Design Thoughts

Why do we design stuff? No really, why do we do that?

Well, stuff need to be designed, in the same way food needs to be cooked and roads need to be paved. There is a basic necessity of arranging and ordering things so they can be understood and experienced by other human beings out there.

Problem is that during this process, in between rough materials and finished work, there’s our craftsmanship at work, and inevitably, our ego. This is something I have been thinking a lot about recently. Of course there is nothing wrong in having an ego, everybody has one, and there is nothing wrong in trying to please people. Ultimately, one of the reasons I chose this career is because I really – really! – like it when people tell me “good job Carlo” (there must be some parental issue at play here, relationship with mom & dad and stuff but I don’t want to investigate further).

The fact that we want to be appreciated and relevant can be a very powerful driving force – in a positive way – but it easily distances ourselves from the original purpose of what we are doing. We want to do beautiful design, get compliments and even awards, and we easily forget about the people who are going to pay for what we have done, the public, the readers, who have no interest in who have done what, in why the type is like this or like that, in your grid and so on. They just want to read the damn story.

So, most of the time my work is to try to balance the irresistible tendency to showing off and begging for attention with the ultimate goal of presenting a story in an engaging, readable and enjoyable way.

American_Craft_32click to enlarge


A practical example is what recently happened when I was asked to do a story about Knoxville, Tennessee for the good folks of American Craft magazine. I was over the moon reading the headline: “Mountain Meets Modern”. Oh-My-God, I have to do something with all those M’s, what a great opportunity for a luxurious type treatment, maybe three big M’s all across the spread and this and that. I doodled around for hours trying to find a brilliant solution, something that would get me a big applause or at least a couple of retweets. I was – again! – in designer mode. Designing design for designers. I can’t imagine anything more boring and useless.

The only way out here is to get back to the story, the only thing that really matters. I scaled down my ego a bit, I reduced type size to a more approachable level, and placed the headline in a way that was respectful of the picture chosen for the opening and that could actually be read by people. So (1) first is the picture, (2) second comes the headline which has to be readable and comfortable, and then, just then, (3) I put my twist in it. This sequence is very important and it’s exactly the opposite of what I was doing before. Once everything was set, I could throw a Futura M in the mix, just because it looks like mountains and then place chunks of text as peaks here and there, so that everything is balanced but not too much. I know, it’s not that Jantschicholdish (which, btw, I deeply love) but I can have some fun, right?

So what I am trying to say is that ultimately we design for the people out there and not for ourselves, and this is very important. When we design we’re just arranging things so people can access them. Our job is humble, more a service, behind the scenes, invisible, and one of the greatest accomplishments for a designer is to trigger a little smile and/or some (visual) pleasure without interfering in the reading experience. It’s simple, but not easy.


Working on your own stuff can be complicated.

First, you never have enough time to plan and execute personal projects because of actual work (i.e. real clients who pay you). Also, exposing ourselves is tricky, embarrassing, and scary. It’s much easier and fun criticise other people’s work! So one tends to procrastinate forever.

That would be my case but recently I found myself having some free time, mainly because of lack of freelance work. Rather depressing – yeah – but maybe my old crappy personal portfolio played a role in my bad luck as a freelance.

Everybody says design is meant to solve problems but, well, I find this idea quite arrogant, a lot of people repeat this problem-solving mantra but they don’t know anything about design and they often complicate simple things. Still I thought, if design is really meant to solve problems – and I happen to have this problem that no one gives a crap about my work and does not hire me – maybe it’s time to trash my portfolio and get a shiny new one!

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 09.14.31

Soon after this revelation, I tried to focus on what’s the best way to tell people I am good at my job and I realised two important points.

  • I don’t know if I am good at my job.
  • Even if I was, If I start telling people “Hey look at me! I am good at my job” I think I’d sound like an asshole. And I promised to do my best not to be an asshole. Moreover, I would never hire an asshole, and probably only assholes hire assholes and the last thing I want is to work for assholes.

So I decided to keep the layout simple, white, without any element like rules, headers and stuff. Why?

  • One reason is I am lazy when it comes to coding, perhaps because I don’t usually code. I can spend weeks on a map or silhouetting images, but god I hate overcoded websites.
  • Second reason I want people to access my stuff quickly and let them know I value their time.
  • Third reason is: I suspect you’re visiting my website because you heard of me and want to see what I do, and not because you googled “best designer ever”, so I want you to find just what you’re looking for.

Layout: I removed everything had not a practical and clear purpose. A friend told me «it’s too white». True, but pages are white since Guthenberg’s Bible (1450), and I don’t want to be the one who screw this well tested device. Pages are white, text is black. Images are images.

Captions: I don’t have much to say about my work. I try to do my best, of course, I try to be clear and I love Akzidenz Grotesque, Helvetica, Franklin, National and Futura but that’s it. I just want you to enjoy the real things and make your own opinion about them, they’re supposed to be self-explanatory (because well, they were actual works before ending in my portfolio, and usually you don’t put a caption under your poster when it’s up on the wall). So, I got rid of unnecessary explanations.

Header: in the previous website I had this header “Carlo Apostoli Graphic Designer”, I can’t think something more boring and pretentious. This time I put my face instead of my name: it makes the whole thing lighter and a little bit funny and it’s good  against shyness. Moreover, if you’re browsing my website but don’t know my name and – at the same time – don’t manage to click “about” to solve the mystery, well I don’t want to work for you.

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Finally, the works: I got rid of old stuff that don’t represent me no more (i.e. works that sucked). I did my best to make every entry consistent in terms of lights, shadows etc. It’s not perfect, but it’s better. I made images bigger because big is better than small.

Last but not least: there is a thin line between ordered and simple, and totally boring and depressing. When everything else was set, I made the thumbnails move 2 pixels down when you go over them. It’s fun and stupid enough, I did it almost unintentionally and I think it’s a great rollover. Why no one use it?

Then “about” and “contacts”.

This is it.
It wasn’t that complicated.
Will it bring me more freelance work? Who knows.

But that was a great therapy session, I feel much better now!

The House of Books Has no Windows - Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (2008)

The House of Books Has No Windows – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (2008)

Sometimes new typefaces give me some anxiety because I don’t see them as perfect and reliable as other faces which have 100 or 200 years of service out there. However, there is a constant stream of new typefaces put on the market every day, and some of them are just beautifully crafted faces so I clearly understand there’s no reason to be over-conservative about it. But still, when I have to choose one for a project, 99% of the times I end up with the rusty but trusty old pals like Futura, Helvetica, Baskerville etc. I’m absolutely not saying this is the right way but I want to try to explain it.

I think designing stories is just like building an house, or a boat, or a chair.

Yeah! Designing is building.

But you don’t always use carbon fiber to build a chair right? Even if we are in 2013, sometimes wood is just right. And that new Hong Kong skyscraper may need the most advanced materials but for your  cabin on the beach a simpler solution could be fine.
I do the same with typefaces. Probably you’ll need a custom new face in order to properly redesign a big brand identity or a renowned newspaper, but for a lot of other works you can stick to your old arsenal of fonts and focus on the message, on the structure etc. New faces can be distracting, they are so beautiful and shining that they seem to fulfill every need. But exactly like a Frank Ghery building, our design is subject to a lot of stress. Everyday use by other people, for example. Consumption. And I think there is nothing more miserable than an abandoned, misused or fixed piece of design.

Using simple and trusted materials is often seen as a weak or ordinary (and boring!) choice, and probably in some circumstances it is. It really depends on what you make of it. But our work is not just cosmetics. By using reliable type we have more time and energy to pursue a brilliant and witty idea, which will be developed through the typeface and not by the typeface. This can make all the difference. Once the type has been taken care of, all our resources will be addressed to story-telling.  And after all, the good craft and explanation of ideas, stories and experiences is our ultimate goal. Isn’t it?

Honestly, I never did. But recently I got this unusual job of designing some music sheets covers for a composer.

It’s the first time I do something like that so I investigated the topic to get an idea of this almost forgotten niche of editorial design: quite interesting!

It seems that with the advent of the internet everything has gone digital so you can find just old stuff, often bizarre and vernacular, or non-designed examples (which are the ones I like most). It’s an intriguing aspect of the relationship between music and design, more interesting to me than album covers or music posters.

This is a small gallery I collected but look for more at Library Of Congress image database.

1. the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner; style.
“a slender woman with grace and elegance”
2. the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.
“the simplicity and elegance of the solution”

Elegance VS Style

Use of the words “elegance” and “style” over last two centuries in english books archived in Google Books (click to enlarge)

So not only there is an overlapping of meaning  between the nouns elegance and style, but data say that elegance is progressively going out of fashion, subbed by the more generic and appealing almost-synonim.

Still, especially in (magazine) design, style and elegance are two extremely different ideas, almost opposite.

Achieving elegant results requires expertise, refinement and, usually, a lot of time. To be stylish you need a good knowledge of what is hot at the moment and great tech skills to reproduce it. Neither of the two is an easy job, but apparently elegant designs – by definition pleasingly ingenious and simple – tend to be long-lasting and some of them become timeless. Which, I think, is what we all should aim at.

I am very excited for being part of My Favo(u)rite Magazine project and now that the real thing has shown up in my mailbox I can finally write something about it.

It is an actual magazine (just one issue, 180x240mm, 64 pages) conceived by Huffington Post editor Andrew Losowsky and editor Jeremy Leslie in order to rise funds for helping legendary creative director Bob Newman (New York magazine, Village Voice, Real Simple, Newmanology…) after an accident that left him in a coma for two weeks, with a long path to recovery ahead of him. He and his  family now faces enormous medical bills so all proceeds from My Favo(u)rite Magazine will go to them.

You can find also my contribution among some really extraordinary professionals of the magazine and media industry such as Richard Turley (Bloomberg Businessweek), Marissa Bourke (Harper’s Bazaar), Rudy VanderLans (Emigré)  and many others. I am so proud and honored!

It is  a beautiful publication, with tons of interesting and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of designers (actually, 88 of them!).

If you wanna grab one and help Bob in his recovery just follow this link. A digital edition is available too.

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4

Pictures shot with my iPad @ Urban Bean Coffee in Minneapolis, USA.

I am fascinated about the Modernists’ ambition of making “design for everyone”, “design for the people”. What does that mean can be the subject of endless discussions. But recently I am thinking about what I call “information priorities”. When approaching a work, I used to “dick around” a lot, spending a lot of time trying random combinations of images, colors, type just to get that feeling. It felt like not right.

So I tried to change my approach simply focusing on the information. I make  a quick analysis of what (I think) should be more important, then find a secondary information, then a third-level one and so on. Now I have a path, with a Step 1 (main information), and a Step 2 (secondary information) etc. Then I try to find the clearest, simplest, quickest way to represent this path. Usually using words, which appears to be a very productive tool.  If necessary, I add a picture. The picture, if well chosen, is a great tool because it sets a good environment for our informations.

When the information is well laid-out, I can eventually customize its shape just to make it more personal. But sometimes I leave it as it is. And it’s like the information, the message was already there, and my job was just to bring it out, unveiling it.

People could say: – so basically you are producing nothing, I could do that. Well, in a way it’s true. But I found that

  • It takes more courage than you think to  let the things speak for themselves
  • Isn’t this a perfect design for everyone example? Everybody could do it, if provided with the necessary courage and the proper tools (a good typeface, for example).

I want to work more on this angle of the profession of graphic designer. It’s humbler, not glamour, maybe more useful.