6 Unsung Heroes of Design
Print has been acquired by an independent group of collaborators—Deb Aldrich, Laura Des Enfants, Jessica Deseo, Andrew Gibbs, Steven Heller and Debbie Millman—and soon enough, we’ll be back in full force with an all-new look, all-new content and a fresh outlook for the future! In the meantime, we’re looking back at some of our favorite pieces, such as this one by Angela Riechers. Enjoy.
There are iconic works of graphic design—for instance, the identity for The Man With the Golden Arm, the IBM logo, Ray Gun magazine, to name just a few—that have become inseparably linked in our minds with the famous designers who created them (Saul Bass, Paul Rand, and David Carson, respectively). But what about the equally important designers whose names have somehow become separated from their work—when seeing the design doesn’t conjure up a name, and vice versa? I’m talking about instances when someone instantly recognizes a book cover, poster or magazine layout and says something like, “Oh that’s always been one of my favorite pieces!” But then a puzzled look creeps in, and the next thing out of the person’s mouth is, “Remind me who did that again?”
Following is an admittedly subjective list of six unsung heroes of graphic design, and why their names and work deserve to be recalled together. An important distinction to note is that we are not talking about unknown designers—these are all renowned individuals. Think professors and art directors whose names appear in design history books, many of whom are recipients of prestigious awards from AIGA, the Type Directors Club and other esteemed organizations. (The particular reader will notice that one name here, Andrew Loomis, was not, technically speaking, a graphic designer but an illustrator—just remember, subjective list.)
These are people who, for inexplicable reasons, don’t always have the brand recognition they’ve earned. Consider this an attempt to repair a half-dozen broken links in the collective visual memory.
Sutnar, a Czech designer (1897–1976), was one of the first practitioners of what is now called information design. His clear and logical systems for distributing information across a page or spread make his work relevant still today, particularly in information architecture for the web. Sutnar was well known in his native Europe as a Modernist designer, a professor of design and later the director at Prague’s State School of Graphic Arts, and the recipient of multiple design awards, including more than a dozen Grand Prix and gold medals at Paris’ 1937 International Exhibition.
After emigrating to the U.S. in 1939, Sutnar developed graphic systems that organized complicated sets of numbers and other minute data into streamlined tables and grids for American businesses such as F.W. Dodge’s Sweet’s Catalog Service (where he served as art director from 1941–1960) and Bell Telephone System. He created beautifully structured grid and tab systems and used common punctuation marks, such as commas, colons and exclamation points as major design elements. English was not his first language, yet Sutnar produced work with such clarity of structure and organization that it effortlessly communicated the appropriate messages to his American clients.
His real unsung moment occurred when Bell Telephone first introduced area codes in 1947 to keep up with the demand for new numbers brought on by rapid growth of the telephone network. It was Sutnar who came up with the strategy of enclosing the area code within parentheses. This seems relatively minor as far as innovations go, until you consider its larger implications. By corralling off the area code into its own pen framed by parentheses, a simple graphic device helped render the number plus area code less visually daunting and seemingly hard to remember. The end result was that users accepted that phone numbers were getting nearly 50% longer, without putting up much resistance.
Sutnar’s thoughtful solution to this particular design problem reflects a philosophy seen throughout his work: Create an effective and well-structured graphic system, and even the most challenging material can become pleasing to the eye.
Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Nick Lowe, Squeeze, The Damned, Billy Bragg—British graphic designer Bubbles (1942–1983), born Colin Fulcher, designed album covers for all of them, as well as for many other punk/New Wave bands during the ’70s and early ’80s. Bubbles also created the video for “Ghost Town” by ska band The Specials, which became somewhat of an anthem for a dark era of social upheaval and joblessness in London. His album covers are perfectly in keeping with the DIY punk tradition of gig posters, handbills and fanzines made with cut-out newspaper lettering (or transfer/press-on lettering or typewriters), Magic Markers, cellophane tape and a photocopier—but they elevate the process by several notches. Bubbles’ work displayed a definite intellectual rigor underneath his reliance on screaming colors, seemingly random overlapping geometric shapes and purposefully crude compositions, as well as a playfulness that was not always appreciated by the suits in charge. For example, his deliberately off-centered cover of Elvis Costello’s album This Year’s Model, which appeared to accidentally crop off the left side of the artwork, allowing a printer’s color registry bar to show at right, could be found for only a short while before Columbia “corrected” it. Apparently, the captains of the music industry didn’t trust the record-buying public to get the joke. Or maybe they didn’t get it themselves. In any event, Bubbles’ design style was a perfect match for Elvis Costello, both musically as well as visually—Costello with his ironic Buddy Holly glasses and haircut coupled with a ferocious if not particularly musical singing voice, Bubbles with his sly and subversive design approach that references both the brattiness of punk and still manages to give a hat tip to classic album sleeve designers like Alex Steinweiss.
Encompassing a variety of graphic styles, some even drawing on the original banded grid of Penguin paperback covers (devised by the company’s production manager Edward Young in 1935), Bubbles’ body of work holds together because the underlying design thinking displays a consistent wit and willingness to turn things inside out in search of something entirely unexpected.
He is an unsung hero for the way he drew upon the vernacular to create a striking and original graphic language for a new type of music, a language that completely nailed its subject matter and is still widely copied today.
An Austrian-born graphic designer, Pineles (1908–1991) achieved several notable firsts in the industry: The first woman ever to hold the title of art director at a major magazine. The first woman admitted to the New York Art Directors Club (1948) and, in 1975, the first woman inducted into its Hall of Fame.
Pineles came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1923 and later became an illustrator, design teacher and groundbreaking art director who had no female peers during the golden era of midcentury American magazine design. After meeting Conde Nast at a party and impressing him with her work, in 1932 she was hired as an assistant to Conde Nast publications’ art director, M. F. Agha, who immediately recognized and encouraged her talent. By 1942 Pineles was promoted to art director of Glamour.
Pineles went on to shape the design vision of Seventeen and Charm in the years to come, always bringing a keen level of thought to her work. She hired fine artists like Ben Shahn and Andy Warhol to illustrate stories, and was an accomplished illustrator herself. Pineles had an innate understanding of how to create magazines that would speak to what women needed to know and really wanted to read about.
Seventeen, for instance, was the first title to acknowledge that teenage girls did not want to act and dress like their mothers but rather represented a unique demographic with its own previously untapped set of considerations for designers and writers to address. Later on, at Charm, Pineles created a magazine for women stepping away from traditional roles as wives and mothers to become part of the workforce after WWII. Charm spoke to the new list of concerns facing these women, such as how to balance a job with a home life, how to dress for work, how to navigate in office situations largely dominated by men—areas where professional women still turn to magazines for advice.
Throughout her life, Pineles was surrounded by successful male art directors who often overshadowed her—Agha, her first husband William Golden (design director of CBS), and her second husband Will Burtin (art director of Fortune magazine and a father of corporate identity design). Even today, far more people can call to mind the work done by her contemporary Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar than anything Pineles created, but she was fully his equal as someone who made valuable, unique and lasting contributions to her profession.
Bacon (1923–2015) was an American graphic designer and jazz musician whose album covers for Blue Note Records and Riverside Records are familiar to jazz fans everywhere. But it was his “Big Book Look” that created the memorable visual identities that defined some of the late 20th century’s bestselling books. This innovative, direct and indelible cover design approach graced titles like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962), Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (1967), Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969) and Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974). Although these are just a fraction of Bacon’s own estimated lifetime tally of roughly 6,500 covers, they make up a good representative sample: a minimal use of (or lack of) imagery paired with large, often hand-drawn letters limited to the title and author’s name. Bacon’s covers had the immediate appeal and impact of posters, and stood out in the crowded environment of shelves packed with titles whose covers relied on more expected design tropes.
Bacon first devised this strategy in 1956 when Simon & Schuster asked him to design the cover for Compulsion by Meyer Levin, the true story of how two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, killed a boy as an experiment in committing the perfect crime. Wishing to avoid anything that would seem lurid or prurient, Bacon came up with a crudely scrawled title and author name, with two tiny red figures seeming to run toward the horizon, and the Big Book Look was born.
Other notable designers of the era such as Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig had a strong Modernist feel to their work that is absent from Bacon’s. As a designer of mass-market commercial covers meant to appeal to a wide audience (as opposed to small press volumes of criticism or literature expected to draw a much tinier readership), Bacon was faced with a different set of design parameters and reacted accordingly, creating intelligent covers that came to be seen as the definitive versions no matter how many different editions of the books were published over the years. They may seem a bit dated now, but they represented a major shift in the way book cover designers approached their work.
Loomis (1892–1959) was an American illustrator and art instructor. He worked as a commercial artist for the advertising industry and magazines during the 1940s and 1950s, but he also wrote a half-dozen memorable books on how to draw, all of which use a warm, accessible tone to convey staggering amounts of information on perspective, lighting, volumes, anatomy and composition. His realistic style was reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s, and like Rockwell he illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post, but Loomis’ most lasting impact was as a teacher.
In his books, he was able to break down the components of drawing from life into easy-to-understand units, with many examples on a single page preceded by a clear written explanation of, say, the difference between the proportions of the head of a toddler and that of a teenager. He demonstrated the mathematical relationships found within the ideal human figure and then showed how to foreshorten or rotate that figure in space, what happens as a person ages, what the effects of different emotions are upon the features. None of this is specific to him—certainly all good instructors cover the same ground—but his drawings have an assured confidence that makes them iconic examples of how to draw a head, lips, a woman stretching her limbs, a 90-year-old man. His work breathes with life and vitality. Part of his lasting charm lies in the little off -the-cuff handwritten remarks found scattered among the illustrations on the pages of his books, advice like “Eyelids work like the lips!” or indicating the single word “pad” over and over on an illustration of a hand wherever the fat deposits fall on the palm and fingertips. Thinking of a palm as a padded thing is instantly understandable and helpful to a student struggling to keep her versions of hands from looking like gruesome claws.
When Loomis’ titles went out of print, there was a tremendous demand for them on the used-book market, with some fetching hundreds of dollars in any condition. Fortunately they were recently reissued as facsimile editions by Titan Books, and several complete PDF versions are available on the internet. Loomis’ pages are packed with information but never look cluttered or daunting—a challenge universal to both artistic instructors and graphic designers at large.
Ansel (born 1938) was just 24 years old when she became the co-art director, with Bea Feitler, of Harper’s Bazaar in the ’60s. In the ’70s she was art director of The New York Times Magazine, and in the ’80s she was art director of Vanity Fair. At each magazine, it was the first time a woman held the top title in the art department. Over the years she collaborated with Richard Avedon, Hiro, Peter Beard and Bill King to produce some of the most memorable magazine photography ever published. Ansel was responsible for some of Bazaar’s most daring issues: For the April 1965 issue, guest-edited by Richard Avedon, Jean Shrimpton appears on the cover in a shocking-pink paper cutout space helmet accented with a lenticular winking eye. Inside are layouts featuring Shrimpton in a real NASA spacesuit over a comic book galactic background, a baby-faced Paul McCartney in the spacesuit (minus helmet) and a full-spread photo of Shrimpton dancing, printed in silver metallic ink. That issue also represents the first time any American fashion magazine dared to include a picture of a black model, running an image of Donyale Luna wearing a Galanos gown. The whole thing was a visual triumph, a celebration of youth culture and music and space exploration, perfectly capturing the aura of adventure and possibility saturating America in the ’60s. Its design remains as inviting now as it did nearly 50 years ago.
Today’s magazine designers continue to look to Ansel for inspiration. To give just one example, her February 1965 Bazaar cover featuring Steve McQueen’s grinning face being caressed by an elegant female arm piled with jeweled bangles (the first time a man appeared on a women’s magazine cover!) has been widely imitated. She perfectly translated into 2D form everything that was happening in the culture at large, and laid it out in splendid detail for her readers. Ansel occupies a place in the elite strata of art directors who created their own worlds on the page, dazzling the rest of us with the scope of their imaginations.