straightening out a wobbly trend: naive it is not

Infusing, not confusing image with type. The slam and mix-master technique….

Art Chantry (

In my classes over the years, I’ve always encourage (insisted, actually) that my students try to learn to combine type with image. to my eye, there is nothing worse or more mind-numbingly lame than the classic “picture and type” layout – where you have a picture and place all the typography below it like a gag panel cartoon. Supposedly, people take classes from people like me to get away from that thinking. So, I’ve always pushed them.

Often the assignments will involve forcing them to attempt to literally infuse the image with the type, slam them together, put them in mix-master. The easiest initial step to combining picture and type is to literally take the letterforms and MAKE it become an image. There is a term for this sort of thing. It’s called “illustrative typography”. There have been some wonderful books written on the subject, my favorite being a tome on it’s history authored by Robert Massin (an early design hero of mine.)

Art Chantry: i think gary panter also was a huge influence on the look (pee wee's playhouse for sure.) periodically over th eyars i'll do a project and hire a child to do the lettering. that's always fun to see. when adults try to do child lettering (aka "faux naive"), it always look sorta abusive somehow to me. like a child molester. creepy. i avoid that (except for child molester clients.)

One of the places where this sort of thinking flourished and prospered was mid-century American trademark design. For the relatively unsophisticated American designer (usually trained in industrial design departments or, if they were lucky, mail order correspondence schools) designing a “trademark’ (a pre-’logo’ terminology), the most direct and descriptive solution as to take the product the company makes (for instance ‘springs’) and literally put that product together to make a little cartoon character (“mr. springy!”)

The old trade magazines and yellow pages and newspaper ads are crammed with this sort of nieve design solutions. Indeed, I think it was how creating ‘graphic design’ trademarks was actually taught for decades. Today, there is a constant stream of charming books being published that put together collections of these upbeat and optimistic logo designs. We use them as swipe files and clip books (because we’re so ‘postmodern’).

record album cover art by Alex Steinweiss, c. 1948 (via The Retro-Spector) click on image...

Another arena of this sort of solution was the early record album cover. when the “album cover” was invented (by the amazing mind of designer Alex Steinweiss) it literally was an album, like a photo album. It had a spine and durable heavy cover flap. once you opened it, there were ‘pages’ that had pockets that held the 78 rpm records. It weighed a ton. When the 33 1/3 rpm LP came into existence, the format morfed into the single sleeve LP cover of today (or, should i say, ‘just yesterday.’)

So, when a designer/artist/whatever was hired to do an record album cover, there were technical restrictions and tight budgets (like always) that had to be acknowledged. Simply using large photographs and big typography was grotesquely expensive compared to using the printing process to create hand-rendered imagery (production art or ‘mechanical art”). By creating the illustration on the printing press using the hand-layered succession of individual colors, you could do it extremely cheaply and not have to foot the expenses of hiring outside skills (like photo processing or ‘lead’ type setting.)

---In 1939, a 23 year-old graphic designer revolutionized the music industry. No longer would records come in plain brown wrappers. As Art Director at Columbia Records, Steinweiss created the ‘album package.’ His idea was to create a visual to complement the musical. It was an

tant success, and spawned an entire new field of illustration and design: Album Cover Art. Steinweiss was the king of the genre; his covers are still regarded as icons.In his four decade career, Steinweiss created album covers for musical luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky and Benny Goodman.---click on image for more

You could slam the thing together quickly, take your money and pick up another project right away, Thus ensuring a steady flow of work. often, record companies hired staffs of these artists to crank work out even cheaper on a salary, thus allowing low prices on their products to sell more. it’s the American way.

One of the very best ways to depict lively upbeat danceable music was to create “dancing type” (a solution i love and still use myself now and then.) Simply take some ‘springy’ letterforms and bounce them around on the baseline and it literally looks like the type is dancing. So simple, so true.

---John Berks "Dizzy" Gillespie - "Dizz Over Paris - Vocals by Joe Carroll" (Roost 10"; cover by Burt Goldblatt) One of the dopest jazz covers ever by the great Burt Goldblatt, who whipped up a stunning combo of graphics (map) and illustration (Dizz) giving you the feeling of transport - long before Photoshop and Illustrator. Sonically snappy, and featuring the fabulous hipster vocals of Joe Carroll!---click on image for more...

The next leap of faith is to make the type look like the “company” (just like those industrial trademark designers did). In this case the ‘company’ is the artist or the musical style involved. thus, the dancing letterforms become ‘cugie’ dancing along with the band. You can’t get the point across much more directly that that, can you?

We don’t think like this much any more. We’re too cynical and too ‘sophisticated’ now. We are more interested in making type “pretty” and then putting a swoosh or a dot in it (like all those stunningly lame pharmaceutical and sports logos). We worry about not creating anything too concrete in concept or it may run the risk of someone actually having an opinion about it. We sort of practice a non-human completely unoffensive of even challenging design style now. It’s almost as if the best logos and designs today are conceptually created to illicit literally NO response form the viewer – a corporate dead spot as “brand.” zero risk = good design! I miss those old dancing “mr. springy” logos a lot.

---Stop Making Sense is a film of three performances by the Talking Heads directed by Jonathan Demme. The film was shot at Pantages Theater in Hollywood. At the time the film was made, the Talking Heads were touring for their album Speaking in Tongues. Check out the titles done by Pablo Ferro,...---Click on image for more...

There is a backlash happening at this very moment. There is an enormous interest in crudely hand drawn type and lettering dropped into otherwise pristine layouts. It seems to me to be the harbinger of a hunger for the human hand to be allowed back into the largely machine generated design of contemporary design culture. This is ‘step one’ in a larger backlash that may take a few years to cycle through our thinking. Or it may die on the vine and produce nothing and go away like a silly fad. I’m waiting to see what happens.

Art Chantry: i also liked burt goldblatt’s work. i wish somebody wold do a book on him. he’s one of my all time favorites….a friend of mine had a regular telephone relationship with him. he was considering doing a nice book on the guy. then goldblatt went and died and spoiled everything!…

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