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Abusters magazine critiques
images and image-makers for their willingness to manipulate the public’s
conscious and unconscious behavior. It is a worthy mission. However, in
terms of design, the past four of its fifty-three covers have been
stuck in a muddle somewhere between polemical profundity and graphic
coolness. It might well be described as punk meets modernism—the
convergence of dirty and clean, young and old, shocking and ho hum. But
one thing is certain; the design (fig. 2) is excessively self-conscious.
Ever since Adbusters adopted some of the graphic tropes it had
been founded in part to critique, it has sacrificed much of its critical
authority. This is not meant to suggest the magazine has lost its zeal,
but, for me, it started sinking into the sea of pseudo-grungy youth
cult codes that currently interferes with its message.
Yet redemption in the magazine business can often occur with a single issue, and such is the case with Adbusters
Number 53 (May/June 2004)(fig.1). As magazine design consumers we are
often piqued by the more exceptional covers. Yet, during any given
weekly or monthly newsstand cycle, there are precious few that raise an
eyebrow. Even the most enticing covers for art and design magazines
(those where cover lines do not obstruct a good image) also tend to
blend into the forest of over-designed consumer magazines. But the most
recent Adbusters cover is so beguiling—and jarringly understated—it will turn heads.
For those familiar with the genre of books commemorating
sesquicentennials for universities, banks, armies, or governments, this
spot-on send up will have additional appeal. This Adbusters
cover is a perfect replica with its a redish-brown faux leather cover,
gold-leaf embossed typography, and gold de-bossed 3-dimensional central
image—an American eagle holding an olive branch in its beak and grabbing
a bomb in its talons, under which in slightly scratched-out type reads
“Hope and Memory. ” The bombardier eagle is not an original idea, but
here the anti-war commentary is brilliantly deadpan (and totally
consistent with the coats of arms on the actual books). The issue is Adbusters’
unique, if skewed, history of the United States’ critical events—a
string of historical facts from the pilgrim’s landing to the invasion of
Iraq. Designed to be a real collector’s item and reference, the blurbs
and short essays address imperial ambitions like The Monroe Doctrine and
pro-Contra dirty war. Although I cannot vouch for its complete
accuracy, this overview provides some sobering facts.
Of course, a smart parody cannot help but grab attention. Viewers of the
parodied image are preconditioned to accept the familiarity endemic to
the form, and the more nuanced gags are often the most engaging. Graphic
commentators have long mined Norman Rockwell’s best known paintings
(such as the Four Freedoms) for acerbic twists of content, but other
icons, including James Montgomery Flagg’s “Uncle Sam Wants You” and
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic, ” have been parodied countless times to
the point of cliche. The National Lampoon’s 1970s parody of a
typical high school yearbook (from Dacron, Ohio) so precisely replicated
the original it fooled most readers. And although Adbusters’
cover probably will not cause anyone to think they are holding a real
commemorative volume, I guarantee that few will realize it is Adbusters, either. I was taken off guard, and this sly subterfuge is its real strength.
I accused Adbusters of adopting a cool veneer that undermines the magazine’s content. Yet, for this one issue at least, Adbusters
rejects self-conscious cool. Instead, it smartly frames its polemic
messages and so stands apart from every other magazine on the newsstand,
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