The New ‘Public Enemies’ Lettering is Total Dogshit*
How bad is this lettering?
So bad that even my (long suffering but usually not terribly visually-attuned) gf mentioned it even before I could launch into my own usual spittle-flecked rant. She asked how something like this happens in the world of the commercial arts, especially at that kind of supposedly A-list level. My guess was that it was probably some crap-ass key art flunky trying to make a “font” and failing in a horrible and computery bad way, but getting it through because nobody involved in the production has any visual sense. As usual, my assumption was totally wrong. I make a lot of wrong assumptions, which is bad, but I’d feel worse if the reality weren’t even crappier than my presuppositions.
In this instance, a “real” design studio did the crappiness. Which is worse because they should’ve known better. A flunky’s overreaching ignorance is one thing. A design studio’s badly miscalculated “ideas” (or stupidity or arrogance or laziness, it’s difficult to tell what, exactly, is going on here) are entirely another. Let’s see where it all went wrong.
According to this board, someone who seems to be from Brody’s studio (but who knows – it’s the Internet after all) claimed that it was inspired by WPA posters. How bad is this lettering? So bad that the fact that Dillinger was dead and gone before the inception of the WPA isn’t the worst thing about it. But let me say that again: Dillinger: 1903-1934. WPA: 1935-1943. So, okay, whatever websurfing that passes for research at Brody’s studio wasn’t as diligent as we could’ve hoped – one year, give or take, isn’t really a big deal, and I’m not usually one to let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good design. However, it’s just not a good design, and even if we give ’em a looser timeline, the WPA thing still doesn’t make any sense, for a number of reasons.
1. The WPA style was not the result of some populist tipping point toward modernist poster design. It was headed by a Bauhaus alum who made it, by virtue of his place at the top of the bureaucracy that ran it, the house style of America’s experiment in socialism. From the Library of Congress:
The New York poster division was headed by Richard Floethe, a German-born internationally known industrial designer who was educated in the fundamentals of the aesthetic movement known as the Bauhaus… In an essay written in the 1930s…Floethe wrote, “…the government unwittingly launched a movement to improve the commercial poster and raise it to a true art form.”
Though personally, I would question just how “unwitting” it actually was. And Dillinger was a popular/populist story (like Bonnie & Clyde, etc.), so using a centralized government-issue aesthetic makes no sense.
2. But even if it did, the execution completely sells out the idea (such as it is). WPA posters were hand lettered and mechanically separated, which, by and large, meant that they were printed in solid colors. Odd or quirky though that hand lettered typography was, it looks good silkscreened flat on real WPA posters, where up there it’s jarring, what with the ridiculous fades and crazy picture behind it.
3. Another note on execution: it’s obviously done on a computer. WPA lettering was rough, warm, and imperfect – actually done by hand. The cruddy weights and awkward forms in the PE poster look, in the clean vector lines of a computer, only like mistakes, not the charming analog error that they should (by the way Kabel would’ve been just fine – that’s the one on the far right, and is consistent with the era).
4. One more note on execution: the WPA posters were lettered. The letters themselves may have been quirky, but they were designed to work together as a specific word on the poster. Brody and Co. made a typeface and just typed it in. This is in no way similar to the process of drawing the letters on a WPA poster would’ve been.
5. And anyway, it has no relevance to the Dillinger story. People would’ve heard about it from newspapers, magazines, newsreels, and radio. Not posters (especially not posters that’d yet to’ve been implemented).
Here is a total of 15 minutes worth of research that would’ve afforded the designers a quirky, unique mix of lettering, but actually made some little bit of graphic and conceptual sense. Fifteen minutes, I guess, that the actual designers didn’t invest. Clockwise from upper right: a magazine, 1930; a hand painted sign, 1933; Dillinger’s wanted poster; a newspaper, 1935; .
What have we learned? I don’t know – I’ve never been a big fan of Brody’s stuff (some of it was novel a couple decades ago, but nothing has ever blown me away). Does it even matter? I think so – it cost the studio whole shitloads of money (millions in media, at least) to put this in front of my eyes every time I turn around, and it was a phoned-in solution (at best). You have to wonder why they went with Brody, when there are plenty of American designers with a much better sense of our own history and, certainly, of typography (Brody, regardless of how much you like or dislike his work, has always sucked at typefaces – he may have justifications for the clunkiness of them, but that don’t mean they ain’t clunky).
Maybe we’ve learned to do our goddamned research, especially when we’re getting paid a significant amount of money. Crapping out something like that and calling it WPA for no good reason is not research, it’s not design, and it’s not even cool to look at. It’s just dumb and wrong.
Oh wait, I know what we’ve learned! It’s not always a shitty client that makes for shitty design. Sometimes designers just end up making bad, boring, crap graphic work. Maybe we’ve learned that just because we call ourselves designers, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily very good at, like, doing design.
* I actually don’t care as much as you might think by the tenor of that more-or-less bullshit bloggy attention-grabbing headline. If I really got as angry as that every time I saw stupid and lame design inexplicably backed by millions in media buys, I’d be dead of eleven heart attacks and seventeen aneurysms by now.