its about ideas: language of graphic design

by Art Chantry:

i found this mag and snagged it immediately. i ASSUMED it was an early warhol magazine cover (done for the infamous “draw binky” ‘Famous Artists Correspondence School” magazine partly owned by norman rockwell, no less!) but, when i got this home, i looked closer and realized it wasn’t warhol at all. it wasn’t david stone martin or ben shahn or paul klee or even ed fotheringham. it was “Logan”. who?

— i’m still curious who logan was. i’m always curious about who did what and why (and how).—AC

i looked all through this issue and could find no mention of this “Logan’ person anywhere. you’d think that a magazine that promoted fame through commercial art would go out of it’s way to hustle their cover artists – especially on a ’10th Anniversary Issue”. but, no. even the little paragraph on the contents page where they reproduce and discuss the cover talks about the ‘concept’ and the anniversary, but fails to mention anything about the artist. even a first name is neglected, so we can’t even tell if it was a man or a woman.

a few essays back, i showed a david stone martin record cover (a billie holiday image i thought was killer), and in the comment thread there erupted a long debate as to who copycatted who. one erstwhile colleague insisted that david stone martin was copycatting ben shahn. he finally noted that DSM actually worked FOR ben shahn as his assistant for a time. at that point, i conceded. my position was that they both worked in a commonplace drawing style of the era and that nobody was really copying anybody. but, that ‘assistant’ connection was just too close for comfort and i admitted defeat.

well, here is another case in point. Logan was very obviously working in a popular style of the moment. there were many many many commercial illustrators doing this blotted line style back in the this era (in this particular example, it’s literally a series of blot dots like a stipple pattern of sorts. there’s no ‘connect the blotted dots” approach here). but, conceptually this particular image is so similar to so many andy warhol magazine cover images of the 50′s that i think it’s fairly safe to say this illustrator was simply imitating a contemporary popular illustrator (long before warhol was the famous pop artist we know today). therefore this image is likely the work of a student in the Famous Artists program – because that’s the way a student thinks – copying ‘good’ equals ‘good’.

of course, there is no guarantee that this isn’t a professional who was just rather imitative. that’s way too common to ever dismiss entirely. a lot of professionals never get past that “copy good = good” thinking. but, warhol was a hot young upstart in the biz during this period and was winning lots of attention and even some awards. andy was obviously copycatting DSM and shahn and even klee in his work (just like a beginner/student does. just like Logan is doing here to andy.)

the way this ‘language of graphic design’ works is just like the way all language works. we all learn new ‘words’ by imitating others who use the new words. (like burroughs’ famous axim, “language is a virus”.) we think it’s expressive and clear and pleasurable to imitate our peers. it’s our monkey brains at work. we don’t learn to walk by inventing walking by ourselves, we see others walk and try to copycat walking. so, when something becomes popular and noticed, the rabble will follow suit and try to ‘be’ it, too. it’s how the human animal works. there is very very little originality anywhere you can see around you.

but, what makes one of the rabble of copycatters stand out? well, it’s ‘smarts’. it’s knowledge. it’s wit and cleverness. the truth is that anybody can draw like this (i can do it easily). hundreds (maybe thousands) of different people did so and this style became a period cliche. it eventually died out almost completely for a few decades. now, when we look back at the style, we think about shahn, warhol, DSM, klee. and that’s about it. that’s because they were the very best of the style. they were intelligent clever smart users of this particular dialect of the graphic language.

today, the grand master of this style is ed fotheringham. i was lucky enough to be there when he learned this style of language. he was already smart as a whip and a highly talented “fine artist” (a totally different dialog than illustration). he was trying to break into illustration in order to make a decent living (or so he assumed). the client was into the DSM jazz covers and showed them to us. when ed saw the DSM covers, he said simply, “i can do that!”. however, he was hustling us and he came back the next day with maybe thirty drawings done in a woodcut style (completely different). the client said, “no, we want this” and showed him early andy warhol illustrations. then we hooked him up with nathan gluck who was warhol’s in-house designer during andy’s commercial art period and natha

lked through the process that andy used.

armed with this inspiration, ed went home and spent yet another full night (he had been up for a few days straight by this point) and came back the next morning with about 30 MORE images – all of them done PERFECTLY in this blotted line style. it was magnificent work and the final product was the mudhoney “piece of cake” album cover campaign.

after that moment, ed went on a roll and became a hugely successful illustrator working in this blotted line style – to the point of even being hired to do all of the ad illos for nieman marcus for a couple of years. immediately, the copycat syndrome began and dozens, maybe scores of young struggling illustrators and students began to copy the style he had re-introduced into the graphic dialog and conversation. they even began to bite into what had been HIS exclusive market in that style.

but, that was all a long time ago, now. the mini-fad of the blotted line style came and went. all of the copycats moved on to some other, newer, hipper style. but, ed stuck with his blotted line and stayed successful, even long after the actual style had become passe. so, how was he able to outlive and “out success” his competition?

the answer is simple: he was ed. if you’ve ever met the guy, you’d see his secret weapon immediately. the guy is one of the fastest wits i’ve ever met. he is smart and extremely clever and even brilliant in his ability to take a bad idea from a client and turn it into something brilliant and funny. he has the ability to make art directors and clients look like geniuses for having hired him. he almost has no peers. he certainly was 1000% better than the competition that he accidentally trained. frankly, he would have been successful no matter what ‘style’ he adopted to work in.

the bottom line here is that you can copy style, but you can’t copy thinking. ideas have always been where it’s at in this field. it’s not about fad, fashion, style or “look.” it’s about ideas. there isn’t an “idea” button on your computer (yet).

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