n.b.: This is a long post on graphic design, typog­ra­phy and com­mer­cial art. It is full of images. Peruse if you wish, but don’t bill me for the band­width suck­age, or any other suck­age you may encounter. Caveat lector.

I take a rel­a­tively unortho­dox approach to graphic design, it seems. Relatively in the sense that what I do is atyp­i­cal for health­care mar­ket­ing, but actu­ally some­what passé in the larger world of com­mer­cial art.

Vogue in graph­ics seems to be tribal designs (à la intri­cate abo­rig­i­nal tat­too art) and really exquis­ite, though to my eye clut­tered, cur­sive script with lovely roundy swoopy flour­ishes. While this stuff is pretty, it tends some­times to the too-​​symmetrical for my taste (I pre­fer the ten­sion that fol­lows clas­sic Rule of Thirds place­ment), and often seems to occupy the entire visual frame (I’m a big believer in neg­a­tive space, par­tic­u­larly where dis­play ads in pub­li­ca­tions are con­cerned — a quarter-​​page ad in a clut­tered news­pa­per or mag­a­zine that’s at least half white­space is a hell of an eye-​​catcher, not the least because there’s lots of room for the visu­als to breathe, and it brings the focus to the cru­cial content).

I haven’t imported that vogue into the stuff I do pro­fes­sion­ally, but I also haven’t made much use of the trends in health­care mar­ket­ing graph­ics, which seem to be a bit sterile.

Remember when Windows NT 4 debuted? It came with some low-​​key, grey-​​blue themes that seemed very mod­ern and business-​​professional, quite unlike the gaudy choices avail­able under Win95, and I don’t think I was the only NT sysad­min who adopted the battleship-​​at-​​midnight motifs available.

But hey, that was 1996, and things pro­gressed since then. Right?

Riiiiiiight.

Healthcare graphic vogue seems to be a kind of exten­sion of the decade-​​old NT4 trend. Colors seem to largely be muted, cooler pas­tels; and fonts are typ­i­cally ultra-​​crisp, ultra-​​clean sans-​​serifs set in sizes that are too large at 12 points. Lines and bor­ders tend to be smaller than one point, and gra­di­ents, if they’re used at all, are muted and heav­ily reduced.

I’ve made use of that a bit, actu­ally, with an ad that I devel­oped a cou­ple years ago now but still recy­cle, because it’s so damn clean:

Ha, well, com­pare that with the ad placed, in the same pub­li­ca­tion, by MedCath, the hos­pi­tal con­sor­tium that’s got a project under con­struc­tion nearby. (They’re not really wor­ry­ing any­one here; as a for-​​profit hos­pi­tal, and one that offers con­sid­er­ably fewer ser­vices than ours, with a third of the beds, well, they’re just not exactly com­pe­ti­tion. Particularly if you’re not rich, or don’t have insur­ance.) The qual­ity here isn’t ideal; this is a scan.

Now you have to under­stand that in this small, rather iso­lated com­mu­nity, my grid ad rep­re­sented a Great Leap Forward from work done pre­vi­ously, thus (not one of mine):

[Yes, that’s Peinaud, one of the most quin­tes­sen­tially 1970s type­faces ever. Strictly speak­ing, as a human­ist sans-​​serif font with vari­able stroke widths, it’s in the same class as Optima, but I think Optima is con­sid­er­ably more attrac­tive and bal­anced. We’re still using Peinaud in our logo (sigh), but only the upper­case. Those low­er­case let­ters are mind-​​bogglingly hideous.]

As you might expect, it’s not hard to stand out against this kind of background.

It actu­ally was a fairly major coup when, just about exactly one year ago, I was able to use a min­i­mal­ist design, com­posed pretty much exclu­sively of typog­ra­phy, to pro­mote an open house event. My inter­de­part­men­tal con­tact on this job was one of those blessed clients you some­times get: She basi­cally said she trusted me to do my thing, with­out inter­fer­ing at all with the devel­op­ment and design process. I still love the hell out of the results, and so did she (though to my eye now, the kern­ing is off in some places in those images, par­tic­u­larly the sec­ond one).

Retro art is a con­tin­u­ing inter­est of mine. I’ve dipped into Art Nouveau, Deco and Moderne for more than a few designs; I made a Moderne-​​flavored Annual Report last year, in truth, though I don’t think I’ll be doing any­thing that tech­ni­cally com­plex again for a long time. The fin­ished piece used seven col­ors (CMYK, spot blue, spot sil­ver and a var­nish), and unfor­tu­nately our local print broker’s press maxes at four col­ors. This meant the job required two passes, and the spot sil­ver took forever to dry.

Here’s a shot of the cover; the var­nish on the logo shows clearly. From a dis­tance, it looks like a field of solid blue with just the text at top and bot­tom, but when you get closer, pick it up, etc., you can see the reflec­tion of the var­nish on the background.

Inside it’s a lit­tle less com­pelling — typ­i­cal annual report stuff — but the grey dis­play text in this image is actu­ally a Pantone metal­lic sil­ver ink, and the pho­tographs all have the same var­nish as what was on the cover, giv­ing them a lit­tle extra pop against the background.

Deco and its Moderne deriv­a­tives, how­ever, are also rather passé now, but I’ll prob­a­bly make use of it one last time for the next Annual Report. I’m plan­ning to style things more along the lines of 1930s era travel brochures, which I think are a rare pin­na­cle of ephemera.

More recently, “retro” has meant 1950s revivals, like this:

So any­way.

Another task I’ve been given recently is to pro­duce an eight-​​page saddle-​​stitched 11×17 (folded) brochure for physi­cian recruit­ing. The new hos­pi­tal is part of the rea­son for that; how­ever, more prag­mat­i­cally, our hos­pi­tal ser­vices a large county with umpty-​​jillion rural res­i­dents, and our physi­cian staff (ca. 120) can get spread thin some­times. (This also means we’re look­ing all the time for RNs, but that’s another topic.)

Initially we dis­cussed a fairly straight­for­ward pub­li­ca­tion on semi-​​gloss stock that would fea­ture mod­ern, stan­dard fonts and gra­di­ent mixes, some­thing clean, pro­fes­sional and low-​​key, a lot like the kinds of mate­ri­als we pro­duce for gen­eral pub­lic con­sump­tion as a quar­terly news­pa­per insert:

The thing is … the thing is, there’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly dis­tinc­tive about this design (one of mine), though it’s not nor­mally pink; this was a spe­cial cancer-​​centric issue. It works, but it’s not espe­cially arrest­ing. It always gets atten­tion as an insert with the local rag, but that’s just because it’s col­or­ful and shiny. Put it on dis­play with pub­li­ca­tions by dozens of other hos­pi­tals at any recruit­ing fair, and it just wouldn’t stand out. So I had some mis­giv­ings about the look and feel, and began to probe other possibilities.

For a while I farted around with Moderne again, but the lay­out just didn’t seem to gel. Even as rough dig­i­tal knock­offs, it was clear things weren’t working:


Well, trust your instincts, Luke. If it’s just not com­ing together, the worst thing you can do is forge ahead, try to make it hap­pen. The Moderne approach seemed forced, mechan­i­cal, just not quite right. So I probed briefly the idea of a very clean, min­i­mal­ist design, and this was as far as I got, a test for a cover graphic background:

Argh. No. No no no no no. This was what every­one else was doing! No! Nein! Nyet! Nie! Ikky ikky ikky p’tang zoomboingboing.

And then I went a lit­tle … well, cuckoo.

I’m not sure at this point how I set­tled on the idea, but I became some­what fix­ated on DaVinci, his anatom­i­cal draw­ings, and … parch­ment, and han­dlet­tered titles, wood­cuts, and ancient let­ter­press tech­nol­ogy. I began to won­der if I could pos­si­bly work up a design that would incor­po­rate such dis­parate ele­ments as tex­tured paper, gradient-​​washed back­grounds, trans­parency on old hand-​​drawn images, realistically-​​faded and blurred quill pen ink, and eighteenth-​​century let­ter­press — with mod­ern off­set print­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy in the mix. A doc­u­ment with a look and feel that belonged to no spe­cific era, was actu­ally a hybrid of cen­turies of print­ing and design, and yet seemed to hang together fairly well and sug­gest the very best, most warm and per­sonal ele­ments of the last 250 years or so of print and pro­duc­tion graph­ics. If Deco is retro, and 1950s is new retro, I guess I was look­ing at … über-​​retro.

With that goal in mind I col­lected a wide range of scans of old med­ical texts, includ­ing images of DaVinci’s work on anatomy. (If you want to know how a bril­liant artist makes human forms so life­like, look at his sketch­books; they should be crowded with anatom­i­cal ren­der­ings, many of which look like they could come from a mod­ern anatomy text­book.) That didn’t take long, and in the process I was exposed to a fairly good mix of old texts, and got a feel for how they became mel­lower, more yel­low or brown with age.

From there I needed a good sam­ple of col­ors for inks. The most preva­lent ink in use in Europe, for cen­turies, was iron gall, made using lots of dif­fer­ent recipes but pos­sessed of a few iden­ti­fy­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. I was able to Google up some high-​​res images of texts writ­ten using iron gall, and those images were what I used to col­lect seven color sam­ples to add to my swatch palette in InDesign.

For dis­play and titles I’d already decided on The King & Queen, which is a beau­ti­ful han­dlet­tered cur­sive I found on DaFont a while back, and used in col­lat­eral mate­ri­als for a local event sup­port­ing my dojo. It’s got enough flair to be a believ­able cal­li­graphic style of the 1700s.

But if you look at a typ­i­cal hand­writ­ten sam­ple from the late 1700s, one thing you notice right away is vari­a­tions in ink cov­er­age. Sometimes the ink is quite dark; in other places it’s not as sat­u­rated — pre­sum­ably because the author’s quill pen was run­ning dry — and weath­er­ing, time, age and humid­ity have all caused the ink to bleed, run and fade. That meant I could not pos­si­bly set my type in a sin­gle sam­ple of any form of iron gall. While some­thing like this is very pretty and rather warm,

it’s just not gen­uine against an actual doc­u­ment from the period.


As you can see there was tremen­dous vari­abil­ity in iron gall ink color to begin with; and the upper image has the script very badly faded and bled into the back­ground. The lower image, while con­sid­er­ably more leg­i­ble, is also show­ing bleed around the edges and incon­sis­tent coverage.

So a solid color for the ink in my “hand­writ­ten” script sim­ply wouldn’t cut it. The clear answer: Gradients. Really busy gradients.

Applied to the orig­i­nal text, with rota­tion off the default 0 degrees, I got some­thing a lit­tle more believable.

But it’s still a computer-​​generated font, and while it’s a nice look­ing piece of work it’s only part of the deal; I needed body text as well as dis­play and I needed to fig­ure out a way to age and erode the text in a believ­able fashion.

I could try a period han­dlet­tered type­face, but the ƒ for S’s would wear thin quickly, and the repet­i­tive nature of the font on its base­line would give it away as computer-​​generated text. Readability was a thing to con­sider, as was time — the brochure couldn’t be too cute, too pre­cious, or we’d lose the demo­graphic. While physi­cians have noto­ri­ously ter­ri­ble hand­writ­ing, they tend to like their printed doc­u­ments to be at least mar­gin­ally leg­i­ble. Go fig.

I knew I’d have to use a serif font, because sans-​​serifs didn’t even exist in American pub­li­ca­tions until the 1920s. (When they were first intro­duced, they were regarded as an “abom­i­na­tion” by many pub­lish­ers.) The prob­lem is that most mod­ern dig­i­tal fonts, while lovely, are cre­ated with an eye toward absolute reg­u­lar­ity and leg­i­bil­ity. Bell MT and Georgia have beau­ti­ful 1930s over­tones; Goudy is a clas­sic; Caslon rocks; but their 21st cen­tury incar­na­tions are too even, too well kerned, too full of hint­ing to make them seem gen­uinely old.

It was my good for­tune a while back to stum­ble upon the HP Lovecraft Historical Society. (If you’re not an HPL fan, the name won’t mean a thing to you; if you are, you should hit their site right now and buy their silent-​​film ver­sion of Call of Cthulhu.) They’ve pro­duced some beau­ti­ful, more or less period-​​accurate type­faces, and I chose their Oldstyle for the body text. It’s serif, and it’s got some quirks that make it feel a lot like hand-​​set metal type as opposed to some­thing gen­er­ated on a computer.

So set­ting the body text in Oldstyle HPLHS, with gra­di­ents applied, and using King and Queen for the dis­play, I got this:

That’s actu­ally pretty decent over­all, but it’s still far too crisp. What we have here is some­thing that looks like it’s set on a com­puter, using a vec­tor gra­di­ent mix, in a mod­ern page lay­out pro­gram. Nothing seems older than five min­utes ago, and with good reason.

To change that, I had to look at how inks bleed over time. When you really look at it from the per­spec­tive of color and sat­u­ra­tion, han­dlet­tered stuff tends to be extremely incon­sis­tent, while period let­ter­press­ing is much more even in cov­er­age. You’ll recall my iron gall sample:

A closer look shows some fad­ing around the han­dlet­ter­ing, which alone is organic and fairly dif­fi­cult to ren­der arti­fi­cially. While set type would be much more con­sis­tent and reg­u­lar, it will have some bleed as well, with the let­ters impressed into the page by the force of the press itself.

I had to emu­late that in this work. I mean, on the one hand I had to fig­ure out how to turn my han­dlet­tered font into some­thing with real­is­tic fade and bleed, and also pro­duce letterpress-​​style text that seemed to be phys­i­cally impressed on the page, faded at the edges but with much more con­sis­tent coverage.

I began play­ing around with drop shadow and feather in InDesign.

Drop shadow is an inter­est­ing effect. Out of the box, it’s what it claims to be. But when you set the off­set to 0 on both hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal, you get not a drop­shadow, but a kind of halo. Rope in the spread, mod­ify the blur, change the ink color and blend­ing mode, and you can end up with some­thing that looks not like a drop­shadow at all, but instead the work of decades of mois­ture on a water-​​soluble ink: A haze of bleed.

That was pretty close, but still not quite it. I needed the let­ter­forms to erode a lit­tle at the edges, to seem to fall into the ink “bleed” I had made with my mod­i­fied drop­shadow. Well it turns out that feather, when it’s done at small lev­els, pro­duces exactly the desired effect. With a feather of 0.02, my quill text actu­ally seems to dis­solve into the “ink” back­ground bleed made by the dropshadow.

Nevertheless, to my eye it’s still just a bit too sharp. The final step was to reduce the trans­parency to 97%.

Aha. Aha, yes, that’s it. Isn’t it?

But that left me with the body text.

Hand let­ter­presses were reli­able, but the smaller units had hand-​​applied inks, and not purely con­sis­tent cov­er­age. They would also have been using inks, in the 17th and 18th cen­turies, which were organic and to no small extent water sol­u­ble, but still much more reli­able than quill pens. For the effects on the body text, then, I added a much smaller halo, sharper focus and a bit of “noise” (two per­cent) to crunch up the edges a bit. Seen in extreme close-​​up, the noise is obvi­ous, but at eye dis­tance it scans sim­ply as non­lin­ear, organic artifacts.

Download a PDF here (7 MB — while it’s just a page of text, the vec­tors are very com­plex) to get a look at it in much higher-​​than-​​screen res­o­lu­tion. Printed on parchment-​​textured paper it’s really quite convincing.

So, I had it, and it was pretty, but in the process of doing this I got a def­i­nite, organic under­stand­ing of why fonts smaller than 12 point (11 was my min­i­mum size) were not used in let­ter­press, in gen­eral. The mis­align­ment of let­ters on the base­line, cou­pled with ink bleed and vari­ance in paper den­sity and ink sat­u­ra­tion, made text smaller than that effec­tively illeg­i­ble. It’s weird to have to work back­ward from 21st cen­tury tech to 18th cen­tury to see this so clearly, but it was instruc­tive and entertaining.

For the images, I made a faux wood­cut on the cover, and inside I just set pho­tos in situ, CMYK, with a bit of empha­sis (via Photoshop) on the warmer end. I framed them with wood­cut cor­ner ele­ments and gave them a bleed halo, using the same set­tings I applied to the hand­writ­ten ink, to allow them to reg­is­ter into the background.

The final prod­uct was lovely but a tech­ni­cal mess: Lots of trans­parency and edge effects, with cus­tom gra­di­ents applied to fonts. My HP 5550c took about two min­utes per page to hard­copy it, and this is a printer which boasts 16 sec­onds for first print, aver­age page time 2 sec­onds. (On the plus side my Mac G5 threw the pages onscreen, ren­dered at full res­o­lu­tion, in less than five sec­onds per page view.)

It will of course sur­prise no one to learn that it was ulti­mately decided to go with the generic, bor­ing, looks-​​like-​​everyone-​​else approach.

Some days, there’s just not quite enough beer in the world.

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