Tuesday 29 November 2011


Today I spent a very pleasant day at the V&A with first year UCS graphic design students looking around the Postmodernism exhibition. A little overwhelming at first, it is an intense visual overload that thrusts itself into your eyeballs. But despite this, there is much to like.

Divided into three main rooms, each split into different sections, you get a glimpse of where you are heading as you walk around. A hole in a wall, to lead the eye to what is around the corner; the sound of a video filtering into a neighbouring section; brightly coloured semi-transparent plastic strip curtains hiding corridors; and neon arrows directing you between rooms—regardless of the work on display, it is a well laid out show that visually, and aurally pulls you through it.

The students clearly responded well to an area dedicated purely to graphic design, which is rare outside of specialist galleries and the Design Museum. This was far braver than the V&A Modernism exhibition circa 2006 where graphic design was sidelined. All the expected works were there. Saville, Bubbles, Griemann, Brody, Scher etc. It was a little like walking through the postmodern chapter in a graphic design history book, but good to see in the flesh, none-the-less. I thought the graphic design section seemed the most sober and serious of the whole exhibition, as if the printed page that work appears on contained and controlled the work, unlike the frankly bizarre range of teapots and pop celebrity clothing on display.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Postmodernism, outside of graphic design, but I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition. It'll be interesting to hear what the students made of it when I'm next with them on Friday, especially as I don't usually teach Postmodernism until next semester, so they went only knowing what contexts I could deliver to them in a hastily put together 45 minute lecture, and what the exhibition text told them.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Underneath the cover, the…

Over the summer, for some reason, I ended up reading a lot of hardback books. Biographies and autobiographies mostly. Doing so, I got to thinking about dust jackets, and how most were really poorly designed, and were only there to make the book stand out on Waterstones' bookshelves. These flimsy paper wraps really don't offer any real protection to the hard casing, as was their original intention.

How these jackets helped the books stand out from other biographies seems difficult to comprehend as well, considering many follow a pattern of large cropped portrait of the author/subject with large sans serif type writ large, such as the cover for Andy Kershaw's painfully honest autobiography.

On removing these covers, and I always take a peek, you generally discover an equally dull hard case with the title printed large on the spine.

Interestingly, at the same time I was having these thoughts about dust jackets, Ben Terrett of Noisy Decent Graphics blogged about the topic, stating that the first thing he does on getting a hard backed book is to throw away the dust jacket, (link below).

I can see his point, but I prefer to keep mine covered, despite the fact that the jackets become tatty over the course of reading the book. The main reason being that the flaps work as great place savers. I'm not a fan of book marks or torn scraps of paper wedged in between pages. I somehow lose them during the course of reading a book—I'm never quite sure how this happens because the book marks should surely stay with the books! Also, I'm never quite sure what to do with them when I'm in-between books. Paperbacks aren't a problem, as I commit the mortal sin, (according to some people), of turning down the corner of the page I'm on. Unless, of course, it's a book I've borrowed—I do have some respect.

So while I do see dust jackets as mostly pointless, they do have their uses. However, what does really annoy me is when the dust jacket is exactly the same as an image wrap on a hard case. The otherwise excellent Design Series Format by Brian Webb is a perfect example of this.

However, there are gems out there that demonstrate how dust jackets can become an integral part of the design. For example, Ann and Paul Rand made the most in their children's books, Sparkle And Spin and Little 1. Sparkle And Spin literally sparkles, by incorporating a glitter ink as an element within the design.

And if you take a peak underneath the jacket, which I always do with any books I pick up, you find the image wrap is different from the jacket and there's the lovely personal touch of the author's signatures.

In the case of Little 1, no pun intended, when you remove the jacket, you discover a rather lovely illustration on the red cloth bound book.

Despite liking the image itself for its simplistic beauty, what really chimes with me about this is that it makes the whole book interactive, and creates a reveal within the construct of the artefact. As both child and adult, this tactic has always engaged me and made me feel more personally attached to an item. That act of discovery on the part of the user is an important design device that helps to bond them with the product on a deeper emotional level. Without the dust jacket, this would just become the cover image—nice as it is—but I wager it wouldn't carry the same impact.

Of course, designers should always be looking for ways to utilise all components, especially in times of environmental concerns. The Design Series Format books seem incredibly wasteful when thinking along these lines. If you insist of having a dust jacket that is going to be printed on, then at least do something with it. An example I came across several years ago is Change The World For A Fiver, which incorporates a poster on the inside of its dust jacket.

I thought it strange when I bought it that this paperback book should have an extra wrapper, but on getting it home and looking under the cover, I discovered why.

A more recent example I've found is The Beach Beneath The Street by McKenzie Wark. This is in keeping with the situationist metaphor, 'underneath the paving stones, the beach', (referring to the sand beneath the paving slabs that student demonstrators, in Paris May 1968, ripped up to throw at riot police). The difference being that in book form, underneath the book jacket lies a graphic novel, which helps to contextualise some of the theories contained within the writing in the book.

Wikipedia on dust jackets
Ben Terrett on dust jackets
The dust jacket is dead, according to the Guardian in 2010
Buy old dust jackets

Monday 14 November 2011

So I don't have to...

A summary by Neil McGuire of the Critical Tensions conference at St Bride Library last week: Tense

Sunday 13 November 2011

Critical (mis)quotes

"Never ask permission to do anything, just do it.
Then keep doing it until someone tells you to stop."

Alan Kitching, Critical Tensions Conference, St Bride Library. 10.11.11

Go Fetch

Just launched, the blog of my colleague Russell Walker, Fetchaset.

Friday 11 November 2011

This monkey's gone to heaven

I'm currently sitting in St Bride waiting for the second day of the foundation's tenth annual conference, Critical Tensions, to start. The train journey down was accompanied by the Pixies, in honour of the first speaker of the day, Vaughan Oliver, the man behind 4AD record label's visual identity. A long time admirer, I'm looking forward to hearing him speak about his work.

The event has thrown up some interesting topics of conversation already. One of the reoccurring themes for me, much like the Graphic Design: History In The Making conference I came to earlier this year, is the lack of recognition graphic design gets relative to other creative arts. I'm slowly building a cannon of examples when this topic raises its head in lectures, conferences and general conversations. This doesn't just seem a prevalent topic among practitioners, design journalists and historians; first year students at UCS, relatively new to Graphic Design, are picking up on this as well. Expect more posts here on this in the future.

That's not to say that this is all that is being discussed here. Certainly not, and all naval gazing aside, during Critical Tensions yesterday it was great to hear some of the stories behind Jonathan Barnbrook's fonts; Gerry Leonidas spoke about typographic structure still being defined and restricted by books and newspapers when these formats are increasingly less relevant in non-paper based design; Alan Kitching showcasing new and old work; and Tom Ferrand looked at breaking tradtional ways of working to inject fresh thinking and innovation in the not for profit sectors through the Design For Nothing project.

For more details about the conference, see the previous post on Dubdog for a link to Eye's take on the morning session yesterday, (and see if you can spot me in the audience—this is the second St Bride event I've been to and ended up on Eye blog as a result).

Apologies for no links in this post, I'm writing this on the go, and will provide a list at the end of the two days.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Thank you

A big thank you to Artists of Walberswick for dedicating space in their bi-annual exhibition last weekend to some of the many paintings by my Uncle, Terry Ball, who died earlier this year.

Self-portrait, circa 1949, submission 11 of 15 for entry into the Royal College of Art

View photographs of the exhibition and other work on Flickr.

Terry Ball's obituary in The Guardian

Friday 4 November 2011