Illustration

V for Valentine


Original image from LIFE.

Here’s a nice topical post for St. Valentine’s Day. I just read about this fun project over on Brand New: Redesigning Valentine’s Day. Studio 360 came up with the idea, following on from previous ‘challenges’ to redesign Christmas Day and the Gay Freedom Flag. I normally like reading things like this because of the fresh thinking and the usually interesting return to first principles as a place to start, but this feels a bit flat. Brand New give a list of positives and negative aspects of Valentine’s Day, and they have some interesting ideas, but if this was a branding brief, I’d start with a list of brand aims, what we want to achieve:

  • Accessible—Whatever symbols you use, they have to be recognisable. At some level it’s a similar task to designing a national flag; a child must be able to draw it recognisably.
  • Obvious—Love may not actually be blind, but it’s certainly not thinking at full capacity, so whatever you use to characterise it has to work on an emotional, intuitive level. If you have to think about it too much, it’s failed.
  • Fun—It really can’t be serious. Romantic love is mad, illogical, impulsive and emotional — there’s no tedious routine here, no worries about bills or ailments or whatever, it’s about life, and it’s exciting.
  • Optimistic—It has to speak of unbounded promise, of potential, of positivity, happiness and, not to put too fine a point on it, the fruits of love — kids, basically, assuming reproduction is possible with one’s intended. It has to lift our spirits and make us feel good.

To go with the brand aims, you want to see what’s wrong with the existing brand:

  • Commercialisation—Money (or the exchange of valuable/useful items) has been part of love, marriage and romance for however long we care to look back into human history: dowries, bride prices, dynastic unions, etc. Negative? Perhaps. Just part of life. I say deal with it.
  • Waste—An increasingly valid point. If you value something, you keep it safe, dry and clean. Otherwise, you’re going to discard it, right? You’d want it to be biodegradable and recyclable — and surely you wouldn’t want the symbols of your unending love to have poisoned a river with its manufacturing byproducts?
  • Taste—Ah, it’s all so crass, isn’t it? The schmalzy, glittering gifts, the plush, the fluff, the overly decorated crap that fills the shops, the low-quality chocolate, the forced roses, the sheer lowbrow nature of it all. Yes, if I admit it, this is the main problem I have with it all.

So what did Brand New come up with? A cross, essentially, a cross that sort of looks like a V. Made from the diagonal axes of the heart symbol, curved a bit to soften them up, and vertically orientable to indicate availability, it’s iconic and reasonably flexible, and the suggested application on Facebook and the like is pretty nice. The thing is, with those colours it really reminds me of the brands for the Pink Ribbon Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer. If I saw this symbol without knowing its origins, I’d assume it was part of the branding for one of these two charities, and given that Valentine’s isn’t serious, and breast cancer is, this is a problem. Also, it’s too reliant on accurate reproduction of those gentle curves. In most people’s hands it’ll just be a plain ‘X’, a symbol of affection certainly, but not quite the heartfelt romantic love you’re trying to get across. So as much as I respect Armin and Bryony, I think this symbol is a dud. It’s too serious, too cold, too (sorry) dull. It’s based on diagonals across a heart, so it’s based on a heart. Why not use a heart symbol then?


What defines the new curves on the cross? Where do they come from? It’s all a bit arbitrary.

And this is the root of it. We already have a set of well-recognised, simple, straightforward symbols we use to indicate romance and love, and we have a very flexible brand palette, ranging from rose pink to carmine red. The biological (and anatomical) associations with the colour are pretty obvious, and happily elicit a strong emotional response of exactly the sort we’re looking for with Valentine’s Day. No other colour does the job; for example even if Tiffany Blue is a welcome sight for some on Valentine’s Day, it’s not the colour that people will ever associate with love, just merely one of the benefits of it.

So, let’s look at the symbols of love and Valentine’s Day, then. What do we have?

The Heart

Hearts on everything! This surely is the main thing everyone associates with Valentine’s Day. It’s simple, obvious, easy to draw, recognisable, and even has a kind of logic to it. It may not be a perfect image of a human heart, but it’s close enough — the way it’s usually drawn, it’s round, plump, healthy, it’s a symbol of fullness, of comfort, of abundance. It’s even the symbol Armin and Bryony started with to create their cross, so why gild the lily?

Cupid

The god of erotic love, we all recognise Cupid; the winged, plump little boy carrying a bow and arrow. These days he’s pretty much interchangeable with the legions of generic winged babies floating around with ribbons, hearts, garlands of flowers and the rest. They’re often called cherubs, but these aren’t the four-winged, four-faced, ninth-rank angels from the Bible at all, so while there’s not going to be much confusion, you can call them putti. Whatever you call them, they’re often depicted doing something slightly mischievous; Cupid represents the impulsive and childish nature of love. He is anything but serious, he is newborn love personified. In a literal sense too, he represents that ultimate product and beneficiary of love - the child.

Roses

What better symbol of romantic love than the genitals of a plant? I guess a picture of our own organs would be considered a little forward and might embarrass the waiter at that nice restaurant you’re at. People give all sorts of flowers on Valentine’s Day, but it’s the rose, the red rose that’s become the ultimate gift of love. It’s the richness of colour, the fullness of the shape of the flower, the heady scent, they’re beautiful and inspire our senses. They’re also a bit pricey around Valentine’s Day, so to be cynical for a moment, they say, “Look, you’re worth me shelling out for these things, even if they are going to be dead tomorrow”.

Food

Chocolates, sweets, a nice meal – a gift of food has been a tangible sign of love for as long as we can tell. It has to be something rich and indulgent, preferably sweet, uncommon and yes, expensive. In the past, honey was the acme of sweets, to get at it you usually had to kill the hive (and face the angry bees), and that made it much, much more expensive. It’s no accident that we have a honeymoon (not exactly an everyday occurrence) and that the promised land was described as a land of milk and honey. Giving a gift of honey to your beloved showed that you were willing to spend money on them, and that you had it to spend. Commercialisation is hardly new when it comes to love.

The Brand

I think the branding of St Valentine’s Day is pretty much perfect. It fulfils everything it needs to do. Sure, it can be tasteless and crass, but it can be refined and beautiful too. You’ve four symbols with which to express your love, the abstract heart, the figurative cupid, the symbolic flowers and the tangible gifts of food, and you have a colour scheme you can use to brand any additional gifts and accessories, lingerie, wines, foods, lighting, and so on — you can simply do whatever you want with them.

Valentine’s Day is an incredibly democratic event; the barriers are low, the incentive to be creative high, and the rewards of success extraordinary.

And, of course, you can refuse to have anything to do with it and grumble about all these grinning idiots facehugging all over the damn place and upsetting the horses. Clearly, that’s the sensible opinion, held by all right-thinking people, which, I guess, is the point.

Optimistic Wine

There’s quite a few things I’ve been meaning to post about lately. One of them is this post by FPO on Siquis’ annual gift to their clients — a bottle of wine — but more specifically, the label. It’s a nice idea, every year a different designer gets to design the wine label, and this year’s designer, Greg Bennett, focussed on optimism — the old question, is the glass half full or half empty? Of course, with the ‘full’ side of the glass being a cutout that you can (theoretically) see the wine through, and reversed, if you want to see it you’ll end up pouring out some wine, thereby filling your glass. Of course, that assumes you’ve opened the bottle (and have a glass), which I guess is the point — it’s a subtle way of saying, “drink me”.

The Hebrew Writers Guild

Related to the previous post, I’ve also found this collection of stamp designs. There are a lot here from the Mid Century Modern aesthetic too, including this beautiful Israeli stamp celebrating the Hebrew Writers Guild. I love the irregularity of the numerals, the complex detail in the design, and the pleasing visual metaphor:

In case you’re wondering, yes, I do like a lot of the Israeli stamp designs, but it’s not an exclusive thing; I like stamps from Poland, travel brochures, emergency banknotes and commercial packaging too.

Mid Century Modern Stickers, Labels and Stamps

Browsing Grain Edit earlier I saw a sidebar link to the Mid Century Modern - Sticker, Label + Stamp Club on Flickr. The title describes it pretty well, but with 1804 items (as of writing) the scope of the collection is pretty breathtaking. I sometimes wonder at all the collections of mid-century stuff online, there’s a hell of a lot of it out there and I enjoy finding new collections like this, but will I tire of it at some point? Perhaps it’s old enough now so that most of the crap to have been edited out — long composted in landfills or left to crumble in attics and the backs of garages — and what we’re seeing is genuinely timeless, quality design. I certainly hope that’s what it is. For now, I’m happy to have found this collection, and even happier to have the time to spend tracing a few things, like this Israeli stamp illustrating the story of Jonah and The Whale:


The pattern of buildings reminds me of the illustrations from books of biblical stories I was given to read as a kid. The pink whale on the right is from the detachable tab that comes with the stamp.

I didn’t fancy leaving it all as flat colour — much of the appeal here comes from the simplicity of the printing, especially the visible halftoning — so I took the shapes I’d made for the two tones of black and used Vectoraster* to create the halftones, and I’m quite pleased with the result. Illustrator wasn’t though; my attempt at doing halftones for the pinks crashed it pretty comprehensively.

* Suggested to me by several people in response to this article.

Hatch Show Print

Andy Polaine recently tweeted a link to this video on David Airey’s site about Hatch Show Print, a letterpress shop established in 1879 in Nashville, Tennessee, which is still operating. The manager, Jim Sherraden, has strong views on how to run the shop, with a motto of “preservation through production”, the idea being that all the equipment, all the blocks, everything, is still used regularly, even if it’s for one print. Sherradden regards the shop as a living museum; everything is letterpress, and done by hand, and interestingly:

we don’t introduce new typefaces because I don’t want to pollute the integrity of the archive.

I’m glad someone is doing this. I’m glad that this style, so American, is being maintained, that these wood blocks are being used for printing and not for decorating someone’s wall, and that these presses are still operating and being maintained. I’m glad someone’s doing this, because I don’t think I’d want to. I know I’d find myself craving new typefaces, screenprinting, digital print, variety. So yes, I’m glad someone’s doing this. Someone else.


Some stills from the video. Look at all those wood blocks. Wow.

Under The Milky Way

These posters by Ross Berens are beautiful. I’d love to see them higher resolution, and on nice paper, printed with archival inks, and yes, pretty much on my wall. They’re of all nine of the planets and their moons we knew before 2006*, with various details of their atmospheres, orbits and other features displayed using a range of infographic styles. They remind me of the posters and books I had as a child, but of far higher quality — these look like something you’d get from NASA itself, or today, the Science Museum. Lovely things.

* Yes, poor Pluto.

via Coudal

The Exquisite Book

Browsing earlier, I came across this blog post for The Exquisite Book. It’s a book project involving ten groups of ten artists, including fine artists, illustrators, designers and comic artists, where each artist creates one page having only seen the previous page. It’s roughly the same idea as a game you may have played as a child, which I’ve only just learned was invented by the Surrealists and was called The Exquisite Corpse. I can’t remember what we called it, but certainly not that.

Anyway, the book project looks like one worth following, and the blog post has a few sample pages. I’ll be interested to see how it ends up looking as a collection, and what the binding will be. I was especially interested in the sketch for the book title page (below left) and had a play with the idea in Sketchup.


Some output from Sketchup, from me playing with the ideas in the sketch from The Exquisite Book site at bottom left. To match the sketch I used a mix of Century Gothic and Helvetica - and some hand lettering naturally.

MMX

For all that I’ve heard and read from friends, colleagues and associates, it seems that the end of 2009 can’t come soon enough. I’ve not had a bad year at all — it’s been full of good things, both professional and personal — but somehow I’ve picked up the excitement and promise of a new year and I’m looking forward to 2010. It’s going to be a good year, I think. So, without further ado, I’ll bring your attention to a fantastic collection of ‘The End’ title stills from Warner Bros on The Movie Title Stills Collection, perfectly timed to commemorate the end of the year. Go and take a look!

Have a very happy and prosperous new year, and thank you for your visits, your kind, interesting and useful emails — I read every one and even if I can’t reply I appreciate and enjoy all of them. Here’s to two thousand and ten!


Some end titles from The Movie Title Stills Collection

Star Posters

These posters by Mark Brooks for Santa Monica are great. I’ve had the page on ISO50 open in a tab for a while — The idea here is interesting and worth looking at; using the Santa Monica logo to create the halftone pattern, but using a two and three-layer effect using different sizes and treatments of the star. I wanted to have a closer look and see whether it was hard to create the effect. Turns out it’s not really, it’s just a bit time consuming and needs some concentration. It also makes your eyes go squiffy so best to work with low contrast colours until you’re done. I did my own little version using a Baskerville Italic ampersand, below the posters by Brooks here. There’s some more images on Mark Brooks’ Behance portfolio.


Some of the Mark Brooks posters. Originals and more here.


Me playing around with the idea. I love the Baskerville Italic ampersand. When viewed close, the effect is extraordinarily pretty.

Dutch Covers

BibliOdyssey put up this great collection of Dutch picture-book covers from 1810 to 1950. There are some lovely illustrations, examples of lettering and type treatments on the covers, one of which I’ve traced below. I was thinking about tracing the illustration on this one, mainly for the overall effect it gives than for anything else, but I figure I’ll save that for a rainy day. Go and look at the rest of the covers, here.


‘Wat Hansje Zag’ by Dick Poortvliet, illustrated by van Douwe Nieuwenhuis, 1948