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20 Years Ago: Bomb the Pentagon

For a 1991 AIGA San Francisco event, Steve Tolleson asked fifty Bay Area graphic designers to create posters addressing an environmental issue of their choice. My topic? The tendency of the US military to avoid environmental scrutiny—and, at times, responsibility—by invoking the so-called state secrets privilege. According to Project Censored, “the Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment.” The design parameters were tight: one color on a recycled stock at a size of 18 x 24. A number of the posters went on to win awards in national competitions, including my poster and those designed by Doug Akagi and Michael Schwab.

I hand-inked the arrows, target, and Bomb lettering, and built the constructivist-inspired typography with an early version of Adobe Illustrator. Final art was a black and white “stat” from which the printer shot a Kodalith film positive; he then screen printed the design using black enamel ink on corrugated cardboard. For any designer who remembers the prevalence of bright white, cast-coated papers such as Kromecote in the 1980s, printing “high end” work on an unbleached and uncoated substrate was unorthodox.

Twenty years later, given our post-Timothy McVeigh, post-9/11 mind-set, Bomb the Pentagon has become both visually and politically jarring: a year or so ago I watched a young museum curator’s body literally recoil from the poster. 1991 was a moment in American history that now seems strangely distant, when calls to bomb anything were rightly understood as hyperbole. Unlike much graphic design which is subject to visual trends, the “look” of this poster doesn’t appear dated, at least to my eyes; rather, it is the message—and its stridency—that dates the piece.

Fox on Designers and Books

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Launching February 1, Designers and Books is a new website “devoted to publishing lists of books that esteemed members of the design community identify as personally important, meaningful, and formative—books that have shaped their values, their worldview, and their ideas about design.” The site is launching with 678 books recommended by 50 designers; I am honored to be among them. My book list includes titles about typography, symbols, comics, and social critique. (Illustration above by Ben Shahn from Ounce, Dice, Trice.)

Designers and Books was created by Steve Kroeter who also acts as its Editor-in-Chief. The site was designed by Pentagram.

Advice for Designers, Extrapolated

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Marcel Duchamp wrote, “as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter,” the idea being that one should look outside of one’s creative profession for inspiration to avoid direct emulation. It is in this spirit that I enjoy considering the practice of graphic design through the lenses of other creative practices, in particular the craft of writing.

We are fans of Roald Dahl in the Fox & Wang abode, and have read a number of his books to our (collective) three children. Not long ago we read Dahl’s 1977 memoir Lucky Break—How I Became a Writer for the first time. On the second page he offers seven tips to would-be fiction writers that, perhaps not surprisingly, are relevant to would-be graphic designers.

Number one on that list: You should have a lively imagination.

One immediately thinks: Isn’t this obvious, for fiction writers as well as graphic designers? (Perhaps Dahl thought so, because this is the only piece of advice he doesn’t elaborate on.) After a moment, though, I have to ask: What does it mean to “have a lively imagination,” anyway?

Marcel Proust observed that “The essence of the writer’s task is the perception of connections among unlike things.” Whether writing or designing, I believe it is through seeing, through forming surprising or illuminating linkages, that one puts a lively imagination to work. It is being, in a word, playful.

A later book-length piece of advice, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) contains a number of insightful suggestions for graphic designers thinly veiled as advice to writers. In the chapters “Shitty First Drafts” and “Perfectionism,” Lamott explores the messy process of writing and the creative dangers of not allowing that process to be messy. She warns that “Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness.” And: “Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing [read: design] needs to breathe and move.”

It is interesting to weigh Lamott’s point of view against Roald Dahl’s, especially because his fourth tip—You must be a perfectionist—appears antithetical to hers. In truth, though, I think this particular issue is more about timing, about when to seek perfection in one’s craft rather than whether to seek it at all. Lamott allows for more detours along the way, I suspect, but both she and Dahl are intent on arriving at the same destination sooner or later.