History & Futures – Week 5: Written Communication

Thoughts on Week 5 Lecture & Resources

Irma Boom

The podcast/interview above features Dutch book designer Irma Boom in conversation with industrial designer Stephen Burks of New York gallery Friedman Benda, as part of their Design in Dialogue series, recorded on 10th February 2021. I found it really inspiring to learn more about her design process, how she develops her ideas and to see some of her incredible archive of work.

Image via Wired

She talks about viewing books as a concept, or an object, and how the content should dictate the design of a book – to her, how it looks should indicate what the book is about, such as its form/shape, the colour, and format. I like the idea of a book as something you experience, in a very tangible way, an experience that is completely different from any form of digital media; being able to feel the weight of it, sense the texture of the pages, the quality of the printing, and so much more. I also thought it was interesting to hear that she thinks of herself as a book maker, rather than a graphic designer.

Chanel No. 5 Book, designed and created by Irma Boom. Image via Wired.

In creating the limited-edition book Boom created for Chanel to coincide with an exhibition celebrating its iconic No. 5 fragrance, she was given “carte blanche.” It is a unique book, with – unusually – no ink featuring on its pages. Instead, the images and text were created by embossing, giving a raised texture, so they were imprinted, rather than printed. I thought this was a really interesting approach and is definitely an innovative way to push the boundaries of what books traditionally are, or can be.

Image via Wired.

She describes her process as immersive – she was given free reign to explore the Chanel archive, and spent time understanding its creator, Coco Chanel, as well as how the perfume is produced, visiting the area of Provence where the roses are picked and witnessing the bottling process.

The end result of which is a beautifully crafted book, and I think the lack of ink actually enhances the concept of a fragrance being quite transient and ephemeral.

Adrian Shaughnessy & Unit Editions

A selection of books on uniteditions.com

Adrian Shaughnessy is one of the co-founders of Unit Editions, who describe what they do as: “books on graphic design, for graphic designers, by graphic designers.” To do this, they have challenged the traditional methods of publishing and distributing books, circumventing this by selling directly to their target audience through their own website, effectively a digital bookshop.

Pages from a Unit Editions book on Lance Wyman,
taken from Adrian Shaughnessy’s Element Talks presentation.

It’s clear that a large part of the appeal with the books produced by Unit Editions is their quality, something which clearly appeals to their intended market. (Naturally, designers, being visual people, love a gorgeous book!) They have created a range of books on visual culture and design history. These publications are carefully conceived, designed and researched, paying close attention to details such as imagery, production values, and the materials used.

A book on Soviet Design, published by Unit Editions. Image via uniteditions.com


Looking at Historic Books

Part of the Diamond Sutra. Image via the British Library.

I am fascinated by the rich history of the printed word and decided to investigate some early examples of books. The Diamond Sutra is the world’s oldest dated printed text, from AD 868. The manuscript, a woodblock print on dyed paper, is a Buddhist text, discovered by a monk in 1900 at a holy site called the Mogao (or ‘Peerless’) Caves, also known as the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas,’ near Dunhuang in China, a crossroads on the silk trade routes. It features an intricately carved cover, and was created by piecing together individually printed sections to form a horizontal scroll measuring 5 metres in length.

Below is a visual extract I found on Edward Tufte’s website:

Image via edwardtufte.com

I also discovered the British Library has a copy of the Diamond Sutra in its archives, which you can examine in detail via an interactive digital tool.

Workshop Challenge

In response to this week’s workshop challenge, I decided that I wanted to write a love letter to live music, something that’s been keenly missed in my life (and no doubt that of other music fans like myself) in recent months.

I began with a hand-written piece, like I would an ordinary letter –
it felt as though the words flowed more easily this way.

Letter writing is something that I have done for many years. I have always loved crafting letters and there is something really special about receiving a hand-written letter from someone you care about. It’s also an incredibly personal medium for conveying your intimate thoughts, and is unlikely to be shared with anyone other than the intended recipient.

I think there is huge value in putting heartfelt words onto paper with ink and patiently waiting for a response via snail mail. In an age of instant gratification and “social-immediacy,” it can feel refreshing, as well as having more longevity. Having maintained a written correspondence with friends for years (perhaps because the internet only came into my life in a big way in my mid-late teens), I love the letter as a medium. As someone who adores music, but sincerely noticed the void left by a sudden and unexpected lack of concerts to go to, I wanted to address it directly.

Inspiration in the form of William Blake’s notebook. Image via the British Library.
Oh Comely magazine, issue #2 (Sept/Oct 2010).

Visual Research & Design Development

I was really inspired by the cover design of an older issue of Wallpaper* magazine, from October 2019, which was guest-edited by artist Jenny Holzer and fashion designer Hussein Chalayan.

Cover detail of Wallpaper* No. 247. Image via PressReader

It features a striking piece with energetic circles and ellipses in a vibrant red colour – taken from a series of artworks by Holzer, which she created after researching declassified documents to try to make sense of why the US invaded Iraq, known as her redaction paintings.

From a series of “redaction paintings” by Jenny Holzer. Images via Scribd.

I love the freedom of her artistic style, and it felt like something I could interpret in my own way, which I also see as an incredibly emotional response to a subject – in my case, the experience of seeing live music.

A Love Letter to Live Music

Final Design

Reflection on the week

One of the prevailing themes this week is the notion that print is definitely not dead. In a digital age, I think people are turning to carefully crafted physical media such as music on vinyl and beautifully designed books, because there is something truly special about them. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that they help us feel connected, both to the creators and the physical, tangible world – something that can never be replicated in pixels. Perhaps we don’t “need” books, but they can certainly be life-enhancing.

William Morris quote, from Adrian Shaughnessy’s Element Talks presentation.

I definitely found this week’s workshop challenge exactly that, a challenge. I knew that I wanted to do something a bit different for the task, and choosing to write a love letter to live music certainly seemed to fit the bill. Normally you write a letter to a person, and it’s often part of an ongoing conversation. In this case, the concept was admittedly abstract and this made the writing aspect quite difficult initially. Writing by hand proved a lot easier than any other way of getting the words down and something that allowed them to come more naturally – it is a letter, after all.

Portraying an emotional response to the experience of going to a music gig, something that is an entirely sensory thing, seemed a good approach, both from the perspective of design and writing. After coming across the redaction paintings by Jenny Holzer, I was hugely inspired by her energetic art and it felt quite a natural way to express the passion that I felt. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to music whilst working on the design, and I consciously tried to free up my painting style to create something that hopefully shows in some way the idea of losing yourself in a beautiful moment. The design is also intended to evoke the contrast of darkness punctuated by light experienced at a concert, as well as the feeling of energy and the pleasurable sensations listening of music.


British Library. ‘Printed copy of the Diamond Sutra.’ Available at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-diamond-sutra [accessed 23/02/2021]

CASHDAN, Marina. 2019. ‘Life Lines.’ Wallpaper* issue 247, 12 September [online]. Available at https://www.scribd.com/article/450341839/Life-Lines [accessed 03/03/2021]

Design Boom. February 2021. ‘Irma Boom on books + the permanence of the printed page for Friedman Benda’s “Design in Dialogue”.’ Available at https://www.designboom.com/design/irma-boom-books-friedman-benda-design-in-dialogue-02-16-2021/ [accessed 22/02/2021]

Edward Tufte. ‘Buddha with Bird Nest: sculpture.’ Available at https://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00032Y [accessed 23/03/2021]

Friedman Benda. Design in Dialogue #90: Irma Boom [online video] Available at https://vimeo.com/510819218 [accessed 22/02/2021]

Element Talks. 2017. Adrian Shaughnessy – The graphic designer as writer, editor and publisher [online video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL1W3YdCasQ [accessed 28/02/2021].

It’s Nice That. 2015. Nicer Tuesdays: Craig Oldham on Books [online video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rToKzDMIRPs [Accessed 24/02/2021].

Stinson, Liz. November 2013. ‘A Genius of Book Design Creates a Tome With No Ink.’ Wired [online]. Available at https://www.wired.com/2013/11/a-beautiful-book-printed-without-ink/ [accessed 22/02/2021]

TOC. 2011. Anna Gerber and Britt Iverson, Visual Editions: Part Revolution, Part Reinvention, Part Making it Up Along the Way [online video]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JADarGx17Ok [Accessed 23/02/2021].

Wallpaper*. October 2019 (Issue no. 247).