Typefaces, Design,

Texts:

Reviews, 592 words, 2004
First published in Items, No.4, 2004
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Why Not Associates?2

In the early 1990s, Why Not Associates’ (WHA) daring visual style earned them a leading position among London designers. While their work is deeply rooted in local culture and traditions, they soon received recognition and commissions from all continents. The book Why Not Associates?2 presents projects from the past six years, starting where the first book Why Not left off.

A lavish hardcover coffee-table book in two different stocks of paper with over 1500 illustrations printed in five inks and a layer of varnish delivers what WHA stands for: immaculate craftsmanship, painterly quality of typography and uncompromising graphic experimentation. While the WNA members suggest that the book documents a move from their earlier flamboyant signature style, the book confirms everything we have come to expect from the group. Ornamental complexity of typography, and graphic gymnastics which sometimes make up for the lack of content are still their main preoccupation.

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With their highly intuitive approach, WHA programmatically resist any theorizing about their work. The introduction of the book merely summarizes the past few years of the studio, and in the main part of the book we find very brief comments describing the projects but not offering much insight.

Their Englishness of approach has been noted elsewhere, and it is accentuated by the choice of typefaces in their projects (Gill, Perpetua) and the choice of materials (stone, metal, etc.). WHA is at its best exploring the physicality of materials in public art projects done together with the artist Gordon Young. A Flock of Words is a 300 meter long typographic pavement in the town of Morecambe. Other public interventions are in Plymouth, Yorkshire, London and Carlisle. They make an impact on the local community, and rely on the skills of sculptors, stonemasons, steel cutters, carvers and workers.

WHA has a talent for visual shortcuts. As with their first book, the cover embodies the message and approaches of the group. This time the cover and divider pages present laser cut steel plates of lettering, spelling out the name of the book, publisher, ISBN number and logos, in the background of the metal workshop.

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The quality of WNA’s output is consistent and undeniably challenging; the book itself however lacks a critical distance and wider cultural significance. This raises a question about current trends in publishing. Undigested collections of images are attractive material to mainstream publishers because of the minimal expenses (little text, no photography costs, images coming for free from the designer’s files). The projects are attractive to studios as well, because they promote the designers’ work. The projects also seem to have a receptive audience: the ever image-hungry design students, so the publishers are happy, the studios are happy and the audience is happy. This is not a new trend: self-promo books with minimal research and ephemeral effect have always existed, but their ever increasing rate of proliferation is a matter of concern. It is all the more interesting that the same issue touches WHA themselves in the book. In the introductory text, Altmann, one of the WHA’s partners, is surprisingly ambivalent about the book. He is proud of the studio’s work but wonders whether graphic designers should have books made about themselves at all. That is an astounding altitude considering that nowhere else in the book can we see similar questioning.

It is clear that this book will not help to answer the question. While WNA work has the potential to be experimental and to concern a larger public, this book is disappointingly conventional and locked inside the narrow confines of the design world.

Photography, Magazine.