If people are a product of their environment, then perhaps an aesthetic can be a product of the environment it was made in, too. This less-than-scientific hypothesis came to us sitting in the quiet, calm and studious environment of the AA Print Studio offices, where some of the most beautiful, considered in-house graphic design of the last decade has been quietly pushed out into the world.
The studio began life as the Communications Unit in 1971, which comprised both the studio creating the school’s printed materials and also the teaching department that taught on printing and communication techniques. Headed up by Dennis Crompton of avant-garde architectural group Archigram, it set the precedent for academic leaning publishing that looked as fresh, innovative and bold as the ideas their books explored. As with today, the books’ content dictated their design; but then was a time where complex, conceptual ideas in architecture were exploding, and physical publishing offered the perfect format to explain them rather than traditional architectural books, which simply documented existing projects.
While the department has seen numerous changes to its structure and a brief hiatus in 1990, the breadth and consistency of its designs is astonishing, especially considering no formal brand guidelines were ever set out, and that AA Publications was only given a logo in 2006.
Today’s Print Studio is led by art director Zak Kyes, who joined in 2006 after the appointment of Brett Steele as the publisher’s director, and graphic designer Wayne Daly. The duo is joined in their small team by designer Claire Lyon and three editors; and together they’ve forged a new direction for the studio that returns to its physical, printed roots. “In around 2006 we brought in a new commitment to publishing, where before there had been an emphasis on digital formats,” says Zak.
“The projects’ content serves the design first and foremost. We don’t have any strong ideas about the design until we’ve had those initial meetings; there’s an openness to what we do.”
“We refocused and tried to make the idea of print more relevant again. [Brett] was interested in reestablishing the AA’s legacy and reclaiming it, and the AA is mostly known through its books. We wanted to refocus on publications and innovate, and take a more experimental approach to publishing.”
In 2008 Zak and Wayne joined forces to launch AA Publication’s imprint Bedford Press as a space for books that look at the intersection of architecture, visual art, graphic design and theory and allow the pair to further explore how they can push traditional modes of publishing. With a broader range of practitioners to work with, they can broaden their strictly in-house design team to collaborate with visual artists, designers and writers whose work they’re publishing to find a fitting aesthetic solution. “We see the books as collaborations that are unique, and our design tries to respond to the content,” says Zak. Wayne adds: “The projects’ content serves the design first and foremost. We don’t have any strong ideas about the design until we’ve had those initial meetings; there’s an openness to what we do.”
I suggest a correlation between the design directions of AA Publications and Bedford Press and early 20th Century bastions of modern, clean design like BLAST , the two-edition journal founded by writer and Vorticist painter Wyndham Lewis. A platform for writers inducing Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, its layout was brave and hugely forward-thinking for the time, showcasing concrete poetry and a sharp, avant garde aesthetic dictated by its radical content. “I think that with all the work we do there’s a very clear emphasis on the content of the projects, and they are all projects where design is playing a key role,” says Zak. “In that sense the designs often emerge from conversations we’re already involved in, so the connection between form and content is very strong, as I think it is in those examples [ Blast etc].”
While this form-follows-content doctrine naturally leads to a diverse range of design styles, throughout the output there’s a cohesion – each piece somehow manages to be distinctly of the studio in its quiet, confident poise. Remarkably, this has been achieved with no set approach, and no brand guidelines at all – even when creating the printed matter used for internal notices at the university, as well as external communications. “Everything is filtered through our own subjective considerations,” says Zak.
“If we pick a particular typeface for a project it’s because we think it will work best for that project. With each one we approach it from zero: if in the end they look like they share a common visual language it’s because they’re all created by a very small team, and because we try to give form to the messages behind the material in a very direct way. That’s what informs what it ends up looking like.”
Zak’s first brief at the studio when he joined in 2005 was to redesign the AA identity – “we didn’t have a logo or anything” – but this took three or four years. “It was clear I had to learn about the institution and what would be appropriate,” he says. “We just started to produce materials and in the end people saw that as being the identity. It was formed from the content, and our design approach was content-led, so in a way what we were producing defined the identity. Later on we made the logo and applied it to everyone, so maybe it has a little more consistency.”
This very conceptual, almost academic approach to design has seen the study quietly forge a place for itself as a beacon of in-house expertise. The serene atmosphere of the space and the intelligent, passionate approach mean that every project is utterly unique, and shows that the refocus toward print isn’t gimmickry or belligerence, but a belief that the medium can be the most perfect solution. It’s something that seems to be in Wayne’s blood, too. “My parents were always very good about having books in the house, and comic books and things got me interested in design as a child, even though I didn’t know it as graphic design at the time,” he says. “My mother had an electric typewriter which I used to make sort of layouts with. I’d be interested to see those now…”
But that’s not to say AA Print Studio shuns digital; they see the two formats as partners that can work together, or become comfortable bedfellows. A few Bedford Press releases are now also published as ebooks, if proof were needed of their non-Luddite status. “Digital publishing and print publishing aren’t mutually exclusive,” says Zak. “Digital publishing offers really exciting opportunities which we’re exploring, so I see them as two channels that inform one another as part of a holistic approach to publishing. But at the same time, there are things that can only be done in printed form.”