Making and Breaking the Grid
A Graphic Design Layout Workshop
Architectonic column grid deconstruction
In two individual posters–one a call for entries to a design competition and the other a lecture-series announcement–the designer deploys a similar structure to organize the presented material. Both posters contain a centrally located rectangular area that acts as a grounding point. In the call for entries, that central area remains noticeably empty as information slides around its perimeter; in the lecture series poster, the rectangular area houses the most important conceptual information and image. In each case, a predominantly centered axis hints at a formal, symmetrical system, but the symmetry is sidestepped by diagrammatic or planar elements. Remnants of column grids form informational sections in each poster, but are overlaid with linear elements, reduced to texture, or overlapped to create a more complex and detailed surface.
The Making of Thirty Extraordinary Graphic Designers
Stefan G. Bucher
After a youth spent preparing for a future in medicine, Allen Hori discovered art and went on a journey of learning that would lead him from Hawaii to Michigan to Holland to New York and from design to photography and back again.
“I grew up as a third-generation Japanese American sansei in Hawaii on the island of Kauai: very rural, country, small-town. Hard work, education, and achievement were central beliefs in my family.” Hori’s father worked as a surgical technician, his mother as a nurse at a dispensary. “Dinner conversations often involved descriptions of surgery, trauma, laboratory procedures, and disease.” Accordingly, Hori was primed for a future in medicine or science. “I was a science geek in high school. As a sophomore, I did a National Science Foundation research project on testing toxicity of a local soft coral toxin on lymphoma cells. As a junior, I did research with the Hawaii Heart Association, sequencing a particular protein from bovine heart mitochondria–stuff that gave me a preview of what might be ahead for me.”
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the University of Hawaii. “I got as far as sophomore pre-med when I took an art history course–Art 101–as a humanities requirement, and here is where things radically changed. Art presented vistas I had never been exposed to. It was a totally alien activity. This was part of the allure and excitement. More classes followed, and I found myself gravitating toward graphic design, where a certain amount of precision and certainty was a necessary part of the process. Also, there was the prospect of commercial and practical application that minimally placated my parents’ concern of self-support and future livelihood.”
But the initial excitement didn’t last. “I made it through to the last year of the design program and found myself with a kind of buyer’s remorse. The excitement and expressive potential I had initially latched onto were slowly being reduced the further I progressed in the primarily Swiss-based program. “Instead of finishing the final year of the design program, he switched his major to photography and finished his degree in 1987.
“It took seven years to earn my BFA and realize that getting to the mainland–out of Hawaii–was essential and that continuing school was probably the only way I was going to find a larger landscape.” He continued with independent studies in photography at the University of Hawaii until 1987 and got a job to make ends meet. “I worked as a ‘camera lout’–operating a stat camera at a typography house called The Other Type. I moved up to paste-up and finally to designer. After three years of this, I applied to graduate school in graphic design, returning to the commercial and more-bankable-than-photography route.” To his delight, he was accepted into the program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and moved to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Hori was immediately fascinated with the school. “This was graphic design like I had never seen nor imagined. It involved theory, thinking, commitment, analysis, experimentation, and, for me, continuing with making photographs as well. I realized graphic design could be read in much the same way that photography could be read–this was the first most liberating moment–where typography had the power to communicate more than the actual words it represented, where additional meaning was formed on the intentions of the designer.”
The second year was dedicated entirely to producing designs. The experience had a lasting impact on Hori’s aesthetic. “Making work, experimenting with thresholds of readability and visibility, and inserting liberal amounts of literary and semiotic theory–there were long, long nights fueled with beer and cigarettes, going back and forth between the design studio and the darkrooms in the photo department. It really was the best period of growth and discovery for me. I loved it so much, I asked for permission to stay, and after some lobbying and pleading, I was granted a third year. Even today, I still try to re-create the energy and attitude within myself that began at Cranbrook.”
Hori received his masters degree in 1990, and he decided to continue on the journey he had begun at Cranbrook. He received a Fulbright scholarship to The Netherlands and landed internships at Studio Dumbar in The Hague and at Hard Werken in Rotterdam. “It felt like a continuation of experimenting, relearning, making adjustments, and growing. All that in which I had previously been invested–literary and semiotic theory–quickly came to a full stop in Holland because the language of the projects–Dutch–was now basically inaccessible to me. This limitation forced a different development, one of focusing on form language, on the ‘graphic’ of graphic design. And what better place to do that than in Holland? This was second heaven. Studio Dumbar was an amazing place then, with Gert Dumbar providing a lively and spirited lead. I spent two internship periods at Studio Dumbar and then moved to Rotterdam to intern at Hard Werken.”
“This was a totally different studio–very male, very industrial and industrious, located near the international shipping ports of Rotterdam. Very blue-collar. Working with Willem Kars, Gerard Hadders, and Rick Vermeulen was pragmatism-in-training: Be direct, be practical, be creative–very Hard Werken. I liked the atmosphere and the work, and they seemed to like me. I stayed on as a senior designer when the internship ended.”
After spending three years in Holland, Hori decided to return to the United States. He moved to New York and dipped his toe into a culture that was more corporate than he had been used to. He became an art director for Atlantic Records. “It was great fun–big budgets, location shoots, lots of expensing, lots of long days and nights. I fell in love with the creative director, Richard Bates, also a Cranbrook grad. But mixing love and work in this arrangement grew too complicated, so I left the job and kept the relationship.” He worked for the cosmetics brand Prescriptives for six months but hated the experience. “Non-design studio employers have convinced me that I can’t work as an employee. Opening my own studio was the only thing I could do. I don’t do well with someone above me. I launched Bates Hori with Richard in 1993 and got a couple of cats–Book and Myth–to keep me company in our basement studio.”
The Double Edge of Success
Since his time at Cranbrook, Hori had been a darling of the design scene, and it had an unexpected impact on his work. “There was a string of years from Cranbrook to Holland to Atlantic Records where I submitted everything I produced to design competitions such as the American Center for Design’s (ACD) 100 Show and the ID magazine review, and almost everything got in and published. That was a great ego-boosting cycle but ultimately a destructive and disrupting cycle as well, because this recognition-getting became laced into my design process. It was as if the piece wasn’t valid until it was validated from the outside and by other designers, you know? It became an insular, selfish practice. The recognition comes and goes very quickly for me. I needed a more secure, stable form of knowing for myself what was good, what was almost good, and what was enough. I actually stopped working for about six months to live with this dilemma and with myself in my head to figure this out. I can’t say I’ve resolved all my insecurities and issues entirely, but I feel that I’m definitely far, far from looking for outside validation of anything I do.”
Today, he has a balanced view of the benefits and dangers of recognition. “It has spoiled me, given me a big head, reaffirmed beliefs, produced new beliefs, humbled me, scared me, developed my self-confidence and self-esteem, frustrated me, energized me, allowed me opportunities to lecture all over the place, put more money in the bank, lost me some jobs, made me happy, made me bitter, and made me jealous. Really, though, I don’t think recognition is a good or bad thing. I just hope I do okay with what I have.”
In his work, Hori refers back to his education at Cranbrook and to the habits of his earlier pre-med days. “I still hold a semi-scientific method close to heart–research, thorough analysis, hypothesizing, experimenting, data analysis, conclusions. I try to let things stew in my head as long as possible, connecting ideas and formal scenarios in as many ways as possible, before actually starting the visual producing process. I think poetic interpretation of words, ideas, and form language is the most enjoyable part of my process. Sometimes I go too far out on a tangent, but making it link back up to a core idea of the originating content is also pleasurable. Convincing people of these links and the coherency of it all is sometimes a challenge, though.”
Considering this personal approach and his complex aesthetic, it’s no surprise that Hori executes most of his work alone. “I’m not great at sharing or compromising. I love collaborating in the verbal, idea-based stages. When that stage is over I tend to isolate myself over the rest of the project.”
Ten years after opening his own studio, Hori still happily works from home. Book and Myth still keep him company, as do two French bulldogs, Beluga and Ivan. In 2000, he joined the graduate faculty at the Yale University School of Art and teaches a class on typography. While telling his story, Hori notices a pattern. “There were a few concentrated periods of intense discovery linked by quieter periods of more organic evolution. I’m looking for another one of those concentrated periods. I’ve been lazy for too many years now.” He recognizes the need to keep growing. “Teaching at Yale is definitely pushing me in ways that are productive–away from a passive comfort level–but I definitely think a more substantial shift is necessary.”
Ultimately, Hori just wants to do his job. “I’m successful when I am able to really understand what the client wants in addition to hearing what the client is saying–when I produce something that exceeds their expectations using my voice, all the while maintaining and growing the relationship between the client and myself with humor and dignity. And when they come back and want more of the same–that’s when I feel really good.”
Emigre No. 69
69 Short Stories
We’re crowding around a small table in a classroom at the Kunstgewerbe Schule in Basel, Switzerland. It’s me, a bunch of design students from around the world, and Wolfgang Weingart. We’re discussing what Weingart calls the chaotic state of design today, and I believe he indicts me and my magazine as conspirators. He advances upon a huge shelving unit, bursting with design books, and without hesitation whips out a poster. It’s Allen Hori’s poster for a lecture by Kathy McCoy at Cranbrook. Weingart is as serious as a nun twisting the ear of a naughty boy. “This,” he says, “is the absolute worst I’ve ever seen!” If a first shot started the so-called legibility wars, it was Allen Hori’s poster.
In my estimation, one can trace much of the experimental typographic expressionism during the early 90s to the work designed at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Allen Hori’s work was my personal favorite. Hori mixed the precision of Swiss design with the spatial freedom of, for instance, Hard Werken, the famous Dutch design studio where he later worked as an intern. Hori was the bridge. He tied all these experiments together. He abandoned traditional typographic hierarchy and demanded from the reader a fair amount of involvement in order to decipher the message. Hori was also not shy to include personal messages in his work, both visual and verbal. These functioned on a secondary level and were not meant to be immediately obvious to the reader. Their mystery drew the reader in.
Hori’s work defied what most of us learned in school about typography. Typography was meant to aid the reader, not put the reader to work. But his posters were never a prescription for anything. They were posters that answered their brief fairly well. If a theory ever accompanied the work, it was to justify his particular design: it was descriptive, not prescriptive. The fact that these mannerisms were widely copied proved that designers recognized the formal beauty of the work and were hungry to expand their typographic palettes.
Weingart cannot see it that way. One of the great typographic experimenters of the 70s, he can’t stop talking about how bad Allen Hori’s poster is. I guess everyone involved in the shaping of a major innovation automatically believes it represents the end of the road, the pinnacle, and Weingart was no exception. It must be difficult to accept that anyone can take it a step further or push it in a different direction. Later that evening, at a local Basel restaurant where he treats the students and me to a dinner of venison stew and beer, he continues to rant. He just can’t stop himself.
Type, Image, Message
A Graphic Design Layout Workshop
Nancy Skolos and Thomas Wedell
Encoding and Decoding
Allen Hori chose music as the theme for a series of pieces to introduce a new line of paper for Potlatch Corporation. The immediately apparent unifying element is the evenly divided composition. The designer set up this format in order to “express the duality of music, the internal and external aspects of sound.” The structure provides a backdrop for many complex type/image relationships. Each panel contains one word as part of the system that initiates the viewer’s interpretation of each piece. These words–repose, reverie, and rescind–are skillfully placed to augment the meaning of the many fragmented elements.
In the first panel, “Repose,” the upper half is occupied by the rendition of a house constructed from a carpenter’s ruler. This reference to a built structure is a metaphor for the mathematical composition of music. The text that lists the credits for the paper promotion is placed at intervals that are somewhat aligned with the folding ruler. In the lower half of the piece, an assemblage of objects forms a nebulous mass that contrasts with the calculated nature of the top half and illustrates the unpredictable forces at work in the creative act of music making. The text leads the viewer into the mythological origins of music, and further into music’s subjective and introspective nature. (“Echo fell in love with Narcissus. When her love was not returned, she pined away until only her voice remained.”) It also reveals a possible source of inspiration for the mirrored format and echoing of messages in the series.
The other two panels also have dual natures. The creation of a dialogue between their upper and lower halves allowed the designer to express both the informational and psychological points of view as well as to set up an enigmatic tension between them. He has included more than enough images and symbols to ponder and to associate, taking this series into a very advanced aesthetic realm.
For the Eigth Annual Edition of The Alternative Pick, a directory of creative professionals, Allen Hori developed a graphic language that requires a great deal of decoding in order to identify and appreciate all the embedded information. Here fragmentation operates on both a visual and symbolic level. Signs are intermixed and can be decoded individually or assembled to construct additional meanings. It is as if Hori has developed his own grammar from which he assembles a metalanguage of words, pictures and symbols.
Designed to be displayed in multiples and linked horizontally to form a sequence of infinity symbols, the poster sets up the viewer’s initial encounter with Hori’s cryptic language. Looking at a single poster, the symbol is incomplete and resembles a piece of fruit or a droplet of liquid. The bottom half of the drop appears to be contained in an eggshell, and a blue-green pattern emerging from the background evokes a scientific aura that projects a life force from its center onto the egg, as if to underscore its creation.
Inside the catalog, the level of discovery and the increased complexity of images and text continue to invite the reader to systematically construct meaning based on the “evidence” held within the pages.
Graphic Design: A New History
Stephen J. Eskilson
Cranbrook Academy of Art
Weingart also had a significant impact on the work of students at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, one of the first schools to embrace the postmodern movement wholeheartedly. Even to this day, many graphic design programs in American universities feature curricula that are more focused on the International Style and its aura of professionalism than on the more progressive, eclectic postmodern work of the last three decades. However, Katherine McCoy (b. 1945), co-chair of the graphic design program at Cranbrook, had a more daring outlook than most academics, and invited her students to explore new trends. Weingart lectured often at Cranbrook during the 1970s. It is essential to note how the modern International Style can be distinguished from the postmodern style by the amount of expression permitted on the artist’s part. Staunch modernists usually suppress any quirky or whimsical element in their designs, while postmodernists welcome idiosyncratic displays of personal style like those present in the work of Cranbrook designers such as Ed Fella (b. 1938).
At Cranbrook, McCoy espoused the idea that the reading of text and the viewing of image should not be conceived of as discrete practices. Rather, reading and viewing ovelap and interact synergistically in order to create a holistic effect that features both modes of interpretation. McCoy called this theory “typography as discourse,” the term “discourse” connoting the idea that the meaning of a work is part of a conversation between text and image that “runs around,” and cannot be fixed to form one stable result. A poster from 1989 publicizing a lecture on the topic of “typography as discourse” illustrates the impact of these theories on the Cranbrook style (fig. 9.29). Designed by Allen Hori (b. 10960), this splendidly cluttered image has a number of clear references to Weingart’s work, including the reversed text and playful abstract composition that simultaneously creates and deconstructs a grid. However, compared with Weingart’s Das Schweizer Plakat, Hori’s design is much more focused on using letters as a visual element than as text, so that many of the abstract shapes that make up the image are crafted from letters. And Hori’s choices have an impact on the legibility of the poster; while the meaning of Weingart’s design can be immediately identified, the Cranbrook image forces the viewer to hunt for the necessary information in an effect close to that of the psychedelic style. Hori’s aesthetic is also relatable to the concrete poetry that Guillaume Apollinaire produced in the 1910s (see Chapter 4), except that the poet used letters to create shapes that had a direct tie to the content of the text, while Hori turned loose his letters to create unrelated forms.
Absolutely the ‘worst’
How does a graphic work claim its place in history? Notoreity and originality helps, but nothing beats repeated publication.
Canonical designers are easy enough to identify. The situation with canonical designs is more complicated. Graphic designers create millions of new designs every year. How do a tiny percentage of these pieces, which most viewers will never hold in their hands, come to be regarded as crucial works, designs of influence that deserve a lasting place in the narrative of graphic design?
Reproduction alone is not enough. Much of the work that appears in magazines and annuals for a brief moment in the limelight soon falls by the wayside, even if it remains in the published record, notionally available for future consultation. Online archiving will increase its chances. Projects that have not been published in any form are unlikely to be remembered for long, but if someone–usually the designer–takes the trouble to preserve good copies, there remains a slender hope of discovery some day.
The crucial requirement is repetition. The more often the work appears in the right places, the more its future appearance is assured. These ‘right places’ are simply the venues that critics, historians and curators are likely to consult when trying to gauge the most significant examples of a particular type of work to show in their projects. Once a graphic work becomes part of a major museum collection, its longevity is guaranteed, though this alone will not be enough to make it canonical. It needs to be seen regularly.
A good example of the process in action is the American designer Allen Hori’s Typography As Discourse poster, produced in 1989 at Cranbrook Academy of Art, while Hori, then 29, was an MFA student. This first surfaced in 1990 in the book Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse (edited by Katherine and Michael McCoy). To some eyes, it looked untutored, chaotic and alien.
Rudy VanderLans describes sitting in on one of Wolfgang Weingart’s design classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel. Weingart, a regular visitor to Cranbrook, pulled out a copy of the poster. ‘This, he proclaimed, was the absolute worst of what was currently happening in graphic design,’ recalls VanderLans. ‘I knew then that the Typography As Discourse poster was a very special piece of graphic design.’
The poster’s subject is a lecture given at Cranbrook by Katherine McCoy, co-chair of the design department–an expanded version of her article with the same title published in I.D. magazine (March / April 1988). The outsized parenthesis and bracket, recall similar devices in the magazine’s layout by another Cranbrook designer, David Frej. Hori constructed the poster as a mechanical artwork, with manual letterspacing, Rubylith masking film, tracing paper and acetate overlays, and an elaborate markup. He sent intricate type compositions from the Macintosh to an output service and collected the hard copy the next day.
A communications theory diagram referred to by McCoy and the students provides the poster’s underlying conceptual framework. It encapsulates the idea that text can be perceived as a visual image as well as read, while images can be read as well as seen. If visual communication is intuitive, holistic and simultaneous, then verbal communication is traditionally regarded as rational, linear and sequential–all keywords that appear in the poster. The scattered nodes of information, linked by meandering typographic pathways, challenge the usual seeing / reading distinction by encouraging exploration, which can begin anywhere and proceed in any direction. Hori refined the design over several nights and he recalls how McCoy would leave Post-it notes for him in the morning with questions and comments. There was also discussion in the studio about the way his design interpreted the familiar diagram.
In spring 1991, Eye published an article about ‘deconstructed’ design at Cranbrook by Ellen Lupton featuring the poster (no. 3, vol. 1). I could hardly fail to include such an extraordinary and emblematic piece of new typography in the survey Typography Now: The Next Wave, published later that year. Around the same time, VanderLans reproduced the poster in Emigre no. 20, along with other work by Hori and an interview.
Nevertheless, it might have stopped there. Plenty of work from that time is now forgotten. Lupton, one of the most preceptive critics of Cranbrook, helped to prolong the poster’s iconic afterlife by publishing it twice in 1996. It features in her collection with Abbott Miller, Design Writing Research, in the essay ‘Deconstruction and Graphic Design’, where they describe it as ‘a manifesto for a design practice informed by literary theory.’ Lupton also included the poster in her book Mixing Messages, which accompanied a major exhibition of contemporary American graphic design that she curated at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. The poster is in the collections of the Cooper-Hewitt, the AIGA Design Archives and Cranbrook Art Museum. Only a few copies survive.
Even if I hadn’t known the poster already, all of this would have been enough to ensure its place in my own No More Rules (2003), a study of graphic design and postmodernism. The ultimate sign that the poster has entered the graphic design canon and is likely to stay there is its appearance in chapters on postmodernism in Stephen J. Eskilson’s Graphic Design: A New History (2007) and Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish’s Graphic Design: A Critical History (2008). Drucker and McVarish describe it as ‘a classic of postmodern design’, noting its ‘clean and rather distilled aesthetic’.
This is an astute observation. Although detractors professed to see only disorder and confusion in Cranbrook’s output, Hori’s poster is an entirely self-aware, delicately controlled visual essay, which makes its case with great typographic precision. Current typographic taste doesn’t much care for the complexities of this kind of work. It is a measure of the poster’s originality, and the way it still radiates the heat of the moment, that it lives on regardless.