Spring 2001

Looking this way and that

Edward Fella: Letters on America

Edited by Lewis Blackwell, Laurence King, £25

This Way: Signage Design for Public Spaces

James Grayson Trulove, Rockport, £29.99

In his introductory essay to Ed Fella’s book Lewis Blackwell writes: “America, unlike Europe, for the most part does not have urban space that is made up from the accretion of building forms over many centuries. Instead, the rich layering of most of the built environment has arrived with the industrial and post-industrial age . . . Thus signage is part of the environment, of the built form, a part of the tradition in a way that does not apply in the capitals or small towns of Europe.” This centrality of the sign to America is what links these two books, but the choice of which signs and the America they represent could hardly be more different.

This Way claims to showcase “the latest and most effective designs in graphic systems for navigation and identification”. To someone with a love of urban areas, the way they grow and change, and the way design becomes part of that whole, this ought to be a book worth opening and reading seriously. For European readers much of the content is a real culture shock and therefore the book could be an important eye-opener. However, prejudices may then get in the way of appreciation: it would be easy to dismiss much of the illustrated work as context-free, brash, oversized and even saccharine. Easy, but probably wrong. The solutions which are unashamedly all of those things are also the strongest in the book. When they try and do “posh” it just isn’t as successful.

The problems with the book concerns its look – it feels and reads like a corporate brochure – and its ambition. The book contains chapters on exhibitions, identity, spaces, signage and retail, each of which are quite different disciplines. In a book of only 192 pages, 59 projects are squeezed in. While there are many that merit closer inspection and detailed, detached discussion, there is simply not the space here to do them justice.

Ed Fella’s book, in direct contrast, documents another aspect of US signage. It shows 1100 Polaroids, one-third of a collection taken over the past twelve years, of every kind of non-corporate, hand-made, weathered, imperfect piece of lettering you can imagine. These are interspersed with examples of Ed’s own drawn letterforms and accompanied by essays by Blackwell and Lorraine Wild.

The book is well designed by Fella himself and Wild: the Polaroids are reproduced same size, and different paper stocks are used as appropriate to the subject matter. Although not immediately suggesting the seriousness of This Way, its beguiling simplicity and coherence of vision make it by far the more interesting of the two books.

Phil Baines, designer, tutor of typography, Central St Martins, London

First published in Eye no. 39 vol. 10, 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published 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.