Life in Design
An alternative history of graphic design
In the early 1990s, I studied Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading under the notable authorities Ken Garland, James Mosley, Paul Stiff and Michael Twyman. This set me on a journey of typographic and graphic exploration through printed matter that I am still very much pursuing today.
At Reading, my hero was Willem Sandberg, the Dutch designer and director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from 1945 to 1962. He wrote about warm printing: the use of torn-paper shapes, rough materials and lower case unjustified setting. He did his design work outside of office hours and, although by no means technically perfect, it has real soul and personality. Sandberg developed a graphic language that he played out in the hundreds of catalogues he produced for the museum.
Over the years, my interests have expanded to those outside and beyond graphic design who are concerned with the presentation and communication of ideas through text and images. Small publishers, artists, writers or concrete poets without any formal training or deep knowledge of typography, graphic design and print production, can have an advantage over the well-versed designer. This is an alternative way of looking at graphic design and its history.
Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer, who were creating a platform for Conceptual art and poetry in New York’s Lower East Side, first published the magazine 0 to 9 in 1967. It was produced by hand on a borrowed mimeograph, a printing machine that pushes ink through a stencil that has been cut using a typewriter. Its crude process created smudges, stencil tears and misprints. What’s striking is that the cover image of the first issue – a blank mimeograph stencil – references this print process: the idea being that it could be typed on, returned to the editors and printed in the next issue.
In 1972, Beau Geste Press launched the magazine Schmuck, which ran for eight issues (until 1978) and focused on Fluxus and Mail art. Bound in leaflet format and full of pull-outs, artworks, cut-outs, ephemera and other goodies, its handmade, tactile quality was due, in part, to its content, layout and printing all being done under one roof. One of the publishing team, David Mayor, is credited in issue eight for layout and design, platemaking, binding and finishing. Copy would be set on a portable and relatively inexpensive IBM Selectric typewriter, which incorporated a typeball (also known as a golfball) that allowed the change of fonts within one document. These advances in technology marked the advent of desktop publishing, enabling the user to make typographic decisions and be in control of the design. The ‘paste-up’ – a combination of text, photographs, line art and handwriting – would be printed by offset lithography: a fond farewell to letterpress type and printing blocks.
The German artist Wolf Vostell also made use of this technology in his own printed works and publications documenting his performances, happenings, décollage and video work. A small booklet, Televison Decollage (1963), employs Letraset in a crude way: maintaining the letter guidelines and cracks that most graphic designers would correct. In contrast to his own work, Vostell designed Art of the Sixties (1971), a masterpiece of book production and the ultimate in philanthropic publishing: a multi-layered cover, bound together with bolts and pages printed on an array of different paper stock with tipped-in colour illustrations.
‘Assemblings’ is a series of 13 anthologies of supposedly unpublishable material, which was issued by Richard Kostelanetz and Henry Korn’s New York Assembling Press between 1970 and 1982. The content, design and printing was left to contributors, who were required to produce 1,000 copies of up to four pages of material, which would then be put together and distributed as a magazine. This mix of content, typography, design, paper stock and printing methods produced a feast of consistent inconsistency.
The German printer, artist and publisher Hansjorg Mayer’s experiments from the 1960s reveal an understanding of, and a challenge to, the print-production process. The son of a Stuttgart printer, Mayer had a real desire to push the limits of what is possible with a printing machine and embraced the notion of chance. His alphabets, typoems and typoactions sit between art, Concrete poetry and graphic design. Mayer also taught in the UK at Watford School of Art in the 1960s and ’70s and worked with students to produce the books bRIAN and The Hardy Annual (1969). The diverse voices within these books share a unity with ‘Assemblings’ and nod to 0 to 9: the covers of both bRIAN and The Hardy Annual are the litho plates that were used to print the publications.
Technological methods of production – both in terms of composition and printing – dictate, to some extent, the visual appearance of this work. Artists were able to combine text and images and publish their own material without having to work with a graphic designer and commercial printer, creating a new energy and enthusiasm for printed matter. They could be in control of content and the form of a book or publication could be explored. This alternative history of graphic design might be rough, the typography might be a bit jaunty and the printing by no means perfect, but the work is full of individuality, craftsmanship and inventiveness – all traits that I try to build into my own practice, making visible the hand of the designer. Today, the role of printed matter can shift from what it communicates literally to what it communicates subconsciously.
is a graphic designer based in London, UK. He works with artists, galleries and cultural institutions to create printed matter. He also teaches at the University of Reading, UK, and Camberwell College of Art, London, and runs Typography Summer School in London and New York, USA.
First published in Issue 169