Information Design

Editorial Design

I’ve seen and admired Francesco Franchi’s editorial work before, but I hadn’t seen his Flickr stream until now. It’s quite an inspiration — I love how clearly and crisply everything is rendered, and there’s real artistry in the fine details and the balance of illustration, diagram and infographic in his work. Sadly I’m not fluent (or even competent) in Italian so I don’t know how well the words and pictures work together — any Italians out there like to enlighten me? It certainly looks like it should be a good read, but then, so does Monocle, and it isn’t. Anyway, go and have a look, and be inspired. I’ve put a few details from some of my favourite spreads below:

On Maps Made of Words

The last time I posted about a set of maps made of words I was a bit hesitant about it. The map itself was attractive, and I liked a lot of things about it (I wouldn’t have posted it otherwise) but I did wonder how much of it was automatically generated, and how much of it was done by hand.

Not that there’s any problem with generating things automatically, as it takes just as much (if not more, sometimes) craft and creative energy to design, program and build something to do that, but sometimes with the computer generated stuff there’s a question of, “How much of this did you do?” Is it a plugin or script you downloaded? Should we be crediting someone else with the creativity and diligence to program the thing, and you with the idea to use it like this? Does it actually matter? It’s not like effort is ever any measure of quality, but of course we naturally associate a premium with something made in a way that doesn’t scale (through difficulty, moods, inspiration, randomness and so on), so that it becomes a unique object, or at least a rare one — this is the premium of the handmade, the crafted object. So this is what I was wondering about when I saw these maps by Seagull’s Hut, not made of type but hand-lettered, and then printed as limited editions:

I’m reminded of Jeremy Tankard’s Shire Types. Know what I mean?

It’s not like you can buy the original artwork, but it is in itself is unique, and the prints from it can only be copies of it; you can’t make new originals, which is something you can’t say for anything algorithmically produced. Well, unless you create AIs and they become conscious and develop an artistic sensibility that is. I’ve raised that issue before and had quite the flood of crazy comments from the internet’s vibrant and vocal apocalyptic tendency, including the gloriously and perhaps unwittingly eloquent, “humans will be instinct”.

So yes, don’t get me wrong, I do like the maps from Seagull’s Hut. Shame I can’t link to them directly, but go and take a look at their store. I don’t think I’ll be posting about any more maps made from lettering or type though. The inspiration has become a meme, and is ever more dulled by the transformation.

Maps Made of Words

I like the idea of typographic maps, from the fairly abstract ones by ORK to the impressively detailed linocuts by Andrew Webber, so it’s nice to see another approach, especially when there are some clever little touches. These posters from Axis Maps show maps of Chicago and Boston made entirely from type, using a technique that is fairly straightforward and which could risk producing a rather dull result, but Axis have created textures and used typographic colour to create an interesting set of images. The overall effect is pleasing, and I think if there was a New York or London version I’d be tempted to get one. A couple of details showing some of the effects I like — using a heavy stroke on type to create the dark line of a river and the overlapping curved text to create the waves on Lake Michigan:

An obvious solution perhaps, but it works rather nicely.

One little niggle though. As much as I like and admire Museo, I don’t think it works as a titling face on these maps, not at this size, and not in this context anyway.

Recording the World Cup

I wasn’t expecting to have anything to write about that was football-related, even during such a big event as the World Cup, but wonders never cease. When Benjamin Prescott mailed me about a personal project to create and sell limited edition World Cup wall charts he’d designed I had a big of trouble thinking what it was for — I’m so out of touch with such things. I mean, yes, I’ve a theoretical knowledge of the offside rule (something that’s talked about as if it’s one of the Great Mysteries of the Ancients) and yes, I played it at school, but the whole yelling-at-the-tv, wearing team colours and flying the flag kind of thing always passed me by. Still, I know enough people who like it all (so I can ask), and as it turned out I was just re-reading the email when I noticed I was sat right next to one of the wall charts, and a lovely thing it is too! What really interested me in it was the recreation of the typeface from Subbuteo scoreboard references — I like lettering and illustrations made from dots anyway so this was a nice find, and it works well with the Avenir used on the rest of the chart too. The wallcharts are limited edition, so I hope I’m not too late in writing about them and you can still get one if you want one.

An original Subbuteo reference and a sample of Prescott’s redrawing.

Details of the actual wall chart. More here.

Virtual Water

I remember seeing, and liking, the first edition of the Virtual Water poster, and I see now there’s not only a new version but an iPhone app, which has even more information in it. I particularly like the visual style of the project — the simple black silhouettes and the blue accent colour work beautifully (a combo you may notice I rather like already), and the bold, slab-serif typeface (see below) just looks perfect. The little info cards behind each item are nicely laid out too, reminding me of classic recipe cards (or cocktail bar cards), and the short sharp explanations and consistent use of units back up the infographics nicely.

Some screens from the app. I like the indicator of the ‘usual’ amounts on the slider.

The background info cards.

I’m guessing the face is TheSerif Classic by Luc de Groot), though for unknown reasons I’ve never used it, it looks so incredibly familiar that I was convinced I must have. But, I hadn’t. How very odd! I may have to remedy the situation soon.

On Turning The Page

I’ve been thinking about pages, print and scrolling for a while, mainly because I’m a designer and it’s part of my job, but also (I have to admit) because I quite fancy getting an e-reader of some kind. I’ll say right now I’m not going to write about any particular gadget, nor do I care which is best, which is more open, which is morally better, which one is approved by the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Front or whatever, right now I’m just thinking about one particular aspect of the technology: the page metaphor.

I’m writing this with full knowledge that there are some truly excellent articles out there about this very subject, this one in particular, which you might want to read too. Thing is, while people are talking about digital books, the talk is about the printing, transport and warehousing costs and trees it’ll save, and there’ve only been a few scant mentions of how the form of your everyday novel or reference book could change. Any discussion on form has been about the premium-quality books, the Alice for iPad style remakings, the ones that make new and playful uses of the page-as-screen, and there will be some truly wonderful digital books made, we know there will. However, it’s just taken as read that for all the other books that a bunch of text will be squeezed into an arbitrary set of pages of arbitrary size, like making sausages out of text. We’re not doing these books justice with this tired old page metaphor.

What’s so good about pages?

There are some functional and aesthetic reasons we might like to use pages for a long text. The main functional one that I can see is that we get a handy idea from pages where we are — they are numbered. To return to the book later we need only remember a single number and we can find that page again and carry on where we left off. That’s a great idea, but it breaks, and breaks badly if you were to change the text size, or to carry on reading on one device from where you left off on another. I think as these are two big advantages of digital books, we can’t easily ignore them. Fortunately placeholding is pretty easy on a digital book. It simply remembers where you were and loads the book up at that point.

Yes, I know my metaphor has holes in it, like a huge Hampton Court Palace shaped one. Just bear with me, OK?

So, what about aesthetic reasons? Well, here I like to compare it to architecture, specifically building materials. In years past, and here I’ll emphasise I’m assuming quite an early sensibility, if you built your house with cut and dressed stone, it marked you out as being a pretty wealthy and (presumably) classy individual. If you built your house out of brick, it just said you had a house made of brick. It might be a nice house, but it’s a house made of brick. Nothing wrong with that, you understand, but hey, it’s not stone, and brick was something associated with industry, with commerce and with houses built on a massive scale for factory workers. So houses were built out of brick and then given a coating of render which was then scored and moulded to look like stone. It didn’t really fool anyone, so while it didn’t mark you out as wealthy, you could at least appear to be classy, and that’s important to a lot of people.

And so to books. The equivalent in my metaphor of a stone house is an actual professionally set, printed and bound dead-tree book. They’re the kind of book that is made to store Great Works; the dictionaries, philosophies, histories, plays, religious texts, the physical manifestation of all human knowledge that can be set on a page. No wonder people place great store in the idea of a printed book, for the past couple of centuries they’ve been the acme of Stuff That’s Worth Keeping. Of course, now we have perfect-bound (ha!) books produced in the millions and I don’t think even I could be accused of snobbery in saying that most of them are from the category of Tedious Drivel than Great Work, but there you go, we still have this idea that printed books are so very special, better than any other medium.

Your typical red brick terraces. Moss side, photo by Gene Hunt.

So, what of the brick house in my belaboured Victorian metaphor? This, to me, is a scrolling page of text on a screen — pretty much the kind you’re reading right now, and do on any website. Yes, it’s called a web page but it is at least a true digital page in that it can be any length, any width and be as static or dynamic as you want. It is a product of the digital age, and while the code we use to describe its content may still be inadequate and subject to billion-dollar playground fights it does the job pretty well. The reason I liken it to the brick house is that there’s nothing really wrong with it but it hasn’t the cachet, it’s associated with the mass-produced red brick terraced house in some mill town somewhere — it’s commercial, it hasn’t the sense of permanence, it’s just a this’ll do commercial pragmatism about it. Of course, just as there are astoundingly beautiful brick buildings there are beautiful web pages, but it’s all about how these things are commonly associated in people’s minds.

And so to our prettified house. The brick one with the rendering on the outside made to look like stone. It can be built nearly as cheaply and quickly as a plain brick house, but it just looks so much better (well, more fashionable) and will sell for a load more cash. It’s got the association of quality in people’s minds but very little of the cost. And here we find the metaphorical equivalent of nearly every damn e-reader on the market right now. Loaded with serif fonts because printed books use serif fonts, sepia-toned backgrounds because printed books go a bit brown with age, with justified text because… and yes, here we get to it. Justified text! For crying out loud. They’re justifying text on a small screen with such an appallingly crap set of algorithms that sometimes it’s like looking at two lists of words against opposite margins — sometimes there might be a few words floating about in the middle somewhere but in all cases the reading experience is dreadful. I’ve only heard of one app that has a decent algorithm for hyphenation and justification, but even so I think the easiest (and given the size of the screen, the best) option for justification is a setting called OFF. For a particular erudite complaint about all this, check out Stephen Coles’ article for the FontFeed.

Early Edition, Eucalyptus and iReading Classics.

Then we get to the real fake-Georgian pediment over the front door, the overly-shiny brassy door furniture, the PVC window frames, something that infests reading software rather than dedicated e-reader hardware (but is no less annoying for it): yes, it’s the page turn animation. Oh how these software producers love their page turn animations. They might not make a big deal about their font selection, their crappy justification algorithms or even the number of books you can buy through their store, but they will always make a great big bloody feature of their sodding page turns, even the app I pointed to above. Even if an app doesn’t have these damn things, you get the impression they’re working on adding them. In a book, an actual dead-tree book, you don’t notice turning the page because it’s just part of what a book is. That’s how you get to the next bit of text. The whole idea of pages bound like that is an artifact of a particular printing technology — it’s the nature of the delivery medium, not the message. So when we have a digital book, we’re using technology that has its own set of conventions, its own restrictions and its own freedoms, and every bit of digital technology has some means of moving through any arbitrary content: a keyboard has cursor keys, page up and page down keys, a mouse has a scroll wheel, laptops have trackpads with scroll areas, and smartphones have touchscreens, joysticks or D-pads. But no. Those aren’t good enough. They’re not booky enough. You’re going to be reading Ullysses on this thing, War and Peace, The Illiad with this thing for crying out loud! You can’t sully things like that with a scroll wheel! You’re supposed to be imagining reverentially turning the thick, musty, ancient pages in some great national library somewhere, worshipping at the altar of Knowledge! Never mind the story! Never mind leaving you free to just read! No, every 250 words, perform the gesture, watch the animation!

Just let me scroll, please? I’ve been reading stuff off the screen seriously for what, 15 years? More? Scrolling is fine, you know.

I guess you could assume I’m not a fan of the current state of e-reading software. I hold out a lot of hope for it though. I think if the Instapaper (say) people went and made a full e-book reader I’d be very happy indeed. Of course, there may well be an absolutely blindingly-good bit of software out there that was made by someone who cares about simply reading but I don’t know of it — I assume someone will write one eventually. For iPad/iPhone please. If you know of one, please do let me know.

If you have an opinion on iPad/iPhone/Apple please don’t let me know it, I’ve heard enough about it to last a lifetime already. Sorry, and thanks.

The Concrete Quarterly

It’s been around for millennia, but concrete is a building material that pretty much defines the architecture of the modern era. The reconstruction efforts after the second world war really got the world interested in concrete in a big way — it allowed for rapid, economical construction of vast numbers of apartments, factories, malls, roads and more, and made tall buildings commonplace.

Of course, while not exactly a new building material, the uses we put it to often were. We know all too well the grey, crumbling monoliths, the remains of ill-conceived and badly built projects blighting our cities and towns, but too rarely do people celebrate the truly wonderful concrete buildings we have — from cathedrals to offices, shops and homes to soaring bridges, roads and basic utilitarian buildings, it’s an incredibly flexible and often beautiful building material. This is, I guess, what the Concrete Quarterly was designed to highlight. I’ve only read some of the earlier editions, but right from the first issue it talks of the diversity of uses of concrete; bridges, home developments and motorways all built with the stuff. Perhaps this variety is what’s influenced the design of the magazine over the years. Not until the 60s does it gain any kind of design consistency — in the 50s barely three or four editions are alike. Not that that’s really a bad thing, as some of the early covers are just gorgeous:

Incredibly lovely

I was browsing through wondering if I could spot any familiar projects, and lo, in the Winter 1962 issue there’s a cover article on Coventry Cathedral, one of my favourite buildings, which I’ve written about before here.

I think this was the first year with all four issues alike. That’s Coventry Cathedral on Issue 55.

Even within the same issue the headline styles vary considerably, and sometimes even the body type too. It makes for a slightly odd effect, but on the whole I think it works — it all ends up being rather charming. This one is wonderful on so many levels. Belgian Roads! What a subject!

It’s worth having a look through the archives as there are many beautiful photos in there. I was delighted to see some photos of Liverpool Cathedral, which I visited many years ago and loved right away — I gather it’s not really all that popular locally but I think it’s great. Perhaps I just like anything with lots of stained glass in it.

The Stilfontein Mine (1952), Liverpool Cathedral (1967) and Coventry Cathedral (1962)

One Hundred Dollars

I guess now and again I can promote some of my own work — hey, it’s what keeps me from writing articles for Ministry of Type all the time, and this piece draws together a number of themes I’ve written about before here so it feels pretty relevant. This is an illustration piece I did for Wired Magazine for their US edition’s cover story, The Future of Money. It’s also appeared in the UK and Italian editions and in GQ magazine in Mexico and South Africa, which I’m pretty thrilled about.

The full illustration.

When creating, or even looking at, a banknote design, one of the first things you realise is their inherent and very deliberate imperfections. There’ll be an apparent mis-registration of colour, a strangely ragged line, a discontinuity in a pattern or an odd serif or ligature on a piece of lettering, but it’s exactly how it was designed. Without it, it wouldn’t be right. The design of banknotes represent something I find gloriously poetic — imperfect perfection — if it was perfect by our usual standards, it would be imperfect. Wonderful. So tried to capture some of that in my design, overlaying colours with an offset, adjusting the lettering a little bit to reflect the kind of oddities on real dollar notes and creating the odd layer of extra guilloche-work barely fine enough to see. I’m glad Wired is well printed and that it all came through.

First off, my favourite, guilloches! Guilloches have an irresistable fascination for me, the finely detailed patterning building on top of itself, over and over, to create anything from complex shaded illustrations or subtle fields of colour, and all you need to do is to look a little closer to get drawn in… wonderful. Fractals have a similar kind of appeal, but there’s more of a craft to creating guilloche patterns, some idea of I made this rather than I discovered this. A subtle distinction for some, but it just gives one an edge over the other in my mind.

The lettering was actually the most time consuming part of the piece. The denomination took some time, but the big bit of work was the multi-layered title. The faces of the letters themselves are shaded with two sets of guilloche patterns, and the 3D effect was done mostly by hand — adjusting for optical clarity and to bring in a few of those all-so-important errors. I toyed with the offsetting on the faces (to create the pale outlines and shadowed cuts) especially as the “R” came out a little strange, with that square cut-off on the inner edge of the outline. I left that for a while and when I came back to it I decided I actually liked it, so it stayed.

The cropping out of the guilloche patterns to create the shading took time to set up and then quite a lot of time for the computer to do the necessary intersections. Anyone who was following my Twitter personal account at the time may have noticed a fair bit of bitching about Illustrator’s pathfinder tools, often spitting out “The filter produced no results” after 10 or so minutes of thinking, which generally drives me to use Photoshop’s vector tools for stuff: they have their deficiences, but they do the job without Illustrator’s tedious whining errors. It took 30 minutes of it thinking about it, but it got there in the end. It seemed a bit easier the second time around, when I did the localised title for Wired Italy, though sadly no quicker.

The circular pattern of cubes I did using Google Sketchup, which I’ve been using a fair bit to create another piece (which may be a poster one day), outputting it as an EPS and then going over it in Illustrator changing all the outlines to the right thicknesses and colours, then doing it again for the offset colour overlays. Fun times.

It was great to be able to use many of the ideas I’d explored before and have to make them work together in a full commercial piece. It’s fun when you’re given a brief like this, and pretty exciting seeing your work printed in a magazine.

More, please.

The Elastic Mind

I was browsing through the AIGA Design Archives and was attracted right away to this book cover for Design and the Elastic Mind. Irma Boom designed the cover and the beautiful lettering was done by Daniël Maarleveld, you can see more of his lettering and some background info here (thanks to Sean Kelly for the info). I’ve been experimenting with creating letters from guilloches, so I wanted to look a bit closer at how the designer had done these. It’s pretty interesting, though I’m guessing it’s software filling paths with a basic guilloche than any kind of mathematical derivation of the letters themselves. It’s still very attractive and effective, and I’m wondering what software was used to make it — exploring Excentro I’ve not seen any path-filling options — so I shall ask.

I had a look round for more info on the book, and found that it’s supporting an exhibition of the same name at MOMA. There’s a website devoted to it including this Flash ‘interactive’ thing, which grandly introduces itself thus:

The exhibition highlights designers’ ability to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and history—changes that demand or reflect major adjustments in human behavior—and translate them into objects that people can actually understand and use.

Now, after a while poking around on the site I can say that it’s somewhat lacking in that regard. The typography is unremittingly dreary; a set of very long lists set in microscopic low-contrast text with odd arrows that imply function but give none, bullets all over the place and thoroughly opaque labelling of everything. There’s an animated overlay that briefly shows images from the extended info for each of the list entries (which of course obscures the title and brief intro to it), and traces lines to other things that it’s apparently related to. You can click each of the things and find some actual interesting information in there, and some really nice imagery, but the sense of confusion never really goes away, you’re left with questions — where am I in the site, what is this, what are these connections for and about? If the intention is to show that there’s loads of stuff out there, that it’s hard to read and that finding out about any of it is an onerous task and that following the connections between things is baffling and involves you having to do work to even find out what it is and is connected to, then the site is a blinding success. And what is it with those arrows?

Shame really, because the book cover is quite lovely.

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.