2016: The Year in Design That Was

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This article is from the Winter 2016/2017 issue of PRINT, the Regional Design Awards. Subscribe today and get a year of PRINT for $40, plus a free gift.

Technology—the great design disruptor—has brought about changes for better and worse over the years, but mostly for the better. Letraset made composing type easy. The computer made it even easier. The web brought information, entertainment, education, news and advertising to the masses, and with Flash you could create any layout your heart desired—with motion and music. The iPhone put everything in the palm of your hand. …

But it all comes and goes. The computer killed Letraset. Flash is a dinosaur. Let’s not even get started with social media and its impact on how we consume news.

Looking back on 2016, summer stands out as a pivotal moment because of how strongly technology continued to shape the future of design. It wasn’t because of the app-enriched version of iMessage that beta testers toyed with, full of bursts, balloons and scribbles. And not because of the iPhone 7 audio jack rumors. Summer was about how a game—the game—changed the way we interact with technology, graphics and entertainment. Pokémon GO and its augmented reality proved that people want to go beyond the screen, into a space that blurs the boundaries between the digital and the real.

Does Pokémon GO’s success prove that we love our screens more than ever? Or that we love the world around us even more, since Pokémon GO’s augmented reality (may have) brought us closer to our environment by having us chase critters all over the world—or at least the neighborhood? Maybe it’s the hybrid of the two that will shape the direction of design in 2017. Or maybe it’s simply all about creating, no matter what you make, with the freshest tools and tech available, as it’s always been.

2016 had a little bit of everything, from the tangible to the technological. Here is a chronological look at the year in design that was.

1. In January, as part of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary celebration, the United States Postal Service released a set of commemorative stamps. Antonio Alcalá, designer at Studio A, along with The Heads of State’s principal and creative director, Jason Kernevich, and art director Woody Harrington, took on the challenging task. Kernevich art directed and Alcalá, as an art director for the United States Postal Service, handled creative direction. “The first decision made was to make a set of stamps that weren’t the usual screengrabs from the television show,” he says. “After that, Heads of State and I worked long and hard to find iconic symbols of the show, and combine them in ways that feel fresh, authentic and satisfying to fans.” Harrington handled all of the initiative’s design and illustration work throughout the process. “From the start, it felt very natural for us to approach each of the stamps as a tiny poster, which helped keep everything graphic and legible, even at one inch,” he says. “We always aim to make work that feels approachable, clever and timeless, so a futuristic series from the ’60s was a great fit!”


Photograph by Jason Varney

2. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry added four new elements to the design of the periodic table at the beginning of the year—atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118. The new elements mark the completion of the seventh row of the table for the first time. On June 8 the IUPAC announced the names of the four newcomers: nihonium, moscovium, tennessine and oganesson.

IUPAC Periodic Table of the Elements

3. Bye bye, Clearview. In January the Federal Highway Administration decided that the Clearview Type System introduced in 2004 to replace Highway Gothic—which had been the go-to street face since the 1940s—would no longer be used. Donald Meeker and James Montalbano’s Clearview designs were a result of research and field-testing, designing letters for optimum readability at long distances. “Letterforms are open but each has a unique character to create clear word patterning when displayed day and night,” they say. Meeker and Montalbano stress that “research shows Clearview use has resulted in significantly fewer fatalities, less severe crashes [and a] reduced number of crashes overall, while providing cost savings in road management. The older driver is the greatest beneficiary of the effort.” The duo was surprised by the decision to rescind Clearview, and see the choice as one based on an “incomplete review, flawed references and no discussion with state highway engineers.” Clearview’s replacement? Highway Gothic rides once again.

Clearview Type Chart

4. In February, Facebook fans all over the world—or at least a majority of them—rejoiced when the social media platform debuted a suite of new response icons to work alongside the iconic thumbs-up (Like). The new additions do give users more opportunities for expression. Love (the heart) and the faces Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry let you react to posts in more expressive (and human) graphic means. As Facebook product manager Sammi Krug detailed, “We will continue learning and listening to feedback to make sure we have a set of reactions that will be useful for everyone.” So they’re listening to feedback. Does that mean that if enough people ask, we’ll finally see a thumbs-down (Dislike) button added to the repertoire?

5. It’s been a big year for Hoefler & Co. Not only did the foundry release three new typefaces—Operator, Whitney Narrow and the display face Chronicle Hairline—but Operator (pictured below) was also selected by a group of experts as one of Print’s Best New Typefaces of 2016. In addition, Hoefler & Co. released Office Fonts, designed specifically for business software such as Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint, as well as Apple’s Pages, Numbers and Keynote. Goth
am and other Hoefler & Co. typefaces can now be used in word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. And thanks to some smart features the foundry built in, you won’t have to worry about faux bold (outlined, fake bold) or faux italics (sloped forward, fake italics).


6. On Feb. 18, the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York City unveiled Paula Scher’s exhibition “U.S.A.,” a collection of the Pentagram partner’s meticulous map paintings. When viewed from afar, the paintings—some as large as seven-feet high—have rich textures and colors, drawing the crowd in for a better look. Up close, viewers are rewarded with intensely detailed lettering and line that builds on the topography—or covers it, depending on your perspective. Equal parts visualization, information design, cartography, expression and critique, this collection was Scher’s second solo exhibition with Bryce Wolkowitz. Scher, who began painting maps in the 1990s, says she’s working toward another show in the next year or two.


7. The ride-sharing company Uber rolled out a new brand identity early in the year, taking a fork in the road by moving away from its ‘U’ lettermark. The new app icon for riders, with its white circular shape centered in a rounded-corner square, looks less like a letter and more like a wheel—maybe even an early, primitive stone wheel. If you’re an Uber driver who uses the app on a smartphone, you’ll see a hexagonal version of the identity. The icons also have distinct colors and patterns depending on the country where they’re being used. Despite the mixed reception it’s received, the new identity still feels like a step forward.


8. Fontsmith released a bevy of typefaces in 2016, with FS Siena being one of the shop’s proudest achievements. Designed by Jason Smith and Krista Radoeva, Fontsmith describes the face as a “modern contrasted sans serif tailor-made for high-end brands.” One look at it and you’ll have flashbacks of Optima, which is spot-on because Fontsmith’s founder, Smith, would redraw letterforms based on Hermann Zapf’s classic while in college. But FS Siena is its own typeface, what Smith calls a “personal interpretation.” For anyone wondering how closely the two perform, you’ll have to test-drive FS Siena yourself to get a sense of its flavor, curves and balance.


9. Superhero fans rejoiced when Marvel announced in March that Squirrel Girl would get her own graphic novel. The lighthearted character debuted in 1992, possessing the superhuman strength and speed of a squirrel, in addition to an ability to communicate with her namesake rodents. Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl, has battled big baddies in previous runs, and in her new stand-alone adventure—created by artist Erica Henderson and writer Ryan North—she’ll square off against an evil Squirrel Girl clone. Fans, alongside new readers, are sure to go nuts for it. (Sorry.)


10. In April the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman, who dedicated her life to fighting for liberty, would replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the redesigned $20 bill. The back of the bill will feature The White House and an image of Jackson. In addition to the new $20, fresh designs for the $10 and $5 are forthcoming. The new $10 is set to celebrate the women’s suffrage movement and will include Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul. The redesigned $5 will feature Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt, marking historic events that took place at the Lincoln Memorial.


11. Right before graduation season kicked off and as young designers were preparing to embark on the job hunt, they had the privilege of getting advice from none other than AIGA Medalist Sean Adams. In his “Basic Business Etiquette for Young Designers” presentation available online, Adams helps tomorrow’s creative leaders understand what to do in the professional world—and, of course, what not to do. During an interview over lunch, brunch or dinner, what hand should you hold your fork with? What should you wear? How do you handle a mistake? It’s a must-read for inquiring designers preparing to navigate the job market.


12. New York–based Harris Publications shut down in late April, pulling the plug on a variety of newsstand staples. Founded in 1977, Harris produced a broad range of magazines, mostly of the special-interest variety, including Celebrity Hairstyles, Who’s Who in Baseball and Guns & Weapons. Harris cited “the rapid ascendance of digital media [and] changing consumer content preferences” as forces they were not able to “persevere against.” Publishers, especially those dedicated to magazines, have been coping with massive changes, and more are undoubtedly on the way over the short- and long-term as technology takes a firmer grip on the way readers consume news, entertainment and education.


13. Typography fans, writers, editors and devotees of AP Style at large had a lot to celebrate in April when the Associated Press announced that lowercase would be the new norm for the words internet and web. Gone are the days of scanning an article in a newspaper or magazine and stumbling upon the distracting Internet or Web, slowing down the read and perhaps mistaking either—or both—as a moniker for a person, albeit a person named
after the place where you look for funny cat videos or the latest Star Wars teaser (or, who knows, a video of the latest Star Wars teaser starring cats).


14. Whether you love it or hate it, the new Instagram logo (launched in May) is here to stay. Do you miss the old one? Do you see the treatment as a cop-out? One thing’s for certain: The new icon does stand out from all the other apps in your smartphone. The gradient! The bright colors! We’d show you an image of it, but Instagram has very strict guidelines for their brand elements. Anyhow, chances are you have the app on your smartphone already, so if you do, share your thoughts on the logo with #InstagramLogoProblems.

15. Over the summer, legendary illustrator Seymour Chwast’s visual history of conflict, At War With War, was successfully funded on Kickstarter. “I always wondered why civilization has advanced since the dawn of man, in invention and technology for instance, while warfare, the killing of adversaries and grabbing land, has not changed,” Chwast wrote in an email. “My plan was to expose the stupidity and banality that has resulted in 5,000 years of carnage with no end in sight. Using a timeline as a device, with its persistence of war after war, the reader might become aware of a fatal weakness in the human psyche.”


16. Transport for London’s Johnston typeface, an iconic element found in the city’s bus, rail and Underground systems, received a facelift on its June centennial in the form of Johnston100. Monotype designed the face, with type director Nadine Chahine and senior type designer Malou Verlomme beginning the challenging process with a visit to the London Transport Museum Depot. Johnston100 harkens back to Edward Johnston’s 1916 designs for the original London Underground typeface, but the revised version has some special character all its own, with the added bonus of being flexible enough to work in print and digital domains, from small sizes to large display uses. Monotype, Pentagram, SEA and Alan Kitching also designed special-edition centennial posters.


17. Google redesigned its Google Fonts site this summer, making it easier to navigate, find and use webfonts. You can now browse by theme, or sort fonts by popularity or trends. Type designers and foundries have a presence in the ecosystem too, giving users background info about the fonts’ creators and their work. You can also use Google’s signature collaborative tools to share webfont collections and get your team aligned from a usage and backend development perspective. As a bonus to the redesigned site, Google threw in three new font releases: Scope One from Dalton Maag, Bungee by David Jonathan Ross with Font Bureau, and Space Mono from Colophon with Benjamin Critton.


18. How much can be said about Pokémon GO? A lot. Fans and non-fans all over the world downloaded the app to Catch’em All through an augmented reality game of hide and seek, seek and hide—but watch where you’re walking as you chase those critters because if you’re not careful you’ll step into traffic, on top of your cat, onto the subway tracks, or off a cliff. It launched in July, and by August the app had racked up 100 million downloads … a record that was soon smashed when it hit 500 million in September. Will fans continue playing the game in the coming months, years? Time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: It has redefined, again, how we interact with our phones and the world around us, and has brought AR into the mainstream spotlight and the hands of millions of users—many of them, perhaps, tomorrow’s designers.


19. Ever wonder what font you’re looking at? Of course you have. (Come on, don’t deny it.) Thankfully, there’s the prospect of Fiona O’Leary’s Spector, a prototype that aims to take the guesswork out of font identification—and beyond typography, even identifies colors. To operate Spector, users position it above a font or color, press a button, and it takes a photo with a macro camera and cross-references the font in a database (O’Leary says the software works as an InDesign plugin).

“I came up with this idea last November, from my frustration with designing for print on screen,” she says. “You have no idea of scale of the page or typography, and colors often visualize differently too. … If you are going to design for print on screen, why not start with print material? And why not make it interactive?”

While O’Leary points out that it’d be a great tool for students starting out in the field, we can’t help but want to get our hands on what Wired aptly described as “Shazam for fonts” too.


20. “Stranger Things” debuted on Netflix in July, full of 1980s ephemera and a strangely recognizable typeface in the show’s opening sequence, directed by Michelle Dougherty of Imaginary Forces. As the project’s creative director, Dougherty oversaw development of one of the most striking title sequences we’ve seen in some time. When asked about the secret behind the show’s highly effective titles, Dougherty points to two factors, the first being the great Benguiat typeface (known for appearing on Stephen King book covers). Secondly, “We tried to mimic a real optical title, which was the way a lot of titles were still being made in the ’80s. Creating an optical title uses film, so the nature of light passing through film creates a more analog look. This, along with other inconsistencies that happen with film, make the audience consider the image as material, which gives it that haptic quality that we tried to achieve. Essentially our eyes identify these images as textured, so we are basically bri
nging the sense of touch, but through our eyes.”


21. Pentagram’s Michael Bierut, Luke Hayman, Hamish Smyth and Andrea Trabucco-Campos revamped the Mastercard brand in July, attempting to take it into the 21st century by removing the wordmark overlay that has been part of the identity since 1968. “To create the new symbol, the designers isolated the brand’s elements to their purest form,” Pentagram detailed. “From the very beginning, in 1968, Mastercard’s brand mark has relied on extraordinarily simple elements: two interlocking circles in red and yellow.” The new wordmark uses the sans serif FF Mark, and its geometric, circular forms directly relate to the brand’s interlocking circles.


22. Retro video game fanatics had the time of their lives for a brief moment in August when thousands of Commodore Amiga PC games went online at the Internet Archive, free and playable in one’s browser. But it was quickly Game Over. As the Internet Archive stated, “After a beta-testing period, the emulated Amiga programs at the Archive have been taken down for further development.” No matter how long you got to spend playing “Double Dragon” and other titles in August, it probably wasn’t enough. Silver lining? The Apple II Library of games, aka “The 4am Collection,” is still up and going strong, with plenty of new games being added as of this writing.


Kaiiv [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)]

23. In an AIGA exclusive, and just in time for the 2016 Olympic season to kick off, the legendary Milton Glaser ranked every modern Olympics logo up to the identity for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. He assessed graphics, color, typography and complexity, among other elements, along with originality. The list goes as far back as the Paris Summer Olympics of 1924. The Athens Summer 2004 identity scored high—90 out of 100. The Tokyo Summer Olympics of 1964 scored the highest with 92. The 2016 Rio Summer Olympics identity earned a respectable 85, with Glaser calling it “fresh and contemporary.”


Logo courtesy International Olympic Committee

24. Like fizzy water? Fan of LaCroix? Then you probably spent time at www.mylacroix.com creating your own flavors and blasting them all over social media. From pumpkin spice LaCroix to carne asada LaCroix to herring LaCroix, a selection of fun, wild, gross and, at times, tasteless, flavors created at the site went viral on Twitter and Facebook in September. The site, created by Mike McMillan (and not affiliated with the real LaCroix), was brought to life by the studio Nelson Cash. McMillan, a designer and developer, led the concept, design and development of the project, but had help along the way courtesy of his co-workers Michael Mesker, Franky Martinez, Gage Salzano and Brittany Skwierczynski, as well as Sarah Gless, who wrote a post on Medium about the project. Ultimately, McMillan says he’s a fan of LaCroix and it does give him joy. “I’m trying to limit myself to just one at lunch per day, but it takes a lot of self-control.”


25. In June, Apple announced a whirlwind of new features for iOS, tvOS, watchOS and the renamed macOS. In September the refreshed operating systems debuted, along with a (surprise, surprise) audio-jack–less iPhone 7 and wireless AirPods. iOS 10 users have also been able to take advantage of an enhanced iMessage, including more diverse emojis, as well as handwriting options and message bursts. But perhaps the most surprising news about Apple had nothing to do with the company’s current operating systems or graphics. Rather, software developer John Brooks released an update for the classic Apple II computer family (the first since 1993), complete with new features and bug fixes, dubbed ProDOS 2.4—a suitable release for the 30th anniversary of the Apple IIGS. But Brooks didn’t stop there with his hobby. In late September, he released the ProDOS 8 System Disk 4.4 with ProDOS 2.4.1.


26. Dubbed a “rational, utilitarian typeface inspired by street signage,” November was designed by Peter Biľak and released in September by the Typotheque Type Foundry. Biľak sees November as distinctive in form and function, as well as breadth. “What makes it truly unique is that it comes with the support of five writing scripts—Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic, covering a few hundred languages. Suitable for signage, this workhorse comes in handy for long-form text as well.” Nikola Djurek assisted with the production of the fonts, and Irina Smirnova designed the Cyrillic version.

Type specimen of Fedra Serif Pro / Std, and overview of OpenType layout features

27. Google Glass may be a thing of the past and augmented reality the future thanks to Pokémon GO, but nobody expected what a popular communication app would release in early autumn: glasses … or “Spectacles,” to be specific. The sunglasses are capable of recording 10-second videos and come by way of Snap Inc., the company responsible for Snapchat. Retailing for roughly $130—and being resold online for thousands of dollars—they connect to your devices via Bluetooth or wi-fi. The company touts the 115-degree camera as being able to capture “the human perspective”—which, Snap is likely hoping, has a longer lifespan than Google Glass.

28. Beginning in June, Firefox cr
eator Mozilla began working on a brand identity redesign—and much in the spirit of their open-source browser, they made the entire process public. Brand values and visual themes were all showcased on Mozilla’s blog, where anyone could observe the process and also weigh in on its direction. Posts such as “What we’ve learned so far … and why we deserve a dope-slap” prove that for Mozilla, the design process is a learning experience, and one in which the company wants to glean as much as possible about itself along the way. “I guess we expected some pushback—but the level of vitriol for the first stage was quite high!” says Michael Johnson, creative director at Johnson Banks. “Having said that, apart from expected mud-slinging, many developers and coders took time out to really write lengthy and considered feedback, which has to be respected. The second round has just been published, taking on board many comments and views, and thus far the comments online are much more measured—and many of them are quite positive. … When a decision is finally made, and the new brand chosen and adopted, what I’m anticipating is that the traditional ‘logo furor’ will effectively be nonexistent, because everyone will have had their say already.” We’ll see.


29. Tobias Frere-Jones opened his new foundry Frere-Jones Type in December 2015, and following the release of the Mallory typeface, the foundry is back with Retina, another labor of love. And boy, did Frere-Jones labor. Retina has quite a history, “the longest history of any typeface I’ve designed,” Frere-Jones says. “Its roots go back to 1990 or 1991, while I was still a student at RISD, wanting to learn about typeface design and technique. Also, the larger questions of how we read.” Frere-Jones calls Retina a low-contrast sans serif that attempts to answer a challenge he posed to himself when learning about typography and type design, and when he set out to create the typeface: “How much information do we need to interpret letters at the tiniest sizes?” His independent research and experimentation, plus his experience at Font Bureau, all factored into Retina’s design and development, and played a big role leading up to its release in October.


30. If you have some money left over after the winter holidays and want to upgrade your gaming system, don’t bother with a flashy Xbox, PlayStation or Wii. Those systems take up a lot of shelf space and games can be costly. Moreover, many of your favorite classics such as “Donkey Kong,” “Pac-Man” and “Galaga” might not be available there. Fortunately you can get those games and more, all on one unit, without the hassle of having to insert a new cartridge or disc for each game or waiting for a download from the cloud. The new Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition fits in the palm of your hand and comes stocked with 30 classic titles, all for well under $100. The only downside? Those are the 30 games that you’ll be playing indefinitely, since it doesn’t come with a way to connect to the web … and the retro edge suddenly feels a bit more real.

Looking Forward

No matter how we engage with design or how we create it, you have to ask yourself, What makes something new, memorable, fresh? Art, design, illustration or however you label it should touch us on another level, beyond the printed page and beyond the screen. Creating it should provide just as much—maybe more—of an emotional reaction.

Whenever I think of creativity and emotion, 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory comes to mind. The film turned 45 years old in the summer of 2016 and starred the late Gene Wilder, who passed away months after the film’s anniversary. Most people think about the movie and reflect on the children and their journey. I’ve always been spellbound by the man himself, by Wonka. He was infatuated with design (albeit, well, candy design).

At one of his calmest moments in the film, Wilder—who could play manic or calm and everything in between—sums up his role as Wonka when Veruca Salt challenges him: “Snozzberries? Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”

Wonka confidently—even eerily—replies, “We are the music makers … and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

Wonka was enthusiastic about everything he created and he believed in it all, even the failures. The artists, designers and illustrators, as well as developers who produced work in 2016—and who will continue to produce work in 2017 and beyond—all share something with Wonka: an insatiable appetite for creativity, despite the ebbs and flows of the industry and the parameters of what is deemed a success or a failure. At the end of the day, that creativity is what matters most.