Hi, Other Means here. We’re the Brooklyn-based graphic design studio of Gary Fogelson, Phil Lubliner, and Ryan Waller, plus Brette Richmond. We designed the book for By the People: Designing a Better America, an exhibition currently on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and we’re going to tell you all about it.

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Spine of the By the People book, shown in a stack of many.

By the People is an exhibition of sixty collaborative design projects that challenge poverty and social inequality across America. It was curated by Cynthia E. Smith, who spent two years traveling across the country researching the issues, communities, design projects, and practices that make up the exhibition. It’s the third in a series of exhibitions aimed at socially responsible design. The first two had a geographically broader, international focus. This was the first to look only at the United States.

It was a unique challenge to design a book collecting so many different types of projects. Architecture and planning mixes with jewelry design, mural painting, newspaper and poster printing, transportation design, and farming. Many of the projects consider form, and are aesthetically driven, but their primary purposes are to effect change. We saw this book as a catalog in the truest sense—as a list of people, ideas, and projects from the show—a tool, manual, and a reference for designers and activists to get ideas for their own communities. We also talked about what design choices would make this book “American,” or if that was even necessary.

Our early sketches prioritized language, foregrounding the solutions or take-aways from each project. The idea of information being the focus of the book was appealing conceptually, but it didn’t work practically: too much additional writing and editing was required, and we didn’t have enough pages to fit it all.

GIF of spreads of books pages

Initial design sketches for By the People

Looking back on these sketches, it was too much design for what the book needed to do. We had been referencing manuals and guidebooks throughout the design process, and, while we were interested in the potential for big, hard-working typography, the loudness undermined the usefulness of the book.

Ultimately, the manual reference informed a few aspects of the book: rounded durable corners, a substantial weight due to paper choice, and the typographic hierarchy. The project profiles are organized on a rigid grid, with information divided into four components: project title; a “tombstone” with dates, people, materials, and other details; project text; and image captions. The tombstone was designed to be read quickly—organized as a table with rule lines and tabs to aid in the scanning of information. Images flow through the same grid, occasionally going half- or full-page, but mostly adhering to their own proportions.

GIF of pages of a book

By the People: Designing a Better America

Color was one nod to the American focus of the exhibition. Red and blue are used as accent colors throughout the book, separating each of the six broad categories (Act, Learn, Live, Make, Save, Share). They meet in between sections, vibrating against each other, and in a gradient on the cover, creating moments where legibility and clarity give way to the vibrancy of color.

Typography was the other. Sort of. Our initial sketches used slab-serif type to speak to certain American cliches like woodblock printing and hard-working newspaper typography—the typographic equivalent of red, white, and blue. However, as the book evolved, the typography did, too. We thought about using Optima, which isn’t “American” necessarily, but is both humanist, well-crafted, and ubiquitous in our visual landscape, which felt right. There was an interest, however, in using something more contemporary to align with the current practices and strategies in the book. We tried Balance, by Evert Bloemsma, for its humanism and because it looked great, but, despite our shared heritage (as New Yorkers) with the Dutch, something “truly American” was more in order. But what makes a typeface American? Its designer? Its influence? Its place of origin? Could a typeface drawn overseas but programmed here be an international typeface and an American font?

specimen of the san-serif typeface Styrene

Styrene by Berton Hasebe

We ended up using Styrene, a new typeface by Berton Hasebe, for the entire book. It was being drawn and refined during the book design process, so we were constantly updating our working files with new versions. Berton grew up in Hawaii, went to undergrad in Los Angeles, and was trained in type design in the Netherlands. He worked for a time after that for Commercial Type, a digital type foundry with New York and London offices. Styrene is influenced by early sans serifs from the twentieth century, in particular a typeface called Breede Schreeflooze (“Wide Sans Serif”) shown in an Enschedé type specimen from the early 1930s. He was drawn to the erratic proportions and mannered details that appear to be drawn on a modular grid. Styrene has an irregularity to it, while also being synthetic and technical. It’s extremely legible at all sizes, but its details prevent it from being invisible. It causes some friction and forces you to pay attention, something we believe all good design should do.

To purchase By the People: Designing a Better America, visit SHOP Cooper Hewitt.

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