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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

AIGA Medalist and SpotCo Designer Gail Anderson Utilizes Typographic Vernaculars from the Past to Catalyze Her Contemporary Working Processes

This posting is the third in a series on this blog that examines the contributions of particular women to the evolution of visual communication design.

An introductory note: for those of you new to the Communication Design program here at UNT, or for those of you who are visiting this blog who are unfamiliar with visual communication design, or graphic design, or art direction, the acronym "AIGA" stands for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. More information about this 90-year-old professional organization for designers can be found by visiting aiga.org.

When Steve Heller wrote the biographic piece that accompanied Ms. Anderson’s inclusion into the hallowed pantheon of the AIGA’s career achievement medalists in 2008, he incorporated a quote from her former School of Visual Arts classmate and current SpotCo employer Drew Hodges. Hodges opined that "[Anderson's] significant contribution to design is a belief in the tradition of typography and a joy in using it in a contemporary vernacular."

She held numerous titles and fulfilled a wide variety of design and design-related positions at Rolling Stone magazine from 1987 until 2002, when she left RS to assume the position she has held since at SpotCo. While at Rolling Stone, Anderson repeatedly referenced and combined typographic vernaculars from particular eras and places in design history to conceptually support the typographically dominant kinds of compositions that introduce feature stories in RS. She worked closely with longtime RS art director Fred Woodward on many of these, although she began the practice of blending the typographic languages of Futurism, Deco, Victorianism, "American Wood Block," and some of the ideas from the 1970s-era German Conceptual Poster makers while working with Boston Globe Sunday Magazine art director Ronn Campisi from 1985 to 1987.

Anderson’s typographic compositions have been compared to well-choreographed theatrical or dance experiences. Each typographic element, module and system has a particular role to play, but they're also orchestrated together into a cohesive, dynamic whole. While composing type in this manner does require meticulous attention to detail, this "sweating of micro-aesthetic details" cannot be allowed to detract from the decisions that must be made regarding the configuration of the whole piece. Anderson knew this (and still understands this to this day...), and was and is adept at addressing both of these issues in her work.

Mashing together seemingly disparate typographic languages and vernaculars became very prevalent and popular during the 1990s, but it often became what many design critics and historians refer to as a style trap—this implies that even if the macro- and micro-aesthetic details of the piece were well-handled, the application or appropriation of this vernacular is (was) ill-considered given the content inherent in the piece. Anderson deftly avoided creating work that suffered from these limitations during her time at RS, and the work that she produced during this period influenced both her professional peers and the generation of students who emerged into the profession during this time. 

Her office at RS was a repository of all manner of scraps of materials from which typographic forms could be created—these included bobby pins, bottle caps, bits of plastic and metal of many shapes and sizes, twigs, scraps of wood, and hot metal and wood type blocks. Her eclectic and eccentric use of found materials to create typographic forms continues to inform her design process to this day, and can be seen in her compositions for book jackets, posters for Broadway plays and billboards. The "experimental type" assignment that is an integral part of the learning experience in our Typography 1 course owes much to the working processes of Gail Anderson.