The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

March 26, 2015
by Dan

Annie Atkins and the Secret World of Film Graphics


Designer Annie Atkins talks to Design Week (registration required) about her work on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and “the often ‘invisible’ role of graphic design on screen”:

“Most of the skills I employ today are things I’ve learnt on set,” Atkins says. “Before starting this job, I hadn’t really hand-crafted anything since being a child. Things like taking up a quill; getting my paints and pencils out; hand-binding books – I never would have done that in the advertising agency I was working in.”

Of course, 11 hours isn’t solely devoted to creating art. While a lot of the day is spent in a “production line” of stitching, gluing, folding, ripping things up, sticking them back together again, tea staining and pouring fake blood over things, there are less glamorous elements to the job too.

“A lot of the day is paperwork,” Atkins says. “Organising, planning, scheduling, ordering materials – that’s the boring bit. Then some of the day is liaising with art directors and the production designer to figure out the style and directions things will go in. Then it’s bums on seats, making stuff.”

It’s that “making” part that is so important. “It’s tempting to sit at a computer and make everything that way,” she says. “But if you’re working in a period in the past, you really have to understand the methods that were employed to make those graphics at the time, then imitate – or even better, use – them to give that authenticity.”


March 25, 2015
by Dan

Being Mr. K


In latest Creative Characters newsletter from MyFonts, designer Julia Sysmäläinen talks about designing FF Mister K, the typeface based on Franz Kafka’s handwriting used by Peter Mendelsund for his redesign of Schocken’s Kafka covers:

Originality, authenticity, and honesty are crucial qualities to me. I think Mr. K has all of that, just like Franz Kafka’s manuscripts do. While I was working on it, I realized that while Mister K is a font, it is also the visualization of a personality. The font is not pretty, or beautiful in the classic sense — and it doesn’t want to be.

It’s a bit like Kafka’s work. There is no beauty in it as such, but rather a confrontation with reality that goes so far as to be repellent. There are all kinds of attributes — stupidity, cunning, weakness, strength, bitterness, humor, lightness, etc. The authenticity of this confrontation is visually reflected in the manuscripts — and also in Mister K Regular, the style in the font family that is most similar to the original Kafka manuscripts.

Whoever wishes to use the typeface must be willing to embrace this ambiguity. Mister K is not particularly suitable for lending a consumer-friendly smoothness to some brand; but there are corporate identities to which it fits very well. I was pleased to see it used by the Norwegian band Flunk, for Stokke highchairs, and for wellness products by Dresdner Essenz; and, of all things, in the logo of an upmarket design hotel in Berlin, Das Stue. What I found even more astounding was its appearance at the international insurance company Watson Towers (an ironic coincidence, as Kafka himself was an employee at an insurance company). But somehow it made sense: “The organic, hand-drawn nature of the logo and graphic system creates a personal and distinctive look amidst the impersonal, corporate, language of its competitors…” — that’s how Interbrand, the design agency, described the project. In its semi-perfection the typeface simply oozes a kind of honesty. That’s its strength, and brings it closer to a lot of people.

March 25, 2015
by Dan

The Shiny Surface of Jonathan Ive

My ‘longreads’ to-read list is as bad, if not worse, than the pile of books I have to read right now, so it’s taken me until today to get to that very, very long New Yorker profile of Jonathan Ive, the senior vice-president of design at Apple.

Unfortunately, the whole thing is a bit disappointing and, I thought, even a little sad. By the end, Ive remains an enigma. What lingers is his famous friends, love of bland luxury brands, and just how remarkably wealthy he is (writer Ian Parker reminds you several times that Ive owns a private jet).

It seems Ive is either depressingly shallow or, more likely, these superficial things are all that he is willing to reveal about himself, which is depressing too in its own way. Ive is, no doubt, just politely protecting his privacy, but he comes across as peevish and sadly unlikeable, which is a shame. Or maybe I’m just not interested enough in industrial design and luxury brands, or Apple if it comes to that.

The article does, however, give me an excuse to post this blistering 15 minute video of NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway talking a mile-a-minute about Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. I’m sure he’s wrong about a lot of things, but not only does he talk about Apple’s transition from tech company to luxury brand, he also offers some of the most cogent insights into the current problems facing Amazon I’ve heard in a while:


Interestingly, Ian Parker says in his New Yorker article that watch manufacturers are not worried about Apple stepping into the market. Galloway says they should be. I guess we’ll see who is right.

March 20, 2015
by Dan

Emory Liu on Design at Fantagraphics


At Sequart, designer Emory Liu talks about working at Seattle comics publisher Fantagraphics:

My first start in the design world came through designing / screen printing posters, and doing album artwork for bands. I played in a bunch of bands, and starting out, we just ended up having to do a lot of the work ourselves, art included.  I also took design classes at School of Visual Concepts, eventually graduating with an Interdisciplinary Visual Arts degree from University of Washington in 2005. I feel very fortunate to be hired by Fantagraphics, as I had no previous experience designing full books, but just came from a job that heavily depended on InDesign. I think I just had enough experience to pass, and a DIY aesthetic that fit with the other designers… [It’s] interesting, because most of the time we have a ton of creative control. Editorial is usually hands off, and we’re working from scratch, keeping in mind not to overstep the comic artist themselves. A lot of the work is old work being re-released, and just the repackaging of the product with new covers can do wonders, give the book new life. At the same time we’ll get a few titles where we get very little input. Some artists demand complete control, and I’d take the role of facilitator more than designer. As fast as I’d like to get through those, they always end up taking the longest.

March 19, 2015
by Dan

Michael Bierut : How To… Write a Book About Your Work


In a great interview with Design Indaba, designer Michael Bierut talks about a new book about his work, How to: Use graphic design to sell things, explain things, make things look better, and (every once in a while) change the world, to be published later this year by Thames and Hudson:

In the second part of the interview he talks about the loneliness of design, and (inevitably!) designing logos:

March 17, 2015
by Dan

The Characters In My New Play


Tom Gauld.

March 17, 2015
by Dan

Recovering a Lost Typeface

In this short video for the BBC, designer Robert Green talks about his reconstruction of the lost Doves Press typeface:

March 12, 2015
by Dan
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Five Designers, One Illustrator, Two Letterers and More Than a Hundred Versions of a Jacket


If you’ve ever wondered quite how many iterations a cover can go through before the final one is chosen, this video cycles through a multitude of design ideas for the US edition of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum published by Random House this month:

“I worked with five designers, one illustrator and two letterers on more than a hundred versions of the jacket,” Robbin Schiff, executive art director at Random House, told Mashable. “The final design, with its stark Swiss typography against the moody and lush floral grouping, conveys a sensual but claustrophobic atmosphere”.1

And, if you’re interested, you also read about the cover of the UK edition created by Maricor/Maricar (pictured below) on the Picador Blog. The whole process sounds a little less… fraught.


UPDATE: Thank you to the folks at Random House for letting me know that the final cover for the US edition was designed by the talented Gabrielle Bordwin. The video was created by Caroline Teagle.

March 11, 2015
by Dan

Comma Queen

The New Yorker has launched a new video series “devoted to language in all its facets” called Comma Queen. In the first episode, copy editor Mary Norris talks about commas, the “little squiggle” with “a history rich in controversy”:


On a related note, Julia Holmes reviews Mary Norris’ book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, for the New Republic:

copy-editing can also be a soul-crushing enterprise. Not the work itself, which is perfectly pleasant and definitely necessary, but the surprising and strictly enforced class system that almost always accompanies it. Magazines are rigidly hierarchical places, no matter how outwardly easygoing and free-spirited and ad hoc they may endeavor to look on a visit to the office. A funny thing about publishing is that it’s populated almost exclusively by frustrated writers. It’s a kind of slow-burn Stanford Prison Experiment, in which former English majors are randomly assigned the roles of language guard and word prisoner, affirming once more how quickly and insanely people will adapt to new, relative states of power and powerlessness.

Mary Norris’s very funny, lucid, and lively new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, illuminates this shadow world at last. It’s part memoir, part language guide, and part personal account of life at The New Yorker (where Norris has worked as a copy editor since 1978). “One of the things I like about my job,” she writes, “is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.”

Norris exemplifies what David Foster Wallace observed in “Authority and American Usage”: “We tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something.”

March 10, 2015
by Dan

The Book Thieves of London

At The Dabbler, gentleman bookseller Steerforth recalls his run-ins with book thieves over the years:

After a while I became quite good at spotting the biblioklepts. Sometimes they gave themselves away through their body language, other times it was their appearance. One thief was dressed as a respectable businessman but his shoes were shabby and when I scrutinised him further I could see that he was wearing a charity shop suit. Our eyes met and he realised that he’d been rumbled. Later I mentioned this incident to someone in another bookshop and they said ‘Ah yes, the Businessman.’ He was well-known.

The most successful thieves were, of course, the ones we never saw. Someone used to steal entire shelves of books during Thursday lunchtimes – one week it was Nabokov, another Terry Pratchett – presumably in order to furnish another bookshop. Although we became obsessive about checking everyone who entered the shop, we never caught them.

We had regular thieves at both bookshops I worked in too. I don’t think any of them were quite as colourful as ‘the Businessman’ sadly.

March 9, 2015
by Dan

Ladybird: Designed for Small, Tiny Hands


As previously mentioned, Ladybird By Design is an exhibition of over 200 of original book illustrations from the late 1950s to early 1970s currently on display at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea.

In this short film, Lawrence Zeegen, curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying book, and Jenny Pearce, daughter of former Ladybird editorial director Douglas Keen, talk about the history of Ladybird and what made the books so special:

March 8, 2015
by Dan

William Gibson on Authenticity


I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t really get on with William Gibson’s latest novel The Peripheral, but I really enjoyed his ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy — Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History.

Interestingly, the (fictional) Buzz Rickson MA-1 flight jacket worn by Cayce Pollard, the protagonist in Pattern Recognition, led to the Japanese clothing company working with Gibson to manufacture a line of clothes (including the aforementioned black MA-1) inspired by the author. In this fascinating interview with Rawr Denim, the author discusses Buzz Rickson, Japanese pop culture, workwear, authenticity and more:

“Authenticity” doesn’t mean much to me. I just want “good”, in the sense of well-designed, well-constructed, long-lasting garments. My interest in military clothing stems from that. It’s not about macho, playing soldiers, anything militaristic. It’s the functionality, the design-solutions, the durability. Likewise workwear.

Military clothing is built to strict contract, but with the manufacturer cutting ever corner they can without violating the specifications. The finishing on a Rickson reproduction is exponentially superior to the finishing on most of the originals, and I’d much rather have a brand-new exact copy that’s more carefully assembled…

…[In] 1947 a lot of American workingmen wore shirts that were better made than most people’s shirts are today. Union-made, in the United States. Better fabric, better stitching. There were work shirts that retailed for fifty cents that were closer to today’s Prada than to today’s J.Crew. Fifty cents was an actual amount of money, though. We live in an age of seriously crap mass clothing. They’ve made a science of it.

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