RDA 2008: New York City

The design literacy of clients and the general
public alike was a recurring concern this year
for art director Philippe Apeloig and designer
Ronny Quevedo, as it was for many New
York designers. The duo challenged that literacy
with their event calendars and posters for
the French Institute/Alliance Française, a
Manhattan-based organization that promotes
French culture and programming. Apeloig
and Quevedo used playful, colorful compositions
of dots—a modern riff on pointillism—
as a conceptual device. The layout’s unusual
design and typography choices don’t just
unite the campaign, Quevedo says: “We’re
also educating the reader on how to read
our materials.”

Point Five Design founding partner
Alissa Levin thinks design literacy has vastly
improved in recent years, partly because
viewers are constant consumers of an increasingly
design-savvy internet. Could this mean
web design has become a positive influence
on print work? “I feel like it has opened up
possibilities in print,” Levin says. “Perhaps
it’s because not all the pressure is on the print
pieces, so it actually makes more room to
try different things.” In the past, clients often
hired two different firms for print and web
components; Levin finds that it has become
much more common to hire the studio to
create both, as the Columbia Journalism
did for a redesign of its print edition
and website. Point Five’s redesign of CJR,
completed in 2007, gives the magazine a
bold cover format and a minimal, typographically
elegant overall design that emphasizes
the publication’s role as a media watchdog.
Also in media, the business-culture magazine Condé Nast Portfolio debuted in
late April 2007. The cover of its first issue
featured a stunning aerial view of a nighttime
cityscape, and standout photography and
sublime information graphics have remained
a centerpiece of the magazine’s visual
identity. Continuing the minimalist trend in
editorial design, design director Robert
Priest explains that he and his team were
striving for simplicity. “We want to be a lively
and energetic magazine in terms of what
we present, but there’s a certain clean aesthetic that we’re going for.”

Photography forms the aesthetic DNA
of many magazines, among them Newsweek,
whose showcase portfolios in 2007 included
scenes of Darfur, portraits of the four seasons
in Japan, and photographs that revisited
1968’s pivotal leaders. Newsweek director of
photography Simon Barnett says that Paolo
Pellegrin, who took the pictures of Darfur, “is
the most accomplished photographer working
today who is able to bridge the difficult
line between journalism and art. … [He] is at
the leading edge of the new, young photojournalism
movement, which has its roots in
Italy. The photography is lyrical and operatic,
and it is an amazing way to see the world.”

Even in a weakening economy, the
New York design business was robust in 2007
and through the summer of 2008; studios
and design businesses reported hiring numerous
freelancers to complete a full docket of
work. At book publisher Picador, creative
director Henry Sene Yee reports that 2007
was “very creative, not just with me, but with
colleagues,” and the same has been true
in 2008.

Still, Yee began to worry when he realized
that electronic readers such as Amazon’s
Kindle and Sony’s eBook had become enjoyable
to use—even to him. “I think it’s going to
allow people to read even more, but I don’t
know what my role as a cover designer will be
in that e-book future,” he says. One technology
that’s exciting him, however, is design:
related (designrelated.com), a networking site
known informally as “MySpace for designers.”
Yee has commissioned covers from designers
he found on the site, and he praises it as a
way of finding artisans working for lesser-known
presses outside New York. “They’re
doing incredible work for these small
presses—these high-end concepts and designs
that are just beautiful,” he enthuses.

Designing with sustainability in mind
continues to be a focus for designers, and,
more and more, for clients as well. Suggestions
for recycled papers and sustainable
printing presses were “always something
that we would bring to the table, and often—
whether it was cost or something [else]—it
was a difficult sell,” says Levin. “Now, it seems
like people are really on board and want to
know how they can do it and what they can
do.” Seth Labenz of Brooklyn-based studio
Topos Graphics notes that not everything
labeled green is as sustainable as it should be.
“We’ve found or observed that solutions
are sometimes motivated by the appearance
of being green, as opposed to a true commitment
to real change,” he says.

Labenz, with Topos partner Roy Rub,
creates consistently avant-garde design
that’s certainly helping expand design’s vocabulary—and its audience’s general literacy,
too. He’s optimistic about design’s future
possibilities: “It used to be a technique of
marketing,” he says, “whereas today, more
and more, it is not only that but a vehicle for
reflection, knowledge, history, criticism,
vision, provocation—a lens for culture but also
an embedded, utilitarian tool for discourse
and change.” The duo’s work, and the work
of their fellows throughout New York City,
reflects that exhilarating new mandate.

This article appears in the December 2008
issue of