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

Why Elektra Still Lights My Fire

Saturday, 27 February 2010

For anyone who continues to enjoy the ritual of reading liner notes, handling and physically playing a piece of recorded music, then remastered reissues and box set CDs are still worth buying. Downloading the tracks just doesn't cut it.

I recently picked up a remastered 40th Anniversary Edition of the Doors' 'Soft Parade', and when I opened up the disc and saw the red label and white Elektra logo, it was like seeing an old friend.

Elektra logos 1960's and 1970's

Like Stax, Verve, and Blue Note, Elektra developed a strong, enduring corporate identity. In Elektra's case, the bands and singers who signed up seemed to be more than just rock stars and competent musicians, they were serious, genuine artists. An Elektra recording was a guarantee of quality and signified artistic coolness.

Elektra's style was conceived and executed by designer Willam S. Harvey and photographer Joel Brodsky. Their memorable covers combined clean bold sixties-era typography, startlingly intimate portraiture photography, and of course a killer logo - a chunky uppercase 'E' composed of three simple primitive shapes arranged art-deco style, and set into a red or tan background.

The logo went through various changes, but the classic version dominated Elektra's so-called 'Golden Era', a period between the mid-1960's and the early 1970's during which the label, under the auspices of its founder Jac Holzman, released seminal albums by the Doors, Love, the Stooges, the MC5, Tim Buckley, Lovin' Spoonful and Tom Waits.

In 2007, a 5-CD compilation of classic Elektra artists was released, and in his review of it, Rolling Stone's David Frike summed up the Elektra story, writing "this outstanding set is a study in consistent adventure and excellence in which the star is not a particular artist, genre or epoch - but a logo..."

Some classic Elektra labels and covers:

Love - Forever Changes, 1967, original tan label.

The Stooges - The Stooges, 1969, original butterfly label:

Television, Marquee Moon, 1977, original red label:

The Stooges - Funhouse, 1971, reissued double 'E' label:

Classic Covers ; The Doors, Love, Tim Buckley, Lovin' Spoonful.

Tim Buckley Goodbye and Hello

Lovin Spoonful

Elektra Records.
Elektra @ wiki
Elektra Master Discography

Wired's New Interactive Digital Magazine

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Earlier this month, Adobe and Wired Magazine announced a collaboration to design a new digital magazine that will complement the print version of the famous new media title. The result will be amongst the first of a new generation of interactive magazines designed to run on the likes of Dell's Tablet and the Apple iPad.

By utilising Adobe's Air technology, the magazinewill feature interactive pdf pages with touchscreen browsing, social networking connectivity, offline feed updating, and some impressive 3D.

Air has been around a bit longer than you'd think, but I only saw it firsthand when it was demonstrated by Adobe's Steve Burnard at an Adobe seminar I attended back in November. It really does take interactive pdf's and interactive offline content to a new level.

Adobe's product team and Wired have created an interesting video that showcases what the magazine is going to be like, and it does look uber-cool, although you will need to spend to get the full benefits.

Wired Magazine.
Adobe Air.

On the Design Bookshelf

Saturday, 20 February 2010


A familiar sound in the studio or lab during college classes is the collective groan from students when they find out that they have to do some real reading.

This is a real problem now in education - that the current generation of learners, most of whom have grown up with email, wikipedia and social networking, are simply not used to extended periods of exploratory reading away from a computer screen.

But particularly for students of visual communication, its important to realise that most of the principles and elements of graphic design were formulated, developed and standardised long before the digital revolution and the arrival of Adobe's Creative Suite.

And like any other discipline or cultural movement, there are a few key authors and texts that are essential reading for anyone wishing to pursue an education and a career in graphic design.

In literature for example, the Beats had Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. For rock music, think Greil Marcus, Stanley Booth and Lester Bangs. And for typography, look no further than the likes of Jan Tschichold, Emil Ruder, Karl Gerstner and Paul Rand.

Unfortunately, books by these authors are often out-of-print or very expensive. For example, you will need to fork out upwards of £100 for a new copy of Rand's seminal book A Designer's Art, and I posted back in 2009 about Gerstner's 'Die Neue Graphik' which will set you back £150 for a secondhand copy.

I have a few of my own suggestions for essential reading in visual communication. Some of them are key texts, others less so, but in an ideal world they'd all be sitting on the shelf in your studio.

The New Typography ~ Jan Tschichold
Problem Solved - Michael Johnson
Graphic Design Theory - Helen Armstrong
The Art of Looking Sideways ~ Alan Fletcher
Typography - Emil Ruder
The International Style 1920-1965 - Richard Hollis
Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far - Stefan Sagmeister

Probably the Best Job in the World

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The BBC only launched their customisable website last year, and are currently getting a grilling about the way they spend our money, but they still have the budget to hire Neville Brody's Research Studios to overhaul their digital output.

The collaboration will see a huge re-design of the BBC's online presence, which they are calling a 'Global Visual Language'. The brief is to take the organisation and its users into a more compelling digital space.

Brody has been tasked with re-inventing the typography, colour palette and iconography of the BBC's online branding.

The studio is currently in the process of consolidating all the work into a styleguide that can then be used across the whole range of BBC output - in effect a new set of branding guidelines.

On the Research Studio website, Brody called it 'probably the best job in the world ', and said that 'the core approach has been to find a simple, modern and compelling experience based around dramatic and scalable editorial concepts.'

Research Studios also posted up some brilliant examples of the work-in-progress, including typographic studies, colour wheel samples, layout ideas and an amazing array of vector icons. Check out some of the examples:

Program previews


Program previews

Sample palette

Research Studios BBC work-in-progress
BBC's New Global Language.

Sketchpad - HTML5 in Action

Monday, 15 February 2010

Web Designers, many of them aghast at the possible demise of Flash, are now buzzing at the appearance of 'Sketchpad' - a painting tool that provides smooth animated interaction yet doesn't require Flash, Shockwave, or any other plug-in, just a modern browser like Chrome, Mozilla or Safari.

Sketchpad screenshot

Sketchpad showcases the capabilities of modern JavaScript and HTML5. You can paint any colour in any shade and opacity, draw patterns, primitive shapes and spirographs, and add basic type.

Sketchpad also features a great menu system that offers a series of control palettes which you can move around and keep open. They feature slide adjusters and a variety of options to adjust speed, weight, stroke, resolution other parameters at will.

When you're done with your efforts, hit the save icon and your image pops up in a new tab, ready to be saved as a .png.

It's hardly going to compete with the established drawing tools, but Sketchpad is free to use, works on any browser that supports HTML5, and gives us a minor glimpse of where the web is heading - towards fully developed webApps that don't require a traditional install.

But how does it actually work? The secret lies in the new HTML5 tag called 'canvas'.

The canvas element consists of a drawable region defined in HTML code with height and width attributes. JavaScript's drawing functions then allow for dynamically generated graphics. Some of the anticipated uses of the canvas, including building graphs, animations, games, and image composition, can be seen in Sketchpad.

Its early days, but overall, this example is a real affirmation that HTML5 can deliver interactive content without any plugin requirements. It also strengthens Apple's case for omitting Flash from their new iPad. I wonder what Adobe make of it...


Artur Pasiek's Alternative 2012

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


One of the most promising designers in our current crop of HND students is Polish designer Artur Pasiek. Artur has spent the last few weeks on work placement at Redpath, a leading Edinburgh-based agency, and the feedback we've received has been a sure indicator of his potential.

Artur's main strengths lie in an ability to take big ideas and strip them down with a real sense of stylistic heritage. The results show clarity, balance and commercial acumen.

A good example of this comes from his recent brief based around an alternative vision of the 2012 Olympics. Coincidentally, the brief was set by Redpath, and given the controversial nature of the actual 2012 corporate ID (designed by Wolf Ollins) this was a daunting task.

As you can see from the visuals, Artur delved back into the heyday of Olympic icon design, and has produced a very triumphal but universal set of visual ideas that echo some of the more memorable Olympic visual campaigns from the 197o's and early 1980's.

The overall impression is very sporty, modern and somewhat journalistic - a great mix for the largest sporting event on the planet.

Posters + Adshel

Posters + adshel

More of Artur's work can be viewed on his website.

Exergian's TV Show Minimalism

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Exergian Posters

Austrian graphic designer Albert Exergian was featured recently in the Guardian's Art & Design section, where some of his rather brilliant minimalist TV Posters were on display.

Exergian's pieces run the gamut from modern HBO success stories like Dexter, Mad Men, Weeds, Boston Legal and the Sopranos, to cherished classics such as Kojak, Charlies Angels, Knight Rider, and Sex in the City.

What they all have in common is a simple vector-based solution using block colours, and primitive shapes which pick up on a visual or conceptual idea from each show. The results (to varying degrees) are immediate, clever and memorable. The style also bears more than a passing resemblance to Noma Bar's Negative Space designs, which I posted on back in 2009.

The Exergian posters are available commercially at Blanka.

Three great examples :


Mad Men


Exergian @ the Guardian Gallery.

De Stijl Revisited

Monday, 1 February 2010

A colleague of mine is just back from London, where he was lucky enough to see 'Decode - Digital Design Sensations', a new media exhibition at the V&A. He's recommending I go down to see it as a staff development outing, and the timing couldn't be better because another exhibition worth seeing is opening at Tate Modern - 'Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde'.

This will be the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to De Stijl founder and avant-garde pioneer, Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), and follows in the footsteps of TM's recent Constructivist exhibition of works by Rodchenko and Popova.

Van Doesburg was the chief propagandist and spokesperson for the De Stijl movement, promoting it and connecting with the other strands of Modernism at the time - Neoplasticism, Dada, Bauhaus, and Constructivism. Piet Mondrian may have been the more famous member of De Stijl, but Van Doesburg's work was equally shocking, experimental and groundbreaking. Both these guys have had a huge influence on magazines, advertising, and interior design.

De Stijl Magazine Cover

Together with a number of other artists, they developed an international style of art and design based on a strict grid geometry of horizontals and verticals. This grid format is still the basis for print layout and web design, and is a central feature of design software such as InDesign, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, and QuarkExpress.

Van Doesburg eventually embraced diagonals, which was too much for Mondrian, and the two fell out. Mondrian left the movement soon after.

Van Doesburg made a big contribution to typography. Together with El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters, he pioneered the use of sans serif type, and his geometric alphabet, using only perpendicular strokes and designed in 1919, was the precursor to the International Style that would appear in the late 1920's. This typeface has been resurrected in digital form as 'Architype Van Doesburg'.

Van Doesburg also publishing the seminal Dadaist magazine 'M├ęcano' under the heteronym of I.K. Bonset (possibly an anagram of "Ik ben zot", Dutch for "I am foolish"). Clearly he wasn't, but I would be to miss this exhibition, given the chance.

Van Doesburg and the International Avant Garde @ Tate Modern.
Van Doesburg- The Splintered Self.
Decode - Digital Design Sensations @ V&A.