Black-and-white design; a case of 'less is more' or 'form follows function'? Lawrence Zeegen examines the resurgence in monochrome working methods and its graphic language...
Question: What's black and white and red all over? Answer: A newspaper! Tell that joke today and you'll get confused looks from anyone under the age of 25. Believe it or not, there was a time when newspapers were reproduced purely in black-and-white. TODAY newspaper launched in the UK in 1986 and, despite surviving less than a decade, it changed the face of newspaper publishing with the introduction of colour printing on every page, kick-starting a colour revolution in Fleet Street.
It wasn't just print that had undergone a revolution. In the not-so- distant past, we all lived in a predominantly black-and-white world; television was a distinctly monochrome affair until the broadcasting of colour, first witnessed on BBC2 in 1967. A trip to the local cinema, just over a decade before colour TV arrived, had been a wholly black-and-white experience too. Even The Digital Age hadn't started with an explosion of colour - Apple may have introduced the Mac in 1984, but it would take a year or two before designers would get to view millions of colours on screen. Today, we all demand full-colour print straight into our waiting hands, churned out in our studios within a matter of seconds.
Everything in our fast-paced, ever-changing world, it seems, is brought to us in glorious, vivid, technicolour. In our fully saturated, full-on, full-colour global media age, we've become accustomed to a multitude of TV channels spewing forth up-to-the moment, state-of-the-art news images from every corner of the globe, and we're bombarded at the newsstands by a plethora of full-colour lifestyle, gossip and soap-star magazines - all screaming for our attention, assaulting our senses to a point where we've just stopped seeing any longer. From the Sony advertising campaign featuring billions of brightly coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco to the new-rave pop promos of band-of- the-minute the Klaxons - colour is the default position. It's only when a movie comes along such as Control, about the life and death of Joy Division's Ian Curtis and directed by infamous photographer Anton Corbyn, shot solely in black-and- white, that we sit up and take notice of the power of the mono medium once again. The colour balance is readdressed for a moment - colour's saturation point is challenged and monochrome comes into focus.
From Beardsley to Banksy
What of black-and-white in communication design? Graphic design is a relatively young profession, only having been recognised as a term itself since the mid-20th century, and until the end of the 19th century graphic arts could only be reproduced in black-and-white - colour was not even an option. This meant that the relationship of the image and background and the positive and negative space created by the inked and non-inked was absolutely vital to the overall aesthetics of the design. Nothing could be hidden under layers of colour. Essentially, the graphic arts were honest, clear-cut and, well, graphic.
Even with the introduction of lithographic printing and the dawn of colour reprographic techniques, some artists and designers, such as Aubrey Beardsley, remained resolutely rooted in the black-and-white. Beardsley's mastery of illustration and his use of black-and-white remain unparalleled; his unique drawing ability with an extreme economy of line, coupled with an amazing design finesse, created works that remain iconic to this day. And what of today's iconic graphic images? Who is it that's creating the images that have captured the imagination of the art and design world and, to some extent, that of the general public? Banksy. Yes, over a century after Beardsley, and despite the proliferation and availability of full colour, it has been the predominantly monochrome stencilling of a mystery street artist that has captured a zeitgeist and has, once again, made us aware of the power of black-and-white.
Of course, in the space between Beardsley and Banksy there have been many other truly iconic black-and-white graphic images: M.C. Escher's illustrations of impossible structures created in the 1950s and 60s; Gerald Holtom's graphic identity for CND in the late 50s; Klaus Voorman's graphic album art for The Beatles' Revolver; the bold black-and-white corporate identities for brands such as Olivetti and Sony from the 70s; and Peter Saville's album sleeve design for Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures at the end of the decade. More recently, we've had Tomato's collaboration with Underworld that commenced in the 90s, Tom Hingston Studio's touch-sensitive darker-than-dark box-set design for seminal band Massive Attack, and so on...
With such easy access to colour reprographic techniques, why do so many of today's designers and image-makers still hanker after the challenges of working with such a limited palette? What is it about monochrome working methods that ensure it still has an active fan-base? UK-based illustrator Joe McLaren believes that in some quarters it's the very fact that digital technology has usurped traditional techniques that makes them so sought after.
"It's the abandonment of letterpress, woodcuts, lino-cuts and, to some extent, black-and-white photography as techniques in mainstream practice that has given them an attractive aura of exclusivity," explains McLaren. "Block printing, like many other processes, has stopped on an industrial scale but is beginning to thrive on a craft 'boutique' basis. Anything with a 'handmadeness' is now perceived as being of a higher value." According to McLaren, it's the very back-to-basics nature of 'old' craft-based technology that is attracting a new wave, consisting of those who are keen to put some distance between themselves and 'new' digital technology.
Illustrator Peter James Field concurs with McLaren and even goes one further. "I think Stanley Downwood's work for Thom Yorke's solo album was representative of something: lino-printing making a comeback," he explains. "There was a recent book about the design for the 1951 Festival of Britain and also an exhibition in homage to Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, and I do think that this post-war era, with its strong graphic leanings, may be influencing a return to black-and-white letterpress and relief printing." Field pauses before adding, "That's not the full story, of course; artists like myself have simply felt a personal need to keep things simple and economic."
Barcelona-based designer Patrick Thomas, creative director at La Vista cites a far earlier monochrome artwork as a genuine influence on his approach. "William Hogarth's Gin Lane of 1751," he states. "I saw it again recently in a show here in Barcelona, and it terrified me!" In 2005 Thomas published Black & White, a collection of his own monochrome commissioned images for a key client. "I've collaborated with La Vanguardia newspaper, Barcelona's best-selling daily, for over six years and I've made more than 150 covers for the financial supplement Dinero," states Thomas in a matter-of-fact fashion. "Initially, it was hard work to convince them to take a conceptual route because they had previously only used decorative tutti colore, feel-good images. After 9/11, I sent in several very hard graphic cover ideas in black-and-white and despite the cover being printed in CMYK, they worked, and the newspaper realised there was no turning back."
Black & White features a collection of images from Thomas's portfolio of work for Dinero and La Vanguardia and was printed in an edition of 750, so popular it has completely sold out. "I decided to publish Black & White," acknowledges Thomas, "to emphasise the conceptual nature of my work. When you use just black-and-white there is less room for bullshit. A good idea should be able to work solely in black-and-white - to opt for decoration when a solution can't be found is merely a form of escape." Thomas has a harsh but blatantly honest viewpoint, his own rationale for working in monochrome.
Form follows function
It may have been architect Louis Sullivan, describing a modernist approach to his own discipline, that popularised the phrase 'form follows function', but, in the years that have followed, his words have become synonymous across all aspects of design. In graphic arts and visual communication, it simply describes an approach that puts creative thinking and ideas at the forefront, with their physical realisation and execution being led by the idea or the function.
Ian Stevenson, illustrator and artist with a client list that includes MTV, Perrier, Paul Smith, Carhartt, London Transport and The Barbican, agrees with Louis Sullivan's sentiment. "I definitely don't like drawing things that aren't necessary - I don't like to work with lots of random things and, to me, over-embellishment is often because the original idea just isn't very strong. When working purely in black-and-white," he states, "you get to see if the idea works in its simplest form."
Kerry Roper picks up on Stevenson's point. "I'm from a background in advertising and am a great believer in pure ideas - they should be as instant and accessible as possible. When working in black-and-white I think that an idea has to be a lot more focused than when working in colour. Colour can help convey an idea or an emotion, but working in black-and-white means you have to really strive to communicate with a strong idea and a very focused composition."
It's clear that many designers believe that the use of black-and-white leads to a purer, more honest form of graphic communication, but what other reasons do designers cite for working away from a full-colour palette?
SEA Design's Matt Judge has another rationale. "I do think, of course, that more often than not it's a case of the medium suiting the message, or brief, but in our increasingly environmentally conscious community, the message seems to be driven more and more by reduction," Judge states. "Clients are genuinely more concerned with their carbon footprint, not wanting to appear over-indulgent at the expense of rainforests in Brazil," he continues.
So, in some instance, clients are opting for black-and-white design and print over full colour purely because, environmentally, a single-colour print process is less damaging and a greener option. "Sustainability, both economically and environmentally, will often be a driving force behind a brief for many clients," declares Judge, predicting an increasingly upward trend.
Finances and concepts
There is also the implication of cost. Ian Stevenson, well-known for his drawings on street rubbish, admits, "No question about it, black-and-white is cheaper to print!" Matt Judge at SEA Design steps in quickly: "Some of the most iconic pieces of design are black-and-white and by no means look cheap. Take The Beatles' Revolver artwork - beautiful, seminal but by no means economical," he advises.
Peter James Field is realistic about the issue of colour over black-and-white: "It's quite a brave move in this day and age for an art director with a colour magazine to actually opt for black-and-white," states Field. "To me it signals confidence." Field hits the nail on the head - with colour so readily available in print and on screen, it's a special type of designer that relishes the challenge of working to the principle of less is more.
The monochrome world of black-and-white movies, TV and newspapers may well have been superseded by the onslaught of the full-colour experience that we all now take for granted, but it's heartening to know that there remain pockets of resistance, dedicated to keeping graphic messages succinct and free from over-embellishment and ornamentation.
A tip or two from the masters are worth their weight. First, Abram Games, legendary designer and illustrator and Official War Artist during World War II, in summing up his own design mantra issued these eloquent words: "Maximum meaning, minimum means."
It was, however, the master of thinking himself, Mr Einstein, that gave us the following guidance, which is particularly useful for designers across all disciplines: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."