’03 til infinity

The MVA Studio weblog—thoughts on design, creativity, business, marketing, teaching, writing and culture by J. Namdev Hardisty and Kimberlee Whaley.
The work was not idea-based in the sense of cute metaphors or rhetorical tactics more familiar in advertising campaigns. It was not what I refer to as ‘one-move’ design, where an initial idea is then swiftly completed in one gesture without subsequent refinement. Our work involved multiple moves, a step-by-step compositional progression, and in that sense had a large element of craft to it.

Simon Johnston, founding partner of 8vo on the modus operandi of that studio. From his essay “Dust” for the 8vo monograph 8vo: On the Outside (2005, Lars Müller Publishers). I love the bit about “cute metaphors.”

I like things that play with reference points in such a way as to throw you off balance. Rather than pastiche, where everything is on the surface, there’s a way of triggering ones memory of things that confuses rather than makes apparent.

British designer Julian House (Intro Partners/Ghost Box records) on the way he integrates visual references into his work.

This idea of references rather than pastiche is something that really resonates with us. We like to play with this idea of a piece containing a web of references that we actually don’t care if the reader consciously understands. Each project should have multiple layers. Layer 1 is readability, composition, aesthetics; basically communication. Layer 2 is the game we play that informs the aesthetics. Sometimes you can put it together, other times we’d have to be standing there to explain a poster’s relationship to NWA and the Los Angeles Raiders.

Hand Job revisited

In 2006, I was fortunate to have a selection of my hand-drawn typography featured in Mike Perry’s Hand Job: A Catalog of Type. In addition I also contributed an essay (then under the name Sparky Hardisty [this is a longer conversation for another time]) “All Hail To My Hands” consisting of my observations on 10 years of making stuff by hand. 

If you’re familiar with The MVA’s work then you know that we don’t do very much work by hand in anymore, so it was quite interesting to receive this questionnaire from a Heidi Slimming, a Norwegian design student, asking me about the process and nature of hand-made design for a class project. It was an opportunity to go back and reflect on the changes in my own work and to suss out how I feel about analog design on the whole. I ended up giving the interview quite a bit of attention and decided that I would share it on ‘03 Til Infinity. Enjoy.—Namdev

I first found your work through the book Hand Job: A Catalog of Type by Michael Perry. I see that the work in this book is from 2003–2004. Do you still do a lot of handmade work? Why? Or why not?

I don’t do much hand-made work these days. It still has a value to me but if we do something analog in our studio (The MVA) its usually because we want something transformative to happen, as in the case of the flyer for the exhibition What Remains or for a certain effect like the photography we produced for the MCAD Magazine, or because it just makes sense like our design for the book DIY Album Art: Paper Bags & Office Supplies.

Up until Hand Job came out, I worked by hand almost by default. By 2007, I more or less abandoned working by hand or making heavy use of hand-made elements. The reasons are fairly complex but one of the bigger ones is that I often used the hand-made work as a way to “hide.” What I mean is that I often wanted to respond to projects with very straight-forward simple designs but I felt that it wasn’t “enough.” If I didn’t embed the work with a high level of visual or conceptual complexity then I felt that I was reverting back to a kind of lazy Modernism. My way of dealing with this was to do ridiculous amounts of labor-intensive drawing and tracing. A good example of this was a poster I did for Minneapolis 55408 an exhibition about artists working in a specific postal code. I went for a walk in the 55408 neighborhoods and collected scraps of paper, metal, leaves, and garbage and then photocopied each item to simplify it. I then traced and inked each drawing, scanned it in, and outlined it using the now-defunct Adobe Streamline. The tracing added nothing to the final piece but I felt compelled to do it.
On the other hand there were a few times where I achieved the level of directness that I craved though hand-made graphics. The flyer “Collective: Intensive” that is reproduced in Hand Job came close but I wish that all the lettering was just my hand-writing without the hand-drawn stencil part.

When I look at the work done by my colleagues in Hand Job you can tell that I wasn’t as “free” or truly comfortable with these methods as they were. When I began to embrace a more minimal and brutalist digital aesthetic I began to produce work that really felt like me.

But I also don’t want to totally dismiss the work I did then. I took it quite seriously at the time and my motivations were driven by an interest in post-modernism and a desire to create something that could have only come from me and my world. I also wanted evidence of my labor and tools (pen marks, photocopy glitch, uneven lines and the odd smoothness that Adobe Streamline [now called Live Trace in Illustrator] brought to it in the vector-tracing process) to be embedded in the visual outcomes. I was fascinated by what happened if I took a photo of a sign in my neighborhood, then made a drawing of it, then made a font from the drawing, scanned that in to design a poster and finally screen-printed it. Just writing about that work piques my interest in re-visiting those methods.

What are your thoughts on the specific characteristics of handmade graphic design?

The biggest thing is evidence of the maker. The really good hand-made stuff leaves behind a trace of its process. Obviously there are really talented illustrators like Si Scott who work by hand but make beautifully perfect work but my interest has always been in the things that are “off” or imperfect. I always liked Ed Fella’s line that you should “keep the inconsistencies inconsistent.”

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