running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

The Enduring Impact of Two Tone

Friday, 26 June 2009

After an 18-year hiatus, The Specials reformed earlier this year. I saw them perform 'Gangsters' on the Jools Holland show about a fortnight ago, and have to say I thought they looked a bit tired and somewhat irrelevant. Tough to take considering that a sizeable part of my adolescence was spent collecting and playing their wonderful 7" records.

But the band played Glastonbury tonight, and I happened to catch some of the performance on TV (in between the non-stop news coverage of the death of Michael Jackson). This time they really captured the energy from their heyday.

In front of them were thousands of fans, some old some new, all blown away by a seminal band playing a set of songs that defined a generation. And behind them, in 10ft high letters, was the Specials logotype, white on black in condensed Helvetica, and I suddenly remembered the unforgettable visual identity of Two Tone - a design that set the benchmark for independent music label artwork.

David Storey and John Sims were the guys who gave us the visual branding for the Two Tone records. Sims was the typographer, whilst Storey was the pictorial/collage specialist.

As well as a host of memorable record sleeves and iconic typography for the likes of the Specials, the Beat, Madness and the Bodysnatchers, these two designers produced some amazing merchandise - posters, adverts, T-shirts, badges, ties, and tickets. The Two Tone branding influenced a generation of advertisers and designers, and was recently voted 15th in Q Magazine’s ‘100 greatest sleeve designs of all time’.

The record label's founder Jerry Dammers, with the assistance of bassist Horace Panter, came up with the Walt Jabsco logo to represent the Two Tone movement. It was based on an early album cover photo of Peter Tosh, and included an added black-and-white check pattern. This provided the basis for the visuals that Storey and Sims then produced.

Madness - 'The Prince' record sleeve, 1979.

According to Storey, the whole approach was what he called 'none design', meaning that everything complex or overtly embellished was stripped away from the products.

This resulted in bold, simple, direct monochrome graphics - including the typeface, the checkered pattern for the label, the 'Walt Jabsco' monochrome ska man who flanked the inlays, and the stark black and white photography. It was this combination which ensured that the Two Tone style had such an enduring impact.

The Specials 1979 - Back Cover

The Specials.
Two Tone Records.
David Storey.

@font-face : Web Fonts & the Holy Grail

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

It may seem like the web has come along way since Tim Berners-Lee cranked out the first pages of html, but in the terms of typography, we are still stuck with a limited set of core web fonts. So it's no wonder that being able to display any font you want, without resorting to image files, has become the Holy Grail for many web designers.

Linking fonts via CSS is the obvious solution, and has actually been around for a while. But it's not heavily used because of poor browser support for the TrueType format, and the fact that only free (and unreliable) fonts can be used. So the core fonts, combined with image files (with image replacement CSS), remain the norm despite the inherent shortcomings.

With the WC3's new CSS3 definitions, font linking is referred to as 'web fonts' and the new crop of major browsers, including Firefox 3.1 and Safari 4, fully support the preferred formats, TrueType (.ttf) and OpenType (.otf). So you'd be forgiven for thinking that its finally been cracked, and soon we'll all be displaying the typography we want you to see.

But there is still the tricky problem of the legal situation with type foundries. Understandably, type designers approach their work just like musicians, and want to protect their creations, so copyright is a big issue for them. Hence, a majority of fonts that you might want to use are not available without license.

So enter Typekit, who have developed a web-only font linking license. Typekit hosts both free and commercial fonts 'in a way that is incredibly fast, smoothes out differences in how browsers handle type, and offers the level of protection that type designers.' And all it will take is a simple line of JavaScript in the markup and the @font-face descriptor.

If it can deliver what it is promising, Typekit could be at the cusp of a major breakthrough in web design.

- For more information, check out the Typekit website.
- For a review of Typekit's technology, visit MikeIndustries blog.
- More about CSS3 - see my blog post about RGBa and CSS3.

[Shafted] - Final Year Class Award

Friday, 19 June 2009

The outstanding final project in my HND Graphic Design class of 2008/9 came from 20-year old Lyndsey Whitefield, who took on the difficult task of developing a campaign to promote an exhibition commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Miner's Strike.

The client was the National Gallery of Scotland, and the brief was to give the exhibition a broad appeal that emphasised the historical importance of the events to a younger audience, but also tapped into the current 1980's nostalgia for those of us who lived through the events. And of course it had to look really sharp and energetic.

What the work shows is not only how well Whitefield dealt with the technical aspects of designing for print, but also how strong her research efforts were, and how brilliantly she managed to capture the visual energy of the events. The finished pieces are fresh and contemporary, with a really bold documentary-style look and feel.

It's an affirmation that the current generation are looking beyond their own boundaries in a way which is daring and yet responsible. And with the ink on her Diploma not even dry yet, Whitefield has already secured a position with the Lane Agency, one of Edinburgh's top agencies.

Shafted Flyer

Shafted Packaging

Shafted Tickets

Shafted Spread

You can view the whole set of pieces, including two amazing posters, on Lyndsey's website at www.whitefield-design.co.uk/minersstrike.html.

See Also :
Miner's Strike @ wiki
Strike 84 - Photography

New Deal / Classic Story

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Typography's renaissance just keeps going from strength to strength, and as I've discussed elsewhere on this blog, type treatments for movies have always produced innovative work. For instance, Neville Brody and his Research Studios have just designed a very cool bespoke typeface for the new Michael Mann movie 'Public Enemies', which gets its UK release on July 1st.

The film is based on the life of Chicago gangster John Dillinger, with Johnny Depp playing the infamous American anti-hero.

As for the typeface, it's a font called 'New Deal', a direct reference to President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, initiated in the mid-1930s.

Research Studios have obviously explored the streamlined shapes of cars and trains from that era, as well as the architecture of the period, and the emergence of pulp fiction, to produce a Soviet-looking sans serif type with a contemporary industrial edge to it.

Public Enemies - Johnny Depp

Public Enemies - Christian Bale

It's a great example of how important it is to have a broad knowledge of the history and development of visual communication. It's retro cool and perfect for the subject matter. We can only hope the film itself is equally as good.

New Deal Typeface

Naked Re-Lunch

Monday, 15 June 2009

In the late 1950's, William Burroughs remarked that writing was fifty years behind painting. Writing certainly caught up a bit in the 60's and 70's, but nowadays both disciplines have been superceded by design and music as our foremost outlets for popular cultural expression.

In both areas, ideas evolve and flow from influences, reference points and common areas of discovery. And this is evident in the burgeoning area of graphic sampling - something relatively new to graphic design, but which music has been doing since the 1980's.

Graphic sampling involves reworking or reconceiving iconic design imagery into new formats. Try modern film titles reinvented as well-thumbed vintage book covers, games titles reworked into brochure format, and seminal record art mashed up into advertising layouts. For example, graphic designer Spacesick's 'I Can Read Movies' series of mashups like this one for John Woo's Face/Off -

Spacesick's Face/Off Mashup

According to an article in May's Design Week, a freelance graphic designer called Olly Moss posted designs for classic videogame titles on his Flickr site - restyled as Saul Bass Penguin covers - including Half- Life, Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto.

A flurry of related activity then followed on various sites and whilst the whole idea does seem a bit one-trick, there's no denying the power of sampling iconic visuals into new formats that can say something relevant.

Personally, I'm still with Burroughs, holding out for true cut-up design, where visual communication brands can mashup their own competitors, something the copyright lawyers will have a field-day with.

For more about the subject of digital copyright and reuse, its worth checking out Lawrence Lessig's book The Future of Ideas, all of which downloads in pdf format for free, under the CreativeCommons license.

Rare Type - 16 Movie Posters

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Some amazing posters for classic movies, featuring brilliant, era-defining typography and layout.

Departure Lounge - Industry Night

Friday, 5 June 2009

Telford's HND Graphics Year 2 recently hosted their 'Industry Night'- an annual event, brillliantly organised by my fellow Design Team lecturer Helena Good - where the students showcase their final projects to an invited group of Designers, Producers and Creative Directors from the leading Design Agencies in Edinburgh.

This year it has been augmented by our 'Mentoring Programme' - where each student is assigned a Mentor from the industry, who advises on their work, issues various briefs, and provides feedback and direction at regular intervals during the course. It's been a great success, and a recent HMIe inspection of the Department found it to be innovative and original. Edinburgh's DRUM Magazine also did an interesting article on it, which you can read here. I see it as a tremendous boost to the confidence of the students as they plan, prepare and display their final projects to the very people who will hopefully hire them.

This year the theme was 'Departure Lounge' - itself one of the final project briefs.

The venue was the Out of the Blue Drillhall - a great multi-arts venue based in Leith, which is committed to providing space for a range of community arts activities such as exhibitions and special events. I'm looking forward to the 2010 show already.

Watch a video clip from the evening: