April 30th, 2013
Not so many designers draw now. The benefits of drawing as a language, a process, a means of working through problems are widely overlooked. The idea that drawing is for making pictures inhibits creativity.
From primary school on, drawing is seen as something you either can or cannot do and is permanently welded to a sterile idea of ‘picture-making’. Observational, note-taking and thought-processing drawing has no place and the innate perception and creativity common to most young children (I have seen primary school sketchbooks to shame some illustration degree students) is rarely understood / encouraged. Where creativity survives education, degree teaching’s first task is to remove a decade and a half’s conditioning. Inhibition sees students of design timidly sketching an idea in 4H pencil, more concerned with what onlookers might think than than generating more ideas.
March 13th, 2013
For the first time this century I got to spend a few days in Rome. In the throes of elections for Mayor, Regional Head, Premier and Pope, the city seemed more than usually disconnected—but the timelessly great stuff is still very visible and a tangible sense of community endures. Still seemingly on the edge of collapse, little has changed. Slow it goes.
Corruption and chaos condemns Rome to minimal progress and drives its children abroad to find work—but also stops the past being swept away by development and keeps the eternal city gloriously Starbucks-free. In the birthplace of the slow food movement the speed of change is close to zero. The only visible concession to this century, Zaha Hadid’s glorious MAXXI building is discretely tucked away well out of the centre and down a side street as if Rome is a little embarrassed by it. I made a third attempted pilgrimage to Trajan’s Column, ground zero for the western typographic tradition—on two previous occasions cloaked in restoration scaffolding, this time clean and clear but resolutely not open to the public despite facilities and signs insisting on the contrary. As ever, Rome is as frustrating as it is fabulous. I took snaps:
Sant Eustachio: literally the best coffee in Rome and almost certainly anywhere else. Unchanged since the 1930s.
February 14th, 2013
Most of us walk around with eyes closed. A slight exaggeration, but almost true. The inside of our heads is built to ignore the familiar. Observation is a key component of creativity—yet it can take the worst of shocks to fully switch it on.
Living largely via pixel & glass and distracted by everyday concerns we neglect the actual world as a source of inspiration. For those of us without the time / inclination for a Buddhist attention to the now, it can take awareness of imminent death to force a clear-sighted perspective.
As a music enthusiast I was upset to hear of Wilko Johnson’s recent cancer diagnosis. His old band Dr Feelgood
were a timeless one-off. I saw him play late last year—he and master bassist Norman Watt-Roy two fiercely animated Dickens characters. Wilko’s career was resurgent, boosted by Julien Temple’s terrific 2010 documentary Oil City Confidential (highly recommended BTW, even if you hate the music). He’ll be fortunate to see this year out, but in a recent interview spoke of feeling “alive and …existing in the moment”, his appetite for music (and astronomy) in no way diminished. This reminded me of legendary TV writer Dennis Potter, whose original and innovative 1978 TV drama series Pennies from Heaven made powerful use of music—still possibly my favourite piece of TV (The Wire / The Sopranos / Breaking Bad / Treme etc. notwithstanding). In a famous last interview (he died in 1994) Potter spoke of an ecstatic appreciation of nature: “…the blooms were the bloomingest blooms ever…”.
January 11th, 2013
Recently saved from clearout: a battered & desiccated copy of my dad’s 1938 ‘Hot Discography’ (second edition). Cover missing, most pages loose (some marked with comp. slips), much of it almost dust. A Jazz-nerd and typophile treat, an encyclopædic list of recordings available at the time. The legends are all there, as are less familiar dance-oriented acts whose names alone are a joy: Barney Bigard & his Jazzopaters; Cootie Williams & his Rug Cutters. I know nothing of Bubber Miley’s Mileage Makers but they must have done some serious touring. Who would not like to meet Sharkey Bonano, Cow Cow Davenport or Putney Dandridge (with or without his Orchestra)? I fear the worst for Charlie Spond whose defiantly downbeat name (his own surely) seems now lost to history. Below are some of the spreads, snapped in haste before they deteriorate further (apologies for quality / size):
December 31st, 2012
The world’s least favourite logo—but for how long?
Was 2012 the year that brand design failed? Certainly the general public and a large number of designers did a heck of a lot of complaining as a long list of high-profile new / reworked logos appeared to increasing derision — so much so that you have to wonder: is a logo launch free of moan-brand misery even possible in 2013?
One by one, ever more brands joined 2012’s year-long turkey shoot culminating in October with the University of California: a logical, reasonably well-executed new device incorporating references to the 150 year-old seal it replaced (see below, or here). Yet it inspired new heights of hostility, finally being withdrawn after widespread media taunting and a 50,000-person petition. Not a work of staggering genius perhaps (the applications did seem a bit dull) but deserving of that much crazed torch-bearing lynch-mobbery?
December 12th, 2012
Monotoype UK recently staged Pencil to Pixel: a small-but-perfectly-formed exhibition about the development of typeface production—well worth the minor trek to its slightly off-grid Wapping location.
The decades of change between hot metal and digital production could easily make you overlook the extent of labour and craft that is still involved in bringing type to use. Type may be surface design but it has more in common with furniture or other product design in its mix of essential functional and aesthetic requirements than with most of the graphic design it serves. The sheer beauty of the pencil-drawn curves of pre-digital type masters is something I had seen before but almost forgotten. In the exhibition the evidence of mid-20th century type impressed most, the physically less present display of digital era work on show suffering by comparison: pencils 1, pixels 0. Anyhoo—all of it is better seen than waffled on about. Below are some snaps of things that caught my eye:
December 4th, 2012
Don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang… © Alembic
Most designers enjoy music for mood-management or constructive distraction and many also grapple with an instrument in their spare time. Finding significance in detail is another inextricable part of design activity—A History of the World in 100 Objects and the Boring Conference attest to the the wider appeal looking for big stuff in minutiæ.
I enjoyed Boring 2011 hugely but could not attend this time—so an invitation to contribute to Keechdesign / Yamaha Design Studio’s Something Like A Musical Instrument event was timely consolation. For it, contributors were asked to speak for a minute or two on an object with some connection to music. Talks ranged from a concise presentation of the flosspick as “the world’s smallest stringed instrument” to a demonstration of trombone mute development by David Keech (not only a fine designer but an actual proper musician as well). A fuller selection of contributions can be found on Johnson Banks’ ‘Thought For the Week’ blog. My effort was something like the following:
September 24th, 2012
Liberty Regent Street: above a formal frieze, three stone figures apparently chat and watch the shoppers far below
Big city retail causes curious human behavior. Tourist & architects excepted, no-one inclines their gaze more than a degree or two above the horizontal, as if the world ceases to exist above four metres. Below that height, pushy product displays and shouty fascias browbeat the passer-by. But beyond this retail flat earth lies another dimension of visual enjoyment, as anyone who has noticed what’s going on at the very top of Liberty’s Regent Street façade will confirm.
One of the pleasures of London used to be driving around it (back when ‘driving in London’ was still a thing), low winter sun unexpectedly spotlighting a great building / detail. You can of course still discover gems of unsuspected above-the-line architecture on foot. Incomplete or invisible at ground level, how great must these buildings have looked when they were whole, before they were sawn off at the knees by the local Vodafone / Costa / M&S?
August 31st, 2012
The 1950s new town dream: envisioned, achieved, forgotten.
“Everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance” (Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus).
Some of us avoid ruining clothes by checking washing instructions. Fogeys young and old appreciate looking after a good pair of shoes. Some humans may have read a few pages of the user manual that came with their car / TV / computer. But most of us pay scant attention to looking after stuff. Our high expectations and short attention spans have made ‘care’ a tiresome inconvenience.
Architects, designers and other creators are blamed when their enduring work ‘fails’ in the long run. Poorly maintained 70s buildings routinely get torn down where a little care might have preserved the optimistic social statements they once made. The City of London’s Barbican Estate is a rare exception to the rule.