Your Name Here

December 15, 2010

One quick definition of graphic design: putting images and text together. Of course, not every graphic includes words, but most do – and it’s one of the most challenging, and therefore creative aspects of the discipline. The basic problem is that images and letters obey completely different rules – of legibility, rendering, even the way they sit on the page (lettering always seems flat, images tend to create an illusory sense of depth). This fact was exploited by Picasso in his collages. A great example is the one below, where the artist playfully cut off the title of a newspaper (Le Journal) so it reads, “Jou”, the French word for game – which is exactly what Picasso is doing in using text, and applied chair caning and rope, to emphasize the flatness of the picture in contrast to the volumetric, shaded cubist still life that it supports.

But this problem was around long before cubism. This brings me to the theme of this post: how can you use the sketching process as a way of integrating text and image? Often, the answer is: you don’t. Even artists of the calibre of Peter Paul Rubens would create fabulous ornaments for the title page of a book, leaving the printer to put the words in later. But good luck finding a typeface that lives up to Rubens.


Two hundred years later, the great Victorian caricaturist George Cruikshank executed the below title page for Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist. His loose, evocative line works beautifully for the character-filled border, but the lettering is a lot less convincing.

Sometimes the best solution was simply to print a title page blank and let the owner do the rest; I am particularly taken with this undated (maybe 19th century) example in the V&A’s collection.

Of course, there are other ways of going about it. The two below examples – one from the 16th century, by Italian artist Andrea Sansovino, and one from the Arts and Crafts movement, by William Morris, show artists who were masters of both lettering and ornament. Sansovino carefully inscribes his sketch for a tomb monument with appropriately classical Roman lettering, while Morris matches the Gothic feeling of his exquisitely rendered border with a custom-designed font of equally Medieval feel.


This topic was brought to mind for me on a recent visit to the Design Museum, which currently has an exquisite show about fashion drawings on view. (It was designed by the same team, architects Carmody Groarke and graphic designers A Practice for Everyday Life, who are working with the V&A on the Postmodernism show which I am currently co-curating.)

Photo by Richard Davies

One of the fascinating aspects of the Design Museum show was the way that draftsmen tried to incorporate lettering into their stylish renderings of frocks and hats. Perhaps the most consistently successful publication in this regard was Vogue, which for decades allowed artists to unleash their typographical ideas on the magazine’s title. To see the drawings you’ll have to go to the exhibition, but here are some of the resulting covers. Some of them (like the one at below left, designed by George LePape in 1929) beautifully illustrate the principle of gracefully integrating text and drawing. Others create a narrative context for the title, putting it on to a building or into the sky.


In other cases there’s simply a wonderful match of the fashion rendering itself and the lettering that goes with it.

In more recent years, Vogue has adopted a very different approach. They now execute the title in the same typeface every time. Brand management has taken precedence over the illustrator’s individual sense of style. Occasionally there’s a bit of playfulness, like the omitted ‘G’ in the below examples.


But perhaps I’m not alone in thinking something’s been lost here. It’s yet another example where the biggest problems in the design process – like the inherently different aesthetic possibilities of text and image – turn out to be the lifeblood of the product.

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