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

Mastering the history of videogames

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland is currently hosting the rather superb Game Masters - a major exhibition showcasing the work of thirty of the most influential computer games designers and studios, and featuring 100 of the greatest video games since Tomohiro Nishikado's seminal 'Space Invaders' (1978).

Originally shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, this exhibition traces the development of computer games in a broadly chronological order, starting with arcade games, and covering the PC, console, multiplayer and tablet eras.

The setup is uniquely interactive and hugely absorbing. As well as allowing visitors to actually touch exhibits in a museum (you can play every game at your leisure), the show features filmed interviews with designers such as Peter Molyneux, Tim Schafer and Yuji Naka.  Also on display are sketchbooks, doodles, notes, character concepts and storyboards for many of the titles, including some fascinating initial drawings for DMA's 'Lemmings'. Particularly for the younger visitors to the exhibition, these paper artefacts, signposting the design thinking and narrative concepts behind the titles, serve to remind us that a computer game starts with a great idea.

I took my Minecraft-mad 10-year old son along and he was suitably awestruck at the whole experience, despite being bemused by the arcade games, and somewhat underwhelmed by the slower, more experiential 3D offerings.  For a ten-year old, gaming begins with TT's full Lego franchise output, along with Marcus Persson's aforementioned Minecraft, which had its own dedicated 10ft wide projection screen.

The stand-outs for me included the wonderful arcade game Robotron 2084 (Williams, 1982) and the ambient electro-laser beauty of Dreamcast's 2001 effort, Rez.  Check them both out, and enjoy -

Robotron 2084 - Viz Kids/Williams, 1982, Designed by Eugene Jarvis.

Rez, published by Dreamcast (2001), designed by Tetsuya Misuguchi. 

Will Wright's SimCity and Sim2000 also featured, but seeing those games running in early Windows on a PC holds very little in the way of positive memories now and felt truly dated.

The real cultural significance of an exhibition like this goes beyond a celebration of the most lucrative of modern pastimes, it somehow taps into the pioneering spirit of what is still a very young medium.  Many of the studios and designers featured represent entrepreneurial milestones in the creative industries, and their narratives - a set of biographical information boards for each designer/studio - clearly contextualises the technological and design developments in areas like game engines, user interaction, interface design, computer graphics and storytelling.

This exhibition runs until March and is well worth getting along to at least once. Is there anything negative to mention? Well, the omission of any titles by Westwood Studios (and by extension, Electronic Arts) seems a bit harsh.  Its worth noting that you only get a three-hour slot for your £10 entry fee, plus most of the merchandise in the shop is predictably overpriced. The National Museum website contains all the details, including a list of the 100 games.

Integrating Inherent Vice

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Way back in July 2009, in a post entitled 'Surf's Up for a Postmodern Giant', I took a look at the book cover for Thomas Pynchon's acclaimed novel 'Inherent Vice', which had just been published. The artwork featured neon typography and an illustration by Darshan Zenith. Now, almost six years later, the director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) has made a movie of the novel. It features an ensemble cast including Joaquin Phoenix, Reece Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and Katherine Waterston, and has already garnered a number of glowing reviews for its 'psychedelic noir' portrayal of L.A during the earliest days of the 1970s. Anderson's recent interview with film critic Mark Kermode gives a good insight into the movie and the creative challenge it presented.

What's particularly pleasing, as a big fan of both the writer and the film director, is how the visuals to promote the film are a beautiful and seamless extension of the original book cover design.  The campaign by BLT, an agency specialising in cinema campaigns, has built everything around the neon-stroked typography from the original cover, and this has worked across all channels.

The main poster is designed by Dustin Stanton, who also worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on 'The Master (2012). The supporting visuals include personalised posters for the main characters, a 'last supper' parody of the full cast, a brilliant 12" record cover for the soundtrack (composed by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood), a clever website, and a killer trailer which blends the type treatment into the credits.

Book Cover of the Year (S)

Friday, 19 December 2014

At this time of year I'm fairly ambivalent when it comes to reading the various 'best of' lists that appear for all the art, film, fashion, TV and comedy produced during the preceding 12 months. Music might be the exception. Whatever your era, the best music of any given year helps define certain stages of your own personal history. So music lists have always seemed worth compiling and worth reading. John Peel's Festive Fifty was the benchmark, and I guess its equivalent now is on Pitchfork or BBC6 Music.

In terms of graphic design, annual lists are very often a top ten of TV advertising, or possibly magazine or album covers. One list I'd like to see is book covers, and if anyone is compiling a 'best of' for 2014, then that's one list I'd be happy to contribute to, because the best book cover of this year (and also of 2015, given that the title is not actually due to be published until February next) is 'Girl In A Band', the long-awaited memoir of American rock musician Kim Gordon.

The erstwhile bass player in Sonic Youth and pioneer for women in rock music is finally spilling the beans about the birth of indie rock, the New York scene in the 1980s, and her life with Thurston Moore. The title of the book comes from a lyric in the song Sacred Trickster, from Sonic Youth’s final album, 2009’s The Eternal - “What’s it like to be a girl in a band/ I don’t quite understand.”

The big challenges in designing the cover of this book have all been met - capturing the laconic nihilism of Gordon's demeanour,  establishing the context of her personal journey, and tapping into the zeitgeist of Sonic Youth's considerable contribution to music and culture. If, as a graphic designer, you've ever put together a list of dream jobs, surely this would be right at the top. Perhaps you'd even get to meet the author, which I guess happened for CHIPs, who did the work. So here it is.

Source : Pitchfork.

Sight And Sound in the 70s

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Recently rediscovered - a set of vintage copies of Sight and Sound, tucked away in an old folio case in the study. The four shown below are from 1973 (Spring and Autumn), 1975 (Summer) and 1976 (Summer). A look through them can tell you a bit about editorial design during that era.

At the start of the 1970s, editorial design was in a state of change and upheaval. The 'Americanised' version of the Swiss Style that had dominated the mid and late 60's, exemplified by the overuse of Helvetica and Avant Garde, was looking tired and boring.  There was a sense of stagnation in mainstream magazines, and everything looked the same. Fortunately, the counterculture had shifted into a more pop-based phenomenon and this gave design, (and in particular typography) an injection of looseness it hadn't experienced since the days of the Constructivists.  Wolfgang Weingart led the way, and almost singlehandedly reinvented the rules of typographic design, but in the commercial magazine market, there was still room for adventurous combinations and the odd bit of left-field art direction.

Sight And Sound typified this. These four editions, all edited by Penelope Houston and designed by John Harmer, show all of the excesses and restrictions of layout style of the period.

The two mastheads are a good starting point. In the earlier editions, there's a superweight, psychedelic-tinged sans serif with a sort of fanzine-like personality. The cost is interesting to note too - 30p or $1.50 for a copy.  By 1976 the price was up to 55p or $2.00, and the masthead had been redesigned in tightly-tracked extended Eurostile, probably the classic version of the title, and it still looks great.  It even feels a bit digital.

For the spreads there is an overwhelming sense that everything is very static.  I went through all four magazines and found an awful lot of very boring spreads, even if the films weren't. The typographic colour is very dark and flat.  In the articles, there's very little in the way of pull-quotes or subheadings. The body text, set in Times, is justified and hyphenated, and there's a distinct lack of whitespace or contrast. If a spread is set into three column pages, we get just that - three basic columns of non-stop body copy, kicked off with a two-column span standfirst (in the same typeface) and most of the photographs are set neatly into really obvious positions.

There are some exceptions, and I've included a couple of beauties here, the Tarkovsky and Visconti spreads which are a real joy.  The article by Claude Legrand look great too, with a weird font combination and a great empty column. Some classic seventies bespoke typefaces feature as well - the sporty line font for the Cannes Festival and the brilliant block type headline for a review of Nicolas Roeg's 'The Man Who Fell To Earth'.

Compared to a current film magazine like say Empire, or even the modern Sight and Sound itself, everything feels rudimentary. At a glance, some of the  articles look half-finished, as if they may as well be set using lorem ipsum.  There are no full-bleed images, no text run-around, and all the captions are in barely-legible italics. But I think this visual blandness might be missing the point of the magazine. What the design says is less to do with the limitations of the publishing technology of the time, or the art direction, and more to do with the quality of the journalism and content, which was of a very high standard.  A longer attention span may be needed to read it, but you do get fully absorbed in it.  The reviews pages in the Spring 1973 edition is a case in point.  At least six or seven of the movies reviewed, covering just 12 weeks of release time, have all  become classic 1970s films, and with no pictures, quotes, ratings or frills at all, all you get is just the pure writing.

Contents, Summer 1975.

Tarkovsky - 'Solaris' and 'Andrei Rublev', Summer 1973.

Visconti - Obituary and Last Film - 'L'Innocente', Summer 1976.

Reviews, Autumn '73 - including Sam Peckinpah, Bob Rafelson, Nicolas Roeg, Don Siegel, Robert Altman.

Article on financing European Cinema, Claude Legrand, Spring 1973.

Cannes Festival Special, Summer 1976

Man Who Fell To Earth, Review, Summer 1976

Eurostile Next at Linotype.
Eurostile - Fonts In Use.
Sight And Sound -  Selection of 70s copies on eBay.

Talk : Digital Strategies For Creative Artists

Thursday, 11 December 2014

During the first week of December I was fortunate enough to do a couple of related evening talks at Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts, a multi-disciplinary collective specialising in ceramics, jewellery, textiles, print and furniture, which runs workshops from two studio locations in central Edinburgh.

The talks were entitled 'mARTketplace - Digital Strategies For Creative Artists' and focussed on the planning, optimisation and implementation of e-commerce enabled portfolio websites.  The audience were skilled and highly-creative artisans looking to get their work noticed and sold in their own specialist marketplaces.Whilst I was researching and writing up the talks, I designed a couple of posters to promote the events, and managed to throw in my current go-to font, an excellent multi-purpose sans serif from Hoefler & Co called Knockout.

Both of these talks lasted about two hours. I used two Macbooks, a single projector, and a sketchbook. In the first talk I covered quite a lot of ground about getting started properly on a web design project - being organised, analysing, planning, writing and positioning the site and its content. Quite a few in the group already had a website of some description, so the talk encouraged them to take an objective step back and reassess their key goals in using a digital channel.  For those without a web presence, I covered some of the classic pitfalls and mistakes, and digressed into domain names, search engines, mobile-friendly content, and social media integration.

I also introduced the group to a useful way to get started with a strategy for presenting their work - a swing'o'meter-style art direction scale, hopefully explained simply with this sketch -

For those in the group who already had websites which used proprietary templates, or dated layouts, the feedback was no surprise - they all complained of poor access to editing, limited flexibility in terms of rearranging and organising new content, browser compatibility issues, and some confusion over domain names, copyright and so on. Some of the specialist hosting platforms around now do address these issues (Squarespace and Format spring to mind), but a bit of careful analysis and a pencil can usually solve a lot of the basic design problems at the outset.

For the second talk I gave the group a brief overview of the design process - sketching, wireframes and mockups - and then concentrated on looking at some of the more user-friendly and reliable e-commerce tools, including Tictail and Weebly. This included a pretty detailed demonstration in Weebly, which is actually a very versatile and intuitive site-building app.  It also has a detailed help section to complement the user-friendly administrative area.

The feedback was really positive for mARTketplace, and I'll hopefully be invited back in 2015 to do some followup workshops.