The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Richard Weston, Ace Jet 170

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I don’t know exactly when I first discovered Ace Jet 170. It was a few years ago — at least four because I was reading it before I started The Casual Optimist. And it must have been recommended by someone (I Like? Noisy Decent Graphics?) because I don’t think I can have stumbled across it. But perhaps I did. Certainly, there was little reason for me to be interested in the blog of designer/writer living in Belfast at the time. And yet I started t0 follow Ace Jet 170 religiously. I still do, even as I’ve lost interest in many other well-known design blogs who ‘curate’ stuff.

Admittedly, I share some common interests with Richard Weston, the man behind Ace Jet 170 — Penguin paperbacks, printed ephemera, maps, found type and fatherhood, to name a few — but really it is the tone of the blog as much as  anything that keeps me coming back. “Unassuming” is probably the word for it, but somehow that undersells it. It’s personal, funny, idiosyncratic and occasionally little eccentric. It looks like it comes easily, although I expect it probably doesn’t.

Like Anne Ward at I Like, Richard seems to find everything interesting and yet never really tries to sell you anything. There is little shameless promotion. Just interesting things. And like I Like, Ace Jet 170 was one of the early inspirations for this blog — one of the few I hoped it would be like when it grew up. (It isn’t of course, but how could it be?)

Richard and I are now friends, but in a very modern way. We’ve never met or even spoken to each other (I still don’t know what he looks like), but we stay in what seems like a very ambling dialogue via Twitter, Instagram and Path. I do actually feel quite honoured to finally him on the blog talking at length. We chatted by email.

When did you start Ace Jet 170?

The middle of 2006.

How has the blog developed since then? Is it different from when you started?

I think it is different. At first, I was just trying to catalogue stuff I had stashed away all over the place. In retrospect, it’s not the best way to do that. But as time went by it became somewhere to write as well. It’s a little wordier than it used to be. Of course, it also gained interest from others and has helped me make surprising connections.

What’s your interest in ‘found type’?

Loads of typographers and graphic designers love ephemeral typography. And have done for decades. If you look through old copies of Typographica, there’s Fletcher/Forbes/Gill [Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill], or Herbert Spencer or Robert Brownjohn with photos of found type.

If you have a love of letter forms, you’re drawn to them aren’t you? My blog, again, was just a useful place to put things. Quite quickly, other people started sending stuff in. That was probably the first kind of feedback I got. It was exciting to find out other people wanted to contribute. So it became an irregular slot on Fridays. Not every Friday. And then of course, I realised Flickr collates “crowd sourced” found type much better. And Flickr pools started springing up. Nothing to do with me. But they show how common the urge is.

In your personal photography you often seem to be looking for the beautiful in the mundane. Is that a conscious thing?

Like the found type thing, it is a compulsion. Something that’s been with me for years – long before I started recording it. I have pretty modest tastes and expectations. I guess I have a fairly humble background. So the little things mean a lot. But it’s an interesting world isn’t it? I mean visually. I reckon you could work down any street and take ten photos of interesting, everyday things. Instagram, of course, monopolises on that. It takes it to the next, natural level where we can all share stuff.

When did you start collecting vintage Penguin paperbacks?

When we lived in England, I found this Penguin Education book, in a box of junk outside a second-hand bookshop. The cover was designed by Derek Birdsall at Omnific. It’s so simple and perfect. He was already a bit of a hero of mine.

A little later, I picked up a Pelican also by Birdsall. It wasn’t in the common style, which was odd. It was less of a big idea like Juniors but beautiful. I was hooked. I soon got to know the Marber Grid that Pelican and Penguin books used through the 60s and into the 70s. It coincided with a glut of covers from emerging talents so you’d find covers by Fletcher, Forbes and Gill; loads by Germano Facetti and then Romek Marber himself; but also Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Alan Aldridge – all these guys who went on to become the leading lights of their generation. Finding covers credited to names you knew became pretty exciting. You could pick up a design by Abram Games for 50p. That’s amazing. But I also admired the system. The Marber Grid was beautifully constructed and it’s a testament to it that it was used so extensively. It just worked so damn well. And then there’s the whole Penguin business, Allen Lane’s brilliant idea. Inspiring. Oh and I like sets. Penguin do a great set. Always have done. Still do.

Do you look for certain designers or illustrators?

I generally prefer to pick up covers I like. If they’re by designers I recognise, all the better but it’s not essential. You get to know them after a while and that’s fun. You see a cover and you think, hey that looks like a Facetti. And you’re right!

With the Pelicans, I really like the ones that successfully represent the idea behind the book. Some do that more successfully than others. Occasionally the good ones aren’t the aesthetically pleasing ones, but they make a point really well.

With Penguins I can pass them by if I don’t like the illustration on the cover then go into a cold sweat if I find one with a Paul Hogarth cover.

David Gentleman’s covers for the Penguin Shakespeare series are amazing. And the Stephen Russ covers for The Penguin Poets; beautiful and clever within a very restricted format. Great design.

Are there any editions you particularly covet?

There’s a little booklet called Penguin Books, The Pictorial Cover, 1960-1980 by Evelyne Green that was published by Manchester Polytechnic in 1981. I really want a copy. Saw one on Amazon recently but it’s out of my price range. It’s a really low-key publication – typewritten text. It’s hardly a “book” but it’s unique. I harbour a fantasy that one day I’ll find one in the surplus box at a charity book shop and pick it up for 50p.

What else do you collect?

Blimey. So many things. Sometimes I think I collect collections. I have a stamp collection that I love but I’m not a proper stamp collector. A proper one would be horrified with how I store them. I have them on file cards in little Moleskine wallets. And they’re judged purely on looks. I don’t care about their value or country of origin. Actually, the cheaper the better and I think every country produces brilliant and bloody awful stamps designs.

I’ve got tons of books of course, stationery products (staplers, bulldog clips, typewriters), coffee pots, branded espresso cups, vintage light meters, you know, all sorts of nonsense. Some are really small collections.

What have you read recently?

I’m well into the Saul Bass book. Karen, my wife, keeps laughing at me. She says designers aren’t really supposed to read these books. We’re supposed to leave them lying around and look at the pictures every now and then but I love a monograph. It’s an amazing, if slightly cumbersome book. And it’s been a long time coming – I remember the Bass exhibition at the Design Museum in London, must have been around ten years ago. There was talk of a book after that.

By sharp contrast, we read 101 Things I learned in Architecture School, in the UX Belfast Book Club I go to. It’s short, snappy and really good. Interesting glimpse into the life of an architect and great to see universal principles that apply across disciplines.

And then I read From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. Have you read it? Has everyone? It’s brilliant. Really captures a less politically correct time.

Haven’t read much fiction for a good while. Lots of work related stuff. David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous was brilliant too.

What are a few of your favourite books?

Favourites are hard; so much to choose from. I have books that have had a major effect on me and my work. Ruari McLean’s first book on Tschichold and the ancient tomb by Vincent Steer, Printing Design and Layout really pushed me on as a young designer. And John R Biggs’ modestly titled Basic Typography.

Monographs! Like I said before: I love a monograph: Games, Sutnar, Huber, Aicher, Lustig, Schleger, Rand – amazing stuff. Then I like a marketing book too: anything by John Grant. Fiction-wise: trickier still. I’ve read lots by classics like Chandler and Deighton. Graham Greene.

What is the day job?

I work at a multidisciplinary design company called Thought Collective. It’s pretty new, although born out of two companies that came together, officially, at the beginning of 2011. One a “traditional” design studio and the other a web developer. So the company is evenly split now between cross media designers and those concerned with coded matters.

I claimed the rather grand job title of Head of Strategic Design. I write and design. Work out strategies and how to do stuff I’ve never done before. It’s really good.

Is there a thriving design community in Northern Ireland?

Yes. It’s a microcosm. Belfast in particular is an intensely populated, compact area. I think the Irish connection fuels the creativity of the region. So there’s some great things going on. There’s a significant web design/development community and loads of design companies. The degrees of separation seem fewer so it’s fairly easy to get to know other designers.

Are you still interested in print design?

Definitely, although I don’t do much. From where I’m sitting print feels more treasured than it was, say, ten years ago. There are loads of great books being published and things like letterpress are way more accessible than they used to be. I feel there’s a great focus on craft.

How do traditional ways of thinking about design apply to digital design?

For a spell, while I was acclimatising to working on more digital projects, I thought it was a major shift. But then it dawned on me that much of what I’d learned to date was still extremely relevant. There are universal design principals that transcend medium. And the parallels between the development of intelligent marketing activities offline and user experience focus online are striking.

I don’t know if you know the Claude C Hopkins book Scientific Advertising? He wrote it just after he retired. Around 1923. Hopkins has been described as the ‘Father of Modern Advertising’ and [David] Ogilvy said something like, “you shouldn’t work in advertising until you’ve read this book seven times” – like he would. It’s antiquated in many ways. But also, with a little imagination you can discern from it techniques and approaches that are still very active today. Especially online. I’m talking about strategic marketing scenarios. If nothing else, it illustrates how principals cross over mediums. And can be timeless.

And then there’s all that fundamental human stuff (hierarchy of needs etc) that has nothing to do with the specific channels by which messages are delivered.

So, “traditional ways of thinking” apply well. What’s new is some of the language used and the complex mechanical ways in which ideas are expressed and realised.

What does the future hold for books?

I think the near future is looking pretty healthy. It feels like we’re in some kind of print renaissance for crafted, tactile print-based experiences. There’s some great stuff being made.

But I do think that one day, once we’ve all got used to reading on devices and the experience has become much more rich and fulfilling, that print may well vanish. If it does, it’ll be when we’re happy for it to die; when other forms provide what we want and need. Perhaps in the future we’ll think of digital files as artifacts when their content delivers a sensory experience we can currently only guess at.

Or perhaps we’ll stop caring about the artifact like we care less about the Album or CD sleeve; when we treasure the content more that the object. I’d be very happy if that doesn’t happen in my life time.

Is that a bit of a depressing point to finish on? It’s not meant to be. Rich digital experiences are exciting. Who knows what the book of the future will be like. You can be pretty sure it’ll exceed expectations.

Thanks Richard!

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3 Comments

  1. I too stumbled across Richards blog, Ace Jet 170, a few years ago. Being a hoarder of all thing typographical I instantly became hooked. Richards keen eye and lovely turn of phrase keeps me coming back time and again.

  2. Great choice of interviewee, Dan. Ace Jet 170 was one of the first blogs I found having started mine shortly after Richard began.

  3. Thanks for the comments Mick and David. Ace Jet 170 suddenly feels like a favourite pub full of friends. :-)

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