Thoughts on the Design of MPT

2013 Number 1 - Strange Tracks

My greatest challenge in creating a new visual identity and layout for MPT was to deliver a solution appropriate to its vibrant design history.

Since its inauguration in 1965, Modern Poetry in Translation has undergone several transformations. My greatest challenge in creating a new visual identity and layout for MPT was to deliver a solution appropriate to its vibrant design history.

The magazine was first designed by Richard Hollis, who is now recognised as one of the most influential graphic designers of the twentieth century. Hollis began his career in the early sixties and quickly built a reputation in the graphic design community. His ‘form follows function’ approach to design was informed by the writings of the Swiss modernist movement that advocated neutrality in design over idiosyncratic solutions. He believed strongly in a conscientious design approach that respected the client’s objective. 

My first meeting with MPT’s editor, Sasha Dugdale, provided an opportunity to look through some earlier issues of MPT. There is nothing quite like handling original documents to get an impression of their design and production. I felt inspired to revive the controlled balance between type, image and colour in Hollis’ early designs. The concepts behind the format of MPT have always been rooted in economy and portability. In preparation, I discussed the best methods to optimise production cost with a well-established paper merchant and print enthusiast, Justin Hobson. The final combination of paper and print process has been selected for its crisp impression and soft-contrast that enhances the typographic form of the text and holds the reader’s interest. The lightweight paper has a subtle translucency that hints at the poetry of the following page, creating a sense of continuity in an environment that is, by its nature, fragmented. 

For the cover, a two-colour process has been selected for its bright and saturated colours and its potential to facilitate the use of fluorescents and metallics for special issues. Rendering artwork in two-colours can be difficult at times; in seascape with a clear blue sky the choice of colours is obvious: yellow and blue. However, selecting the right colours to achieve the highest fidelity in many other pieces of artwork is often less obvious. The use of colour in the text pages aids typographic hierarchy and adds interest by deviating from the conventional uniformity of the black and white page.

With an idea of production processes and its influence on the design, I began to investigate the most economic methods for typesetting whilst retaining clarity and accessibility. Arranging verse requires a level of sensitivity to typographic details. Unlike prose, you cannot rely on a continuous flow of text to give structure to the page. Disparity in, for example, line length and poem shape, compromises the effectiveness of a conventional layout, and creates a greater focus on the layout’s ability to adapt and unify texts. Attractiveness becomes subordinate to the form of the verse; the preference is to reduce any confusing ambiguity that might be created by, for example, the action of turning a page – although this can be used advantageously to create the momentary pause that the poet intended. The diversity of the poetry published by MPT necessitates versatility in design.

There are only two typeface families used throughout the magazine: this serves to reduce any distraction that could occur so that the reader can focus on the text. In the display and titling I already knew that I was looking for a modern typeface with the same weight and structure as the iconic sans-serif in the early issues of MPT. However, for the text face I felt the magazine could benefit from having something a little more unique as well as economical in space. Maiola is an award-winning contemporary typeface that achieves this. Its creation is directly linked to the work of Czech typeface designer, Oldřich Meinhart.

Meinhart designed to address the peculiarities of Czech typesetting, and valued the harmony of shape and weight in diacritics. Meinhart considered himself a craftsman. He had ample knowledge and experience of the industrial production of typefaces that contributed crucially to the international success of his typeface. The typeface aims to omit ‘every bit of typographic baggage’, linking art and technology to devise a new visual concept. The design process was long and expensive, with many revisions and trial castings, finally resulting in an unobtrusive design that manages to incorporate a visible distinctiveness. Slight irregularities of the letterforms are characteristic of his work. His focus was not restricted to the Czech language; he sought to cater to the needs of any language using the Latin script. Maiola, with its dynamic spirit and liveliness, aims to bridge the historical heritage of Meinhart’s work with progression in technology and other aspects of typeface design.

The crucial aspect behind any piece of graphic design is often dependent upon the dedication of the client. Sasha has been encouraging, and honest; offering an exceptionally good eye for detail throughout the design process. I hope that the current design meets the expectations of its readers and does justice to the poetry it contains. I would to also like to thank Justin Hobson and staff at Fenner Paper; my tutors at the University of Reading including Rob Banham, Paul Luna, and Gerry Leonidas; Darren Lewis and staff at the Design and Print Studio; Deborah de Kock, MPT’s managing editor; and the staff at Charlesworth Press. 

Over the summer I was fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to a lecture on translated poetry at the Poetry Parnassus 2012. I think it was then that I truly appreciated the importance of translating poetry and the challenges which it presents.

Katy Mawhood

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