Monday, 29 November 2010

John Sewell

I don't know much about John Sewell, I know that he designed covers for Penguin and Calder & Boyars in the 60s and 70s. I know that he liked stars, dots and tearing paper. But that is about it.

I bought The Clown by Heinrich Boll a few years ago (which is a great book by the way) and I've always loved the cover. There is something odd about it, it feels crude but knowing, and there is something troubling about the repetition of the mouth instead of eyes. I also love the use of colour.

A few years later I was in my local bookshop – where I spend quite a lot of time – and I saw a Terry Southern book. The cover style was immediately recognisable to me, although I wasn't sure where from.  Sure enough when I got it home and compared it to The Clown, it was the same designer.

The Terry Southern cover is even more playful and crude than The Clown. The use of the design brief on the cover might have been a first – it reminds me of Hipgnosis' treatment of XTC's Go 2 but that was designed in 1978, 12 years after this. What I really enjoy is the feeling that this is making fun of the brief. The fact that they ask the designer to 'Emphasize author' and John Sewell has approached this by putting Terry's name on there four times and the initials T S crudely and boldly placed smack in the centre.

There is something about Sewell's style that is instantly recognisable – in these later examples at least, covers for books like Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving are much more generic – and surely that is what most designers struggle for. There is a sense of playfulness about them and a joyful careless quality. You can sense the designers hand. I like that fact that his best covers are treated as pure compositions. On the Writing Today designs each cover is a wonderfully playful composition with the Penguin logo treated as a tool to balance the layout and because of this is is placed anywhere and on any angle that is required for it to work. He seems to work best when there isn't any constraints. The covers he designed using the standard Penguin paperback layout look like they are straining to break free of the rules placed up them.

If I had never bought The Clown I would have more than likely never heard of John Sewell and I think that would have been a great shame. I don't think that the covers he designed could have been produced by anybody else and without knowing anything about the man, I get a sense of someone who had a carefree sense of humour and wasn't afraid to experiment or ignore rules and for that I am grateful.


You can see John Sewell's designs for Penguin HERE

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Anorak 17

Anorak 17 is out! It's theme is books. As part of the feature myself and Cathy got to go to the British Library and see some really lovely old books including the Caxton second edition of the Canturbury Tales from 1483, it was pretty amazing.

You can get an Anorak subscription for only £13 a year here
A perfect gift for children this christmas!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

(Not So) Perfect Print

Let's face it, perfection is boring. There's something much more interesting in a slightly imperfect face than one that is scientifically beautiful, of course it is a nice thing to look at, but for only a while, soon the very thing that makes it beautiful also makes it boring, there are no surprises, no uniqueness or character. So it is with print. I have noticed over the past few years that the work I've had coming back from the printers has looked more and more like the artwork that I produced. Now, this is really what I should be hoping for but there's something of an anti climax when you open a package of your new bit of print and it look exactly like what you were expecting. There is a lack of process involved in modern print, with artwork going straight from computer to plate. The result of this is things are so crisp and perfect that they look cold and flat. There's little in the way of texture (unless you are printing on textured paper) and everything is ultra sharp. (I've scanned in an example of new print, but even the process of scanning has softened the modern print a little, but the differences to the print on the Penguin cover are very apparant)

When I first started working as a designer artworks went through a range of processes way before it got to the plate stage. Typesetting would be produced photographically, which immediately gave it a softness, logos may have been duplicated many times, so they also had a warmth about them that comes from repeated copies being made on a bromide camera, everything had a physicality about it. Then, once the artwork had been produced, the films had to be made. If colours were jutting up against each other, the film of the lighter colour was made slightly out of focus to give it some spread or choke to compensate for the imperfect printing press. This trapping would add another element to the final print – which was never really part of the design – that would give a screenprinted feel. The translucent nature of the inks was very apparent, the printing process was not hidden. Now things look very similar to what you see on screen. Even the halftone dot has become so small (or replaced completely by dithering) it's beauty is invisible to us.

Of course, you can't make printing unpredictable again. The majority of people using print will find the consistency a wondrous thing, and for designers it means the nerves before getting that print job back are not quite as bad as when things were a little bit more unpredictable. The thing is I don't think the end result always looks as good as it once did when things were much more analogue. The warmth and beautiful softness of paste-up artwork has been replaced with coldness and sharpness that lacks a certain humanity about it. Typefaces that were designed with ink spread in mind are now reproduced exactly as they are when viewed on the computer, and it doesn't really suit them. 

When I'm designing a logo or typeface, I often round off the corners slightly (see sample below), it's very subtle and most people will not notice, but the difference is the difference between old print and new, the difference between warm and cold and, given the choice, I'd go for warm every time.

Rob Lowe - 21st November 2010

Friday, 19 November 2010

Hand Lettering

I've been doing a LOT of hand lettering over the last few weeks, here is a sample of just a bit of it.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Not InHouse

I did little talk last week at BrandHouse which was fun.
They screenprinted a limited edition print, the proceeds of
selling it are going to Unicef. There are still some of the 50
left, if you want one email Keely ( )
More pictures here: