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

Channel 4 ReBrand

Saturday, 10 October 2015

After 33 years, Channel 4 has all but ditched the signature '4' logo that became an iconic brand mark. It hasn't fully abandoned it because the recent rebrand actually utilises the component parts of the '4' to great effect an a myriad of different combinations.

Channel 4 has never shied away from creative and sometimes radical visuals in its idents and adverts. In 2005, the originality of its slow motion panning shots around chopped-up electricity pylons and deconstructed urban landscapes revolutionised the ident.  For this rebrand, luminaries such as Neville Brody, Jonathan Glazer and London agency DBLG have all been involved to maintain that sense of exploration. To add to the drama, the channel is facing the threat of privatisation - and the rebrand has been seen by some as a bit extravagant and ill-timed.

The new design breaks apart the channel’s famous 4 symbol into its constituent shapes, which are then randomly reassembled in various arrangements for the stable of Channel 4 programmes. A series of surreal idents created by Glazer (who directed 'Under The Skin') are included, as well as two new display fonts, designed by Neville Brody.

Its adventurous, playful and fun to look at. Its interesting that the shapes have a considerable drop shadow, a progressive move forward from flat design, and the colour palette is bright and high contrast. In fact, the whole approach feels influenced by Google's Material Design,and in that sense it is extremely contemporary. There's an excellent short film detailing the process of the rebrand, which illustrates the quirky approach and the variety of ideas that made up the project -

Its always exciting for graphic designers when a Neville Brody font is involved, and in this instance we get two - 'Horseferry' and 'Chadwick'.  Actually, we only really get Chadwick, with a series of modifications to it in Brody's trademark style - angled cuts, half serifs and broken curves - making up Horseferry.

The description accompanying the Horseferry sample states that 'the design reflects the sharp, disruptive and cutting edge personality of a unique British Institution', whilst Chadwick is built for clarity and legibility on screen.

At first sight Horseferry looks great - it harks back to Brody's experiments during the Face era, and the sharp points and machined half-serifs in particular have a techy retro1980s feel. The lowercase t and g also give a nice nod to Gill Sans, and you can see all sorts of challenging ways to use this typeface. It also looks great for Channel 4 titles like Fargo, Grand Designs and Hunted.

But a quirky typeface and of-the-moment visual styling doesn't always age well, and Channel 4's programme roster reduces the reach of the font.  For me,  Horseferry doesn't work with the likes of Hollyoaks, Educating Cardiff, Made in Chelsea and Deal Or No Deal.  See for yourself if you can bear to tune in when these programmes are on.

All of which means that I'd be surprised if this new incarnation of the Channel 4 identity will still be around in 2025.

You Can Be Serious

Friday, 9 October 2015

Amongst other descriptive terms, 'wonderous' and 'frustrating' sums up John McEnroe's famous performance during Wimbledon in 1980, when he yelled the immortal line 'You cannot be serious!'. Twice.  SuperMac clearly wasn't happy with the referee, but his real problem was with the baseline. The chalk flew up. It was right on the line. It was right on the line. Which fits nicely with the subject at hand.

Scale, units and measures may differ for print and digital design, but the essential basics of alignment, proportion, balance, whitespace and contrast - remain the same. One of most wonderous tools at your disposal to achieve these things across every format is the baseline grid.  This is a series of equally-spaced horizontal lines upon which text sits, to enable vertical rhythm as one reads down the page (and across it, if there are facing pages or multiple columns).

Using a baseline grid is the point at which you start to take layout seriously. But what can make it frustrating is that there is still no single shared method to create a baseline grid across all the standard tools in which you might design your layouts, namely Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop.  One route that many designers are now taking is to bypass the standard tools altogether, and design for digital directly in the browser, where there are lots of grid tools, such as the grid extensions in Chrome.  But whatever tool the work is done in, its important to have a reliable way to set up an accurate and robust baseline grid.

The Baseline Grid

The baseline is the imaginary line along which typographic elements sit. Letters and words. But also sometimes, objects and symbols.  Setting up a baseline grid for various formats in a variety of tools requires different  techniques, so its worth examining how this is best achieved in each tool, and what the wonders and frustrations are of each technique.

InDesign has the most flexible set of tools to create any kind of grid. You can set up the document intent for print, digital publishing and web, and the margin, columns and gutter controls are very robust. These can be set up right at the start of a document, or added and adjusted later using the Layout and Create Guides options to create any combination of columns, gutters and rows.  The grid can be proportioned to the page or the margin, and toggled on and off.

The baseline grid is created separately through InDesign's preferences.  You can set the leading increment, control the positioning of the grid vertically, and arrange the layer options - grids in back, or grids on top. If you want to make changes, you just alter the increment.  The view threshold option gives you added control over the visibility of the grid at low zoom magnifications. 

In the paragraph tools you can then align text to the baseline grid, or free it up from snap.  The only thing you can't do with an InDesign baseline grid is rotate it to angles other than 90deg.

InDesign grid setup for Digital Publishing, with 3 columns, 30px gutters, 66px margins and 21px baseline grid.

With its multiple artboards, powerful vector shapes and alignment tools, the ability to use both layers and the arrange stacks in each layer, and both 300ppi and 72ppi canvas options, Illustrator is great for print and digital layout. You can quickly set up the columns for your grid by drawing a rectangle, using the Path > Split Into Grid option, and setting the width, gutter and column count values -


For the baseline grid, we draw a horizontal line with the line segment tool, at the width we want, and then use the Distort& Transform > Transform tool to duplicate that line with the move value (i.e. the leading in pixels or points that we require), and the number of copies - 

This combination is really powerful. The columns can be made opaque and locked in a layer, the baselines can be moved around, started anywhere on the canvas, replicated instantly across multiple artboards, and the increment can be edited easily in the Appearance panel.  Plus you can rotate the baselines to any angle. 

The one proviso is that because you can't convert the transformed line to a guide, you therefore can't snap to it, so make sure you use Illustrator's powerful zoom to get things done accurately.

Photoshop, up until now at least, has been a bit more problematic. Adobe CC is the first version of Photoshop to allow you to create multiple rows and columns in its guide options (an exact analog of the create guides tool which InDesign has had since CS3).

But in CS6 and below, all sorts of workarounds have been used to generate grids in Photoshop, from using the document grid, or painstakingly creating each guide, to using pattern-repeated transparent .pngs, and downloading .png grids generated by browser plugins.  And that's just for the columns.

Thankfully, there's a really useful free tool, the Guideguide plugin.  You can set up complex grids quickly, and edit, share, save and customise them very easily -

GuideGuide 12 column 960 grid with 18px baseline grid in Photoshop

The one drawback perversely enough, as you can see above, is that Guideguide creates guides. It can't create solid columns, so that your canvas can look daunting to work in with so many criss-crossing guides. A better option is the combination of solid vertical columns and horizontal lines, a lot like the combination used in Illustrator.

But Photoshop can't generate the column grid with the same tools as Illustrator. There is a tedious way to fill in the columns between each guide, but you'll use a lot of layers and waste valuable time. A quicker solution is to make the column grid in Illustrator, then export it as a transparent PNG and place it in the top layer of your Photoshop file. Then set up the GuideGuide rows. With this combination, as well as something that's easier to look at, you can lock and toggle the columns and the baseline grid separately.


Grid combination - 940px 12-column PNG and GuideGuide baseline.

If you do want to be serious without getting frustrated, once you have the grid combinations you like, keep them saved as templates, or set up your own actions in Illustrator and Photoshop to automate the main steps.

Fast Product and Big Gold Dream

Monday, 22 June 2015

A highlight of this year's Edinburgh Film Festival was the world premiere of 'Big Gold Dream', a music documentary, ten years in the making, about Scotland's post-punk era in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the late 70s and early 80s.

The film is actually in two parts, with the first (this release) to be followed later this year by a second part called 'Songs from Northern Britain'.

Big Gold Dream

Directed by Grant McPhee, Big Gold Dream expertly charts the rise and fall of the seminal independent record labels Fast Product and Postcard, which between them released a clutch of influential records by some of the most important British bands of the time, including Gang of Four, Mekons, Human League, Joy Division, Scars, Josef K, the Go-Betweens, Aztec Camera and Orange Juice.

I came into my teens during these years, was familiar with some of the music in the film (and certainly influenced by what followed), so this was a nice piece of cultural nostalgia.  As well as a host of insightful and amusing interviews by the key players of the scene, there was plenty suitably lo-fi grainy concert footage and archive television clips.

But what was I hadn't fully appreciated was how the Fast Product label in particular was the blueprint for the independent labels that would follow, including Rough Trade and Factory (as well as the aforementioned Postcard). The label made its mark discovering original and interesting new acts, usually with a left-field political slant, but it was also an amazing source of some of the best graphic design of its time, which is worth looking at here in more detail.

Fast Product

Fast Product was founded in 1978 by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison, and run from their flat in Edinburgh. The label initially concentrated on releases by bands from the north of England – The Mekons, Gang of Four and Human League, but early in 1979 it released a single by Edinburgh-based band The Scars, and as the film explains, it was this single that sparked the music scene that included the likes of Associates, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, and eventually the Creation-era of The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Primal Scream and beyond to Franz Ferdinand.

Fast Product challenged pop music conventions and promotional sensibilities.  As Last describes in the film, the concept was "about being fast, being intense, and then we're done".  The label was basically an art project coupled with a commercial gamble, modelled somewhat on Andy Warhol's Factory, and inspired by 'Spiral Scratch' - the first ever independent record, released by the Buzzcocks on their self-funded New Hormones label in 1976.

Crucially, Last already had a hand-drawn logo, a rudimentary, squared off, angled 'fast' that captured the concept perfectly, and a manifesto, built around slogans such as 'mutant pop', 'difficult fun' and 'interventions in any media'. In essence he had the beginnings of a brand,  all once he'd signed bands, he had the  'product'.

The design of the record artwork beautifully reflected this idea, blending the DIY immediacy of punk with an art sensibility driven by minimalism and bold typography. In fact, many of the Fast releases featured covers that referenced Swiss Style, Constructivism and the Bauhaus.  The use of bold titles in Futura and Avant Garde, often angled or juxtaposed against a single illustration or cropped photo, was a huge departure from the anti-design punk style that was then in vogue.

The records themselves are highly collectible, and if you are lucky enough to own any of them (I've got a copy of the Gang of Four E.P.) they really are exhilarating documents of an approach to branding and pop culture in graphic design that we take for granted these days.

The Scars - Adult / ery, b/w Horrorshow

Human League - Being Boiled, b/w Circus of Death

The 2.3 - All Time Low, b/w Where To Now

Dead Kennedys - California Uber Alles, b/w The Man With The Dogs

Gang of Four - Damaged Goods E.P - Damaged Goods/Anthrax/Armalite Rifle

Mutant Pop Compilation

Big Gold Dream trailer and premier promo -

Grant McPhee interview - Pitchfork Media
Big Gold Dream on BBC Arts
LouderThanWar - Big Gold Dream (preview)

Never Mind The APR

Friday, 12 June 2015

Jamie Reid's work is graphic design that captured and mythologised a movement in popular culture. His record sleeves and posters for the Sex Pistols are something a design tutor can dine out on in terms of inspiring students, the sort of work that is genuinely original and fresh every time you look at it.  It encourages students to consider the politics and social machinations of their era, to experiment with collage, typography, mixed media, to generally take an original creative path, regardless of what is current, acceptable or even necessary. And to figure out what Letraset is.

So it was a bit depressing to see earlier this week that Virgin announced that their new 'Rebellion' credit cards, featuring the iconic Jamie Reid designs from the Sex Pistols' 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and 'Anarchy In The UK'.  A Sex Pistols Mastercard at 18.9% APR?  Bring a little bit of rebellion to your wallet?  Just choose the rate on each card.

The team responsible clearly had a great time coming up with the creative for this, and I'd be interested to see what research data they assembled and referred to in terms of target audience and so on. I guess they might think I'd be their ideal audience.

But before we all lose heart,  as a reminder about where the original designs came from and to contextualise their importance, here is a short clip about Suburban Press, the anarcho-situationist magazine Jamie Reid founded and worked on in the years leading up to the emergence of punk.

Talking to your Target Audience(s)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

In case you are unaware, there's a General Election happening in the UK. We go to the polls on May 7th in what promises to be the most exciting campaign in living memory.

Back in January on textwrap I looked at classic campaign posters from the latter decades of the Twentieth Century. These were the halcyon days of the two-party system in the UK, when the battle between Labour and the Conservatives (Tories) was consistently brought to life through superb political poster design. Today, that two-party system is at an end. We've had a coalition since 2010, and further fracturing of political allegiances means that multi-party politics is here to stay.

This change presents interesting problems for the advisors, spin doctors and agencies running the various campaigns.  The situation in this election is that Scotland's left-leaning Nationalist party, which has enjoyed huge post-referendum support under the auspices of the popular and capable Nicola Sturgeon, is threatening to secure the bulk of seats north of the border, leaving Labour and the Conservatives to fight it out in England for a minority win that may well require SNP support to form a majority bloc.

Confused?  If so, then perhaps it can be neatly summed up by the defining piece of political propaganda of the campaign - a Tory poster depicting the Labour leader Ed Miliband in the SNP's Alex Salmond's pocket (a tad confusing given that Salmond isn't actually the SNP leader, but the meaning isn't altered by that fact).

The poster, designed by M&C Saatchi, is aimed at English voters and is intended to warn them against the danger of a Labour minority government supported by the more politically-adept SNP in coalition. This is because consistent polling by a variety of pollsters show Labour losing most of their 41 seats in Scotland. And a combination of Labour and SNP seats (in coalition or lesser arrangement) would command a majority over Conservatives in any 'hung' parliament.

Ironically however, the very opposite of the message contained in the poster is communicated to other audience i.e the Scottish electorate, many of whom see the poster as an affirmation that real power is on the way. So much so that the SNP appropriated the concept for their own parody version (with a minor nod to 'Jaws' in the strapline).

In Salmond's Pocket - Conservative Poster 2015 (M&C Saatchi)

In Sturgeon's Pocket - SNP parody poster 

This little episode illustrates the complex dichotomy of the election, and highlights the difficult task facing spin doctors and agencies across all the parties in their attempts to pander to two distinct audiences.  Earlier this month, a tabloid newspaper managed to sum up this duality, with a startling strategy to play off opposing target audience mindsets.

The Daily Mail is a right-leaning, Conservative supporting tabloid newspaper, published in London. In Scotland, where the Conservatives hold only one seat and are perennially unpopular, the 'Scottish' edition Daily Mail promotes equally right-wing content, but is more mindful of the centrist sentiment of many Labour and Tory supporters.  For example, in Scotland, issues of immigration are less contentious.

So, after a nationally televised Leaders debate, when various polls and the media in general surprisingly awarded the best performance in a Leaders Debate to Nicola Sturgeon (whose SNP support separation from the Union, and can only be voted for by Scotland's 8% of the UK electorate), the Daily Mail went into overdrive to attack Sturgeon for the benefit of both audiences.

The paper ran two conflicting front page headlines the following day.

On the left, the Daily Mail warns its Conservative readers, and blatantly scares centre-ground or swinging voters of the real and present SNP threat to the continuation of the Union.

On the right, the Scottish edition turns this on its head, essentially stating that Sturgeon in fact secretly supports the Conservatives - the complete opposite of what the Daily Mail is telling its English readership. This angle refers to a comment in a leaked memo which the First Minister was alleged to have made (and which has since been broadly denounced) that she'd prefer the incumbent, David Cameron, to remain in office, in effect lying to her own supporters. This then tempts wavering Labour and SNP supporters actually vote Conservative.

And therein lies the dichotomy of the central message.  In England, vote Conservative to return the party to power, and avoid an SNP/Labour government. In Scotland, vote SNP to return a Conservative majority. Two completely opposite voting intentions supporting the same outcome. This complicated spin shows how a message can contradict itself and still make sense to the target audience(s).  More broadly, it underlines the increasingly untenable political 'union' the editorial seeks to protect.

Improvising the Capital Grid

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Karl Gerstner's  'Capital Grid' is a cornerstone of graphic design theory and practice. Devised by the Swiss designer in 1962 for Capital Magazine, this elegant blueprint of intersecting guides for print design is arguably the ultimate expression of the Swiss Style, emphasising clarity, proportional measure and functionality. It's a thing of beauty but is undeniably complicated, and in his book 'Designing Programmes', Gerstner admitted that "once the grid was constructed, it required considerable study before I could make free use of it in a creative sense".

Given its provenance and complexity, I was excited to see of my design students, Saulius Stebulis, experimenting with this grid as part of a typographically-based web design project for ISTD (International Society of Typographic Designers). I'd like to look at how he accomplished this, what kind of creative work it can facilitate, and the implications for digital design.

As a general rule, using a grid creates order, consistency and harmony. Designers employ specific grids for different formats, and the tension created by the restriction of a grid versus the energy of the idea is very often the key to a great layout. These days, as digital design appropriates more and more of its sensibilities from print, its a reasonable proposition to ask why print, tablet and web formats can't share a single basic grid system.  Some variation of Gerstner's grid may be a possible answer to this idea of a 'unified' single grid system. To see why this might be, we have to look at how it was constructed, bearing in mind that the end result was always envisaged as being designed for the printed page.

Using a square divided into 58 horizontal and vertical units, Gerstner came up with a set of guides that allowed print designers to create far more variations in layout than was possible with standard grids. The result is a 'compound' grid, comprising a number of sets of columns and rows. The grid looks like this -

The Capital Grid - a 58-unit square with 2,3,4,5 and 6 available columns.

Examples of 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 column layout using the Capital Grid.

The second diagram above shows the power of Gerstner's idea.  Here is a flexible 1,2,3,4,and 6 column layout which also includes the option of an asymmetrical 5 column layout, greatly increasing the possible variations.  This square grid is then placed in the middle of a page and scaled to fit the side margins, leaving equal header and footer spaces, producing the ultimate grid system for print design.

Translating this complex structure from print to web was therefore a big challenge, as Saulius explains -

"The concept I was working on was very personal - 'Pursuit Of Happiness' - and I wanted to be able to show scattered thoughts, diary entries and random incidents from my daily life anywhere on screen, in a vertical scrolling website. These random entries needed to fit into a definite geometry on the screen that could be easily followed by the viewer.  So I needed a grid that would return harmonious and well organised results, no matter where the information appeared on the web page. This need for harmony inspired me to experiment with the Capital Grid."

Despite numerous attempts to use the square shaped grid, Saulius eventually settled on a rectangular grid in portrait orientation, shown in the visual below.  The first set of guides is 3 horizontal and 4 vertical columns (i.e. 3x4, red lines). This is then overlaid with a 4 X 6 (green lines) and then a 6 X 8 (blue lines). The combination is then repeated sideways, like adding a facing page to a spread, to arrive at a grid that fits the full screen desktop proportions. Once complete, the new grid accommodates  2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 12 column layouts. There are also four locations across the page that support half-unit increments.

This grid gives us a possible 192 different positions that an element can occupy (via 16 horizontal and 12 vertical intersection points per row or column respectively).  Elements can also be stacked on top of or nested inside of each other as well using this formula. The gutters can also be dispensed with unless multi-columned text is going to feature in the design. So there is an incredible amount of flexibility inside the screen.

With the grid in place, Saul then looked at the construction of the web page using semantic html5 markup.  Just like a typical scrolling website, the page is divided vertically into sections.  Each section is full desktop size (1920px X 1080px), and is overlaid with a div class which contains one instance of the grid. As we add sections down the page, the grid is repeated vertically.  This ensures that the vertical rhythm in each section is repeated down through the scrolling experience. In the css, elements inside each section are placed using absolute positioning.  The 192 positions in a section are each defined by a combination of two percentage values - left and top. The basic unit of increment is 8%, with subunits of 4% (horizontal) and 2.66% (vertical).

There are limitations (not least in terms of  responsive design), but at fullscreen the pattern or flow of elements on the page produces a harmonious result as long as elements are placed in one of the intersections -

Above : harmonious absolute positioning using percentage units on the grid. 
Below : sample sections using the grid.

Although this is still a work in progress, we can already see an original and unusual layout in this work. The arrangement seems simple, and communicates the concept clearly, but is held together by a complex geometric construction.  All the heavy lifting is done at the outset by the development of the grid.

Paula Scher once said "Less is more, unless it's less, and then maybe 'more' really is more". This improvisation of the Capital Grid illustrates the point perfectly.  In pursuing a really systematic approach to layout, its possible to create a structure that actually makes it easier to experiment and produce free-flowing, minimal layouts and arrangements that would have been unattainable otherwise.

Note: Saulius is submitting the finished design, including a full annotation, to ISTD's Student Assessment Project 2015.

Transmediale 2015

Sunday, 1 February 2015

As part of our annual study trip to Berlin, we attend Transmediale, Europe’s premiere festival of digital arts, culture and technology. Each year the programme features cutting-edge films, installations, performances, workshops, and other events at the impressive Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in central Berlin.

This year the theme at Transmediale was 'Capture All' - focussing on how we create, use, share and interpret digital media in all of its forms and how this is affecting our lives. The festival opened on Wednesday 28th with more than 1000 students, artists, technologists, educators and designers attending from all over the globe. As well as free access to the full festive exhibition and free wine, DJ Renaissance Man put on a two hour set running till 11pm as attendees networked and soaked up the atmosphere.

In past years Transmediale has tended to feature a lot of conceptual digital art, virtual interaction and installation work, so it was great for our design students to see what felt like a much more tangible exhibition this year, containing some stunning and original visual communication via print, screen and video, including the following highlights -

Main Exhibition : Jennifer Lyn Morone

In this standout piece, the artist turned herself into a real corporation called Jennifer Lyn Morone™, Inc.  As a commercial venture, she presents herself and her belongings as items in which you can buy shares.  In this way, as a direct attack on the culture of data-mining,  digital marketing and social media, none of her personal data can be shared, stored or accessed unless the viewer actually owns it. Morone explains this idea in a cool video, alongside documents detailing the incorporation, plus the terms and conditions of her personal data market. You can then use an iPad app to purchase Morone's email, mood, and location data, amongst other personal information. Check out her website at jenniferlynmorone.com for more on this project.

Main Exhibition : Networked Optimization

A collaboration by Silvio Lorusso and Sebastian Schmieg, this work uses digital publishing and access to reading materials to examine data interaction. The work presents a series of three crowdsourced versions of popular self-help books — The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, The 5 Love Languages, and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Each book is available to read, displayed on a glass table, but when you pick one up and flick through it, almost all of the pages are empty. The cover artwork for each title is also devoid of text.

The only text that remains readable is a selection of popular highlights - passages which were underlined by Kindle users – together with the tally of highlighters who have read each title. Each time a passage is underlined, it is automatically stored by Amazon. The e-books can be downloaded, and paper copies are also available in the HKM bookshop.

Guest Exhibition : Ellie Harrison

For almost five years Glasgow-based artist Ellie Harrison recorded information about every aspect of her daily routine.  The result was a spectacular piece of work called 'Timelines', which documents everything she did, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for four weeks.

Each day the data about every activity was transferred into an excel spreadsheet. By the end of the four weeks it contained 2,297 entries, which were then transposed into a series of 28 colour-coded timelines.  This produced a dazzling infographic which allows the viewer to identify any activity from the artist's life, including eating, showering, commuting to work, buying food, using email, driving, socialising and so on.

Foyer Programme : Datafied Research

This panel-led event discussed the findings of a year-long project exploring Transmediale's theme of 'Capture All', and looked at issues surrounding the limits to how much personal information about us can or should be digitised. The panel featured participants from the Datafied Research PhD workshop between Aarhus University and the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University. The results were also published as a peer-reviewed newspaper, which was launched at the festival and exhibited in the foyer. All the double-page spreads were hung up in a flatplan sequence to create a huge single image as a landscape poster. On the other side of this were all of the findings, statistics and related articles, beautifully typeset.

Foyer Programme : Hybrid Publishing Toolkit

This workshop, held on Friday, was part of the Digital Publishing Toolkit research project, and featured a presentation by Florian Cramer, Patricia de Vries, Miriam Rasch and Margreet Riphagen, who described a set of tools for digital publishing. The Toolkit, available as an e-book, is aimed at anyone working in art and design publishing, providing hands-on practical advice and focusing on working solutions for low-budget, small-edition publishing.  Approaches for the use of the toolkit can include catalogues, magazines, research publications, and design or art-themed books. More can be found at the networkcultures.org, including a free download of the e-book.

Transmediale also runs in conjunction with the CTM Festival of experimental sound, with events held at world-famous clubs such as Berghain and Tresor.

Transmediale flickr stream
Transmediale facebook page
Transmediale website
CTM Festival website

Classic Election Posters

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Over the next few months in the UK we can look forward to lot of awful graphic design in the shape of the campaign posters by the main political parties as they proclaim, dismiss and lie their way to the General Election on May 7th.  Bad typography, dodgy cropping and clumsily applied Photoshop filters will be everywhere.  We can also expect to be mildly amused by a never-ending stream of parody samples and mashups via social media. The Tories have been quick off the mark, and their opening salvo, the 'Road' poster, has already been widely ridiculed.

In terms of visual communication, real ideas in election campaigning have been in decline since the late 1990s.  The 2010 election is a case in point, where the main campaigns ran embarrassing parody posters based on 'Ashes  to Ashes' - a popular TV show featuring a time-travel plot and set in the early 1980s.

We need to go back to 1970 for the beginning of a golden era of design in political posters and election material, and its entertaining to look at some of the best ones, especially given that regardless of their success or failure, nothing written in any of the strap-lines or quotes was true or came to pass.  In fact, it was mostly the opposite.  Which is as good as reason as any to hope that 2015 will see a definitive end to two-party politics in this country.

In 1970, the cult of personality was emerging in British politics, and the Conservatives took the lead with this classic poster of Edward Heath, who led to Tories to an election win that year.

Heath did manage to decimalise the currency and take the country into the EEC, but by 1973 Britain was crippled with the three-day week and a series of damaging miners strikes. It wasn't a better tomorrow after all, and in 1974 Labour found their way back into power.

In the run-up to the 1979 election, after 5 years of an equally inept Labour administration under Harold Wilson,  Saatchi & Saatchi came up with probably the most famous poster in British political history -

In actual fact, the real campaign poster was yet to follow, this was just the primer for what turned out to be a winning campaign for Margaret Thatcher.  The official election poster was this frightening and unforgettable effort  -

By 1983 the UK had woken up to what it had really voted for.  The nation was in a serious mess, with 3 million unemployed and interest rates at a whopping 12%.  This Trade Union Congress spread shows the depth of loathing aimed at Thatcher and her then Employment Secretary, Norman Tebbit -

Thatcher survived until 1991, losing power through an internal coup rather than an election defeat. The Conservatives retained office under John Major, and this amusing campaign by Labour caught the mood of the electorate in the run-up to the 1993 election after the fiasco of 'Black Wednesday' when the Stockmarket crashed and forced the UK to withdraw from the Exchange Rate Mechanism -

Which leads us to another classic poster.  If it looks like this New Labour poster is familiar, that's because it's practically a carbon-copy of the Heath poster from 1970 -  the lowercase sans serif, the moody lighting, the cropped portrait, and the wistful yet assured gaze. Obviously a winning formula in art direction.

Conservative retaliation wasn't far away though, and the final example I've selected is a design classic from 1997.  'New Labour New Danger' was a controversial campaign, again courtesy of Saatchi & Saatchi, and although it failed, the example below marked a high point of political poster design in the UK.

Dynamic Sketching

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Sketching transcends languages and cultures, and despite all of the apps and digital tools available these days, the humble pencil remains the most important tool a designer can call upon. The reasons are many. Sketching is fun, spontaneous and artistic. It lets you focus on simple choices rather than get bogged down in technology and process. It promotes open thinking, and allows you to take risks and visualise ideas no matter how off-the-wall they sound. You can alter, revise, bin or rework a sketch at little cost or loss of time,  plus you can do it on a train, a bus, in a cafe, and all without wi-fi, power cables or batteries. Sketches are easy to share with colleagues and peers. They are tangible, easily duplicated, and surprisingly effective at showing off your design ability and productivity.

As a designer, the more you do it, the faster you will solve design issues. For design educators, sketching also plays a key role in objectively assessing certain aspects of design thinking.

Sample preliminary sketches.

In a student sketchbook we should expect to see two different kinds of sketching activity - 'freeform' sketching, which evidences the genesis and development of ideas or concepts (these can include drawings, doodles, diagrams, thumbnails and so on) and 'preliminaries', which are representations or plans of the actual design applied to various formats.

Preliminaries can contribute a substantial proportion of the design work before the project is brought to the screen.  They are the key support material for the creation of wireframes, navigation maps, flowcharts and flatplans. The more detailed these sorts of sketches are, the more effectively problems get solved, the faster the execution, and the better the result. Good preliminary sketching uses design principles like consistency, accuracy and hierarchy.  Rather than purely lo-fi roughs, this kind of sketching produces detailed blueprints that show off organisation, interactions, transitions and functionality.

Tools And Techniques

The tools are simple and cheap, but its probably worth paying a bit extra and getting good quality pencils. You can get all of this at your local Hobbycraft for less than £10.

Graph Paper - A4 Squared grid pad, (green lines), 115 gsm
Pencils - three coloured pencils, including standard black
Accessories - rubber, sharpener, a decent ruler
Extras - square post-it notes, tracing paper, paper clips.

Work with Colour 

Use a combination of colours (black and two others) to represent different aspects of the design. These can be used to signify structure, functionality and style. The black pencil is for the basic drawing, to outline formats, draw or illustrate geometry, figures, content and type, and to annotate and label.

A bold colour (e.g. red) is used to signify structure, things like margins, alignment, proximity, hierarchy, measurements, anything that's fixed and supports the idea.

A third colour (e.g. green or blue) is used to highlight user experience or movements such as interaction, navigation, flow, choice, or animation. This might include sliding menus, directional cues, flow, call-to-actions, parallax scrolling, swipes, and so on.

This gives you a three-tiered diagram that is colour-coded and easily understood.

Work with Units

Whether its print or digital you are designing for, the units are crucial, so incorporating some sort of proportional scale in the sketches is desirable.

Use A4 squared graph paper.  If you've never sketched in graph paper before you'll find it a revelation.  The squared grid is very robust.  It allows you to draw consistent, scaled boxes and shapes. It helps you set up numbered columns, use proportional margins and guides, and generally align things accurately with a minimum of fuss. The results may not be to scale, but they will be a good approximation. Graph paper is normally a grid of 18X28 10mm squares. Each 10mm square is divided into 4 X 5mm squares, and divided again into 5 1mm divisions. One thing to note is the grid area (180mmX280mm) is smaller than A4 size (210mm X 297mm), because the pad includes generous margins.

The following three samples use the tools noted above, and cover an example in print, digital publishing and web design. Obviously groups of sketches and variations would be used in each case, as the work progressed; the colour-coded notation then becomes more powerful.

Sample 1

Here's a dynamic sketch for an A4 poster. The sketch is 60mm X 100mm, using 5mm margins (signified by the red pencil) and a rule-of-thirds grid. The green pencil highlights where the strap-line or call-to-action is going, and also illustrates the flow of the users' eye through the composition.

Sample 2

Here's a sketch for an iPad article that will be laid out in InDesign.  It uses six columns (60mm), with 10mm margins, and shows the h1, h2 and paragraph arrangement.  Share icons and touch navigation elements are in red. the eye flow is in green. 

Sample 3

This sketch is for a standard 1024X768 desktop design, with a twelve column grid (5mm each column).  The call-to-action and navigation elements are ringed in red, so are the flow arrows to the various aside content. Also included is a 1920X1080 responsive variation for comparison.

Working with colour, units and guides allows you to refer to a very detailed diagram once you are working on screen, allowing really fast file setup, and giving you a solid guide to what's going on inside of the format.  Whether it's a wireframe you are working on or a layout, a lot of the nitty-gritty has already been formulated.

Work with Layers

Dynamic sketching can be taken one stage further by including layers. A good method is to use tracing paper. Trace over a sketch,  use the colour code to alter functional aspects on the trace, then pin this on top of the original.  The sketches can then be used to test or demonstrate alternate layouts in digital publishing (i.e portrait to landscape), and responsive or parallax designs for web. A helpful addition here is to pre-prepare pages with sketched formats, then use these as a tracing templates. Post-its can also be brought into the mix to add as call-out notes.

The overall aim of this kind of technique is to reduce the amount of time you spend making alterations and design decision inside of the software.  This improves workflow, keeps the original idea intact, and it doesn't sap the creative energy that so often dissipates if you are trying to solve basic problems whilst you are assembling artwork or layout in digital tools.

Are we entering the age of Material Design?

Monday, 5 January 2015

The zeitgeist of the 1980s was perfectly captured by Madonna when she sang "We are living in the material world, and I am a material girl."  Now it seems that Google are attempting to pull off the same trick for the 2010's with 'Material Design', their new visual design language, introduced at the I/O Conference in June 2014.

Material Design is defined via a set guidelines that combine the central principles of good design with current best practice in interactive screen technologies.  The result is a manifesto for designing unified experiences across platforms and devices. But is Material Design merely a trend, or is it the way digital design was always meant to be done? It certainly seems to cover most of what has been learned about interaction since the rise of mobile devices. So are we perhaps entering an age when it will dominate interactive design and visual communication?

Originally code-named 'Quantum Paper', the idea was Google's effort to encourage a consistent approach to design across all of its products.  But by extension, it also proposes a whole new standard for digital design in general, encompassing design ideas and technical execution in typography, layout, animation and interaction across all platforms, including web, Android, and iOS. 
 At the launch, Google released this short video to summarise the approach -

Concurrently, Google published their design guidelines on a beautifully realised website, which you can visit here.  In the introduction of the document Google establishes two key goals, encapsulated in three underlying principles. The goals broadly stated are -

1) The creation of a visual language that synthesises classic principles of good design with the innovation and possibility of technology and science.

2) The development of a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across platforms and device sizes.

The three underlying principles allied to the approach are -

1) Material is the Metaphor - inferring that designers can transfer the lighting and surface experiences of paper and ink into screens.

2) Bold, Graphic, Intentional - placing print-based design - typography, grids, space, scale, colour, and hierarchy - at the centre of visual considerations and styling.

3) Motion Provides Meaning - embracing the use of animation, motion and transitions to guide and inform the user experience.

And the three principles are encapsulated by this visual in the documentation -

Material is Metaphor                Bold, Graphic, Intentional        Motion Provides Meaning

In support of Material Design, Google's documentation includes exhaustively detailed guidelines on colour palettes, typography, layout and grids, animation, touch experiences and navigation principles.

Material Design - Colour sampler

Material Design - sample palettes

Material Design - long touch, long press-drag, double-touch drag

Material Design - Roboto Sans, weights and stance.

If you are thinking this all sounds a bit like its been appropriated from the Swiss Style, you'd be right. Some of the language feels like it is lifted directly from the pages of Die Neue Grafik, which is no bad thing. The approach should serve to embolden print-based designers who are transitioning to digital, because Material Design uses fundamental tools that have come from the world of print design, like baseline grids, proportional spacing rules, and strict control of whitespace. Stuff that has been thankfully appropriated for web design since the introduction of HTML5 and CSS3.  There are a number of interesting points which serve as unifying elements -

Firstly there is a detailed section on a bespoke baseline grid, allied to the 'paper' paradigm which controls feedback, display and movement through screens and dialogues.  This is supported by a really detailed typographic hierarchy that is well researched and presented.

Secondly, there is the global use of 'dp' as the unit of measurement and size for elements, grids, spacing and so on. This may be an unfamiliar unit but dp stand for Density-independent Pixels, an abstract unit that is based on the physical density of the screen. These units are relative to a 160 dpi screen, so one dp is one pixel on a 160 dpi screen. The ratio of dp-to-pixel will change with the screen density, but not necessarily in direct proportion.  The corresponding unit used for the typography is the sp (scale-independent unit), which also requires a screen resolution of 160dpi (which again makes 1sp equal to 1px).

Thirdly there is direct reference to movement in 3D where 'Z-axis motion is typically a result of user interaction with material'.  There are a series of rules to accomplish this, including a collection of situations in which drop shadows and layered elements can be used. The shadows are also given a specific depth, which is always 1dp.

Finally, Material Design proposes a rigorous model for developing wireframes and responsive patterns, which uses the 'cards' paradigm and also a set of device-based 'whiteframes'. These provide a variety of layout structures using a consistent approach to surfaces, layers and shadows.

Material Design - Metrics for margins and headers.

Material Design - Cards paradigm for layout structure.

Having read through the whole document, it seems fairly clear to me that Google have given it their best shot at articulating the current state of interactive design and usability in the way that Jakob Nielson did during the mid-1990s. What's also interesting is that with the discrete use of drop shadows and layered surfaces, Google are reintroducing a controlled amount of skeuomorphism back into screen design, allowing interaction to extend into the z-axis as a means of enhancing usability.

So Material Design could be viewed as an extension or development of Flat Design. The inclusion of downloadable resources at the end of the guidelines affirms this, with the whiteframes, iconography and components all supplied in vector formats only.

Where 'Material Design' could be extended is into interactive editorial design (for digital publishing) and in time this might provide a completely unified set of design principles for any format or visual medium.

We've already included Material Design as part of our curriculum delivery for Visual Communication in areas like web design, user experience and motion graphics, and I fully expect other Art Schools and Design courses to be thinking along the same lines.  Material Design may not be the complete solution, but it will definitely become a dominant trend in digital design during 2015 and there is much to be learned from Google's take on good design principles, minimalism and usability.

Material Design Interaction demo
Material Design Palette generator