“Kiddies, Graphic Design, if you wield it effectively, is Power. Power to transmit ideas that change everything. Power that can destroy an entire race or save a nation from despair. In this century, Germany chose to do the former with the swastika, and America opted for the latter with Mickey Mouse and Superman.”
I'm not a designer. I have no interest in being a designer and I have very little talent in creating design in the traditional sense even if the interest was there.
So, you may be asking, why did I create page about graphic design?
This page exists because of Charles Kay Smith, a professor I had while at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Professor Smith's main interest is linking the sciences with the humanities, especially structurally. He taught (and still teaches, I believe) that there is a structure to life - particularly the biological aspects of life - just as there is a structure in literature, and that understanding both can inform both. Life has a pattern through the blind processes of evolution, a graphic designer designs a logo with a specific intent, a writer shapes a narrative - they're all vasty different acts (for lack of a better word), but all connected in that they contain an understandable structure.
I find that idea to be endlessly fascinating, so that's why this page exists. And to begin, I'd like to post a fun video of what layout was like before the age of Photoshop - a particular interest of mine since I've worked in publishing for most of my career. I suppose I find the video interesting because it makes me think of how the differences between analog and digital creation affect a final product, whether writing a story on a typewriter versus a computer, taking photos with a film camera versus a digital camera, or designing an ad with paper, rulers, and glue versus on a computer. Creation has become so easy and allowed people enormous freedom, but at what cost to carefulness and thoughtfulness? (Note: I think the benefits of technology outweigh the detriments, but it's still a fun question to ask.)
Before you watch, please note that this video is linked from the YouTube page lynda.com. Lots of cool videos there to check out! And if you're interested in reading some of Professor Smith's work, you can find that on his UMass academic page here.
While it's easy to say that book jacket design is a becoming a lost art in the age of the e-reader/tablet, I don't feel that books - real, actual, dead-tree paper books - are ever going to go away. Technology hasn't killed live theater, movie theaters, radio, printed photography, travel, or most other tactile experiences, and books will be no different. And as long as there are books, there will be designers designing book jackets.
But technology is obviously influencing some of the approaches to jacket design, with most recent books trending toward simpler aesthetics, higher-contrast colors and larger, more graphic fonts that can translate well across different print and digital formats. This isn't always bad - in fact, sometimes these approaches can produce amazing results - but it definitely seems to be signaling a trend toward less subtle and less considerate designs. As some critics have pointed out, designers are starting to play it safe.
This is not true of Chip Kidd, in my opinion, the best book jacket designer of the past 25 years. The thing I love about Kidd's designs is that while they may appear sparse, they're never simple or cliché, and they always let you in on at least one of the book's secrets. Whenever I read a book with a Kidd-designed cover, I always have a different appreciation of his artwork after I've read the book than what I had when I first saw it, which is the highest compliment I feel you can pay someone of his craft.
Here are some of my favorite Kidd jackets. You can see more of his work at his Website, which is (obviously) very well designed.
"Beneath theory and rhetoric, and well beyond technique and jargon, the reason for design is to speak to people in a language this is familiar, but also new, to entice people to understand an old thing in a new way, or grasp a new thing in an old way. There has never been a designer who can do this better than Saul Bass."
David R. Brown
American Institute of Graphic Arts
Like the work of Chip Kidd, the work of Saul Bass is clean, clear, and conveys a considerable amount of information in forms and images that seem simple at first, but contain a wealth of information. Dozens of the logos that Bass designed in the 60s and 70s are still in use today due to their uniqueness, appropriateness, and memorability. They don't necessarily explain what the company or organization does, but they definitely communicate an immediate, unmistakable identity.
Bass also produced a substantial number of movie poster art from the 50s through the 80s. Before Bass, most movie posters either showed a still from the movie or depicted a stylized piece of artwork that was at best humorously quaint but often bordered on bad romance novel covers. Bass changed all of that with his poster for 1955's The Man With the Golden Arm, an abstract design that artfully suggests the main character's heroin addiction - a subject so dramatic that it could have easily been depicted in a hackneyed way by a lesser talent.
If you're at all interested in graphic design, I highly recommend the book TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair. The book outlines the evolution of such logos as Coca-Cola, NASA, UPS, and Bell Systems, describing how each one "connects with the viewer and creates a visual shortcut between it and the service or company, institution or organization that it represents."
One of the logos in Sinclair's book happens to be what I consider the perfect example of minimalist design - the logo for the London Underground. Worked on by various artists throughout the early 20th century, the final design is usually attributed to two people: Charles Sharland and Edward Johnston.
Sharland was commissioned in 1912 by the The Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL) to create a poster announcing that the Underground system would be connecting various vantage points around the city where people could view a solar eclipse on April 17 that year. This was the genesis of the logo - the white circle of a moon over the red circle of a sun creating a disc, over which Sharland placed a blue bar for emphasis. Johnson further tweaked the image and, most importantly, added "Underground" in the Johnston typeface in 1916. He later moved the U and the D to within the ring in 1920, and outlined the reproduction specifications and bullseye proportions (see the second image below) in the mid-1920s.
It's easy to see why this logo has had such lasting appeal - it's distinct, highly visible, and tremendously adaptable. It looks just as modern today as it did a hundred years ago, and it's been able to withstand one of the most fashionable and evolving cities in the world. See below for some of the ways in which artists, companies and the UERL have repurposed the logo over the past century. There's even a museum - the London Transport Museum - devoted to the art of the city's transportation.
All of this from a few circles, a bar, just the right colors, and the perfect font.
You may not know him, but this man's graphic designs are probably the most influential of the 21st century.
His name is Shigetaka Kurita, and in 1999, while working for the Japanese telecom NTT DOCOMO, he created 176 pixel images for use on the company’s mobile phones and pagers. He called them emoji (e meaning “picture” and moji “character”) and although they were created on simple 12x12 pixel grids, they laid the foundation for the most used graphic design elements in the world.
In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Kurita explained how the design of the characters came about:
In October 2016, New York's Museum of Modern Art added the original emoji set to their permanent collection. In their press release for the acquisition, MOMA noted that "these 12 x 12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language." And that, "Just as the design of a chair dictates our posture, so, too, do the designs of various formats of electronic communication shape our voice."
As with the London Underground logo, it's amazing that such seemingly simple elements can have such as profound visual impact when presented in just the right way—so much so that they now hang in a museum known for its works by Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, Chagall, van Gogh, and Picasso.