July 20, 2010 | 2:56 pm
I recently received a copy of a 305-page book that I, with pleasure, spent hours working on while I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology and graduate assistant at the Melbert B. Cary, Jr. Graphic Arts Collection. The book is entitled A Specimen Portfolio of Wood Type in the Cary Collection.
The book showcases over 250 reproductions of original wood type block prints, each displaying a typeface that was created more than 180 years ago for commercial advertising. My job was to digitally reproduce the original wood type block prints and lay out all the pages, with help from a fellow student. Though daunting at times, it gave me the opportunity to study and ultimately fall in love with over 250 wood type specimens.
What strikes me about these letterforms is their unique ability to survive. And by survive, I mean not only did they manage successfully to endure decades of technological developments within the design and printing industries—which potentially could have rendered them utterly useless—but they have managed to become a significant source of inspiration for modern designs. So much so, that many of these typefaces not only exist today, but still contain complete sets of characters with not one letter lost along the way.
In order to remain as intact as they have over the past 180 years, many individuals had to dedicate time and effort to ensure these wood type blocks were kept in use. Knowing now what I do about these letterforms, it is clear to me why so many have chosen to champion them. Every letterform has a striking personality with a unique story. Each one proudly shows its history through the imperfections it has earned overtime, leaving behind an impressive imprint both on the printed page and the minds of many who have been inspired by them.
For me, this book serves as a reminder to stay dedicated to collecting, preserving and passing along designs and related materials that I find inspirational. It also begs the question, “What can we create today that can survive for the next 180 years?”
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July 8, 2010 | 3:22 pm
I was ruminating on a frustration that every designer worth his salt wrestles with from time to time—the need to cram more and more and more stuff into space that just ain’t gettin’ any bigger. While some folks may like the challenge of shoehorning as much "content" into a given field as possible—mortising like Inca stone masons to fill every nook, every cranny, there are those of us for whom the apex of brilliant design was reached when the Beatles emblazoned the cover of their so-called "white album" with… absolutely nothing. This reminded me of the design aesthetic of a record label I got to know as a DJ at the college radio station a very long time ago—Swiss label, I think, called HatHut—that had a beautiful and distinctive, minimalist style.
The music was generally pretty cool, but it’s the album covers (yes, we’re talking LPs here) that have stuck with me. They had a single, consistent visual treatment that was disarmingly simple yet elegant and arresting. As I recall, they featured enigmatic black and white photos cropped in unexpected ways (or sometimes no photo at all), with very, very simple typographic arrangements (Helvetica 55, flush left, one color—a straight orange, pale blue, maybe a grey or reversed out of the photo). There was a clear synergy-cum-corollary with the austerity, angularity, and abstraction of the music inside the package (’80s Euro avant-garde jazz and art music). Swiss modernism pushed to the extreme, these designs could very well have come off as naive or unfinished, but the apparent simplicity instead made them so haunting that I remember them well some 20 years later. The utter absence of anything extraneous made these covers so memorable—and in successful marketing communications too, distilling an idea to its essence can lead to greater clarity and even moving communication. Prudent editing is a crucial aspect of the craft — whether we’re talking layout and design, copywriting, or any of many other disciplines (i.e. music, painting, literature, architecture). To increase the likelihood of a successful exchange of ideas, it behooves one to know when to say when, and it’s our job to know when successful messaging is compromised by "too much stuff."
Anyway, just as the jazz label Blue Note had an iconic look in the ’50s and ’60s that was emblematic of its times, the HatHut remain for me a gorgeous lot fixed in time. Seek them out at your local record store…on vinyl.
p.s. Turns out they’re still around. www.hathut.com.
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