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

Is Technology Devaluing Creativity?

Monday, 31 January 2011

I'm hoping to attend an interesting event in Glasgow on 9th March, hosted by MiNetwork, entitled 'Valuing Creativity'.

A panel of Creative Directors from many of the UK’s leading advertising, design and digital marketing agencies will be discussing the impact that new technologies and ever-widening media platforms are having on the value of creative thinking.

In my previous post I highlighted one aspect of this - Adobe's continual rollout of ever more sophisticated (and backwards incompatible) digital software tools. For agencies, it's about either investing in updates and training, or else accepting that your competitors may well be able to do things faster and deliver more solutions to more channels of communication than you can.

Or is it?

That's something this event seeks to answer, and the promotional information lists some of the questions that are being asked -

- How do the UK’s leading creative thinkers deal with the mass of new technologies and new delivery platforms such as online, Social Media, e-marketing, mobile marketing etc when devising a creative direction for a client?

- How challenging is it for the creative team to develop a creative direction or theme that works across such a diverse range of media?

- How can smaller creative agencies develop a team capable of thinking and working across the broad spectrum of media now available to clients?

- Are creative teams playing second fiddle to planning and media departments?

- How are creative, planning and media teams working together now to create fully integrated solutions for clients?

- Does the agency model need to change so that planning, media and creativity sit and work together as opposed to being in their separate silos?

Phew. I think we get the message. These are crucial times we live and work in.

It's still true that the quality of creative thinking that an agency has at its disposal is its greatest asset. It's just that new technologies are making it harder to prove it.

Too Far Ahead of the Game

Friday, 28 January 2011

iPad Adobe Air content

Towards the end of 2010, Adobe, as ever ahead of the game, announced their Digital Publishing Suite – a new hosted service that builds on the foundation of the Creative Suite, especially InDesign CS5.

The new technology allows publishers to transform magazines into updateable interactive content, published direct to mobile devices. This has already been used successfully by magazines such as WIRED and The New Yorker.

Adobe has made some tools available now for designers and producers to get started and create, preview and share their content in the new format. The tools include the Digital Content Bundler, plus the Digital Publishing Plug-in for InDesign, which allows InDesign to interface with and transfer information to the Digital Content Bundler.

In essence, it's now possible to assemble a digital publication, publish it, and add interactivity, new content and updates on the fly via InDesign. Everything is uploaded into the Adobe cloud, then distributed direct to consumers and their apps.

The Digital Publishing Suite will be released in the second quarter of 2011, probably in conjunction with a CS5.5 point release update.

It all sounds rather awesome, and my first instinct is to embrace yet another emerging technology and start thinking about how new skills can be delivered to design students.

But there is a big caveat, which occurred to me today.

My HND 2 students are currently all on 4-week work placements at various agencies in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dublin and even Antwerp, and today I visited a student at a small, successful agency in Edinburgh. During my chat with the MD, it became apparent that CS3 was still being used in their agency. No great surprise to me, because it does just about everything that's required for print and for web. So for this company, despite missing out on the joy of Illustrator's multiple artboards, the cost of upgrading has not been economically viable.

And I think that's where we are at with Adobe.

The cost of using the Digital Publishing Suite service is a monthly payment - currently about $700 per month - and that's a substantial amount of money for a product being delivered almost exclusively to early adopters. A difficult investment for many agencies who have yet to make the financial commitment to upgrade fully to CS5, let alone design for the new generation of tablets and e-readers.

The predicted gradual reduction in cost of the iPad and its tablet rivals has yet to materialise, and the economic climate here in the UK makes the Digital Publishing Suites uptake look very marginal for the time being. But worth learning.

The Mechanic

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Here's a great poster for the upcoming movie 'The Mechanic', a remake of the cult 1970's film of the same name that starred Charles Bronson and Jan-Michael Vincent.

The term 'Mechanic' refers to a professional hitman, who approaches his work methodically, like an architect or designer, and uses a very distinct process to research his target, develop a foolproof assassination method, and then coldly carry out the task.

The poster taps into this specialism with a clever visual device - a series of guns arranged to combine into a single revolver. The handle in particular is beautifully conceived and the overall effect is curiously amusing, despite the violent connotations.

The gradient-filled uppercase title is a hangover from the 1970's movie poster, and informs us that the film is basically a mainstream Hollywood action movie, rather than the arthouse European crime thriller that the design might initially suggest.

The poster was designed by award-winning design studio Ignition Print, and has a Saul Bass feel to it. It also reminds me of Exergian's recent TV serials posters.

The Mechanic Poster 2011

The Mechanic @ IMDB

Reid Miles and the Art of Condensed Typography

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Condensed sans serif typography seems to be everywhere at the moment. It's all over the latest advertising campaigns, direct mail, film posters, magazines, TV ads, and, increasingly, thanks to the @fontface rule, websites.

This month's WIRED magazine features some great spreads and headings in condensed sans -

wired 1

wired 2

- and websites such as Amazon's lovefilm.com, and the new glasgowfilm.org, which I wrote about recently, are converts.

Condensed sans serif type is a poor choice for body text. The classic technique is tightly kerned, bold and uppercase, with no more than a few words in a single line. This makes it ideal for titles, headlines, pull quotes, and numbering. The legibility is strong and clean, but it tends to fall off dramatically as you increase the letter spacing.

At its best the snug parallel vertical lines and narrow counterspaces give a sturdy, factual quality. If you throw in a minimal colour palette, the result is a retro print style with a distinctly American feel to it. For me this brings to mind newspapers, posters and magazine covers from the 50’s and 60’s, and, above all, jazz record sleeves.

The record covers for the Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse! jazz releases are where I first became aware of this kind of typography. My father had a few of these and they made a big impression on me - the covers were often composed of nothing more than huge words, a couple of coloured boxes, and occasionally, a silouette or cropped monochrome image of the artist.

When you looked at one it felt like a real document of the music and of the era.

As well as the musicians which the labels had in common - John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and so on, one designer's name became synonymous with jazz coverart - Reid Miles.

Reid Miles is famous for his work with Blue Note, where he designed upwards of five hundred record sleeves and in the process invented the quintissential jazz visual. Working almost exclusively in the American post-war typeface Trade Gothic, Miles laid the groundwork for the classic and much-imitated American look that we associate with condensed sans serifs.

The cover art, often featuring Francis Wolff's photography, combined tinted black and white photographs, a restricted color palette (often black and white with a single color), and frequent use of solid rectanged areas. Plus of course the amazing typography. Here are some good examples, all dating from the 1950’s and 1960’s.

To varying degrees, these examples all demonstrate the classic technique, and they showcase the versatility of the typography. One surprising aspect of Reid Miles work is that he apparently wasn't a very big fan of jazz. Rather than listening to the music, he worked directly from written descriptions of the music and the artists, given to him by the record labels.

That may account for the incredible variety of compositions he managed to inject into the 12” sleeve format with a minimal set of tools.

Along with Milton Glaser and Bill Gold, Reid Miles contributed to a very distinct style of American graphic design - popular, commercial, iconic, and acknowledging a loose appreciation of modernism without becoming too formalised. Which explains why condensed sans serifs still work so well.

Reid Miles gallery @ Hard Format
Blue Note Photography of Francis Wolff
The CoverArt of Blue Note @ amazon
Reid Miles Image search @ google

Gerstner's IBM Original

Sunday, 16 January 2011

I am currently reading Karl Gerstner's classic book 'Designing Programmes', ostensibly a series of essays which explain the Swiss designer's ideas, including 'Integral Typography' and 'Morphological Design'. Central to both ideas is that a systematic 'program' of design choices can be made for any given brief, which will result in the best possible solution for that particular problem.

This book was published back in the mid 1960's, during the heyday of the International Style, but the version I have, amended in 2007, includes a new chapter in which Gerstner examines his 20-year labour-of-love typeface, the IBM Original, which was eventually released as KG vera in the late 1980's.

As early as 1965, Gerstner had written 'Doubtless sans serif is not the end of the development, but rather an intermediate station, like every previous form'. So the new typeface saw Gerstner attempt to provide a solution using his design progam theory to create a typeface that 'went beyond sans serif'.

Remaining true to the Swiss tradition, Gerstner also wanted to retain a level of functionality that served the flow of reading.

The essay features some fascinating insights into the fundamental problems and issues relating to typography. For example, Gerstner's initial sketches (which tally remarkably with the finished work) were an attempt to solve the problem of what to do with the space after the lowercase 'r'. You can clearly see how the roudned end has been modified in an attempt to soften the gap into the next letter.

With elegant and lucid prose, Gerstner explains how many of the technical issues rarely trouble modern designers, because they have computers to help them.

Also included is an excellent canon of the set proportions for the typeface. This is basically a set of instructions for the progressive sizings and proportions of the typeface, and in essence is an extension of the grid system.

In the vertical axis, the typeface uses fifteen equally-sized units. The x-height requires eight of these units, the ascender uses four, and the descender requires three.

In the horizontal scale, the stroke increases at each point size by a geometric progression of 1:1.25, resulting in a tremendous consistency.

Gerstner Typeface

We also get a detailed comparison of IBM original with Univers, Futura and even Arial. A must-read for anyone interested in grids, typography and the design process - and that's just one essay - there are four others of equal merit and originality across all design areas including architecture,typography, music and colour.

Karl Gerstner - Designing Programmes
Gerstner's Die Neue Grafik

Tree of Codes - Almost Reinventing Print

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Jonathan Safran Foer's new book 'Tree Of Codes' has just been published, and is a ground-breaking piece of book design, as well as an interesting take on William S. Burroughs famous cut-up writing technique.

The book is not an original work of written fiction. Rather, it's a selection of extracts from Bruno Schultz' 1934 short story 'Street of Crocodiles'. The twist is that the extracts are created using die-cut on each page to layer and reveal words and phrases which combine and read as a 'new' text.

The publishers, Visual Editions, claim that they were turned down by every printer they approached, until Belgian printers Die Keure in Belgium took on the considerable task of creating a 134-page book with a different die-cut on every page.

This book is not only an experiment in visual design, it looks and feels like a piece of sculpture, and it shows us what can still be done with paper.

As to its literary merits, I'm guessing that the critics will be split. It's certainly a work in the ergodic tradition, and Safran Foer desribes the work as an 'interface between the visual arts and literature'. Michael Faber reviewed it favourably in the Guardian a few weeks ago and the book is certainly allowing critics to talk about the construction and texture of writing again, rather than just the plot and the style.

If Tree of Codes is a success, it should rejuvenate book design, and will hopefully introduce a new generation of readers to one of the seminal writers of the early 20th century.

Schultz was certainly not prolific - he only published two books ('Street of Crocodiles' and 'Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass') before he was shot in 1942 by the Gestapo, but if you are a fan of Kafka or Bulgakov then you will certainly enjoy them.

Safran Foer talks about Tree of Codes.

Nike Better World

Friday, 7 January 2011

Nike has just launched a new website for its latest sports shoe campaign. The Nike Better World website moves us further into the convergent future, where web and print design are becoming e increasingly indistinguisable, with amazing results.

Better World was created by the W+K Agency, recently named AdWeek's Agency of the Year for 2010. The site uses the very latest HTML5 and CSS3, plus a bit of jquery, to create a unique scrolling storyboard-style experience that blurs the boundaries between website, magazine and advertisment.

The design has caused a stir with its inventive layered scrolling, huge tracts of whitespace, a wide range of imported typefaces, and some awesome, witty copy.

What's also impressive is the way in which each section of the page works in a standalone manner, just like a doublepage spread in a magazine, and yet still provides the more gradual coherent reading experience we associate with webpages. And as you reach the end of the page, you are informed of the screen distance you have just scrolled down through - some 14,000px.

It's 2011 and the future of web design has arrived.

Song To The Siren

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Starbucks Logo Development

Paula Scher once said that 'less is more unless it's less', and Starbucks, the world's largest coffee company, provides us with a good example that could go either way.

The Seattle-based company today unveiled a corporate identity re-branding. Amazingly, Starbucks has dropped the words 'Starbucks' and 'Coffee' which had encircled its iconic twin-tailed siren, to reveal a larger, greener, and less busy logo.

Starbucks will be hoping the wordless look augments with their much-anticipated new direction as the company recovers from its recent troubles.

It’s not the chain's first re-brand. Back in early 1970's, the ‘Starbucks siren’ wore a crown and stood bare-breasted, with not one but two mermaids’ tails. Since then a couple of further facelifts had refined the visual to a cropped headshot to give a more corporate look. And it's that corporate image that the rejuvenated company is trying to move away from.

Maybe they want to get back to their roots, but perhaps the coffee association has been deemed too restrictive. You only have to look at Nike and Apple to see that a memorable symbol logo can survive and develop without words attached to it.

Of course that design logic only works if the logo is associated with products or services that embody or represent the company and what it is all about.

Which begs the question, what is Starbucks hoping to sell to us instead of a doubleshot latte and free wi-fi?

Starbucks Drops Its Name, BBC
'I Hate Starbucks'

Oxford Media Convention

Monday, 3 January 2011

Now in its ninth year, the Oxford Media Convention is an agenda-setting event for all concerned with the future of the UK's creative industries.

The theme this year is 'Convergence or Collision', and the supporting strapline defines the parameters as 'navigating the creative, commercial and regulatory challenges facing media over the next decade'.

A select group of speakers from senior government and the various media industries will debate the current and future challenges around domestic media policy, strategy and regulation.

The keynote speakers will be Ed Richards, CEO of Ofcom, Jeremy Hunt MP, the Secretary for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, and Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC.

Other talking include Richard Allan from Facebook, Tess Alps (CEO of Thinkbox), David Elms (Head of Media at KPMG), Richard Wilson of TIGA, Peter Sunde of Pirate Bay and flattr, Jon Snow from Channel 4 and David Levy of Reuters.

This event is well organised and will doubtless feature some interesting debate on topics such as freedom of information, copyright, privacy, legal infringement, and the political machinations of investment.

But let's hope that creative concerns such as ethical and social responsibility, education funding, and professional standards can be debated too. That would help to develop a definitive statement of intent by policy-makers and broadcasters as to how to ensure the future of the creative industries.

The Oxford Media Convention takes place at Said Business School, Oxford University on Jan 19th.

iDraw for iPad

2011 is going to be crunch year for the print industry, especially newspapers, but its also going to be a year of convergence as an ever-widening set of design tools across all platforms start to assist, emulate and interact with each other.

One example is IDraw, a powerful vector-based drawing tool for iPad. Its been around for a while now, but the latest version will be familiar enough to users of Illustrator to make it a very useful app for any designer on the move and out of the office or studio.

As well as bezier curves, gradients, objects and brushes, the new iDraw features anti-aliased text, layers, transparency, some useful grid options and landscape mode. It also has a decent set of file export options, including PDF, PNG and SVG, allowing a designer to whisk up a layout on the iPad then export to the CS Suite once they are back in the studio and sitting down at the trusty Mac.

iDraw does have some competition - Brushes and Clockwork Notebook, for example, both allow finger drawing and vector illustration and are worth checking out, especially if you like to start your work with doodles and sketches.

iDraw 1.0.8 is now available on iTunes at $8.99, and as part of the promotion, creators Indeeo have added some nice tutorials to their website, and have put together a nifty video showing iDraw in action: