Design Process: Cultural Ties Promo Pieces

02, SEPT. 2019

By Hunter Oden

Nearly every semester, The Baum Gallery at The University of Central Arkansas hires me to contribute promotional pieces in support of their upcoming exhibitions.

These opportunities are always a great way to keep in touch with happenings in the fine art world, as well as the university where I became inspired by it just a few years ago.

Intro

There's not a lot of nuance behind the design of these items, at least from a non-designer’s perspective. Generally, the pieces need to prominently feature artwork, a title, dates the show will be on display, an image credit and logos of all parties involved in funding or promoting the exhibition.

I seldom deviate from Ogilvy's best practices concerning placement of images above headlines (which he discovered, results in 10% more readership than headlines placed above images). Perhaps that is a rigid parameter to adhere to, but I believe it's important to work within and master certain rules, in order to build up strong rationales that support why I might decide to break them.

As a graphic designer who's always learning a little bit more about typography—specifically, pairing type, I've started to use these opportunities from UCA as a way to practice building a more robust typographic palette. They give me a chance to practice one of my favorite (underappreciated) components of graphic design. While the focus of this writing is primarily about the typefaces I paired to make these pieces work, it's important to first give some context to the artwork that supports them.

About the Artwork

Artist Helen Zughaib paints primarily in gouache and ink on board and canvas. Her aesthetic voice is heavily influenced by her childhood in the Middle East, where, as a cultural region, bold colors and repetitious patterns are well ingrained throughout history. As such, the meaning behind her work is a bit ironic and intentionally misleading. While it appears at first glance colorful and cheerful, it's actually about loss, the struggle of refugees and the absence of men due to conflict. She includes these two contrasting elements in her work to help create a dialogue between the Middle East and the United States.

From her website: “I feel that my background in the Middle East allows me to approach the experiences I have in America, in a unique way, remaining an observer of both the Arab and American cultures. I believe that the arts are one of the most important tools we have to help shape and foster dialogue and positive ideas between the Middle East and the United States. I hope through my work, to encourage dialogue and bring understanding and acceptance between the people of the Arab world and the United States, especially since 9 / 11, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the more recent revolutions and crises across the Arab world.”

Typography

The patterns in Helen’s work warrant a typeface that could help carry some of the organic shapes and lines she rendered further down the spread into the text, to create a subtle harmony between image and word. The waves of the ocean, the rear side of hijabs and the curvilinear forms that make up the rows of earth in Helen’s art all needed to be accounted for in the text, while the text also needed to serve its purpose without detracting from the art or recontextualizing it altogether.

Postcard design for Baum Gallery's Cultural Ties Exhibition, featuring artwork by Helen Zughaib

A sampling of the Poster (top-left), Facebook cover photo (bottom-left) and Gallery Sign (right), designed for the Cultural Ties Exhibition at the Baum Gallery, on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas. Images courtesy of Helen Zughaib.

When selecting type, I always start by opening an art board I built in Illustrator which has samples of greek text in every typeface that I consider to be interesting. This eliminates the need to sift through a menu of system fonts, or old cheap fonts from projects of years past. I keep this board up to date, since I’m constantly sourcing new foundries, free fonts or trial fonts that I would like to use when the time is right. I assign categories to all of the typefaces. Mainly traditional anatomical qualities (serif, sans serif, script, condensed etc.) and also more arbitrary categories, such as “unique,” which served as the header where I nested Sporting Grotesque—the face that I used for the title of the exhibition, “Cultural Ties.”

I first learned about the typeface, as well as the Velvetyne Open Source Type Foundry from Bethany Heck’s Font Review Journal back in December of 2017. I immediately downloaded it, not knowing when I would get a chance to put it to work. Had I read the full review at the time, I would have learned much faster that an appropriate pairing could be made with Maple by Process Type Foundry. However, it wasn’t until I began writing this piece, that I went back and read the review in full, only to realize that she had already made this connection.

I’ve been intimately familiar with the glyphs of Maple since early 2018 when I licensed one weight of it to serve as the body text supporting the Pear City Guitars branding—a project that has been switched from active to on hold numerous times since then. Having spent a lot of time with Maple, even to the extent of producing letterpress plates with it, I immediately saw a correlation between it and Sporting Grotesque as soon as I typed out the title of the show. I’ll spare all of the details and terminology about why they pair well because that’s been done here. But, my need for Maple, as noted in the review, lies in the difficulty of Sporting Grotesque serving as anything more than a display face. Maple honestly looks as though it were actually just a “text” version of a full Sporting Grotesque family, and I’m sure many would assume that the title of these pieces is simply the bold weight of the subtext beneath it.

Maple is capable of scaling down much better, although it lacks some of the quirks that make Sporting Grotesque special. I’ve indicated the glyphs I’m referring to below.

Sporting Grotesque shown in lowercase a–z.

Sporting Grotesque shown in lowercase a–z.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.


While both of these typefaces are exceptional in their own respect, the design still needed a more sober, neutral face to help take care of the important details such as when the show is on display, where it’s located and when it would open to the public. I relied on Sweet Sans for that purpose, and you can see below that there is a comfortable pairing between it and Maple. The only thing that would possibly make the pairing even sweeter, for lack of a better word, would be if Sweet Sans had a double-story "g" built in as an alternate glyph.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.

Sweet Sans shown in lowercase a–z.

Sweet Sans shown in lowercase a–z.


Between the black and regular weights of Sweet Sans, I was able to distinguish the critical information nicely and wrap up the design using four different fonts that weren’t clashing, with each serving a unique purpose in the design.

The Baum Gallery came back to me and asked that I put in an image credit on each piece at the request of Helen’s gallery representative. This is a small detail that pretty much goes unnoticed, but made for a new challenge for me.

Having only licensed one weight of Maple, I didn’t want to spend extra money at this phase just for a minor component of each piece. I did some more sifting through my Illustrator board and found a good pairing between Maple and Karla a free Google font, designed by Jonny Pinhorn. I could make the argument that Karla excels at even finer legibility at small scales than Maple does, and it's due to how it really lacks most of the nuance which makes Maple special (defined wedges, and more curvilinear terminals).

Karla shown in lowercase a–z.

Karla shown in lowercase a–z.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.

Maple shown in lowercase a–z.


I ended up using it for the image credit on each piece with cost and legibility in mind. Karla offers an italic version for each weight, but it appears to be more of a pseudo slanted version, which required an additional subtle horizontal shear for contrast.

Conclusion

When it comes to type, I find it very difficult to deviate from some of my favorite pairings once I make them and feel confident about their harmony with each other. In my experience, this type of work takes a lot of time in order to get it right, which also makes it easier to default to some of the same old tricks on projects where the allotted time is much smaller.

My experience with this project has me wanting to introduce Karla into the Pear City Guitars branding as well if I can justify it, so it’s likely I will continue to upcycle these families even more in the future.

Helen’s work, as well as artists Sonya Clark and Joyce J. Scott, are now on display at the Baum Gallery, on the campus of The University of Central Arkansas and will be throughout the month of September.

You can learn more about the Cultural Ties Exhibition here.

Portrait of Art Director and Graphic Designer, Hunter Oden

Hunter Oden

I'm an art director and graphic designer working in Little Rock, Arkansas. Occasionally, I'll blog about typography, educational resources, or my portfolio and design process.