There are books on design, and then there are books on design. Some books on design simply showcase design work. They are compilations of the glitziest and best in the field, be it industrial design, typography, or illustration. Editors have worked to collect and collate the best work. Most designers tend to gravitate towards these books, especially in their design education. They seem to be the benchmark to aspire to. But in reality, these books teach little. They do affect style a lot, which may not always be desirable. This invariably creates a whole bunch of us who sub-consciously or consciously creating work that looks like the showcased work. Because like it or not, the human mind is like a sponge. Our eyes feed on things that get transmitted and processed in our hard drives (brains), and affect the kind of images and designs we later create. Meditating on the Logo Lounge book while doing a logo design job is not a great idea. Somewhere, even if we fight it, we get affected by the forms we have seen, and they tend to creep into our work. The downside is, it doesn't help original thought. Most of these showcase kind of books are nice to browse through at times. But they don't provide many insights, and they don't really teach anything of real value, about design.
The kind of books that make a huge impact are of a different pedigree altogether. They don't just show work, they challenge the way we work, and create new ways for us to think. One is, A Smile In The Mind by Beryl McAlhone, a must-read for any graphic designer. This is an excellent book to help one understand how to create images (images=any kind of visual communication). It explains the different kinds of images, visual puns, visual metaphors and so on. By studying the book one can analyse and understand images around us better. It helps to create images, and develop different kinds of thinking to create images. The book explains creativity, humour and visual wit, and their roles in design.
Another great book is Visible Signs by David Crow. As consumers of visual art, people have become advanced readers of signs and signals. We decode meaning from images on many different layers. It is important for designers to have an understanding of how meaning is formed, and how it changes perceptions. Our desires, and our sense of our own identities are moulded and manipulated by signs and images around us. Communication has hierarchies that are deeply embedded in our societies. This also holds true for visual communication, different media carry different messages for us regardless of the content of the message. Visual language spans the full range of cultural and economic activity. Visible Signs makes us aware of implicit communication everywhere.
Designing Design by Kenya Hara does showcase his design work, but in a much deeper way. Unlike most books which just show a final outcome, he shows and explains the entire process behind each piece of work. Not only is his design work phenomenal, but his writing is interesting and lucid. He gives many insights into Japanese culture, which is strongly reflected in his work. Change By Design by Tim Brown (a founder of IDEO) talks about the design work IDEO has done through the years. It has few images, but many lessons and insights. It is a great book on design thinking, and shows the power of design in systems.
Designers rarely talk about the business aspect of their profession. Shel Kerby's Talent Is Not Enough is an eye-opening book. It has got everything a designer would need to know about actually running a design business, charging clients, making proposals and so on. Few of these things get taught in design school, so this book is an essential read. John Heskett's A Short Introduction to Design is a good read about what design encompasses. The Vignelli Canon by Massimo Vignelli is a superb summation of the process of designing.
For graphic designers, especially publication designers, the big daddy of them all is The Grid System by Joseph Muller Brockmann. This book was published sometime in the late 1960s, but it is still a Bible for graphic designers today. The principles of good design don't change easily, and this book has been written by one of the masters. This gentleman practically invented the grid system. He then also articulated it and made it easy for mere mortals like us to understand. These same principles are differently applied on the web, iPad, and any device today. This book explains the skeleton of good design. You never see it, but without it everything collapses. The grid is so important because it creates the system. The system creates hierarchy and consistency. These two together gives the reader essential cues. The cues help the reader read.
One kind of book is the icing, while the other is the recipe for the cake. Many books strongly influence style, without really educating. Few books actually make designers. If design is problem-solving, these solid books are educators in their own way.
Have seen some good, and some strange movies lately. A most unusual movie is The Symbol (Shinboru). This movie has very little dialogue. But it just proves that non-verbal communication is as powerful as any other. Written, directed, and starring Hitoshi Matsumoto, it starts with a man alone in a large white room. You don't know what the hell is going on, but it all comes together in the end. And what an ending it is. It is as if you have been let it on a bigger secret, which nobody knows of yet. In short, an extremely creative and dont-give-a-dam director has been able to pull this off with aplomb.
The Great Debaters, is based on a true story, and explores the struggle of black people in 1930s America. An idealistic college professor at Wiley College, inspires and trains four young black students to debate against white students, in colleges across the United States. On a deeper level, it is about their search for identity, their fight for equality, and their need to be heard. The movie is a little predictable, and not as inspiring as it could be, but still, worth a watch. It is filled with interesting quotes from literature, and allusions to Gandhi.
True Grit is by one of my favourite movie-makers, the Coen Brothers. Based on a book, it's a touching story of a young girl's search for her father's murderer. She teams up with a US Marshall, and the movie is about their adventures together. Set in old-time America, it is slow in parts, but definitely worth a watch. Yet, it is not as brilliant as the Coen Brothers' other films. A Serious Man is a brilliant one, a combination of wit, sarcasm, and just plain randomness. Centered around an American suburban character, set in the late 1960s, it involves his wife, kids, neighbours, colleagues, and his thoughts and reactions to all of these. Only Coen Brothers can take the most everyday things, and make them so interesting. Who needs fiction, when life itself is so rich in beauty?
The Coen Brothers' crowning masterpiece has to be No Country For Old Men. It's a hair-raising, excruciatingly suspenseful film. A hitman is on the lose in Texas, and the murders get increasingly cold-blooded, random and bold. It's not the actual killing that kills you, but the danger and suspense. Without too much of a show of blood or gore, the audience experiences the very real terror that a serial killer inspires. You can feel the cold hand of the murderer somewhere around you, while he silently and menacingly swings his axe. You can never actually be rid of his clammy and frightening face, with its deadpan eyes. The movie has a strange ending, but it's probably the most appropriate one.
With A Serious Man, you are going to get some laughs. With No Country For Old Men, you are going to be looking over your shoulder for a couple of days, or weeks, depending on how jittery you are. The Coen Brothers are masters of making you feel things that you can't really express later. Their movies defy description. If anyone can express movies in just words, why go through the effort of making the movie? Some may find them a tad violent, but Coen Brothers tells it like it is. As an old man says in the film, "You can't stop whats coming."
Thats it for the movie updates.
The free types
It's a strange phenomena, but most people, including a lot of graphic designers think fonts are free as the air we breathe (which, I have no doubt, will cost us one day). But typefaces/fonts are not. A huge amount of effort goes into creating a single typeface. And that is just one basic version of it. More effort goes into creating different weights of the entire family. Yet, fonts are the most plagiarized of all resources, more than even the Internet or Wikipedia. I used some 'illegal' (not purchased) fonts too, as a student. In the Indian context, a lot of people think buying fonts is just a waste of money, not realising the importance of buying fonts for commercial and published work. Some fonts are expensive and may eat away a good chunk of their design budget. People's reactions range from:
Fonts aren't free? What the hell!
Why bother, lets just use a pirated version.
Why are we thinking of these fonts? Lets just download from dafont.com
Can't we use this font and just change it a bit?
Ok, lets use only those pre-loaded on the machine, at least that way we can save money and still be legal.
Can they sue us?
Lets buy some fonts. It's a good investment.
Sadly a very slim percentage of the population will say that last line. People need to be informed and educated about the importance and value of fonts. A lot of people ask the second last line. It's only the fear of punishment that makes people want to do the right thing.
Why should we buy fonts?
1) They are good investments. When you buy a good workhorse font, from a type foundry, it goes a long way. You get a whole font family, that could be anything from two to forty weights. Just that one font family alone can be used in innumerable ways, in countless projects, over the years. Take into account the fact that most good fonts have been around for decades (Helvetica) or centuries (Caslon, Didot, Bodoni). One solid font family purchased today can probably be used most of your lifetime.
2) It's the right thing to do. There is no other way to explain this.
3) Respect the creator. When you buy fonts, you are respecting, acknowledging and encouraging the designer somewhere, to create more. If everyone stopped buying fonts and used pirated versions, font designers would have to give up their careers. And then we would all be stuck using Helvetica forever.
4) There are fonts, and then there are fonts. Sites like dafont.com have their time and place, I believe. It's passable to use those fonts in student projects, your brother's class poster or a card for your girlfriend. In short, they are mostly (not always) amateur. It's not a great idea to use them on a client brochure, or a magazine, or for any professional/commerical work. Many times these fonts won't be kerned right, or won't have all the necessary glyphs. A lot of fonts on such sites are tweaked, squeezed and squashed versions of real, solid fonts.
5) The great are invisible. The really good fonts work invisibly and silently. They won't be shouting for you to see them. In fact, you may not notice them. They are designed to aid reading, not draw attention to themselves. So if you want people to actually read your text, and not just admire it, these are the fonts to go for. That is why big news agencies or newspapers commission their own fonts which are highly readable. Fonts are carriers and dispensers of content.
Have a fontastic week.
Roark and Religions
A good weekend is one where you get to relax. A great weekend is one where you finish reading two juicy books! I finally finished The Fountainhead (very late in life). It is an epic, with a really strong dose of some pretty headstrong philosophy thrown in. This was the Centennial Edition, and at the end of it were notes, reviews, and edits by the author herself. These were more illuminating than the book itself, and give us a little peek into Ayn Rand's formidable brain. Books like this are pure hard work, sweat, blood and toil as the notes confirm. Not that she was complaining about the work. She was her own most stringent critic and heartless editor.
Rand started work on the characters of the book a few years before actually starting the book. Each character has been sketched out in detail, with descriptions of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Some of these characters are not used in the final book. Then there is her own first review of her first chapter. The notes read 'too many adjectives', and 'don't use words for the sake of it, use them only if really needed' and many more notes to that effect. Each chapter has its own review. More than the books, I would love to get my hands on the journals of Ayn Rand, and they do exist. She also interned at an architect's office for a year prior to writing the book, as part of her in-depth research. A monumental undertaking, this book must have been. It's one thing to have a strong, unique and original philosophy. Its quite another to build a fictional world around it, that is detailed to the nth degree. And it's the ultimate, if you have the sharp reasoning to cut, trash and re-write portions and pages of your work. She designed this book, and crafted every word, thought, and blink, down to the last comma.
One minute I was on the sidewalks of New York in the last century, with Roark challenging all existence, the next minute I was crossing medival Europe and stepping into ancient Iran. In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek is a non-fiction work about his own journey across countries, centuries, and gods. A Polish Jew and a dentist, he had a long-time fascination with Zoroastrianism, and its beginnings and influences. He believes Zoroastrianism has influenced Christianity, Judaism and Islam, infact many world religions much more than anything else. Its just that its never been documented. And since Zoroastrianism has been in the twilight zone for 1300 years, its even harder to get evidence of anything. But it does exist, as he takes us through his long journey through Europe and finally to Iran via Turkey and many other places. Some interesting points are that Avestan, the ancient language is surprisingly close to Old Sanskrit. In fact some prayers when translated, are almost exact.
The author, and some others believe that it was one band of people from Central Asia that separated into two branches. One settled on the river Indus, and the other on the river Oxus (now the Amu Darya). The custom of shaking hands, apparently can be traced to Zoroastrian culture, as it was not originally Christian, and definitely not Islamic. It is also shown in some Iranian sculptures. Zoroastrianism also strongly influenced ancient Egypt, a fact unknown to most of the world. This is probably because history is written by the winners of the last war. One fact that comes out glaringly in this book is how present day history is dominated by Roman/Greek history, and is strongly one-sided. The Zoroastrian empire at its height, stretched from Egypt to the Indus (Kushan) and from Rome to the Gulf. It was, by all accounts, the greatest civilization of the ancient world. It was the first time in recorded history that the rulers were 'civilsed' in the true sense, being tolerant, open-minded, and just. Many other religions were allowed and encouraged to flourish within the empire too. For instance, Cyrus gave the persecuted Jews a home, and let them flourish. Yet, all this never gets mentioned in history. The world started and ended with the Roman Empire. And films like 300 don't do anything to help this. Now I understood where the two-winged symbol so common in ancient Egypt came from.
The beginning of the book is a bit tedious, but later chapters are engrossing and deeply moving (for a Parsi reader). He explores Iran, and visits sites of the great civilization. There are still Zoroastrians living in Iran, and practicing the faith. He visits the ancient sites of Cyrus and Darius, analyses and links Iranian art and sculpture to other times, cultures and places. Even in ancient days, it is astonishing to know the amount of cross-cultural exchange that happened. Finally, someone enlightened me about the beginnings and significance of the festival of Noruz, still celebrated worldwide. In spite of centuries of Islamic rule, Noruz (Navroze) is celebrated in a very Zoroastrian way in Iran, as it has been since the beginning. Infact, Muslims in Iran are extremely proud of their pre-Islamic heritage, though they might not be very well-informed about it.
The author ponders on the beginnings of Zoroastrianism, which was in the Bronze Age. We can imagine what people were like in medieval times, but its hard to imagine life in that era. What was life like then? Did the same things move people? And what was the prophet Zarathushtra himself like? These are questions that will always remain unanswered. However his teachings, thoughts and philosophies are relevant even today. Externally life changes, but internally humans remain the same, and the same issues of ethics, morals, and meaning of life plague us since the beginning of time. The author set out to find this ancient and all-but-lost culture and religion. He was looking for signs, symbols, places and events, but in the end, he is led to Zarathustra's core teachings. That is the thread that lives on inside people, that is the thread that connects us to people of the Bronze Age, and connects us to Zarathustra himself.
Truth is daring
The Wikileaks logo is a world melting/leaking into another world. It is also an hourglass. Great symbolism on both fronts, as the world is changing fast, melting into something else, and Wikileaks might hopefully be part of that change. The tables have been turned. Since it is a veritable time bomb too, the hourglass. Strange thing is neither of the two globes show the Americas (for a change). Usually it's our part of the world that is chosen to face away from the viewer.
We don't know how long it will be before the thing explodes, something happens (God forbid) to Julian Assange, or governments get control of it (God and the Devil forbid that!). As of now it survives, or maybe even thrives. It's almost the biggest thing since Gutenberg or the Internet. There is nothing as exciting, enabling and empowering than 'secret' information suddenly being available. Are we a voyeuristic species? Probably yes, looking at the amount of 'forbidden' matter floating around the Internet, from porn to state secrets to conspiracy theories. But if Governments claim to be 'for the people', then what do they have to hide? Secrecy is the mother of suspicion.
George Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
The New Yorker