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

Surf's Up for a Postmodern Giant

Monday, 27 July 2009

"He's back.... the most important and elusive writer of his generation returns with a magnificently crazy and compelling psychedelic yarn about the sixties, featuring new noir hero, private eye Doc Sportello."

So reads the blurb on the back cover of 'Inherent Vice', the soon-to-be-published eighth novel by one of the greats of modern literature, Thomas Pynchon. The book is due out at the beginning of August, but don't expect the blurb to be accompanied by a picture of the author. A spectacular recluse, Pynchon has never appeared on TV or radio, and hasn't been photographed or interviewed since he began writing back in the early 1960's.

Thomas Pynchon appears in the Simpsons, 2004. His only 'public' appearance since his debut novel 'V' came out in 1963 was as recent as 2004, in an episode of the Simpsons, where he lent his voice to his own character, but wore a paper bag on his head.

Pynchon's fantastic imagination has a very visual quality to it, and his books tend to inspire other writers and artists. Gravity's Rainbow, for example, was recently reimagined as illustration by the artist Zak Smith, in his amazing 'Pictures Showing What Happens on Every Page of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow' - all 768 pages of it. The actual illustrations are on permanent display in the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But back to Inherent Vice. Based on the few reviews I've read, the new book is short by Pynchon's standards, at just over 400 pages, is set in a definite genre (noir fiction), and may well turn out to be his most accessible work yet.

Inherent Vice (2009)

The new novel is ostensibly about a group of drifters and surfing stoneheads, caught up in a bizarre noir murder plot (think the Big Lebowski, but infused with Pynchon's trademark paranoia and overwritten virtuoso stylisations).

And a quick glance at the coverart seems to confirm that description - surf artist Darshan Zenith's "Eternal Summer" - a 1959 Cadillac Hearse (in diecast metal) is parked in front of the Endless Summer Surf Shop, coupled with some brilliantly offbeat neon type in an italicised geometric sans serif (which looks a lot like Avenir).

Pynchon's previous novels are regularly reissued, and there is a considerable back catalogue of inventive coverart spanning his output, and reflecting his themes of politics, paranoia, machinery and pop culture.

The cover was apparently picked by Pynchon himself, and it has a curiously garish, low-brow 1970's reprint look about it, which (whether intentional or not) is a refreshing contrast to the current cover design taste for elegant and clean-looking artwork. One thing is for sure - the novel will certainly be a refreshing contrast to just about everything else that's out there these days...

More -
Thomas Pynchon on Wikipedia

Sample Cover Art -
'Crying of Lot 49'

Inherent Vice Reviews -
The Observer
The Times
The New Yorker
Blog Critics

7/7 Memorial

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The 7/7 Memorial was unveiled today in Hyde Park in London's West End, on the 4th Anniversary of the tragedy.

The memorial consists of 52 stainless steel pillars, or 'stellae', one for each victim. Each one is 3 metres high, and they are grouped in four clusters, to mark the four locations of the attacks - Tavistock Square, Edgware Road, King's Cross and Aldgate.

The memorial and the plaque

the 52 stainless steel stellae

There is also a 1.4 tonne stainless steel plaque with the names of all those who were killed, engraved in a very clean sans typeface. This week's Creative Review blog features an informative analysis of the typography.

Despite the modernity of the lines and the materials, it strikes me how much the memorial resembles a complex of bronze-age standing stones, giving it a very pagan, brooding power.

When the architects, Carmody & Groarke, were interviewed on the BBC, they talked about their collaboration with Andrew Gormley, and their close consultation with the families of the victims, but there was no mention of this visual connection. Strangely, in other various reviews I've read, no-one has yet alluded to it. Judge, and interpret, for yourself.

In Pictures 7/7 Pillar Memorial.

Burns Interpretations

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Ae Fond Kiss - Anita Wroblewska

2009 is the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s greatest poet and an iconic figure in popular literature. In support of the Scottish Government’s ‘Homecoming Scotland’ celebrations, the event has been celebrated in many ways across the world during the year. This seemed like an ideal subject for a project for the NC Graphic Design students at Edinburgh’s Telford College.

The brief was to create artwork that would visually render Burn's work ina contemporary light, thus bringing the Bard's poetry to a younger audience. Each piece is a double-page spread which interprets one of Burns’ poems or songs. The imagery is often photographic, sometimes illustrative, and necessarily typographic, but tries to avoid clich├ęd Scottish images such as thistles, tartan and the traditional portrait of Burns.

On A Suicide - Robert Downie.

The overall quality here lacks consistency, but the visual styles, and the attempts to communicate thematic ideas are surprisngly strong for such a formative group. And for some of them this was a first introduction to the genius of Burns.

Check out the book in pdf format. The title is due for publication in 2010.

Coming Up With The Anser

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Design classics always have a number of pre-requisites to their success - a fresh or inspiring visual aesthetic, a unique brand logo or name, and an improvement or innovation in function. Think of the Nikon F SLR Camera, the Lego Brick, or more recently, the Apple iPod. Another great example is the PING Anser putter - the most influential and copied design in golf equipment.

Ping Anser 2009

Like many great designs, the PING Anser arrived with a spark of genius at just the right time. The aformentioned pre-requisites emerged as the design was developed, and the unique naming aspects of the branding fell into place almost by accident.

The Idea
The inventor of the PING Anser was Karsten Solheim, an engineer at General Electrics in Phoenix, Arizona during the 1950's. During the week he was designing jet fighter components, and at the weekends he was playing golf, and struggling to hole putts. In attemtping to modify his putter, he came up with his own design - something where the shaft of the putter attached to the head in the middle, rather than at the end, thus balancing out the weight distribution. The idea was to produce a more pendulum-based, repeatable stroke, making it easier for golfers of all abilities to putt more consistently.

actual sketch and prototype PING, 1959.

Innovative Functionality
The design had a rather industrial and ugly look to it, and featured a hollow interior and a brass head. Once the prototype was built, it made a peculiar 'ping' sound when it made contact with the golf ball, and so Solheim christened it the 'PING' putter. Despite the clunky looks, Solheim's initial tests showed that the centre-shafted balance greatly improved the functionality of the club.

Solheim spent the next seven years developing his design into a commercial model. During the 1960's, the golf equipment market was dominated by established sports brands like Wilson, Spalding and MacGregor. There seemed little hope for a fledgling start-up to compete with these giants, but Solheim obviously believed in his design, and resigned from GE in 1966 to found Karsten Manufacturing, the parent company of what would become the PING brand.

Branding and Name
What happened next is the stuff of design legend. Solheim apparently sketched out an improved design on the back of an old 78 RPM record sleeve in his garage. He then ran into the kitchen and told his wife he had found 'the answer for the problems in putting', and at her suggestion, the new design was named the 'Answer'. But because that was too long to fit on the putter, in a moment of inspiration, Solheim shortened it to just 'Anser'. The brand name was born - 'PING Anser'.

Visual Aesthetic
The new design, this time in more durable Manganese, featured a cavity-back interior for heel-toe balance, and a tiny 'slotline' gap along the sole of the face which enhanced the 'ping' sound at impact. There was also an unusual offset hosel, a slightly bowed grip, and the words PING and Anser on the heel and toe, along with a unique serial number.

PING Anser, 1968.

The machined contours, golden head, and futuristic name of the Anser was unlike anything else on the market during the 60's. It fitted in perfectly with a generation in the grip of technological revolution, sci-fi futurism, and the Space Race. Within a year, Julius Boros had won the U.S. Open with a PING Anser, and the club's critical acclaim was matched by commercial success.

The 'Anser' went on to become the most popular putter in golf history. In 1984, when the original patent expired, just about every manufacturer adopted the heel-toe design, and every modern putter owes some form of debt to PING. Solheim set the benchmark for equipment engineering and testing, for entreprenurial spirit, and for sheer design brilliance.

This year, PING is celebrating its 50th Anniversary. The company, now run by Solheim's son John, still continues to produce innovative golf equipment, and the brand name and its collective visual identity has become iconic in the world of sport.