digital experiences that people love
Jon Waring
22nd Jul 2014

New technologies & old aesthetics

We call it useful beauty — it’s about bringing the utility of digital and the aesthetic of traditional graphic design together.

I’ve been fortunate to be taught by some extremely talented and generous people, and learned early that understanding old aesthetics was fundamental to being a progressive designer.

Romek Marber for example, who designed the grid system for the Penguin books crime series. His structured approach to the cover designs are what made Penguin books so distinctive throughout the 60’s and 70’s. He taught me and my classmates that design is not just decoration, but a systematic and intelligent approach to problem solving.

Marber_grid
Penguin book crime series designed by Romek Marber. The grid he devised is now known as the Marber Grid.

Another man to teach me fundamental lessons in graphic design was Ben Boss at the influential Dutch design group Total Design. Many people regard them as having helped shape the future of graphic design.

Total Design – Dutch brand and design specialists based in Amsterdam.
Total Design – Dutch brand and design specialists based in Amsterdam.

His lesson to me was simple and delivered one day while having lunch together. Ben was deeply interested in the work of designers like FHK Henrion and Abram Games. He was horrified to discover I knew virtually nothing of their work.

As punishment for my ignorance, he directed me to set text by hand in a large circle for a series of posters for the Dutch Opera House. Ben would stroll past, stare for an instant and inform me that the letter spacing was incorrect somewhere – and I’d have to unpick the whole sodding lot!

If I remember correctly, it took me three days!

Total Design had one of the most advanced graphic computers on the planet at the time — Aesthedes. Probably, it could have set a circle of type in minutes.

Ben taught me that the tradition, culture and pace of setting by hand encouraged an uncommon level of reflectiveness that shines through.

These days, things happen so fast, and the cost of technology means it’s available to everyone. Plus, there are virtually no media associated costs.  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, blogging and so on. It has made getting great stuff out there quicker and easier than ever.

We are experiencing a sort of third industrial revolution.

All of which means our work has to compete for attention. And while technology may change fast, humans evolve very slowly and the work of historically important creatives is all about human understanding, good ideas and great communication.

Their work is relevant today and will be years from now.