Saturday, January 7, 2012

Colors Issue 7: The AIDS Issue

Known as the “Bad Boy of Design,” Tibor Kalman was notoriously outspoken about what he referred to as “professional design” (Heller, Obituary) and provoked both the design establishment and the public with his satirical and shocking work that captivated international audiences. Ironically, Kalman’s style would become the establishment that he fought against, being housed in the MoMA and creating a new design aesthetic (Poynor).

Kalman worked to create a situation in which he had complete creative control and could work within his own ethics (Cullen). He said, “Look, if someone is going to permit me to make a publication that is politically and culturally progressive and not tell me to put their favorite movie stars on the cover, if I get to do what I want in an honest way - as I did in the beginning at Colors - then I'm going to do it,” (Wieners).

Kalman’s art direction and design for Benetton’s magazine, Colors, gave birth to iconic imagery and commentary of the 1980s that have equal impact today and created an international brand and conversation about issues including racism, sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, religion, politics, and social responsibility. Benetton became synonymous with this work and developed as a brand because of it (Lyman). Moreover, it created a dialogue about the issues addressed by Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani.

Toscani’s photographs are well crafted, beautifully composed It is not Toscani’s photographs alone that communicate to the viewer, though the imagery plays a large role, but the layers of concept, the art direction, and the imagery interacting with typography.

For this post, I am referencing issue seven of the magazine because it is a beautifully crafted work, and it illustrates a continuing need of the world community: sexual education and sexually transmitted disease education, prevention, and treatment.

“For the first time the problem of AIDS is tackled clearly and directly, discrediting prejudices and spreading accurate information on prevention, without being alarmist and with a little irony. The issue ends with an editorial in which the image of US President Ronald Reagan, victim of the virus, is accompanied by a eulogy for the man he could have been if he had acted differently towards AIDS.” (Colors, Aids)

Typography works overtime in the Colors magazine design, as the magazines were published bilingually, with text running simultaneously in the same spreads. Kalman directed his designers to craft this text with finesse that harmonized the two languages into a composition that emphasized the weight and power of the type as an equal figure in the composition to the imagery. Not formally trained in typography, Kalman worked with designers to  (Heller, Obituary), however I theorize Kalman’s own bilingual experience growing up as a Hungarian immigrant in the Hudson Valley of New York (Heller, AIGA) helped to inform his direction of the interaction of the two languages.

The above spread from issue seven of Colors, “Safe Sex Kama Sutra/Le Kama Sutra du «Safe Sex»” incorporates French and English in a composition where every element has a place and without which would seem incomplete. The common word “Kama Sutra,” common because it is foreign to both languages, is shared by both sets of copy and ties the two languages together that are otherwise separated by placement and color.

The composition on the grid created by the blocks of text and the composed titles creates a cruciform, a visually balanced symbol that may be interpreted as a reference to the red cross indicating medical attention, to Christian morality, or to a positive sign—indicating HIV+ or a positive reaction to, or empowerment by, safe sex—and is echoed in the next two spreads, shown below.

The type on the above spread accents the spread, again creates the cruciform shape—this time incorporating the gutter as the vertical crosspiece of the form. The typography again works seamlessly with the imagery. The text is shaped about the form in an aesthetically pleasing way, but it also creates parentheses around the object of attention—the latex-covered genital region of the model, which could also be interpreted as smile creases, further encouraging the fun and playful reception of a serious subject.

In a similarly playful way, the spread below treats a condom-covered monument like a centerfold spread.

The cover of the magazine sets up the viewer for the magazine. The red and black color scheme that we will see again throughout the issue is established. A red, rubber-encased hand jabs at the text in a gesture that defies the disease with an obscene gesture while visually representing the act of coitus protected by a latex barrier. The finger enters the text like a sheathed body part into a body, but it also breaks up the offensive acronym with the force of the protected digit. The image is strong, but it is the image’s interaction with the type that gives it context and meaning.

After discussion with my classmates, I have additional insight brought to my attention by Matt Hepworth who noted the reliance on the typophoto developed by László Moholy-Nagy

Cover of the revue foto-QUALITAT, 1931, attributed to László Moholy-Nagy

This cover image above, attributed to László Moholy-Nagy, is a strong comparison to the Colors cover, particularly considering the interaction of a hand with typography. Even the color palette is similar.

The artful typographic arrangement can also be attributed to the Bauhaus and Moholy-Nagy in particular. Though it is hard to separate our profession at all from the Bauhaus, as we owe so much to it, there are some cruciform similarities in Colors that are striking.

Bauhausbucher 5, Neue Gestaltung by Piet Mondrian, 1924, cover design attributed to László Moholy-Nagy

Another observation that I Matt had pointed out is the repetition of red and bright pink throughout the issue, a sexual color that adds to the slick and shiny imagery that evokes sexuality. I jokingly responded that Matt's observation was spot on: it was a graphic design equivalent to a baboon posterior.

These cues, whether through color or composition, are partially responsible for the emotional response to the work. Yes, the imagery is hard at work, but the typography carries a lot of the weight. The spread of the mouth biting the head, for example, is a background to the subtlety of the typographic design, which then is reinforced through future layouts. The photography, copy, and typography are working together seamlessly and in a delicate balance.
All in all, the more I consider this work, the more astounded I am at how well it holds up after twenty years. It still looks fresh and compelling today, and it still ignites conversation.

Works Cited

"Aids" Colors Magazine, Issue #7, 1997. Web. 7 Jan 2012.

"An hour with Tibor Kalman." Charlie Rose. PBS. December 24, 1998. Television. Available on the Web, 5 Jan 2012.

Cullen, Moira. "Moira Cullen interviews Tibor Kalman." Eye Magazine, Issue 20, Spring 1996. Web. 5 Jan 2012.

Haber, Matthew. “Tibor Kalman: A highly innovative and influential designer, the onetime editor of Colors magazine died May 2.” Salon., Salon Media Group, Inc., 19 May 1999.  Web.  6 Jan 2012.

Heller, Steven. "Tibor Kalman: 1999 AIGA Medal.", 1999. Web. 6 Jan 2012.

Heller, Steven. "Tibor Kalman, 'Bad Boy' of Graphic Design, 49, Dies." The New York Times., May 05, 1999. Web. 6 Jan 2012.

Lyman, Eric J. "The True Colors of Oliviero Toscani." Ad Age Global. August, 2001. Web. 7 Jan 2012.

Poynor, Rick. "Obituary: Tibor Kalman." The Independent,, 17 May 1999. Web. 7 Jan 2012.

Wieners, Brad. "Color Him a Provocateur." Wired, Issue 4.12, Dec 1996. Web. 5 Jan 2012.

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