The New ‘Public Enemies’ Lettering is Total Dogshit*

Posted in graphic design, Life Sucks by DCroy on 21 June 2009

How bad is this lettering?

Apparently, his schlong is also named Johnny Depp.

Judging by the placement, his schlong is also named Johnny Depp.

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.

No gradient fades.

    No gradient fades.

    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; .

    Not that hard, really.

    Not that hard, really.

    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.


    16 Responses

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    1. alec said, on 22 June 2009 at 6:01 pm

      We worked with a client (Salomon) several years ago who hired Brody to redo their logo. I liked the logo—though interestingly I really didn’t like the type choice that much (Interstate). They spent deep into the six figures and I was really impressed by his ability to bamboozle a room full of star struck clients.
      Just a reminder to all creative types: they aren’t buying the work. They’re buying you.

    2. David Croy said, on 23 June 2009 at 7:46 am

      Too true, on the buying.

      And maybe not as bamboozley as the new Pepsi, but yeah. Though that almost makes the researchy justification weirder, to me. Like, you just sold a Snow of the Month basket to the Eskimos – why bother with a rationale?

    3. myfonts2 said, on 23 June 2009 at 9:29 am

      I don’t necessarily agree with the sensationalist tone, but after all the recent hooplah about the typeface (which I’m guessing came more or less automatically due to it’s association with Neville Brody), I’m glad to see someone actually examine it with a critical eye.

    4. rory said, on 23 June 2009 at 9:30 am

      Dog shit is two words. Get your facts straight!

      • David Croy said, on 23 June 2009 at 9:56 am

        That would depend on whether you’re a prescriptivist or a descriptivist, I guess.

    5. rory said, on 23 June 2009 at 11:19 am


    6. Responding to the Response « said, on 29 June 2009 at 5:34 pm

      […] almost everything he has to say distressing in one way or another (click here if you missed the original post or Jeff Knowles’s complete reply). Okay, here’s the reply to the reply […]

    7. Paul R said, on 5 July 2009 at 1:42 pm

      You know, I don’t buy this. All you’re saying is you don’t like it. You don’t give a reason or a rationale that makes any sense, other than to say you think it is wrong to base a typeface on a period slightly postdating the life of the subject of the movie. I guess that’s a fair opinion, though I woiuld say a slightly retarded one. You mix in a lot of ad hominem, and even hint at a bit of jingoism, in trashing Brody; but I still don’t know what you don’t like about the typeface. Because it was done on a computer? (What does that have to do with anything? People use computers these days, you know. The movie was made this year — do you think they should have used old hand-cranked cameras in keeping with the period?) Because you think it evokes socialism and you don’t like socialism? Because you think it should look silkscreened in a flat color since that’s how old WPA posters were made? Because you think it should be hand-lettered since that’s how old-timey folks made their type? Your argument is not even an argument — its just a resentful rant.

      • David Croy said, on 7 July 2009 at 11:14 am

        All you’re saying is you don’t like it.

        Of course I don’t like it. You say that like it’s a bad thing.

        You don’t give a reason or a rationale

        I did, but let me reiterate. WPA style is a dumb idea for a Dillinger movie because, A. WPA was an institutional design for a government program, while Dillinger was a folk hero in conflict with the government; B. people learned of the Dillinger story through newspapers, newsreels, and radio, not posters (and yes, C. the dates don’t line up, but I emphasized that that wasn’t the worst thing about it).

        You mix in a lot of ad hominem, and even hint at a bit of jingoism, in trashing Brody

        It’s not ad hominem. He’s not a great designer. You seem to like his work, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make you a sycophant any more than criticizing it is automatically an attack.

        And jingoism is a bit of a stretch. Brody has evidently no particular knowledge of or feel for America in the 30’s, which is okay and unsurprising (I know very little about England in the ‘30’s). What I found curious was that Mr. Mann would hire someone unfamiliar with 1930’s America and also not very good at typography to work on a project involving typography and 1930’s America. I can think of plenty of designers with more experience at both lettering and Americana.

        I still don’t know what you don’t like about the typeface

        It’s a dumb concept (see above) and it was done badly. Again, this is in the original post but I’ll reiterate: A. they used erratic weights as the only attribute of hand lettered WPA posters; B. they eliminated the warm rough edges of hand lettering (a definite feature of “old-timey” lettering); C. they ignored the printed style of the era; and D. using only one element of the many that made WPA style great is such bad execution that the whole thing ends up looking unintentional. I had no idea that it was supposed to be redolent of the WPA at all – I thought it was simply bad type. And I have to think that the only reason we’re having this discussion is because we were told it was WPA. It just plain doesn’t convey WPA style on its own. Precisely because it is a dumb idea badly done.

        its just a resentful rant
        Of course it is. Resentment seems a perfectly reasonable response. It’s a shit design and it is everywhere, inescapable – what’s not to resent?

        I’d argue with your “just,” though. See the above reasons.

    8. Chipp said, on 16 August 2009 at 10:16 pm

      “It’s a dumb concept (see above) and it was done badly.”

      Not sure where you went to school…but you would’ve been slaughtered at the one I went to for such a critique. Who really cares if the font isn’t reminiscent of the period? I’m sure there are hundreds of things about the movie not period accurate. And who knows, being period accurate may not have necessarily been a given constraint for this project. Hell, first time I saw the font, I assumed it was one done years past by Brody– looks similar to some of his retro Soviet trys.

      The director obviously placed great importance on communicating to the audience using titles– which, as you obvioulsy know, are not only the text of the words, but also a certain appropriateness of theme– and I suspect for most the audience (you excluded) the font communicated just fine.

      Thanks for the very nice history piece. It was an enjoyable read, and it’s always interesting to hear dissenting opinions from my own. Though, I do agree, the designer who placed those fonts on THAT poster should be shot– it certainly needs at least another typeface, much too crude. I, for one, have always enjoyed Mr. Brody’s designs and believed him to be a pioneer in his day (my day, too 😉

    9. David Croy said, on 16 August 2009 at 11:10 pm

      The dumb/badly line was a summation; there is a fuller critique up there. And I don’t know where you went to school, but if neither the concept nor the execution were open to critique, I’m not sure the students were getting their money’s worth.

      The critiques of my critique, yours included, are a bit puzzling to me. The defense seems to be that it’s an okay rendition of a kind of fake Soviet-era lettering. Which has absolutely zero to do with the movie. But if it doesn’t matter that there’s no connection – the selection is arbitrary – why not Memphis? why not Bauhaus? or Carson-esque post modern? or, like the example, Comic Sans?. Doesn’t make sense to me why the Soviet thing is a defense.

      As far as the level of communication goes, it’s not even particularly legible. So what’s communicated? A kind of artlessly done Soviet-ness that can’t be seen very well. Ergo John Dillinger? Again, I don’t get it.

    10. Chipp said, on 16 August 2009 at 11:19 pm

      While to you, the selection may be arbitrary, I doubt it is to others. Plop a Memphis piece by Sottsass down in the middle of a scene– and it would stand out. Same true with your Comic Sans font treatment– but the Soviet style font does not. By most people’s standards, the font appears relevant. Those with a fine tuned, ‘elite’ sense of typography would disagree.

      • David Croy said, on 18 August 2009 at 12:34 am

        I don’t think having standards makes one an “elite” anything. A more apt word would be “expert.” Not that I’m necessarily an expert, but it should’ve been more expertly handled. Most people aren’t designers, so what’s acceptable to them is sort of beside the point. We have designers (and for that matter architects, surgeons, auto mechanics) because they are (or should be) more expert at what they do than the general public. I would hate to live in a world that didn’t include makers, designers, inventors, thinkers, artists who, through their expertise, provide us with things that we never could’ve dreamt of on our own.

    11. Ripping type a new one « Notchweiner is said, on 19 November 2009 at 6:48 am

      […] a nice follow-up to a post he wrote a few months back entitled The New ‘Public Enemies’ Lettering Is Total Dogshit, a piece that managed to provoke a response from the Public Enemy designers […]

    12. […] a nice follow-up to a post he wrote a few months back entitled The New ‘Public Enemies’ Lettering Is Total Dogshit, a piece that managed to provoke a response from the Public Enemies poster designers […]

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