Fonts of knowledge

A rock star of graphic design and a veteran typographer were in town last week for a conference. They talk to us about the need for a personal touch and a recognition of history in the fast-changing, technology-driven scene.

The human element

By Samila Wenin

Be it "rock star" or "maverick", these words _ once deemed a part of someone's reputation _ inevitably evoke an intimidating feeling. Even more so when the first thing you notice behind your interview subject, the very rock star of the graphic design world, is luggage _ an implication that the man is ready to leave to catch a flight soon after he's done talking to you. That's not a very welcoming sight for a journalist.

Fortunately, Stefan Sagmeister's reputation in the graphic design world has likely been deduced from his style and approach to design: bold, and wittily sensational, as well as some of his provocative manners of communication, the most legendary being sending out a picture of himself naked except for socks and a black redaction bar to introduce his business 19 years ago. His commitment and work philosophy, by contrast, is nothing but resolute. Although he had just arrived the night before the interview, which preceded his talk session during Granshan 2013 _ a conference and festival of non-Latin typefaces held in Bangkok last week _ Sagmeister answered each and every question with thought-provoking insight and such clarity that there was very little left to inquire about, even when none of the journalists got to ask all of their prepared questions.

Stefan Sagmeister: ‘All of our brains are incredibly good in thinking in repetition. But the brain has difficulty coming up with new ideas.’

"Oh, what is good design, basically? I think good design is anything that helps people and that delights people, one or the other and hopefully both," said the designer, after intentionally rephrasing a journalist's cliche{aac}d question of what he considers to be a masterpiece. "If it's a piece of communication design and it does that successfully, it should be for a product or service that is worthwhile. Because if you do a good piece of communication for a bad product, it's going to make that product fail faster as many people will know faster how bad that product is.

"I don't believe good advertising for a bad product will make it successful, it doesn't work that way."

Irrelevant as his remarks may seem from a business perspective _ it's not likely a design firm is entitled to be picky about who it serves _ Sagmeister insists this belief in their clients' products and services is pivotal to the ''authenticity'' of a piece of visual communication, giving it a cut of credibility and genuine intent above mediocre designs created without the designer liking the product.

His design studio Sagmeister Inc was renamed Sagmeister & Walsh last year and has remained small even after two decades of fame with an enviable list of clients. These include the AIGA (the American professional organisation for design, formerly known as American Institute of Graphic Arts), Capitol Records, Dai Nippon Printing and the Guggenheim Museum. The studio also has a plethora of accolades from almost all international design awards and two Grammys for the designs for Talking Heads and, later, David Byrne and Brian Eno.

''Most of the works I see around the world that I really enjoy and love come from small studios. The most successful brands in the world, let's say, Coca-Cola, Apple, IBM, Google, Nike, let's take those five, all of them, their logo has been designed by one single person, not by an ad agency, not by a big conglomerate, but by the same old people, and there's a reason for that. That's because a small group of the same old people can create much more focused work.''

Sagmeister explained that good design work isn't solely a result of the design team. Instead, it's a collaboration where the client's understanding and input is equally significant. As a small studio with a certain reputation, clients usually seek out Sagmeister for what he's been doing or because he's known to be the best. Thanks to this, the chances that clients will share a similar vision are greater.

''In my entire career, I only resigned [from] two clients. Meaning only twice did I decide it's better not to continue.''

Sagmeister's provocative designs, which often feel simple yet incredibly fresh _ an example being the dynamic, faceted and endlessly variable logo for Casa de Musica in Portugal _ is a result of his work principle: he goes on a year-long sabbatical once every seven years to give himself time to do what he wants and clear his head.

Though insisting that his design process changes depending on the nature of the commissioned work, he regularly relies on one particular approach to ensure the end result will be fresh _ to start working from another idea that has absolutely nothing to do with what he's working on.

''So let's say I have to design a pen and normally I would start with looking at another pen, looking at all areas of the pen and ask people what they like about the pen what they don't like about the pen. And it's very likely I would design a pen very similar to the existing pen. Now, another way to look at the pen is to think about it from a toothpick's point of view, for example.

''All of our brains are incredibly good in thinking in repetition. But the brain has difficulty coming up with new ideas. To think about a pen from a toothpick's point of view is to ask the brain to start something different.'' Of course such a striking approach itself involves a great deal of individuality and subjectivity, specifically the way a designer perceives and reacts to a certain object from which he draws ideas and inspirations. Through such a complex design process _ from the designer's reaction to the assigned object for which he is to create an identity to his interaction with some other objects from which he acquires ideas _ Sagmeister comes out with a uniquely human touch that endears his result to both clients and viewers. It is this human touch that he champions as the saviour of design in an age when it is believed, perhaps falsely, that anyone can do anything with the advancement of computer technology.

''Technology is by far the biggest change in design,'' he reflects.

''Basically, every change is design is technology-driven. So, you could not exclude technology because from the 1990s until now every big change in design has come from technology. But the impact of it extends much deeper than technology, it's conceptual.

''Obviously it has impact on our design but at the same time, I also believe in the incredible power of the human element in design, like it can be as silly as just on the surface, meaning that it's clear to the viewers that this has been made by a human person.

''So much of what graphic design studios in the world do is done by default, which looks like it's made by a machine. Therefore, they miss a chance of communication because things that are made by a machine are so much easier to ignore than things created by human beings.

''But it also goes as far as the concept or content being deeply human by being of a human concern, or a clear communication from one human being to another human being.''


Style by the letter

By Parisa Pichitmarn

Poet, linguist and one of the world's best-known typographers, Robert Bringhurst associates fonts with history, and the "little squiggles" with the rich trove of the past. Bringhurst, 67, has published 20 poetry books and wrote the much-respected The Elements Of Typographic Style. He was in town this past week as one of the speakers at the Granshan Conference, and in an exclusive interview he shares with us the wonders of typography which has intrigued him for most of his life.

Robert Bringhurst: ‘Scripts can have a rich heritage because it keeps collecting things and it also loses some of what it collects.

"If you learned to look carefully, you would see that the letters from different alphabets have connections to each other," says Bringhurst.

"Scripts can have a rich heritage because it keeps collecting things and it also loses some of what it collects. Yet, it never completely loses so it always has a flavour of things it has touched in the past.

That's what makes it interesting _ these tiny marks are tiny works of art that are related through history and geography to the notes of Mozart and brush strokes of Rembrandt."

Bringhurst first became involved with typography as a young man who started a company to publish poetry with a group of friends. Having trained in architecture, he was assigned as book designer by default, despite knowing nothing about them.

"I have been reading books all my life but never paid any attention to them so I went to the library to read up on design. It was then that I fell in love with typography because the world of literature and visual art was connected by all these little squiggles," he said.

Some non-Latin scripts that the poet has worked with include Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and even Chinese, which is not necessarily the "hardest" script in existence.

"Although it's the hardest still in use today, it just needs more work and there is more to learn. It's not hard if you find the stairway, but some stairways are longer than others," he said.

In truth, writing from old Mayan, Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations are actually more complicated. "They basically used pictures for writing so writing is very slow."

The expert is not familiar with the Thai script, but he comments how the Thai script carries with it a rich heritage, just like Greek or Arabic scripts do.

"Having a rich heritage means you've had writing for a long time and used it for a long time and it's a chance to build something up," explains Bringhurst.

Native American Indians, on the other hand, may have a long literary tradition, but it was all oral and nothing was written down.

''Writing is just something that has parachuted into their recent past, but in the case of Thailand, you have the Chinese, Indians, Lao, Burmese, Cambodians, Europeans and even Sanskrit bringing all sorts of features to your script,'' he said.

''Young designers probably don't know much about the history, but it is there and it's important that professors lead them towards that direction. They [designers] need to have enough confidence in their own tradition and respect for their country to think it is worthwhile.''

For a man who claims to have grown up in a ''bleak and barren'' place in North America, the linguist says the world of languages opened up new horizons for him. ''It is so bleak because it is colonised by people who left Europe with nothing and came to a country they knew nothing about.''

Almost glumly, he adds: ''They built bleak towns and defaced the landscape to grow crops that wouldn't even grow. Growing up in that country was like growing up in a war zone. It wasn't between two groups of humans, but humans and the world they lived in: they were at war because they hadn't learned how to live. I needed something more than that.''

At a time when most people in most countries can write, it can be easy for us to dismiss writing as utilitarian. But Bringhurst is adamant that there is always something there to see.

''We don't usually pay attention to them at all because they're so small, but letter forms give you a way of telling you where they came from, just like how a piece of cheese can tell you where it came from by its flavour.''

Letter forms, just like culture, music and everything in between, change over time and alternate between simplicity and complexity. However, the most misunderstood concept people usually have is ''more is more'' or ''simplicity is good'' which Bringhurst disagrees with. ''Simplicity is not necessarily good or bad.''

There is a need for both, and just like the phases we go through in life, sometimes there is a need for the more elaborate, sometimes the simple will do.

Typography today may be pulling towards the same direction: simplifying and homogenising everything, but don't blame that on computers. Bringhurst says: ''It's not the computer's fault, it's humans not really knowing what they want and just going with the trend.''

We may not notice it because it is what we are immersed in every day, but computers have made typography available to everybody and almost force everyone to become a typographer to some extent.

Writing may reach wider than ever today, but to Bringhurst, poetry is still something he finds universal and can be taken anywhere _ into prison, the library, a forest, or even a spaceship. However, typography only exists where it should and according to Bringhurst, if there is no one to do it for or with, it makes no sense. ''Poetry goes everywhere because the voice can go anywhere, just like singing, but writing doesn't. Humans have always had language but they haven't always had writing. Writing isn't everywhere yet, and it's almost like a speciality, or even luxury.''

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About the author

Writer: Story by Samila Wenin and Parisa Pichitmarn