paul Shaw’s, The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway, is an in-depth look at the history of subway signage from the very beginning up until now. It answers some of the questions you’ve always wanted to know about why the MTA looks the way it does. It even points out things you wouldn’t have thought to ask. Did you know the stripe at the top of subway signs were originally the result of a sign maker’s mistake, rather than a design element?

Don’t take it from me though. Read the article here on

What do Tom Hanks and Graphic Designers have in common? Nothing, but. . .

November 18, 2008


Remember the film Cast Away, that charming turn of the century picture starring the indelible Tom Hanks as a corporate executive, left stranded on a desert island after a plane crash? Remember Wilson — Wilson, the volley ball, Tom Hanks only friend and the one thing he had for company on that lonely desert isle?

Well, Imagine if you replaced Tom Hanks with a graphic designer(yourself), and Wilson the volley ball with a modest collection of design books and resources. I’d say you’d be left with something like this:

Make Five’s Desert Island Reading for Graphic Designers, a top five, and runner-ups of graphic design reference books.

Some of my favorites: Megg’s History of Graphic Design, Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, A Smile In The Mind, How To Be A Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul(Though I feel this should be a runner-up)

*thanks Kristy for the link