FontLife

by | Jun 10, 2024

VERBUS AND THE BIG IDEA

In 1962, Allan Fleming and George Lois engaged typography as conceptual art

Allan Fleming (1929-1977) wielded the modernist axe to great effect, clearing space, paring elements to a minimum, cutting down on variables. In his November 3rd, 1962, cover design for Macleans (above left) there are no pictures, just type. The colours are black, white and red. The headline is all caps in a bold condensed sans serif face, similar to the nameplate. The price is tucked neatly below the apostrophe in the nameplate. The layout is asymmetric, with copious red space. Such minimalism could be seen as reductive, compared to the normal clutter which tends to accumulate on magazine covers, but is better understood as a strong concept that doesn’t need tarting up.

Left: Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, 1919, Lithographed poster by El Lissitzky. 48.8 × 69.2 cm (19¼ × 27¼ in.) Russian State Library.
Right: Norma Talmadge in Kiki, 1927, Letterpress poster by Jan Tschichold, 126.2 x 84.5 cm. (49½ x 33¼ in.)  Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

The modernist provenance of Fleming’s layout was classic, descended from the New Typography of forty years earlier, in which the equivalence of graphic elements and typographic glyphs was investigated in layouts of great novelty; El Lissitzky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge of course, as well as, for instance, the Norma Talmadge in Kiki  poster by Jan Tschichold, in which the tittles of the two large ‘i’s are picked out in a different colour from the stems of the letters. The parts of those letters are thus presented as circles and rectangles, abstract shapes interacting with the big black bar along the border of the print; likewise, the black square in the Macleans cover preps the viewer for the idea that the letters it supports have two modes of meaning—text and graphic.

That same year, Fleming’s contemporary George Lois (1931-2022) created another minimalist marvel, a cough syrup ad in which the mother and father of a sleepless child briefly converse in the middle of the night, represented by their words in white Cheltenham Bold Condensed against a black background (top right). It was a reduction of a comic strip panel, speech balloons without the balloons. Again, no pictures, just two snatches of plain, bold type and lots of taut, solidly inked space.

Both are works which leverage the typographically informed vocabulary of modernism, best known in North America from trade magazine and book images of European posters, to aggressively assert the role of creative genius in mass-market commercial publications: Hey, they say, we don’t need a logo or picture of the product/subject, we don’t need a spokesperson or attractive model, all we need is one workhorse font used in a simply unique, off-kilter yet meticulously precise layout, to create awesome meaning from next to nothing.

While the most spartan, rigorous graphic modernism is generally identified as a European import, by 1962 it had been established in North America for over thirty years, with its own tradition; marginal, certainly—usually catering to an artistic, high-end or trade demographic—but so it was too in Europe. People like Fleming and Lois took it mainstream.

Verbus

There is a significant functional difference between the magazine cover and the ad. Fleming makes you look at the type, as was his wont: type becomes picture, crafted letter by letter. He removed the need for a photo or illustration by making the type do double duty as conveyor of both text and image. It was a technique which he exemplified in two of the best-known Canadian trademarks of the mid 20th century, both still going strong, where corporate initials were configured to represent company business.

Left: CN time tables booklet, 1958. Right: CN time tables booklet, 1961; the new branding had not yet been applied to locomotives, so a model train was used for the cover photograph. 8 x 9½”.

In 1960 Fleming replaced the quaint badge-like logo of Canadian National Railways by hacking away twenty-two letters to leave C and N, now forming a continuous monoline in the austere geometry of a railroad track. And for Ontario Hydro* in 1962, O and H were overlapped to represent a two-pronged Canadian electrical plug. As visual rhetoric, this is conjugation, a bringing together of language and that to which it refers, visual onomatopoeia. It is somewhat like a rebus puzzle. In a rebus the picture of an object signifies text, a letter or syllable, but this is the other way around, with the graphic arrangement of letters symbolizing a thing, either representational or abstract. The Latin word rebus (the ablative plural of res) means “by things”, so this device of Fleming’s may be termed litteris “by letters”. But as the semantic transposition of rebus, I will refer to it by the slightly less accurate verbus.

The Big Idea

Left: Avis ad, 1959. Right: Avis ad, 1963; Helmut Krone’s redesign and Paula Green’s copy produced a radical icon of the “Creative Revolution” of the 1960s. Typeface: Perpetua Bold.

Lois, and other practitioners of the Big Idea (no need for a fancy term there) didn’t want you to look at the type, no matter how large. They wanted you to read it. Its appearance was understated, a point attested by the fact that the cough syrup ad may be conjured quite adequately by a written description. They downplayed the finesse of headline type, other than nice kerning, the purpose of which was to avoid any attention that awkward spacing may cause.

For Avis, Helmut Krone managed to negate the binary “headline + small text” quality of the usual typography in full-page advertisements, by spec’ing the ostensible body text at display size (above right). His campaign format resembled greatly enlarged small-space ads, in the manner that pop art by Andy Warhol (Tomato Soup, Campbell’s Soup, 1968, screenprint with 33” tall can) or Claes Oldenburg and Patty Mucha (Floor Burger, 1962, 48” tall soft sculpture) blew up their subject matter to larger than life size.


Posters by Abram Games, from Over My Shoulder, 1960, Studio Books.

Earlier, in posters starting in the 1930s, Abram Games had also employed what he called “maximum meaning, minimum means” to involve the viewer in the message: “I wind the spring and the public, in looking at the poster, will have that spring released in its mind.” But Games’ method was to mix picture and text with each another, rather than have text do double duty.

Client: “Make the logo bigger.”
Designer: “Sorry, no logo.”

There was cachet in pulling off the no-product-shot, no-logo ad, acknowledged by one’s peers in creative competitions. Part of the trick was getting it by one’s boss and signed off by the client; it certainly helped if the creative director was the boss. My first agency job was working for the much-awarded Raymond Lee & Associates. Ray was a master of the Big Idea. I recall a transit stop ad of his from 1980: Full bleed shot of a man’s naked feet, one over the other in a coy pose, the background dark and a large three-line headline, in Goudy Bold U&lc, white, flush left, paragraph indent: “Pity the poor soles with no MacGregor socks”. No logo, no product shot, one heck of a pun. So while a well-established trend of the 1960s and ’70s involved profuse eclecticism—and Fleming was no stranger to this—at the same time there existed this sophisticated pictorial-literary genre informed by the wit of brevity. The Big Idea lasted well into the 1980s.

Two other conceptual distinctions

Graphic minimalism is a question of manners, of typographic behaviour appropriate to context.  In The Visible Word, (University of Chicago, 1994) Johanna Drucker distinguishes between marked and unmarked text:

“Gutenburg’s bibles are the archetype of the unmarked text, the text in which the words on the page ‘appear to speak for themselves’ without the visible intervention of author or printer … the literary text is the single grey block of undisturbed text, seeming, in the graphic sense, to have appeared whole and complete.

“Any text assumes a reader and marks that assumption to some extent. [Unmarked texts] attempt to efface the traces of that assumption. The marked text by contrast aggressively situates the reader … with manipulative utilization of the strategies of graphic design.”

Typography of Advertising that Pays, Gilbert P. Farrar, D. Appleton & Co., 1917. 5 x 7½”
Left: The Forceful Educational Style. Note trademark logo, and repetition of brand name and benefits.

Typography of Advertising that Pays, Gilbert P. Farrar, D. Appleton & Co., 1917. 5 x 7½” Left: For an expensive product, the Passive Educational Style—the opposite of oh-so-distasteful hard sell.

While Drucker associates the unmarked text with literature and the marked text with advertising, it’s safe to say that the same distinction exists between editorial and advertising text. Going further, there are two kinds of advertising text, recognized as early as 1917 by Gilbert P. Farrar in Typography of Advertising that Pays (Appleton) as the Forceful Educational Style (marked) and the Passive Educational Style (unmarked), described thus:

“When there are no headlines [and usually, be it noted, no logo] the reader reads the entire advertisement or he does not read any part of it, and this very fact causes the copy to get a reading from the better class of readers.”

Verbus, then, is marked text, and forceful.
The Big Idea has unmarked text, is passive and posh.

Concerning the status of the trade

Among other innovations, the 1960s Big Idea marked a change in the operational procedure of the Madison Avenue ad agency. When once the copywriter had slipped the copy under the art director’s door, now they worked together chasing the magnificent concept that would synergize text and image. This team practice was implemented by Allan Fleming when he took charge of the creative department at Toronto’s Maclaren Advertising in 1965, abolishing separate offices for writers and art directors.

Thus, while the purpose of commercial work is to appeal to readers and consumers, it is also affected by the working circumstances of art directors and graphic designers. The Big Idea was a product of the mid-century ad agency, Verbus of the design studio. In both workplaces, these constituted a sophisticated, aspirational way of working tuned as much to the metaculture of the trade—one’s peers—as to the end user. The Art Directors Club, Toronto (now the ADCC) was formed in 1948, and the Society of Typographic Designers of Canada (subsequently the GDC and now DesCan) in 1957. Their model, the Art Directors Club of New York, was founded in 1920, and has since the 1930s been publishing an annual of award-winning ads and brochures, crediting agencies, copywriters, art directors, illustrators and photographers by name.

In society at large, there had long been snobbery directed against those artists who worked commercially, in “trade”. Advertising in the mid 20th century was a socially despised line of work, its practitioners characterized in the mass media as Hucksters¹ and Hidden Persuaders², and by the European Marxist intelligentsia³ as the perpetrators of late capitalist spectacle.

Consequently, there was (and still is) a double standard in which the commercial work of famous painters is omitted from their oeuvre.  J.E.H. MacDonald, for example, is in all the art history books as co-founder of The Group of Seven, but only his canvases are shown, no commercial work—which is strange, as it was brilliant, and he was the pre-eminent Canadian graphic designer of the early 20th century.

Professional organizations and publications provided the recognition and respect that society denied. During the “creative revolution” of the 1960s smart, driven newcomers from humble backgrounds sought to make a name for themselves within the trade, with audacious work that paralleled developments in gallery art. Big Idea art directors with discreet, unmarked typography, and graphic designers with Verbus, positioned their work as more than message bearer, as something worth appreciating in its own right. In courting minimalism and derogating branding by logo, the Big Idea advertisement moved beyond the taint of hard sell into a new zone, literary, witty and intellectual, more like the editorial content of periodicals.

The well-read Fleming made a name for himself at Cooper and Beatty, Canada’s top type house in the late 1950s, honing his skills, defining his style in awfully clever award-winning promotions targeting the design trade, which he both wrote and designed, compounding the entanglement of his relationships with text and image. Taking the instigation a step further, he organized exhibitions by, for instance, Saul Bass, at the firm’s gallery, and taught typography at Ontario College of Art.

Lois was a legendary self-promoter, authoring over a dozen books of his work, many of which were designed as ingenious text and image constructs, not too different in that respect from overtly intellectual theses such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972) and Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage (1967).

13th Annual of Editorial and Advertising Art, Art Directors Club Toronto, 1963, 12 x 11 in. Designed by Arnaud Maggs (1926–2012) prior to his career as a gallery artist and photographer. Cover, and spread featuring trademark design award for Fleming’s CN logo. Big numerals: Standard Medium. Body text: Venus.

On many fronts, the notion arrived that mass media was culture too. First recognized by academia in the late 1960s, “popular culture” had been the subject matter of pop art throughout the decade. Conceptual art also emerged then, typified, one might say, in the pages of the journal Art-Language. In a similar vein, Verbus and the Big Idea addressed the conceptual artefact, deconstructed the barrier between fine art and mass communication, and defined a design pinnacle in text-based print culture, which was at its peak (in terms of periodical revenue and circulation) in the 1960s. ●

* Hydro is a Canadian name for electricity supply, due to industry origins in hydro-electric generation.
¹ The Hucksters was a 1947 Hollywood movie starring Clark Gable, based on the best-selling novel The Hucksters by Frederic Wakeman Sr.
² The Hidden Persuaders: The Naked Society and the Status Seekers (1957) by Vance Packard was an exposé of the psychological manipulation used by marketers.
³ e.g. the Frankfurt School (Marcuse, Adorno, &c.) and the Situationists (Debord, Vaneigem, &c.)