Designing Postmodernism, Part 3: Graphics

Here’s something I’ve learned while working on the upcoming Postmodernism show at the V&A: there are rough sketches; there are more accurate renderings; there are still more exact production drawings; and then there is graphic design. In no other field of design practice does the preparatory study approximate its finished product so closely, especially when the designer is working digitally. As a result, graphics are an art form calling for precision and intense attention.

This means that graphic designers produce many, many preparatory studies, and they care about them… a lot. Of the 36 typefaces above, all of which have their merits, our designers went for the seventh one in the second row. This font (Compacta BT, if you must know) will be used in all the titling in the exhibition. Picking it was an exquisitely involved process, enough to make me pay a bit more attention to every sign I’ve passed for the last few months.

In our case, we are very lucky indeed to be working with graphic designers whose humor and inventiveness is a match for their fine craftsmanship. The firm is called, wonderfully, APFEL. Yes, that is the German word for apple, and they do work mainly on Mac computers…. but actually it stands for the English phrase A Practice For Everyday Life (a good description of doing graphic design in public, and a little nod to the theoretical writings of Michel de Certeau). Here’s their office, where the magic happens:

Beautiful isn’t it? And, you’ll notice, not particularly postmodern. Our team is led by Kirsty Carter, one of the two principal partners of APFEL, and also includes key contributors Louise Ramsay and Jason Wolfe. I wouldn’t describe any of them as going in big for 1980s retro style, but oddly enough their fundamentally modernist, care-saturated approach is perfect for us. They have been able to summon the energy of postmodern graphics (sometimes trashy, sometimes confrontational, always surprising) without indulging in pastiche. Rather like fashion designers, graphics specialists often assemble a ‘mood board’, a palette of images to inspire their work.

Through some mysterious alchemy, APFEL managed to get from these  sources to a set of exhibition graphics that are sophisticated and controlled, much more so than any of the originals. They have gone for a palette of materials appropriate to the period, but rarely encountered in exhibition spaces (at least at the V&A): neon, coloured perspex, and lots of slick wallpaper with patterns and supergraphics. Here are some of the samples they’ve produced:

Despite what I said above about the seamless relation between digital design and finished graphics, when you’re producing an exhibition there are many opportunities to address physical fabrication. Labels, text panels, and wall graphics all need to be made, just like platforms and display cases. The above shots are taken of full-scale tests of these textual elements. They help us to imagine how the materials, typeface, font size, surface finish, and colour choices will all work together to produce a powerful but legible result. (Clarity is a big deal for exhibitions, partly because of low light levels but also in proper deference to vision-impaired visitors.) You also get some lovely surprises, like the luminous edge effects on the  perspex APFEL have specified for the label mounts.

      

It’s in hundreds of subtle touches like this, many of which visitors may not even consciously notice, that brilliant graphic designers can help to infuse an exhibition with its unique aesthetic personality. With APFEL’s help, I hope we are producing a show about Postmodernism that connects intimately to the ’70s and ’80s, but has a life and spirit all its own.

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