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?
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:
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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