SO IF: FAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

TECHNOCRATIC SOLUTIONS

Putting my designers hat on, I can relate to the thrill of problem-solving and finding elegant solutions; through innovation, working on efficiency, ergonomics, inventing products, processes, devices and all manner of industrial, scientific and technological boundary-busting. Sadly, when it comes to environmental issues, and in particular our increasingly more hazardous AQI levels, serious psychological and behavioural shifts need to take place, accompanied by lifestyle changes, and letting go of purely capital-driven decision-making.

As much as I value the design thinking behind this or that pollution mask, or discretely elegant domestic air purifier as immediate industrial solutions to combat pollution on a personal level, it is just symptomatic of the anthropocentric belief in our supremacy over the natural world. That environmental conditions can be tamed, and we can indefinitely find neat solutions allowing us to plough on into an ever-worsening situation, while making ourselves a touch more comfy along the way. The problem isn't going away, but rather than slow down a bit, let's shop our way out of it. Or, possibly... get busy dabbling in transhumanist ideals of meddling with our own physical evolution? ... "nothing too drastic mind, but as long as we don't have to give up the Escalade baby, hook us up!".

Anyway, I believe in the show being more effective than the tell, so here is some marketing collateral for just such a (possible) near-future technocratic solution . Is it so hard to believe that with enough bio-tech advances and a sufficiently desperate public, that we wouldn't consider a surgical intervention to a dire health concern if it was on the table?

SO IF

Sure, sealing up your nostrils and implanting a genetically engineered membrane in your mouth might seem a bit extreme. Sure, you will be taking all your dietary and nutritional requirements through an atomiser - also available through the Technocratic Solutions Store - but you would at least be breathing. Sure, rendering yourself a fully paid-up member of the mouth-breathing ranks might seem like a cultural back-step, but let's look on the bright side...

A word from the Technocratic Solutions Clinic

We began at a time where the appliance of science and technological innovation was employed as a crutch, a patch-up job when things went wrong - as if your human form was the pinnacle of evolution, and maintenance was all we demanded.

We knew the story of mans' evolution didn’t end there.

Thanks to the vision of our founding fathers, Technocratic Solutions emerged to offer all the necessary advancement. To take charge of body and mind and shape it with everything required to meet the demands of the 21st century, and beyond.

Thanks to our flagship SO IF procedure, you are not only free to leave your homes once more and feel the sun on your face without the archaic apparatus you were once burdened by, but to excel - the opportunity to live longer, live stronger, live faster.

Join numanity and visit one of more than 6000 worldwide state-of-the-art clinics today!

WE RESOLVE SO YOU CAN EVOLVE - subway tunnel advertisement (click/swipe)

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MARKETING COLLATERAL: GREENPEACE EAST ASIA

I have been doing some freelance consulting with the multimedia department at Greenpeace east Asia in Beijing. The past couple of months I worked on producing some smart die-cut bilingual brochures, keynote presentations, and a mobile mini site to showcase their work in the region.

The direction chosen was geared primarily toward a key post-millennial target audience, hopefully resonating with them as more receptive, socially and environmentally conscious, but still feeling accessible across the psycho/sociographic spectrum. These are serious issues, but the content needed to feel lively and not too sober. I think we achieved this.

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SNARK FOOD

I don't often gush. But I love this piece. It has been replicated around the globe, and honestly I can't track down where it first appeared, but certainly the tiles have been glued up in Brighton and London for a year or two, maybe more?? Culture jamming at its best. No poh-faced doom-watching, just a really sweet (pun intended) jibe at the cheery face of a serious social concern. Gentrification, at its worst, basically means forcing local communities, typically on low income out of their neighbourhood due to its inflated rent hikes, directly tied to inflated popularity as a trendy new(old) des-res part of town for the hip and urbane. The more faded, shambling, gritty, industrial, 'urban', "authentic", the better. A huge draw for a certain type of individual. The certain type of individual who is downwardly mobile, and requires kooky, throwback confections to accompany their whimsically erudite tastes and visage. Just in case you are feeling particularly worthy, take a wander over to Edible Geography . A great article discussing the wider debate and a study from a few years back conducted by NewYork-based urban planning academics, discussing this very issue. How you can affect and measure the development of social space, amenities, the transference from local economies based on production proper, to leisure and retail-oriented models.  Food for thought (sorry).

The world burns, we'll be throwing a tea party in our Doris Day sun dresses.


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WETWORK

One of the strings to my bow happens to include once-upon-a-time being an industry nominated UK Bartender of the Year. Of the many hats I have worn in my life, working in F&B was one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences for me; in terms of developing super-refined soft skills, as well as seeing the immediate impact on a customer/client for a job well done. It could be hard work for sure, but the personal satisfaction, pride and of course fun was a worthy reward.

Working in many areas of the industry before, during and after my student days in the UK, I stepped away from that world while in a role as head bartender and management team for an award winning boutique UK restaurant and bar group. This role required a great deal of time devoted to attending training, workshops, tastings, ambassadorial roles at industry events, competitions (winning one or two along the way), and of course one of the aspects I loved most, developing new recipes, creating menus, pairing and balancing flavours to complement food offerings.

As someone who thrives on being hands on, and being of a creative bent, this line of work was fantastic... Anyway, let me introduce Wetwork.

The aim here is to present both formal and informal creative work associated with the ontrade, but also serve as a point of contact for any consultation or commissions that might come my way. This may relate to the service side, the product, the venue itself and of course any VI and marketing-related needs. I was prompted to put this together after doing a little bit of moonlighting recently as consultant, staff trainer and duties on the comms side for a few restaurant and bar venues in Beijing. I've also had a couple of recent magazine features on cocktail-related matters. 

So expect to see design work, plus a handful of words, photography and indeed recipes that may be of interest to any folks fond of liquor, spice and all things ice.

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BRAND REFRESH: EDUMAXI LTD

I am currently on retainer with Edumaxi, working on a variety of design needs including instructional design, book designs and branding work for their clients. I was also tasked with giving them themselves an updated identity.

They are an established New Zealand-based company with an impressive list of global clients including most of the major private education providers in Asia, McGraw-Hill Education amongst others.They operate two branches, educational design and corporate consulting and as they grow and their profile increases there was need to better and more clearly represent themselves with two distinct faces that belonged to a cohesive whole. As well as a new hierarchy, they wanted a more contemporary and striking logo and palette.

Since their core values revolve around education, shared knowledge and support (hence the group of abstract figures huddled-up in the centre of their original logotype), it was important to keep some visual metaphor for this while simplifying and becoming more memorable. We settled on this clustered primary circles direction.

Part of my pitch to them:

...Circles represent completeness and inclusivity; overlapping and interlocking forms implying collectivity and connectivity. You are a multi-faceted organisation with global reach... The logo mark can be decoded as an abstracted group of individuals, colleagues or partners, equally they can be viewed as spheres of influence...

The typography is a Clarendon face. It obviously has a traditional 'established' look and feel but of course is much bolder and punchier than a lighter serif would be; this speaks to the aspect of their market where they should not appear too sober and corporate - it should convey an air of established success, while still seeming human and approachable. To this last requirement, the lively high chroma palette helps the overall weight of the type seem friendlier. I enjoyed working on this and feel it's a pretty strong and fitting brand mark.

Here's some exerts from the guidelines:

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FANG BAR BRANDING & MENU DESIGN

I was dragged out of retirement to help with consultation on setting up a new bar in our Beijing neighbourhood, Fang Bar. I say that like it took much persuading! In a former life I was a 'drinksmith' of some renown and have moonlit more than a few times over the years, so I jumped at the chance to get my hands wet again. I will give another post on the drinks themselves – which are pretty special if I do say so myself, and make great use of local produce and personality – a good drink always requires a good story behind it too. But, in addition to this I was asked to help with VI, menu design and copywriting. I think the results are decent for the relatively shallow budget.

The bar is an intimate and informal joint. Great product and fairly polished service, without the pretence of an 'uptown' bar. The bar is also trying to integrate with a neighbourhood in 'old-Beijing', which means of course it is part of a wave of hip pseudo-bohemian gentrification, but in decor and attitude the guys are treading lightly. The identity and collateral therefore wanted to be, understated, not flashy, but certainly not too consciously antiquated as so many jazz-age, speakeasy, 'discerning dispensers of authentic libation' establishments will want to do these days. Yes, I put brass rivets in there, but that's the only nod to a 'vintage purveyors' provenance, I swear. Essentially, it was drawing on traditional asian publishing vibes.

The remit for the primary print collateral; the menu, was to be compact in format, with clean and legible bilingual copy presentation. This was a really nice and technical design exercise requiring a light touch, minimal graphic design, and perfectly matched bi-lingual typography was the order of the day – this is so often so lazily done and really needs a good understanding of both latin and Chinese typographic styles. I think it ticks those boxes.

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GBH

Grievous Bicycle Harm (GBH). I can neither confirm nor deny any knowledge of the actions leading up to, during, or after these heinous acts were delivered upon our bicycle brethren. I have documented since early 2009 numerous crime scenes and those unfortunate survivors, now forced to eek-out meagre existences in varying conditions of disgrace and physical burden. Suffering under the tread of the automobile rampage, a cautionary tale documenting the abused, abandoned, and driven into bondage.

turf war
beast of burden
chain gang
pole dancer
survivalist
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ESSENTIAL READING

Citizen Designer: Perspectives on design responsibility

edited by Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne

I often dip back into this anthology when I'm in need of reassurance about the value of design work. Obviously you have got to eat, and that means working on projects that sometimes don't necessarily tie-up with your broader ethics. If you are fortunate enough to be plying your trade on projects that 'matter' and make a living, that's great, but it is not always possible for most people. Commercial design work is how you get to do what you love and keep afloat, possibly making room for other pieces of personal interest or pro bono. I feel that you can try and sneak a little love into your workflow even if not every piece of work you do permits. There is great persuasive power in visual communication, and so many creative voices out there with something to say/show. This book is an inspiration and I would argue essential reading for all those in the design professions. I particularly enjoy the chapters with Sean Wolfe (of Remover Installer fame) , Sara Little Turnbull, Tucker Viemeister, Mr. Keedy and Kalle Lasn, but it's all good. Consider your responsibility, and the power at your fingertips.

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GESTALT VS. THE ‘CULT OF CUTE’ - PART THREE

TYPOCUTESY

There are peculiarities in the Asian visual landscape. A very specific ocular discourse, but within this there is a particularly strong fondness for a certain kind of expression - the Cult of Cute. This cult of cute has been widely discussed over the past decade, most often focused on Japan, but this is a global phenomenon, just much more keenly observed across East Asia. With a kaleidoscope of manga, cosplay, lolitta, gamer culture, pachinko and porn, Japan is easily identified as the high temple of imaginations running wild; kitsch, bizarre, a little wrong sometimes, but fundamentally very often 'cute'. In Japan this is known as Kawaii.

China is equally drawn to this form of expression. From the bubble font used on the ubiquitous video portal Youku.com, to the anime avatars created by the Public Security Bureau, JingJing and ChaCha*. These two represent a rather unsettling image of protectors of the people as bug-eyed, adolescents; an internet-monitoring, crime-busting, avatar duo. Trust, obey.

“Authority figures often put on displays of cuteness to reach out to the masses.”
(Garger, I. 2007, Global Psyche: One Nation Under Cute)

What is this fascination with cute? Well there are a couple of signifiers that lead to it. First of all, in societies where there is a certain degree of emotional repression, as is unquestionably the case in East Asian countries like China and Japan; socialisation relies on deference to your seniors and authority figures. Carrying a demeanour of childlike innocence, an emotional dependence on others is often seen to be triggering sympathy as a form of respect. This is particularly true of Japan, but still very present in Chinese society. The social ceremonial traditions are much less rigid in China, but these same hierarchies do exist. Where the adult world presents certain social and emotional restrictions there will be a certain amount of introversion. This circumstance allows for the obsessions with gaming, cosplay and other ‘behind closed doors’ ways of letting your inner being loose.

An aspect of this cutesy state of mind has been termed pedamorphosis - a retention of child-like characteristics. Moving around Asian city streets and riding the subway, you are surrounded by ads that play on a fixation with youth and the inferred sense of fun and abandon this represents. There are obsessions with animated worlds - see the Chinese box office takings for Transformers the movie, or indeed the door panels of middle-aged LGV drivers festooned with Optimus Prime decals; anthropomorphic baubles hanging from cellphones, querky thumb drives, if not in fact whole backpacks in the form of turtle shells or lego blocks, and furry hats with ears, there are many many signs that cuteness is en vogue in East Asia, and not just for the kids. 

A second factor is the sight of a baby, which causes an involuntary feeling of great joy in most of us (unless you are of the psychopathic persuasion). A chemical reaction takes place and our brains light up when we are confronted with said infant because we are ALL actually hard-wired to nurture and protect our offspring, therefore it provokes a softening and compliance in us that is actually hard to fight for most, even when the offspring are not of our own bloodline. This translates into the world of visual communication where, if in fact a baby is not literally present, then form, texture and colour palettes that allow us to draw connections with that emotional response toward babies is often employed. Examples of this are over-sized heads and eyes (in figurative human representations) and overall plumpness of form, amongst other things all reminiscent of a baby. 

To illustrate this, by far the most ubiquitous ornamental deity you will see around China is that of the ‘laughing Buddha’. Whats not to like? He’s grinning from ear to ear, has comically oversized features, a big round belly, usually rendered reclining and at ease, the classic representation of health, wealth and happiness. This is quite a celebrated and still prized physical form that many parents actually encourage in their kids - one fifth of Chinese kids are clinically obese according to recent reports. Maybe this is some conscious, strange attempt to maintain these cherished baby-like proportions as the child grows, maybe not, but at least I am confident it is the above stated associations that make him easy on the eyes of those doting, spoon-weilding Asian parents and grandparents. 

LET'S GET TO IT THEN

These points basically led me to observe that in typographic and isologotype selections, as with many other arenas in the Chinese visual landscape, there is a real trend toward injecting said cuteness. Precisely because the Gestalt of softer, rounder, chubbier strokes, and in some cases overall proportions of characters, combined with either candy colouring or other vibrant palettes, stimulate associations with childhood. I wanted to test this theory. This phenomenon, as stated, is witnessed throughout the streets of East Asia, but let me share a very simple and controlled research observation: I spent a day combing the length of one of Beijing’s busy kilometre-long city centre shopping streets. The aim was to catalogue how many instances of ‘cute’ were to be found in the shop front signage, logo design and typographic choices in their branding. Results show that in at least sixty percent of the businesses along this stretch, there were definite ‘cuteness markers’ on display.

THE EVIDENCE 

The demands of Chinese characters to be rendered legibly - both simplified and especially traditional forms, usually dictates a careful stroke and clean, often fine, or in modern simplified renderings,  squared off line. The other typical presentation is that of more cursive esoteric script, especially for businesses seeking to portray a ‘traditional’ or heritage slant, restaurants often run this. Further still there is some play with the various historical incarnations of the written form, ‘large seal script’, ‘clerical script’ to name just two, but what I was able to confirm is that no matter what the business type; from musical instruments, to pets, to convenience stores, apparel, DIY, the signage presented a friendly, cutesy type selection. By friendly I mean the opposite of commercial or corporate, either presented in an uber-heavy line, bubblegum colour palette, bubble-letter form (bloated, no sharp corners), drop-shadowed comic book header and indeed iso-logotypes with out-and-out cutesy graphic elements - cartoon mascots or other iconography. I collected photos of over 60 instances in a street that contains a little over one hundred shop fronts. 

IN CONCLUSION 

This missive should accomplish two things. First it is to illustrate that Gestalt on a basic level is how we make sense of the world, beyond joining the dots in the literal visual sense, it is also how we draw intellectual conclusions about stimuli based on social and cultural learned norms. Second, by looking at this case study of ‘cute’ branding in Chinese small businesses, we can recognise the Gestalt principles at work; whereby the pedamorphic socialisation many Asian citizens grow up within, prepares a well defined visual hook for branding professionals to hang identities and broad visual comms on, tying together the cognitive processes of form recognition and intellectual inference. 

I believe this observation very clearly represents a link between our ability to perceive visual elements and form emotional responses. Knowing what we know about how our perception of things works, and how we apply the Gestalt principles in our reading of form, it is also easy to acknowledge how connections are made, memories and associations triggered on the intellectual level where these recognition principles equally apply. 

While the observations cited in this - let's be honest, rather whimsical and rigorless case study - are referencing mainly small-scale independent enterprises, it does also exist in the national and internationally prolific brands as well. In some of these cases, the physical forms did not all betray similarity, but in those cases there were other contributing factors that tapped into the Cult of Cute. The desired response from the businesses presenting their moniker in this manner is simply to catch the eye and draw in custom and this is happening regardless of whether their product has any relation to youth culture, let alone actual infant or child-related merchandise. I believe that despite the obvious appeals to a certain generational demographic, cuteness does have much wider appeal. Also, though this is a widely documented Asian phenomenon, it is not exclusively so. Western audiences are equally pleased by imagery and iconography that is playful, youthful and pedamorphic. Western audiences are equally prone to getting wobbly-kneed and goo-goo-ga-ga over imagery that stimulates the nurturing instinct. 

Austere and overtly formal type use in brand marks and related graphics present a certain image that will imply class, sophistication, sincerity and so on, but I do wonder if, presented with two equivalent products or services, one branded thus and the other presented in candy-colored bubble-type, there will be a very different appeal and arguably a more powerful inherent leaning toward the latter. On many levels, I would hazard, this cult of cute definitely extends internationally as well. Just how far can this basic pedamorphic instinct be put to work? What manner of distinctly adult-oriented message might we apply it? A further exploration would be interesting to tag just how many other products, branding and message was being carried on the back of cartoon avatars, pudgy type or candy colour palettes? Something for the future, when I have a slow minute perhaps. 

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GESTALT VS 'THE CULT OF CUTE' - PART TWO

BITE THE WAX TADPOLE

Cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies

The Chinese written language is picto/ideographic. Each character is an abstract graphic representation of an object or concept. It differs from Latin/Arabic/Cyrillic, which have an alphabet made of arbitrary symbols that when arranged in specific ways generate a learned meaning; in and of themselves they provoke no useful insight whatsoever.

Bold Leap. I propose that a culture raised on a pictorially representational language has a higher propensity toward understanding literal visual stimuli; tapping more directly into visual memory triggers than a language that relies on conjuring your own images, drawing your own visual conclusions. This is of course not to say definitively that Latin-rooted or alphabetic languages are more precisely articulate and poetically expressive or that Chinese is limited in that regard, but I do believe that this difference lends itself in asian cultures raised on ideograms to at least facilitate a high degree of readiness to respond well to graphic stimuli.

Branding communication in China has some pitfalls, particularly in terms of integrating with international communication and lingua franca. An example of this is in brand names. Coca-Cola, which has been in the Chinese marketplace for more than half a century, had a great deal of trouble finding a suitable expression for its name in the Mandarin language. Often, foreign brands trying to bed into China opt for homophonic matches in existing chinese words - chinese words combined to sound-a-like the foreign language name, with sometimes hilarious consequences. Coke had variously been presented in outlets as “female horse fastened with wax”, “wax flattened mare” or, my personal favorite “bite the wax tadpole” (蝌蚪啃蜡), these being various literal translations of the chinese characters chosen purely for their approximately similar spoken pronunciation. They did finally arrive at an official trademarked name, translating literally as "to permit mouth to be able to rejoice" ( 可口可乐), a much more appropriate match for the product.

You can see how, relying on our mental processing of associative image memory, undesirable associations might be made with these bizarre descriptions, in this case, of what many regard as a perfectly pleasant and tasty beverage. This is an area of global communication where there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding if not outright ridicule, loss of business or even causing offence. 

So, what has been discussed so far and what should we hold on to? 

*The visual interpretation of stimuli is tied directly to emotional response triggers based on established memories, catalogued understanding and rationality, all of which can be utilised in communicating on conscious and subconscious levels. 

*It can also help us identify specific themes in design and what exactly they are tapping into. 

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PSYCHOLOGY OF DESIGN: GESTALT vs. THE 'CULT OF CUTE' - PART ONE

WHAT’S THIS ALL ABOUT THEN?

The principles of Gestalt refer to a series of sensory perception rules that help us to make sense of the world around us, understand what we encounter, but more than this, be able to read between the lines, draw conclusions and help us avoid walking into walls. In the case of design, it is employed to help us engage with an object, media, language or environment put in front of us. It helps to convey meaning, positive/negative association and make inferences on extremely subtle levels. My aim here is to illustrate these principles by analysing branding and visual identity in east asian culture; in particular signage, where, as will hopefully be made clear, there is a definite flavour and a particular set of cultural circumstances that conspire to create it.

“If we move up the levels of perception, we can move inside to “the theater of our mind” and notice what and how we represent things that we have neurologically picked up via our sense receptors and seemingly present them to ourselves again... This facsimile of the world that we re-present inside our “mind” (our mental processing) provides us the “languages of the mind” by which we can “run our own brain” and ... in that way we induce ourselves into mind-body-emotion states.”
(Hall, L.M. 2010)

How we see and how we understand what we see is not built on an innate understanding of all images, events, scenes, objects, circumstances. We are not born unto the world with this knowledge, rather, how we perceive, or process information, is based on a kind of rapid-fire deductive reasoning. Johan Goethe and Emanuel Kant, among other esteemed thinkers in our recent history, talked of the process by which we come to reading our environments and interpreting information, but it was Christian von Ehrenfels who gave us a clearly defined set of principles, die Gestalt, through which to describe this. How, when we gaze upon, particularly visual form, we have the capacity to gather together composite elements and are able to draw conclusions from them - generate a complete whole. Our sensory understanding is built on these principles. These principles not only allow us to communicate ideas through literal, representational meaning, but also on a more subtle, elegant and playful level. This works on a visual plane, but through it we can describe and convey quite complex ideas and emotions as well. In the following text I hope to introduce how this understanding of the Gestalt principles provides an invaluable tool for designers and communicators to challenge and engage intended audiences by relying on the core perceptive abilities of the human mind. 

First up, a little introduction of how vision works, as this is essential to the wider connections I hope to make on how we associate stimuli on an emotional level that in turn triggers response or action. As titled, I have selected a rather unusual case study to demonstrate this. Later on I will be referring back to this in analysing aspects of east asian culture and through this frame, discussing sensitivity to graphic form, cultural factors that affect taste and desirability - the so-called ‘Cult of Cute’, and how this is manifested in graphic design iconography, typography and branding. 

READ BETWEEN THE LINES 

Speaking to the purely form-based application, when we are presented with a graphic image, symbol, logo, icon, whether it be a linguistic character, figurative or abstract form, our ability to recognise is based on one or more of the following Gestalt principles: 

* Similarity dictates that if an item we are presented with resembles something we already know, we will apply that preinstalled sense of what something ‘looks like’ on top of this new item. 
* If we come across a series of separate(d) items, we can draw a conclusion that they are related to one another, this is pattern recognition and draws on senses of unity and proximity. Related to this is spotting anomalies or breaks from a pattern. 
* If we come across an incomplete item we can fill in the blanks, this relies on closure and common fate
* Similarly we are able to follow a suggested visual path across a plane if we have been provided with at least the beginnings of a line, real or implied - this is the principle of continuity

Based on these visual abilities we can interpret visual input. But does this work? 

How vision works is important to us. Without getting too bogged down in the bio-mechanics of it, I will try to summarise the process. Information enters the eye in the form of light as reflected off surfaces. The back of the eye does a little filing of RGB in its rods and photoreceptors, among other things, then the signals are fired off down the optic nerve, on into the visual cortices. This is where it gets really interesting; where depth perception and form are ‘triangulated’ between V1 and V2 (there are 4 visual cortices, V1-4), but most useful for us here is that in fact what we see is not so much continuous motion but an editing together of frames or snapshots of the outside world. What is allowing us to see smoothly as we cast our gaze around relies on a back catalogue of recognition of forms and objects; this goes down in V3/V4. 

Our visual sense of the world is entirely based on assumptions we can make from images we already possess (a collection we obviously continue to build on throughout our lives). We recognise an edge/line and basically assume or accept its logical continuation and then any changes or anomalies because we’ve seen it all before essentially (not exactly the same scene and arrangement of course, but similarities are there and conclusions can be drawn). This is what allows us to keep from tripping over an uneven paving stone or walking off the edge of a tall building, or similar mishaps... 

Of course this process of perception can be explained through Gestalt theory. ALL our minds have selforganising tendencies, coupled with making sense of the world around us based on a catalogue of visual memories, it is pretty clear how easy we find it to complete partial images (closure), recognise pattern (similarity), follow implied lines (continuity) and so on. A step further, it can also explain how other stimuli is perceived and processed in the mind; taking associative inferences from the written and spoken word, colour, music and all other forms of sensory stimuli as well. In other words, Gestalt refers to intellectual reasoning as much as it does to a visual comprehension of the physical world before our eyes. From a creative point of view, a good grasp of these principles allows us not only to express form in a visual way, but also for very subtle, suggestive communication on many levels. Based on past experience, informed by cultural, social and environmental norms, we can all interpret visual cues and relate to meaning inferred through language, text and subtext by association and recall.

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THE YEAR MY HAIR FELL OUT

Bob Blunts new book designArt direction, book design, typesetting and illustration

I've been working steadily over the past couple of months to produce Bob Blunt's latest book. It's a travel fiction novel - or 'faction' as Bob prefers to describe it, following the experiences of Don Laridis, an Aussie who decamps to South Korea in need of a change. The story is kind of a travelogue and subtle expose on a foreign lands unfamiliar nuances and moral fabric. The character has thrown himself into a new career as a teacher, and things don't work out quite as he planned. He finds himself caught up in a tale centred around the apparently quite intense and ultimately ruthless private education racket.

It's a good read. Vivid, dialogue-driven, it has great pace and the over-arching tone, while not sinister certainly conveys a sort of scuzzy or at least sheen-less perspective on this particular world. To this end I needed to convey a similar vibe in the art.

I was commissioned for the jacket, typesetting, overall design and to manage the publishing, but also to create some custom illustrations to punctuate the prose - around twenty in total. I opted for a quite stripped-down distressed look, to help convey the 'tarnished' characters and experiences described in the book. There are a couple of fairly surreal passages in there too, so a darkly humorous edge was also required. The jacket and endpapers have spot illustrations lifting out key imagery from the narrative and for the cover itself I went for a classic device; placing a head front and centre - we are following a man's personal voyage of discovery and change. The colour palette draws not only on the Korean flag (it's a travel novel after all), but also some of the wonderful vibrant neon shades so loved in S.Korean traditional dress and cultural iconography. I think the results are great, Bob's pleased anyway (!)

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JIM MCGEE: CREW CHIEF OF CHAMPIONS

Biography of Jim McGee , the most successful crew chief in american racing

I recently completed a 'rapid' turnaround book design for Racemaker Press. It is a rather handsome biography, great photography and a really interesting perspective charting the growth of motorsport in America from a behind the scenes guy; someone who managed and orchestrated the most wins of any racing team member in the history of the sport.

The drivers are the names you remember, the limelight is on them and they enjoy the celebrity and the accolades but I love finding out about the quiet men, the guys who go about there business holding everything together - the brains behind the operation so to speak.

Anyway, the book looks great. No expense spared on paperstock and binding, a contemporary design presented in classic style. i really enjoyed creating a style for this type of publication, especially the jigsaw puzzle of image selection and fitting - what to present full bleed for maximum impact, how to pace it so there was a good mix of pure image spreads with more sober body copy and everything in between. Apart from the tight turn around time, which inevitably caused a few speed bumps (pun intended), alongside my already pretty heavy workload, it was tight!

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The CLEAVER ISSUE ONE SPREADS


Issue One is in our hands. Perfect bound, offset, cotton fibre stock; when we set out it was with great affection for the aesthetics and tactile sensory pleasure that is so integral to the experience of reading a document or taking in graphic material. Building a magazine from scratch is quite an undertaking. Gathering, priming, organising, personally creating a great deal of every pixel and then seeing it physically in print is very rewarding. The copy ain't half bad either (!)

Go here or here to order a copy.

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THE CLEAVER QUARTERLY

Being a new dad of 3 months, I have a lot of content needing posted that sleepless delerium and general stretching in all directions work-wise just hasn't allowed for... I will get to it. In the meantime since it's going to be available for purchase from next week I thought I should throw a little of the material I created for the brand new and forthcoming Cleaver Quarterly magazine.

It's a really exciting project cooked up by three long term Beijing-based wordsmiths and all-round Chinese food aficionados. It's a food publication focused on the expansive world of Chinese food and its global diaspora; long form journalism, creative writing and graphic content delving in beyond 'how-to' recipes and 'the top 5 restaurants. . .', things that more commercial food rags tend to offer. I signed up for some art direction and graphic design.

I will throw up some spreads and more in due course but for now wanted to share the logotype. THe brief was to have something established looking, a nod toward trad/formal publication mastheads, not too retro/hip but with a sense of fun. The result looks pretty sharp.

And the one that got away

. . . Well, this one didn't make the cut (see 'too hip', probably) but I rather like it and it's nice to see some of the evolution of a logo

Find The Cleaver Quarterly at: thecleaverquarterly.com

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JOSEPH ALBUM ART

Joseph Tennessee GhostsDebut album cover

I worked on this album art toward the end of 2013, it's now up on itunes for your aural pleasure. Matthew 'Joseph' Gabel wrote/produced this studio album "Tennessee Ghosts" throughout 2013 from his Beijing garden shed laboratory. It's fantastic. To my ears, dreamy soundscape, lyrical optimism, nostalgia and a good dose of indy americana. There's a seamless fusing of pure instrumentalism with a light sprinkling of more digital elements.

The artwork therefore needed to capture something 'flighty' and dreamy but also hold on to some of the rust-belt origins that inspired much of the overall vibe that's described in the lyrics. I think it has impact, but also sells the warmth and imagery of the songs. See the rest of the digital booklet.

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THREE SERGEANTS SYNDROME ALBUM ART

3SS album coverartwork for debut album "A Little Hiccough from the Dear Lord"

I was commissioned to help out with album art, label branding and general art direction. Finally got a hold of physical copies so it's time to share. The album "A Little Hiccough from the Dear Lord", was done mid 2013, but is only just getting put out into the world (links to follow).

Drew Hanratty, and his merry band of Sino-American session musicians; all established artists in their own right, have slaved away to create a truly unique sound. Far from mainstream, accessible or indeed 'easy' listening - some of the core things they seem deeply motivated to avoid it would seem, it is highly satisfying stuff. To my layman ears, it's an amalgamation of refined, precise musical pedigree and playful avant-rock soundscapes. Technically complex arrangements, at times infuriatingly discordant, at others rousing and all laced with a querky, retro-futuro narrative voice. There's a strong literary influence. It's not for everyone, but it is quality, without compromise.

So, when it came to the artwork we settled on trying to balance an old world/new world aesthetic, 19th into early 20th century + Jules Verne meets Raygun Gothic (if that makes any sense) + a cleanness, minimalism, but with some fresh, bold, playful and somewhat 'loose', not-too-rigid aspects.... PLUS, there was an insistence on it having a traditional artisanal vibe, hence all the illustration and some typography being hand-drawn, this is the result. Go to the Project album for more images and details. Feedback so far is good, I think we got it right. At the end of the day, the design should not get in the way of the content it seeks to represent, it should give a good accurate sense of what lies within.

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A BIT OF POSH - NOTES ON THE SOCIOLOGY OF DESIGN

*taxi ad that caught my eye... and spawned a rant

AESTHETICS AND A CULTURE OF ASPIRATION

The following text serves as a reflection on the relationship between ideas of social class, or status, and the design choices made to tap into the self-image and aspirations of a target audience; more specifically, discussion of how a message or product gets across to the desired consumer, identifying your market and whether it reaches its intended core group or not. What comes across as genuine sophistication in a message or brand and what is merely superficial adornment is a fine line. The desirability of something that is apparently of ‘high class’ is not new; drawing on observations made in the Chinese brandscape, viewed as a reflection of western ideas of the exotic or unfamiliar being desirable, highlights these issues perfectly. In discussing typography, other design elements and branding in general, I will be focusing on what constitutes the visual language of social status and the tropes that appear in every corner of the globe.

 “The Orient is not an inert fact of nature... not merely there just as the Occident is not just there either. Men make there own history... what they can know they have made and extend it to geography: as both geographic and cultural entities... as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea... and the two reflect each other.” Edward Said, 1978. 

 “They wanna know who's my role model, It's in a brown bottle (You know our mother-fuckin’ motto) Hennessy.” 2Pac, 1994.

WE ARE NEVER ALONE 

Why discuss this theme you may ask? Well, I was traveling in the back of a taxi in Beijing one morning. It is the norm to have ads displayed on the back of the front seat headrests - increasingly these days, interactive touch screens, but in this case a regular print ad caught my eye. Partly this was because of the provocative, jaunty pose, and rather generously displayed cleavage placed centre right; add to that it was a western model - an only occasional trend in these parts (more on this later), but what really got me was the typography in the logotype and header. The ad is for a breast augmentation ‘salon’. 

*Donna Bella's discount boob-job's

 Initially focusing on observations made here in China, played against established patterns beyond its borders, I wish to present that the extent of how we universally identify the idioms and tropes of high quality, class or value, is actually quite uniform. Looking back at theories on Orientalism, I want to discuss the inverse of this. But in particular, Chinese society is ripe for responding well to these signifiers of perceived high living; there are rapidly growing numbers of newly wealthy Chinese drawn towards material and aesthetic symbols of success and achievement that are overtly representative of living large in western cultures. What are these elements? And, beyond this, I will discuss the issue of luxury brand image; what are its representational characteristics, what (un)desirable connections they have to there consumers and finally where is the line between subtle sophistication and garish crassness in design application. 

 FUR COAT AND NAE’ KNICKERS 

 Lets break down the coordinated attack of devices and signs at work in this ad: we have a clinically clean, slightly pastel-toned background; the model (western/european looking) is dressed in a glamorous silk evening gown, she is made up and bejewelled; logotype includes the name DonnaBella (Bella Donna), Italian for ‘beautiful woman’, the primary colour is a deep rose-pink and is in cursive script with some extravagant serif action - though in the alternate ad for the same company this is inconsistent - sloppy or intentional, either way not great. This is all suggestive of an elegant night out at the opera for a confident and desirable young femme. The rest of the tagline and copy is in Chinese, it describes the treat you are affording yourself by having the augmentation to your bust, and surprisingly, the price - 980 Chinese Renminbi, or approximately $600 US. 

 Basically, I witnessed the graphic equivalent of a downtown hussy strutting her stuff at the ambassadors party; the golfball-sized diamond ring and ruby red lip gloss belying any sense of subtlety and real elegance - I refer to costuming and propping, its not a judgement on the model herself. The idea that a boob-job would vastly improve your status in life is a really misguided attachment to a media maintained image of desirable body type, but pertinent here mainly because the asian female form is not known for being blessed with the more generous bust commonly found with western women. 

Seeing this ad reminded me of all the occasions I have come across signage, branding and imagery here in Asia where businesses and products apply characteristically western styling tropes and how these cliches no longer ensured the ‘class’ invoked by these branding elements. The key theme for many operations was that presenting an element of ‘foreignness’, an exotic entity in the marketplace, somehow also conveyed luxury. Even if the business was profoundly local in foundation as well as market demand for said product, the notion of something looking ‘imported‘ obviously carried the same cache as the exoticism we placed in our native lands on aesthetics of something from outside ones own familiar sphere. Unfortunately, this does not always carry off. The trend as mentioned, includes the earlier design choices and characteristics, particularly the use of English language in name and/or tagline, the frequency with which this is done badly though, i.e. heavy grammatical errors, or simply mixing contradictory terms, is a common sight on asian city streets. 

 There are two points to note here: first, the desirability of the Other, second, the application of design elements that have connotations of european luxury and sophistication applied to a product or message that is decidedly unsophisticated, in fact bargain basement - six hundred dollars is not going to buy you the highest grade implants, nor mammoplasty surgeons’ hands to insert them. A completely inconsistent level of ‘class‘ being alluded to with the target market for a discount boob-job. 

*nothing says sophisticated, like big new breasts

 Obviously, speaking for the UK and parts of the western world I have experienced, we are not opposed to the odd flash of neoclassical/baroque/mock-tudor/blingy... tat. Unsurprisingly at this stage of a developing nations relative consumerist (im)maturity, in China there is a great deal of equivalence of this to be encountered. The number of Chinese families who would be considered ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouths’ in the aristocratic sense is not huge, however in terms of nouveau riche, as well as a burgeoning middle class, the numbers are increasingly vast. With the relatively new ideals of entrepreneurial individualism of course aspirational conspicuous consumption is in evidence.

 Occidentalism is perhaps not the most accurate term to apply to this phenomena since that particular descriptor appears in a number of contexts being used to define a rather negative perception held against the West and west livity by those living in the East. Stemming from the concept of Orientalism, where the East is in fact romanticised or exoticised, for me occidentalism ought to be an equivalent reciprocation of that rather than the resentful dismissal of all things  (apparently) corrupt, indulgent and amoral - as is often the perception of the capitalist west. Orientalist ideas in the art world are seen throughout Romanticism to Art Nouveau and in current times, a raft of fine art, graphic design, music and philosophical trends. They brought the richness, excitement and energy of the middle and far eastern peoples into the grey-as-a-grudge, urban industrial Europe - the influence still very much present, particularly as cultures mix ever more freely. Clearly alongside the appreciation of the intoxicating perceived liberty of these far off lands and cultures, there did exist a serious note of patronisation and superiority, obviously encouraged by the colonial exploits with these countries in the past. However this was validated, the sense of the Other was one of intrigue coupled with romanticism, and though this led to a regard of simplicity and even backwardness by some, it did allow for the east to be painted with a great deal of colour and beauty. 

 The debate over Said’s assertions in his writing on this matter continues, but what can be agreed on at least, is one, yes there is a tendency in any country to view the other as inferior, but two, there was also genuine affection held by Europe and outsiders toward a great deal of Eastern culture. Based on this it is possible to see to this day that, bull-headed xenophobia aside, we are both in the East and the West identifying aspects of desirability in the other, it is not one way traffic. Therefore, in the absence of a keener term, I propose co-opting occidentalism and morphing it to describe the now favourable light the west appears in. This manifests mainly in the superficial terms of materialism and displays of wealth and status; on socio-political levels, certainly the ‘official’ societal attitude, there is still a pervading dismissiveness toward all things western, but what is increasingly embraced in the realms of consumer culture; that if you drive a European car, eat cerviche, carve your bread with a Philippe Starck knife, dress in Prada AND your wife has a glamour model bust, you have arrived. In graphic design and branding realms, a requisite 'flashy' visual language is employed. Thus, in terms of upwardly mobile aesthetic displays of sophistication, class or quality; signage and font selection for business cards, display fonts for lifestyle ads and branding in general all follow a distinct pattern. 

Cursive elaborate script - as if lifted straight from Louis XIV’s memoirs; a whole raft of overly ornate, baroque touches including impossibly knotted floral bordering; gold leafing; deep reds, purples, emerald green; roman numerals; gothic animistic creatures; crests and coats-of-arms are all readily in evidence. The reason for our attachment to these design elements we westerners are already familiar with is obvious. The use of cursive script comes from a time where writing was a rare talent, even more so if you worked at it akin to a classical Chinese calligrapher. Greek and Roman or any of the other past eras cultural influences seen, are generally out of an admiration and idealistic nostalgia for times ruled by classes of people whom held 'the arts' as an expression of their level of civilizational advancement. Take your pick throughout the centuries of extravagant displays of artistry commissioned by monied elites, distill these down together and we see continued implementation of the resultant brew in varying degrees everywhere. The question is, is there a way to carry the image of sophistication and ‘high-end’ without the use of the cliches of swank?

*ad for 'classy' new suburban real estate outside Beijing

 As I looked further into this I discovered another suitable example of attempts at alluding to ‘it's foreign it must be classy’. The des-res high-end residential compounds around Beijing all go for it, not only in iso-logotype design, but the exteriors, adorned with a collision of millennia-spanning plaster stuccoes, cherubs, nymphs, greek/roman/greco-roman columns, fountains and the like. On top of all that, the language of choice is English. Where it falls down is that in fact these compounds only have cache until the next one pops up, which at Chinas current rate of development means probably before you would have enjoyed your first xmas in the place; add to that, the sometimes very amusing, out and out tacky, but usually just clumsy collision of words in the name. 

 Take your pick from the following cringeworthy and grandiose Chinglish names:  

‘New Times Square’, ‘Riviera Garden’ (‘garden’ sounds a little humdrum following the castanets and flamenco thrown up before it) ‘Chateau Regalia’, Chateaux Edinburgh’ (not much french spoken in Scotland these days), ‘Xanadu Apartments’ ...

and my personal favourite, ‘Merlin Champagne Town’ ... enough said, the list goes on 

Of course, I don’t mean to come across as simply unkind; I grew up with greasy-spoon cafes and chip shops that had been given splendiferous monikers: Le Petit Dejeuner (fried egg and black pudding sandwiches) and Fernando's (these places the very antithesis of continental gourmands). Employing a decent bi-lingual copywriter might have saved a great deal of sniggering, but this is not the only aspect to consider regarding the cheapening of already cliched branding and graphic design styling. 

POLISHING TURDS 

 What we see is a presumption of what audience will respond to which imagery. This is a fine balance and relies on a creative director or designer being very well tuned into the tastes of the general public right across the social spectrum. 

A few words on materialism:

The notion of exclusivity and high-end, top of the line, limited edition, is the epitome of consumer motivation; wanting more, wanting better, wanting the next big thing before anyone else has it is the name of the game, its what keeps people spending and ultimately consumer economies afloat. The cycle of fashion and consumption in general demands a very short turnaround to enjoy the latest thing because pretty soon it filters down to mass market, becoming mainstream, by which point, if you’re a dutiful consumer, you will be lining up the next bit of flash. 

 Recent cases that highlight this include the British fashion house Burberry. In a recent documentary* the long running battle to reclaim there status as a provider of high-end fashion meant an effort to distance themselves from the decidedly low-end consumer group that for years had been sporting their tartan as part of a uniform that prioritised brand name over the cut or lines of a garment. Chavs, scallys, townies, schemies - pick your moniker, are not the only social strata to express their aspirational status through being covered head to toe in as many designer logos as possible. Crass as it is, there is wide participation in the notion that the better the car you drive, the watch or branded clothing you wear, the holiday resort you choose to be seen at ‘says something’ about you. It’s quite basic really, “I can afford this stuff so I must be doing alright for myself, show me some respect”. 

 Certain brands carry certain cache, mark you out as belonging to a ‘set’, ultimately a refined sense of class. In the case of Burberry, they are expensive well made garments, they are also very ‘British’, so being a fairly prideful wannabe alpha male on the estate in the UK, your image of being a bit tasty, is bolstered by dressing well. Unfortunately the cache is lost when everyone else wants to emulate that and the street is full of it. Incidentally, the more expensive lines from most fashion houses avoid presenting the logo on the outside of a garment - thats no good if you are trying to advertise what label you’re wearing, so sales on the cheaper items, like hats, t-shirts, scarves and so on fly off the shelf. It is a weird paradox for a company: you don’t want to be seen as a low-end generic brand catering to low-end consumers, BUT you’re selling so much, how can you fly in the face of the rules of capitalism and its materialist expression? Anyone who can pay the entry fee can take a seat right? Burberry shifted there styling to a place that made them less overtly branded, so, their client base returned to the discerning British urbanites and the conspicuously branded walking billboards moved to the next (or back to old faithful) kudos-gaining gear. 

The same issue cropped up with the adoption of Cristal champagne by the commercial hip hop fraternity. Songs from Jay-z etal sang the praises of a high rolling indulgent lifestyle, flashing the cash and washing it down with Cristal was truly living the dream. Questions were raised if this was a marketing arrangement, a cynical endorsement, but no, the interesting upshot was that the president of Louis Roederer Cristal coming out to publicly distance the brand from this ‘seedy’ element, stating his product was for a ‘certain set’ of discerning consumers. In response Jay-z and the boys tried to publicly set in motion a boycott - Cristal survives to quench the palates of the world’s bold and beautiful. Maintaining an image of exclusivity is important for luxury brand because if a fashion house lose this they will not be called upon for any of their couture or top line garments, and overall their reputation will decline; this equally applies to sparkling wine. 

 A further point to this is that, on the one hand you can have a product of genuine quality distinguished by certain graphic and aesthetic nuances and attract the ‘wrong sort’ of consumer that may cheapen the elitist cache of the product, on the other hand, lower rent imitators will take the superficial presentation of said product and sit cheek-by-jowl in the brandscape, diluting it and ultimately confusing the consumer. In the eyes of the consumer price is a good signifier of perceived quality, but beyond this, discerning taste, a heightened sense of awareness of elegance and subtlety in design and branding is needed. Increasingly these days consumers are more tuned to the language of design and marketing and so art directors and designers need to respond to this with more sensitivity and not just the default elements.

IN CONCLUSION 

 Why we should care so much whether a luxury brand maintains its elitist customer base is an obvious question, but focusing just on design creativity rather than the moral or philosophical aspect, I feel that ultimately the initial ad example I referred to at the outset highlights great carelessness in the design profession, as well as the sense of taste in the client and end consumer. Knowing what we know, that society, at almost every level it is engaged in seeking greater comfort, quality, it doesn’t matter if the understanding is applied to commercial design and advertising or the conveyance of a less ‘materialistic’ endeavour, we as design professionals ought to inject every ounce of blood sweat and tears into good design that is current, relevant, appropriate but that also carries that little spark of distinctiveness and in itself doing something new, especially if it is to stand out in a world saturated with branding, logotype and iconography. 

No matter whether in the realm of highly adnvanced cnsumer cultures, or in the gradually maturing Asian landscape, we can no longer rely on fro example, a package covered in decorative brocade bordering, or tall intertwining art nouveau glyphs or ‘deep and sumptuous’ tones, to actually contain anything of real value or pedigree. Yes, some things are married to their message, expensive jewellery, gourmet foodstuffs, high end electronics, all need to carry an air of ‘long established’ heritage, workmanship and finesse, and this will involve some exploration of traditional design elements, but these can be blended and evolved with more contemporary characteristics. Black and monochrome palettes with 'a bit of sparkle' may still have its place but this has to be used sparingly and not be relied on as a core theme, design choices like this can seem a bit stale. Pure minimalism is not necessarily the answer either, it can often look like the absence of design. 

The pluralistic heterogenous nature of the modern world means we can explore cross cultural fusions of colour and form, but of course with great care not to get it wrong, as with the examples I have highlighted above. Brand managers, designers and art directors need to be much more savvy about what design choices are made within the context of a global brandscape, grabbing superficially at imagery from outside of your own cultural context and applying it without properly assessing its appropriateness to a message is not good. 

Of course the client will maybe have strong opinions or 'a vision' (however deluded) about their status and relevant client base, in which case we get treated to some gloriously off-the-mark ad campaigns to keep us amused whilst stuck in traffic. 

 *

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A VERY AVERAGE FONT

Thank you Dan Sayers.

The font used on my site is Averia Libre.

I wanted something informal and contemporary but also evoking some tradition. This I think hits the spot as it carries a look of ink bleed you'd get on moveable type and at the same time a kind of neon-light bleed effect. The result is something retro-futuro and both fantastic as display but very easy on the eye for short body text as well. 

 Why does it work so well? The gist of it is a kind of generative typography built by layering and averaging the footprint of over 700 different fonts. If you visit http://iotic.com/averia/ you can get the full lowdown. 

 It has a look of imperfection and therefore uniqueness, but is precisely the opposite; a collective, egalitarian, all-encompassing uniformity. Probably because of its bleeding edges and apparent informality, it is not suitable for every occassion, but in a way it's the ultimate font, by literally being an average of so many. Bastard child or hybrid? I love it.

Tags: design, typography

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ART IS DESIGN IS ART IS DESIGN...

ar·ti·san noun \ˈär-tə-zən, -sən,

chiefly British ˌär-tə-ˈzan\

1 : a worker who practices a trade or handicraft : craftsperson 

2 : one that produces something (as cheese or wine) in limited quantities often using traditional methods 

Origin of ARTISAN: Middle French, from northern Italian dialect form of Tuscan artigiano, from arte art, from Latin art-, ars 

First known use: 1538

 art·ist noun \ˈär-tist\ 

1 a obsolete : one skilled or versed in learned arts b archaic : physician c archaic : artisan 1 

2 a : one who professes and practices an imaginative art b : a person skilled in one of the fine arts 

3 : a skilled performer; especially : artiste 4 : one who is adept at something First known use: circa 1507 

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary [accessed 01.12])

 Across the entire history of mankind there has been a very practical need to fashion objects, create signs, symbols and messages to be used in our everyday lives, whether it be for the purpose of survival, advancement, greater comfort or communication. At the same time, man has always had an aesthetic appreciation for form and visual beauty. Skilled hands used to shape or form something whole and complete from a collection of materials or elements; to create some kind of order out of chaos.  Every tool that has been crafted, from the bow and arrow to the satellite, has been tuned to the highest level of technical performance possible for the time, but it has also been shaped with an effort to include a degree pleasing symmetry, dynamism and aesthetic quality. Separating the two disciplines of art and design has long been a topic of rich debate. Initially it seems easy to cite examples that belong purely to one or the other, but I would like to argue that they are inseparable and most any one example of ‘art’ carries design characteristics or intent and examples of ‘design’ equally, always carry artistic qualities. 

TOOLS OF THE THE TRADE

 So what is design? According to Sir George Cox, former chairman of the Design Council, it is 

“... what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end.” 

Any object, any format, whether 2D, 3D, static, kinetic or otherwise that is made with some degree of functionality, can be considered design. This includes tools: everything from the knife or cup, through to the laser guided missile or CAT scan machine, they all have a practical application in assisting us, whether conveying food to our mouths, detecting illness or besting our enemies. In graphic terms, subway maps, menus, written language, signage, and so on can all also be considered tools of a sort. These things have a ‘job to do’, to assist us in our daily lives in ever increasing degrees of care and comfort. These tools are conceived of to resolve problems; somebody identifies a need and a comes up with a solution. Involved in all of this are the design professionals: architects, interior/product/graphic and multimedia and so on. Most of these roles have existed for thousands of years - albeit in increasingly more skilled and complex terms as time has gone on. Focusing on graphic design for now, the remit is to communicate information, a message or give a visual sign in a way that the intended audience can take onboard as easily, quickly and completely as possible. This could be to announce price reductions at a local furniture store or to carry a persuasive political agenda to sway public opinion, and anything else in between. 

Many tricks and creative devices are employed by the designer to keep the chosen format and content relevant and as tightly tuned to the intended audience and times as they can. It is worth noting here that design work is rarely carried out on a whim, it is commissioned - a designer, whatever their area, will be working to fulfill a contract or brief on behalf of a client (of course pro bono or ethical, community oriented pieces are produced, but nonetheless a brief is set with an intended party represented). This means that as a designer you are being asked to apply your specialist, or artisanal talents to an endeavor that has a predetermined desired outcome or result. Whether this is a commercial end, educational or otherwise, all graphic design jobs have a goal or end point in mind just as product designers have practical or physical needs to fulfill. The same is shared to one degree or another across the design professions. 

The Egyptian temples at Giza, skillfully crafted to convey a message of great power, influence and cultural sophistication of the pharaoh, also served as meeting places; their walls carrying tales of historical import, mythical and spiritual doctrines, even laws of the land in intricate and glyph pictographic writing. Establishing some of the lasting design principles; those of grid system, symmetry and repetition of form, the Egyptian artisans spent decades, centuries, perfecting skills that passed on through the rest of art and design history. By the time King Darius of the Persian empire was pressing his portrait onto the back of the first coins, a precedent was firmly established of the political propaganda that continues to this day - tribal crests and insignia, or logos, having already been around for some time now being carried around as constant reminders of their rulers face in the purses of every citizen. When the printing press arrived in the 15th century, knowledge and wisdom through literacy was democratised and the world would not be the same since. All of these examples are representative of significant practical and material efforts to serve a purpose, but we can also easily acknowledge the aesthetic results of these endeavors. 

The ornamental organic relief carving of the egyptian columns served no structural purpose; Darius’s head rather than that of a lion or other deity, and in such life-like rendering did more than imply financial value; the intricate differences and flourishes in early block typefaces in many cases might involve higher degrees of legibility, but more often than not intended to bring more character and life to an otherwise bland page of copy. As eras came and went, powers shifted, cultures evolved, we saw demands in terms of sophistication, complexity and taste in the aesthetics of all things. Clothing not only protects modesty and your body from the elements, a vast industry exists to serve our need to express ourselves through our choice of attire. The technology industry certainly shifts new products based on performance enhancements, but undeniably a large factor in consumer choice depends on the look and feel of the hardware - see Apple as a case in point, their incremental updates do not always carry a dramatic shift in functionality, but appeal to the aesthetic desirability of having the latest and sleekest piece of kit. It is incredibly difficult to identify a practical object, something designed, that does not also carry some degree of finesse or ornamentation. 

ART IS ART 

What is art? Having wrestled with this question for a while, and watched others lose hair and spit feathers over it, I would like to add my two penny’s worth. There are two sides to this, one, what can be defined as a piece of art, in and of itself, and two, how to deal with the idea of perception. The first point involves a number of factors. An individual gathers together materials and organises them together in a manner that pleases, or at least satisfies their urge to do so. This in turn may be figurative or abstract, it may involve paint and canvas, bronze, clay, animal entrails, an array of pixels, but whatever the medium or format, a conscious human decision has been made to create this piece of work, no matter how course, crude or apparently random their use of said materials. At the root of it, there was an instinct, a motivation or calling to set out to make it, the results may not always be defined as beautiful, but, I would argue, there has been a reason, a spark, an influence to trigger the particular form that comes out of this process. So, out of this I would argue that there is intent inherent in a piece of art work and that work may have an overt agenda to play out, or it may stand for a sign of the times, a manifestation of the human psyche - at that point I leave it alone for fear of disappearing off down a well trodden road of lofty definitionsand counter definitions. 

Cerebral, emotional and metaphysical experience, in a sense are very much a function. In fact the human mind requires stimulus; whether pure distraction, entertainment, shock, delight and so on, just as much as it requires educational growth or pure information geared toward making progress through life. All of the aesthetic pleasures enjoyed through art serve a fundamental purpose in humanity, feeding our soul, enriching our experience and appreciation for the world around us and everything in it. 

The second definer mentioned above, that of perception, is relevant because it is often said that art is art because someone, often the artist, has defined it as such. There are many ways art makes its way into realms of widespread acceptance, i.e. the institutionalzation of art as defined by galleries, critics and the like, but really, thats just opinion and weighty recognition. Ultimately, for my purposes here, I would argue that art is commonly regarded as differing from design in that it exists more for its own sake rather than having a responsibility to communicate an agenda. But this is where I raise a contentious point; no art is created without some glimmer of communication, as in there is always a mood, a tone, a cultural or stylistic and certainly emotional content at play. The very fact this work has been seen publicly is to allow others to share in this experience, as in to be the recipient of this message. To that end, art serves a purpose and it carries value, meaning, or message as much as 'design' does. 

So, while it is true that design tends to always have a purpose, some non-commissioned graphic work, for example street art, seem to be created for the pleasure of creation, certainly not for profit. BUT nonetheless this still carries an agenda, even if it is just to entertain or decorate - this would fall under some kind of community service at the very least :) In the case of culture jamming, from the now high profile likes of Banksy, there is obviously quite an oblique political or social comment in play; graffiti being an ancient form of civil protest and public display of dissent. An artist may argue against their work having any kind of meaning or purpose, but that's unlikely, it would be to my mind, an exercise in denying its value, any relevance or that it exists at all. 

WHATS THE MEANING OF ALL THIS? 

David McCandless, writer and designer, specializes in data visualisation, otherwise known as info-graphics. At the end of 2010 he locked horns with Neville Brody - lord of the D&AD, bastard child of the Swiss Style and deconstructivism. BBC Newsnight was showcasing McCandless’ latest info-graphics -commissioned to explain some of the socio-economic patterns across the world, and the issue was this: 'did these visual ways of representing hard data really help people get to grips with the serious information being conveyed?' Lord Brody said NO. 

His argument was that, in part the serious nature of the information was somehow cheapened or dumbed down (but in a pretty way), so it lost some of its gravitas but also that the ‘beauty’ in the compositions really just distracted altogether and it would be admired for its aesthetics rather than making any real impact. I could see his point, but it was kind of ironic that some of his own most notable early design contributions include distorted and diffused typography that, while I think look awesome, definitely interfere with legibility... a guys entitled to change his mind I suppose. 

Sometimes heavy data, or comparative information can be a little hard to digest when presented in raw form, you have to really care to want to maintain focus and come away with the bigger picture, so, by presenting this ‘bigger picture’ as A BIG PICTURE takes a great deal of effort out and, if done effectively will transmit meaning in a much shorter time frame with hopefully a more dramatic immediate impact. Mr McCandless definitely held to this logic, and if you look at his work there is compelling evidence. Being too clever clever, and certainly putting form over function is not a good way to behave as a designer, but I found this area of design represented a perfect example of how the arena of art; prioritising creative expression and pure aesthetics, and that of design with its need to carry effective functionality, merge perfectly. 

The question that remains: Can design be considered design if it is executed without any of the earlier mentioned apparent functional ends attached to it? Or does that then become art? Can art be considered art if it is not purely decorative or aesthetic.... does it then veer into design territory? 

From the examples discussed above, I hope to have made clear that this question is not actually relevant. That in fact the two disciplines are joined at the hip. Art in the classical sense (pick a movement), was certainly commissioned, it certainly carried content and agenda; whether religious, political or otherwise. In modern times art is sometimes cynically generated to follow an in-demand trend and taste, therefore targeting a consumer, for profit. ‘True art’ - if such a thing exists, may be generated altruistically, but as stated, there will still be some meaningful purpose to it, purposes that tend to overlap with those that a designer typically works with. The terms artist and artisan to me share too much to be completely separated from one another. Non-commissioned design does not become art or lose any of the elements that allow it to carry a functional purpose, just that that purpose will exist for personal creative agenda. But this fact that both art and design can be seen to communicate messages and have a functional role to play in our lives for me confirms, while this effort to maintain distinct boundaries will keep rolling on, it is maybe worth accepting that more unites than divides the two. It may just be a massive semantic runaround.

So art is art, design is design, art is design and design.. is art. 

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