Friday 25 May, 2012

Lucienne Roberts has become a regular visitor to Porto – specifically to ESAD. I first invited Lucie here in 2004 to take part in the Personal Views series. Calling on her knowledge and skills I invited her back last year to run a workshop on the MA. Some months ago when Lucie was once again in Porto to run another workshop she told me about an unusual and interesting design and publishing project in the making. In anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, Lucie and Rebecca Wright – co-founders of GraphicDesign&* – devised a project in which designers would be invited to recreate Page 1 of the novel Great Expectations – as a typographic experiment – a project described in their own words as follows:

Page 1: Great Expectations is an unusual typographic experiment designed to explore the relationship between graphic design, typography and the reading of a page. Crafted to engage the culturally curious, Page 1: Great Expectations collects the responses of 70 international graphic designers when posed with the same brief – to design and lay out the first page of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, a text chosen in part because it directly references lettering as Pip searches for clues about his family from the letterforms inscribed on their tombstone. The brief encouraged the 70 contributors to explore, challenge or celebrate the conventions of book typography. Each layout is accompanied by a short rationale explaining the designer’s decision-making process. Page 1 is not just a book for graphic designers, it reveals the power typography has to influence and affect the way we all interpret a text. Many readers will be surprised by the attention to detail and level of engagement with the narrative on display, and aficionados of Dickens will be charmed by the idiosyncratic approaches to this much-loved text.

Invited to participate, I discovered the level of challenge in the brief. The first of which seemed to be whether to approach the design of the first page with the rest of the book in mind, and therefore to 'imagine' the implications of the design with regard to continuity, or whether to adopt an approach which focused exclusively on the material supplied and damn the consequences. Despite the legitimacy of the latter approach I just found it too uncomfortable to make the necessary separation and to put aside the idea of a complete and integrated reader experience. I also found myself making some unexpected choices.

In the past I've been sympathetic to the argument that images in literary works diminish the readers potential to create their own mental pictures – the ability to imagine for oneself. And yet I'm also drawn to the potential to stir the imagination that illustrations have, and remember as a boy being captivated by the world that some illustrated books were able to draw me into. And so despite initially exploring ideas for purely typographic layouts I opted to include an image with the idea of establishing a mood and setting through illustration style and typographic style combined. Equally important is the intention that the illustrations would only ever depict locations, scenes or objects. None of the characters in the story would ever be depicted, thus leaving an important element in the mind and to the imagination of the reader.

The small format of the book was highly influential in the design choices, and a larger format would probably have led me elsewhere. As in all his works Dickens creates a story rich in intricate detail and human sentiment, a world I wanted to echo in the aesthetic of the design.

Portraying the village church and cemetery, the illustration (from a Clip-Art site), although not echoing the menace of the graveyard scene to follow, has other qualities; the fine detail of the drawing, its unboxed contours, and the ‘Englishness’ of the scene it depicts. The text face is Parry by Artur Schmal (OurType) and is set 8.5 on 13.5 (the title face is Gotham from Hoefler & Frere-Jones). This is a deliberately small point size in which the detail of the slab serif together with the detail of the drawing combine to create the humanity and richness I choose to reflect.

At the time of writing this post I have not yet received the finished but look forward to seeing 'first hand' the many interesting contributions by the other invited designers that include, Erik Spiekermann, Phil Baines, Tony Brook, APFEL, Ian Noble and Jonathan Branbrook. The book was launched at the Design Museum in London last month, is published by GraphicDesign& and costs £15 (£13.50 for students) plus postage. For more information and to order a copy visit GraphicDesign&.

Neil Donnelly

Ian Noble

Jessica Helfand and Bill Drenttel, Winterhouse

Tony Brook, Spin

*GraphicDesign& is a pioneering publishing house dedicated to creating intelligent, vivid books that explore how graphic design connects with all other things and the value that it brings. Established by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright, GraphicDesign& partners graphic designers with experts from other fields to inform, educate, entertain and provoke – and to challenge perceptions about what and who graphic design is for.