Spring 2008

They design themselves

A2’s work is based on conceptual rigour, a feel for print process and a unique flair for bespoke typefaces

As the light falls across the cover of Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty, the play of shadows on those two embossed words draws attention to the physical beauty – both sensual and brutal – of hot foil pressing down on virgin paper, as much as it does the promise of the tale. With its bespoke typeface drawn with references to Roman proportions, the classical standards of beauty, the concept is as tightly embedded in the content of the book as the lettering in the cover. Suffused with a feel for the processes of print, this design is characteristic of the broader spectrum of work by designers Scott Williams and Henrik Kubel of the London design studio A2 / SW / HK.

Their name refers to the standard paper format and as this suggests, A2 have as much passion for the characteristics of mass-market mass-reproduction as the beauty of craft practices. Quite simply, A2 was the poster size of most of their joint projects at the Royal College of Art (1998-2000). ‘We didn’t think too hard about it,’ they say and yet the name has come to reflect an economy of means at play in their work, which is both understated and startling.

For instance, an installation created by A2 for Tate Britain’s controversial Turner Prize exhibition – essentially a ‘fifth space’ (after the four rooms of short-listed artists) in which to linger, swap notes and leave your mark. This room is walled by wooden panels with rows of A6 sheets, headed ‘COMMENTS’, hanging, via a hole through the printed ‘O’, from what seem to be pieces of dowel but are actually pencils with which to write thoughts about the show.

Design. Graphic design
Such attention to the materials, processes and artefacts of graphic communication is evident on entering A2’s studio on the third floor of an old textile warehouse in Hoxton, east London. For the interview, Williams and Kubel have laid key projects out for perusal, so we can pick them up. The first thing we discuss is a set of stamps for the Royal Mail to celebrate the centenary of British writer Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Each stamp shows four different editions of a single Bond title, thumbed and creased with use, laid out in the elongated landscape format as if on a library display shelf.

One of the first-class stamps showcases Casino Royale, the first Bond novel. Over two months Williams and Kubel researched, located, retrieved and photographed every edition published over the past 50 years. ‘Once the concept had been worked out, the stamps then essentially designed themselves,’ Williams says. It may be, in Kubel’s words, ‘a visually conservative outcome’, but it is conceptually brilliant. The run of stamps not only shows the fictional spy’s legacy, standing testimony to his enduring popularity, but the covers’ illustration styles trace the changing visual culture of our times, from the first edition of Casino Royale (1952), designed by Fleming himself, through the tacky early 1980s cover, to today. All that, on a format no bigger than a thumbnail.

‘Most projects start like this with a conceptual underpinning and then they tend to design themselves. Without the concept, it’s dead,’ Kubel says. A2’s work eschews stylistic and personal preoccupations, particularly the idea of a ‘house style’. ‘We have a methodology – certain things we do. It’s not systematic – not ticking boxes. It’s a route of work we take, all the while discussing with the clients.’

This working method can be traced in a2’s new identity for FaulknerBrowns Architects, a practice established in 1962. Their graphic identity was still languishing in the 1970s, so A2 were briefed to ‘change everything except the name’. The only condition was that all nine directors had to agree on the design. ‘As all we had was the name, we kept going back to it. Our work is about distilling, simplifying – but if you only have a name, how do you strip that back? You go to outline – and then if you strip that back again, you get the counter forms. We could see these as 3D, in spatial terms, too.’ What jumps out is that these are the same negative spaces at play in architecture, where space is not defined by bricks and mortar so much as by the shadows cast by light falling on them. In A2’s design for screen-savers and the website (www.faulknerbrowns.co.uk), it is easy to see the analogy between page and physical space as the counters populate the desktop, floating up and down, disappearing off the page. The benefit of the kind of conceptual clarity that ‘designs itself’ is that it also explains itself. On first presentation, all nine directors understood that the design was a graphic representation of what they do. A playful statement on FaulknerBrowns’ website (as it awaits A2’s design) demonstrates how the common language of design and architecture has been embraced in-house. It says: ‘BUILDINGS AND NEW WEBSITE UNDER CONSTRUCTION.’

The fifteen typefaces used in FaulknerBrowns’ previous identity were rationalised down to one logo, one typeface in three weights (bold, regular, italic) and two colours (black and white) as both display and text fonts. This ‘visual toolbox’ can be used by any member of the 150 staff, according to need, across all media from printed stationery to animated screen-savers. ‘It’s a workhorse typeface – deliberately bland so as not to get in the way of their work,’ says Kubel.

Nothing without clients
The FaulknerBrowns project shows a synergy that according to Williams and Kubel is a result of well thought-through design buying and skill at briefing. In an era in which designers often bemoan the restrictions of commercial briefs, it is refreshing to hear them say: ‘You are nothing without your clients, but at the same time you can challenge them and the brief.’

A2’s early explorations of audience engagement in their work for the Turner Prize make renewed sense in this light. Here, the brief was to design a public comments display that would open dialogue with the public, the art world and the press. Previously, Turner Prize feedback had been confined to tabloid headlines and a traditional comments book. ‘Tate had a fairly open brief and we felt that to encourage people to comment about the exhibition publicly we needed to develop a system that would appeal to a wide range of visitors. Analogue seemed a fitting solution.’ An interactive digital solution might have been seen as seductive today, and yet A2’s more subtle approach has proved, possibly, more radical, meeting and creating a live community and space of encounter.

‘Part of the Process’ (Eye no. 59 vol. 15) showed this work as an example of Relational Aesthetics, a recent art practice that eschews making objects and instead creates scenarios that foster human relations. Williams and Kubel broadly agree, though Kubel claims: ‘This isn’t a 1990s thing. It goes way back.’ Williams qualifies this: ‘Structures are created and the public complete the design.’ After a pause, he adds: ‘The opening – when the installation was no more than several hundred blank spaces – that was intimidating.’ Its impact was confirmed when the Independent newspaper reproduced the British Culture Minister’s scribbled card to pass comment, by proxy, on that year’s nominees.

Multiple choices
This ability to use a client’s brief to mediate the practice of graphic design was also apparent in their 2001 project for the British Council touring show ‘Multiplication’. This included a shoulder bag with the words ‘This is an original Sarah Stanton Multiple for the Multiplication Show’ printed on it. The British Council had only budgeted for printing the catalogue in black and white, but because a2 believed that colour was needed to illuminate the work, they offered to print the colour plates separately on large sheets, cut out all the images and tip them into the books – personally. (With 42 plates to go into 2000 A5 catalogues, this effectively turned the studio into a hand-production line.) Although the touring nature of the exhibition meant they could stagger delivery in batches of 400, they still had to produce between 840 and 1260 tip-ins a day for six months. If this job had come up today, they could not have undertaken the finishing themselves. ‘But if it had, then we wouldn’t have changed the concept,’ says Kubel.

‘It’s craft that underpins our work. Tradition is great. Our work is not style – and it’s not influenced by the latest filter,’ says Kubel. This – as well as a desire to control the design process at every level – explains why A2 design bespoke typefaces for most projects, text as well as display. However they are not, they insist, a type foundry. For them, typefaces are as integral to the design as any other visual element. For each new project they can start from scratch and design type in context of the brief.

A2’s engagement with different design disciplines is reminiscent of Abbott Miller’s conviction that ‘Graphic designers should be encouraged to ignore the boxes that say “this is graphic design”, “this is furniture design”, etc. We need to allow ourselves to move into 3D environments. It looks different when graphic designers do it.’ For this to mean anything, one has to know what graphic designers ‘do’ and why. With A2, their work seems to be a continual re-assessment of what it means to create graphic design. What’s more, they engage the audience in this discussion, whether literally as with the Turner Prize installation, or inadvertently as with the ‘Multiplication’ catalogue, which, as a multiple in itself, later became part of the show.

On A2’s cover for The Nature of Photographs: A Primer by Stephen Shore (see review in Eye no. 66 vol. 17) is a photograph of a man’s arm holding out a photograph of a ship. The man is presumably on a boat himself, as the backdrop is the sea. This might work as a useful visual metaphor for what one gets with so many of A2’s projects: the work itself in the world and the uncanny sense of a perspective on the work and its world, on beauty in mass-reproduction.

Monika Parrinder, lecturer, writer, Limited Language, London
Colin Davies, lecturer, writer, Limited Language, London

First published in Eye no. 67 vol. 17 2008

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.