Paperhouse reads: Penguin By Design

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The loyalty and affection that Penguin have built up derives as much from their covers as the contents of the books. The consistency and appeal of their designs makes Penguins feel familiar – so one of the biggest surprises is how much Penguin’s design rules have changed and expanded on the iconic three-striped Penguin grid, while somehow always hanging on to an essential Penguin-ness by retaining some element or other. Even on a full-bleed illustration with a completely distinct style of lettering can discretely flash its heritage in the orange oval of the logo.

I’ve spent a lot of time dipping into my parents’ library of Penguins and building up my own, so I recognised most of the series and styles represented in this 70th-anniversary retrospective. But there was one part of the Penguin catalogue that surprised me: the Specials. These short books on social and political issues seem to be a version of the 18th and 19th century pamphlet (a relationship emphasised by “a layout which has much in common with Victorian handbills): topical, provocative, portable. In the text, Phil Baines describes the Specials as “Fulfilling a purpose not unlike the investigative journalism and current affairs television programmes of today”.

They were launched in 1937, and the first spread of Specials covers shows public debate agonising over German expansion, genocides and life at war. Clockwise from left: Ourselves And Germany (“Should Britain regard Germany as her potential enemy or seek her friendship? Lord Londonderry thinks we should adopt a policy of friendship with Hitler…”), The Jewish Problem, One Man Against Europe:

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The next selection from the series shows the politicised output of the sixties, and there’s a feeling of furious urgency about both the topics and the blazing tomato-red of the covers. The titles often convey the now-ness of the issue: Has Man A Future?, Persecution 1961. The subjects are direct entries into ongoing public conversations: the risks of smoking, potential miscarriages of justice. These are titles that demand to be read and responded to immediately:

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The last spread shows the tail-end of the series. In terms of design, this spread is pretty depressing. An inconsistent selection suggests a series that had lost a sense of its own importance and place:

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But even more depressing is that the subjects on display here all feel wearily familiar. Abuses of medicine; fucking up with public money; Debt And Danger: The World Financial Crisis. In between the end of the Penguin Specials series in the mid-1980s and now, these issues have gone churning on, apparently untouched by debate. Partly, I suspect that this is because investigative reporting and current affairs television have been dying out since the end of the Specials – they didn’t replace the pamphlet form, they were just slower to choke, so that now there are serious suggestions of a voucher system to subsidise the democratic necessity of journalism.

Maybe, though, with papers struggling to escape from the cycle of churnalism described by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, now would be a good time to revive the Special. There’s maybe a bigger constituency of people for this sort of stuff than bookselling and the press at large would suggest, and there’s definitely a good argument for offering coherent long-form essays as well as the ongoing debate of blogging. I don’t know the economics of bookselling, but maybe with digital downloads, reviving the pamphlet could help to revive investigative journalism.

Paperhouse at the picturehouse: Helvetica

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Designer Erik Spiekermann is expressive in his indifference to the Helvetica typeface when interviewed for Gary Hustwit’s documentary: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.” But even he acknowledges that the font represents the ultimate refinement in sans-serif clarity. In the extras, spitting out contempt for Microsoft’s Arial, Spiekermann says that the MS font is an imitation of Helvetica – and because Helvetica is “perfect”, Arial was designed by making arbitrary changes to the Helvetica template. “So of course, it’s even worse”, fumes Spiekermann. (See this link for more prime Arial disgust.)

For modernist designers of the fifties and sixties, Helvetica’s sleekness and balance made it perfect for the clean and orderly vision they were pursuing. In the documentary, Massimo Vignelli and Mike Parker speak with genuine passion about this supposedly anonymous typeface, and it’s power to sweep away the whimsy and clutter of postwar design. Within two decades, though, a Helvetica hegemony had risen up, and it’s easy to sympathise with the frustrations of the typographers interviewed here who are bored by the the font. Seventies radical Paula Scher voices the fiercest criticism, identifying the font with globalisation, capitalism and Reagan-voters. So there’s a quiet and beautiful contrast between these intense reactions and the concentrated craftsmanship of the opening, which shows a typesetter at his exacting work.

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The font was designed, and named, by the Haas foundry specifically to serve the international market. And even though it became the native tongue of desktop publishing and municipal signage, its development was a reassuringly manual process of drafting, adjusting, weighting and perfecting until an exactly satisfying alphabet was achieved. When the font’s characteristics are explained – the perpendicular stroke-endings, the careful narrowing of a curve beside an upstroke – it’s easier to understand what makes Helvetica itself, even if it doesn’t explain why it feels so good to look at.

In the documentary, Lars Müller denies that ubiquitous Helvetica is the typographic maniestation of capitalism and calls it instead the typeface of socialism – because it’s accessible to everyone. (If I ever publish anything, I’ll get it set in Helvetica and have “Typeset in the font of socialism” printed in the front matter.) And then, more lyrically, he describes it as “the perfume of the city. It is just something we don’t notice usually but we would miss very much if it wouldn’t be there.” Hustwit’s documentary encourages you to look at something that’s everywhere and consider its history, its function and its meaning: not just Helvetica, but graphic design of all kinds.

The suggestion at the end of the film is that design has become democratised, more or less. Software makes the skills of graphic design available to anyone who can stump up for an Adobe suite, and the importance of online identities means that people are increasingly taking to design in the way that an earlier generation took to DIY to define themselves. (The designers are delicate enough not to mention self-expression through flashing gifs.) Screen-friendly, powerfully elegant on its own and unobtrusive when combined with other elements, Helvetica is ideal for the amateur. In the documentary, Rick Poyner says, “The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads.” And maybe the future of desktop designers is one where more people will think critically about what design is persuading them of; probably, it will be a future with even more Helvetica in it.

Paperhouse reads: The Language Of Things

The Language Of Things

Earlier this week, I wrote about Karen magazine and Karen’s question, “Why do people buy unnecessary things?” Deyan Sudjic’s book, The Language Of Things, has a pretty good answer:

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or not much of it. […] Usefulness is inversely proportional to status. The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be. High-status utility is confined to such baroque elaborations of conspicuously redundant utility capacity as the wristwatch supposedly designed for use by divers […] or the grossly overspecified SUV.

The Language Of Things, pp. 167-8

This description is shamingly acute. My favourite handbag is a wee pretty one that only holds a key and a lipstick, and has to be constantly clutched by the tiny handle. My best watch doesn’t have any numbers on its miniature face. I have a terrible addiction to copies of McSweeney’s which spread out in unwieldy directions, spill mini-mags everywhere, and are actually pretty hard to read. Luckily, Sudjic is just as susceptible to the wiles of objects, and tells a reassuring story of his seduction by a MacBook near the start of The Language Of Things. Playfulness and ingenuity in objects aren’t universally bad – my handbag, my watch and my McSweeney’s are all witty and lovely things. But it’s curious that I’m not equally impressed by sturdy and capacious bags, watches with digits or the basic marvel of the paperback.

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Design – the polish that convinces you to buy one thing rather than another, the copyright-protected detail that identifies a desirable brand – is critical to consumer culture. But good design – the “brilliant synthesis of structure and mechanism” which Sudjic identifies in the anglepoise lamp and the French wine bottle – is less so. A well-designed product will last, will replace similar products, and exempt the purchaser from being a consumer for the life of the object.

And it’s the useless that gets treasured. The examples of design which make it into the Museum Of Modern Art in New York are divorced from the context of their function: “whether consciously or not”, says Sudjic, “[MOMA] is doing its best to suggest that design is just as useless as art, and therefore almost as valuable.” In the end, Sudjic argues that the artistic aspirations of designers is changing the ideology of design, and will “fuel what may be a short lived explosion of flamboyant new work.” It’s clear that he doesn’t think this will be especially good for design or for consumers.