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

Bauhaus - 400 Works @ MoMA

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Acidhaus Bauhaus T-shirt, 1990's

If you are lucky enough to be in New York between now and Christmas, add an extra entry to your 'unmissables' list - MoMA’s first major exhibition since 1938 of Bauhaus work.

Still the most famous school of avant-garde art, the Bauhaus was the quintessential collaborative community, producing stuff that no-one had seen or thought of before, in a place no-one had thought of building before.

Formed in 1919 and at it's peak during the early Weimar Republic, the school's ethos was to embrace functionality, and its experiments with design have had a lasting influence on visual communication - most notably in advertising, interior design, and print layout (eg check out my post about Barak Obama's campaign posters).

This exhibition features a mind-boggling four hundred works that reflect the broad range of the school’s output in graphics, architecture, painting, furniture, industrial design, photography, textiles, ceramics, theater design, and sculpture.

And most are by some of the great names of 20th Century Art - Vasily Kandinsky, Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Lilly Reich and many others.

For me, the Bauhaus revolutionised the teaching of the creative process, fusing the connections between many different disciplines into one practical approach. The results were always original and often way ahead of their time.

And of course the enduring power of the Bauhaus is the way in which its typography, visual layout, creative spirit, and unique reputation seems to inspire students when they first encounter it.

See Also :
Bauhaus @ MoMA - New York Times review
Bauhaus Archive
Bauhaus wiki

Bauhaus Teaching Plan:

Teaching Theory at the Bauhaus

Vertical Rhythm and How to Get It

Saturday, 24 October 2009

William S. Burroughs once said that 'writing is fifty years behind painting', and in the digital design world, this idea could equally be applied to print typography and its relatively cumbersome and youthful web-based cousin.

But with more print-based designers now delivering for the web, one consequence has been a huge amount of interest in web typography, as print-based ideas and techniques transfer from page to screen. And of course, a lot of it is down to CSS and standardisation across the major browsers.

With the new versions of Safari, Opera and Mozilla's Firefox all able to support CSS3, we not only have styling that can (to varying degrees) emulate tracking, leading and kerning, we've also got the ability to switch between cases, apply drop shadows, and reliably import any font we want into browsers using the @font-face property.

One further concept coming into the mix is 'vertical rhythm' - the way text can be aligned to a baseline grid that produces measured, balanced paragraphs which greatly improve readability.

It's old hat for print-based designers working in Adobe InDesign, but only a tiny minority of web designers attempt to control their text in this way. This is because its time-consuming to do and requires a solid knowledge of CSS.

But the pay-off is great looking text and a harmonious layout.

The basic idea behind vertical rhythm is to keep text lined up on an imaginary grid of evenly spaced horizontal lines (just like an old school jotter), all the way down the page. This greatly improves legibility, and creates a visual continuity that allows readers to spend a bit longer in front of the screen.

How is all this done? By controlling font size, line-height, and margins.

The key is to set the line-height globally, so it's height is inherited all the way down through the page, and to use relative font sizing rather than pixels to display text. In both instances, the measurements are done using em's, not pixels.

Because the em is a relative measurement based on the square of the font size at that particular point, sizings become scaleable for different browser settings. Everything maintains proportion, and the designer has better control over text size, line-height and margins.

There are some very good articles out there on how its all done. One standout example is 'Setting Type on the Web to a Baseline Grid' by Wilson Miner, posted on alistapart.com. There are also a few CSS generators available online that will customise a set of em-based global styles for you, which you can then tweak and paste into your css files.

All I would say is that although its tricky, its worth pursuing to get the balanced rhythm a good typographer would expect on a printed page, and you can then re-use your settings for other web projects.

From a teaching perspective, it also means that the theory and technicalities of typography can be delivered in a more blended approach across the print and web disiplines.

More :
CSS Vertical Rhythm Generator
Vertical Motion in Web Typography
Typography : Baseline Rhythm Deciphered

iPhoning It In

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A fellow lecturer at work bought an iPhone over the summer break, and is now twirling his right index finger around the 3-inch screen during his breaks. He is adamant that he can never go back; the iPhone is the beginning of the future.

And admittedly, on first look, Apple's iPhone is even more impressive than the iPod was. In fact, I was blown away when my colleague demonstrated myPantone, a clever pantone palette program he downloaded to it. Its a minor revolution in timesaving for the web designer, and a triumph of usability that Jacob Nielsen could only have dreamed of just a few years ago.

But the iPhone suffers from the same achilles heel as many previous ground-breaking gadgets - everyone wants it to do things it was never meant to do.

As an example, a recently interviewed a student for a place on Graphic Design HND, and I arranged a room with a nice big table and a fast Mac with CS4 on it. He assured me beforehand that he was brinign along his portfolio. What I didn't expect though was a dozen or so examples being shown to me on an iPhone.

What might have been a decent set of doublepage spreads was hardly likely to shine at 1/20th its normal presentation size, and any ability with type was impossible to see. And yet apparently designers are interviewing at agencies, presenting their portfolios in just this way.

The student then mentioned Adobe's stripped-down Photoshop application for the iPhone, which is only available in the US at the moment. Featuring basic tasks such as image rotation, cropping and flipping as well as adjusting exposure and saturation, the app integrates with the free 2GB Photoshop.com account. Apparently, it has already passed 1 million downloads in less than 2 weeks. Read more about it straight from Adobe themselves. They even include a link to a clever spoof announcing a full-blown CS3 version with callcenter support!

One thing is for sure - in two years' time you'll be able to project 300ppi work and touch sensitive webpages from a phone onto a white board, or even a hologram station. So for now, a 3-inch screen is just a pixellated downsample of what might be, and I can see the novelty of cropping images wearing off in no time at all.

Still, the mobility and convenience of the iPhone, coupled with its aesthetic appeal do give it a cultural gravitas that's going to attract designers. And if your prospective employer has bought into iPhone, then what he or she is looking at on it may not be as important as the act of doing it.

Never Mind the Bollocks... or the Sex Pistols

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The graphic mashup, or branding sample, is back in the news. As I posted earlier this year, a furniture shop in Edinburgh used a brilliant IKEA mashup, featuring the wordplay 'IKANA' as part of their summer sale campaign.

And now, none other than the Sex Pistols are threatening legal action against an ice-cream company who have produced an advert borrowing heavily from Jamie Reid's famous God Save the Queen artwork of 1977 -

God Save the Queen

'Icecreamists', as they amusingly call themselves, are the company behind the ad campaign. They are using the strapline "God Save the Cream" on a black and pink sample which bears a noticeable resemblance to the aforementioned famous 7" single sleeve, and mimicks the Pistols visual imagery in general. Sounds great, and it doesn't look too bad either :

God Save the Cream

From what I've read, Icecreamists are running a concession within the Selfridges storefront on Oxford Street, central London, until November. They describe their company as a "subversive ice-cream brand", and one of their products is an ice-cream cocktail called the Sex Pistol, which comes with a shot of absinthe.

So far, I am liking this company a lot.

Which is why it's so disappointing to hear that the Sex pistols, who championed the do-it-yourself ethos, and made getting banned the essential punk credential, are now attempting to ban somebody who has subverted them.

Lawyers representing the band (further gasps and gobs of incredulity) have written to Icecreamists demanding that they stop using the Sex Pistols-related strapline and imagery on all their promotional material.

God only knows how much the Pistols, Lydon in particular, has made in royalty rights from music, posters and everything else that has been flogged to death since the band's demise in 1978. Of course the whole concept the band were responsible for creating has by-and-large been swallowed up by modern commercialism, and this saga should actually be welcomed as a breath of fresh air to the originators.

Which brings us to the real crux of the matter.

Nowadays, what's rotten about Johnny isn't his teeth, or his hair, or his snarl, but his penchant for embarrassing publicity stunts. These include appearing in a £5m TV campaign for the Country Life butter, getting marooned in a reality TV show, and reforming the Pistols as a novelty stadium band - giving performances where he spends half the time boasting about being 50 and having a beer belly (see Julien Temple's film of the Pistols Reunion Live in London, 2008).

Only the music remains now, and of course the imagery, which has a life of its own and belongs to us all.

The Message is the Medium

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Yes, you read it right, I didn't get the words mixed up. In his seminal book 'Understanding Media', Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the late 1960's that 'the medium is the message'.

But in the intervening half a century, the digital revolution has given us so much personal broadcasting power that the act of communicating (and how we go about it) is almost as important as the actual content of our instant emails, video uploads, texts, podcasts, twitters and blogs. All of which means that designers, more than ever, are visual psychologists.

These days the design concepts of functionality, materials and content are just about obsolete. Apparently, its about convergence, fusion, harmony and light.

Just ask Elliot Park, Principal Designer at Samsung, the world's most successful electronics (and hence gadget-producing) company.

Park appeared on a BBC4 programme last week called 'Upgrade Me'. The programme is part of Electric Revolution - a BBC Four season charting the rise of today's globally-linked, instantly-gratified digital culture.

It was presented by writer and poet Simon Armitage, who examined our obsession with gadgets, and explored why the newest upgrade is so crucial to our enjoyment of technology. He admitted he couldn't live without his iPhone, but at least he could remember the days when turning up on your bike at your local record shop to get the latest 7" single by your favourite band was the highlight of your week.

There were some great moments - a class of secondary school pupils attempting to play a Madonna LP on Armitage's 1970's childhood Dansette, a giant flat TV screen which displays a Google Earth feed showing where the members of your family are at any instant, and the aformentioned Samsung's new Pebble-shaped MP3 player (see below)that looks like you've just picked it up from some rolling shoreline on a sunday stroll.

Samsung Pebble MP3 Player

But the crux of Armitage's investigation came when he met Park in Seoul, at Samsung's Headquarters (which ironically enough looks like some huge physical tribute to glory days of the Bauhaus movement).

We got a glimpse of a design meeting about the new Jet range of mobile phones. It reminded me of my days in the games industry, working on titles for EA and Sony. The designers were sitting around a table, with ridiculous hats on, in goatee beards, chewing forever-lasting gum and drinking lukewarm Grande Lattes. And behind them on a flipchart was their enigmatic mindmap, with buzzwords like confidence, hybrid & fusion, harmony & contrast, light as material.

It all gelled with Park's proclamation that what you feel about the product is more important that what you see, or what it actually does. And the high-profile advertising that supports the jet phone is equally revealing - the 'Impatience is a Virtue' campaign.

Impatience is a Virtue

And so we come back to Marshall McLuhan. What your communication device feels like to you, and what it looks like to others who watch you doing whatever it is you do on your device, is more important than what you are actually saying.

The message is the medium. Design exploits our vanity. Design is about capturing emotion. Long live design.