Crumpled Up

Lately, I’ve been trying to turn down invitations to collaborate on other people’s projects because I feel that I can ill afford the time. With four speaking appearances coming up in the next six weeks and no shortage of other distractions, I’ve been cramming like mad in preparation.

But not long ago, Chris Vivion and John Loomis of Blue Eyes Magazine asked me to design title cards for two of their routinely beautiful online exhibits of documentary photography: “Borderland” by Carolyn Drake, a look at Ukraine at a crossroads between the traditional and the modern; and “City of Fathers” by Dan Seltzer, a visit to Hebron, where a few hundred Jewish settlers live amidst 150,000 Palestinians. It was just the kind of challenge that I like: it revolved around substantive content and entailed a conceptual mode of thinking — illustration, of a sort.

Think in Ink

For me what’s interesting about working illustratively is that it doesn’t offer the comfort of a highly constrained environment, which is what working on the Web is so often like. Compared to the tight, almost constricted elements that I typically deal in, tackling an illustration is a bit like deciding where to sit down in a wide open field. That’s how inured I’ve become to the myriad of technical restrictions involved in working online; I feel adrift without the complications.

So, sometimes you have to create your own constraints, which I did more or less subconsciously by waiting until the eleventh hour to tackle this assignment. The pressure of time can be a great creative jump starter; I had the idea that distorted letterforms on crumpled paper, photographed tightly and dramatically lit, would be an interesting visual metaphor for the content of both series of photos. So I typeset the title of each in Illustrator, printed them out on my laser printer, and photographed them quickly. Both were done inside of a few hours…

City of Fathers

The results were very satisfying to me; I think what I like best about them is that they’re highly evocative — the folds and crumpling are random, but a lot of intent can be read into them. And, crucially, I liked that I had no idea how they were going to turn out; the whole process, short as it was, was a kind of discovery in which I had very little control. Which led me to think that a similar treatment would be appropriate for the title card of the slides I’ll be presenting at the AIGA National Design Conference in Denver on Saturday. Its title, as you can see, also happens to match the metaphor.


For those of you going to Denver, that’s just a little taste of my talk… I’ve got eighty-two additional slides to show you. Please fill up with coffee beforehand.

  1. Really nice, Khoi. Inspiring to say the least.

    Any chance of us seeing a little more of your AIGA presentation (for those of us who couldn’t make it to Denver)?

  2. Khoi, you never cease to amaze. How you stay so creative on a day-to-day basis is a testament to the lack of limitations man has.

    One of these days I’m going to muster up enough sense to see you present. Until then though, I’ll just hope to bump into in the City where I can ask for some impromptu inspiration ;-).

  3. Odd.. i am busy doing something similar right now: Printing on crumbled paper at really low dpis to see at what font size it becomes illegible. Ah, well, the world of ideas is small.

    I really like your shots; especially the added colour for the name. Is that also printed on the paper or did you add that later?

  4. Great stuff. I like the tight cropping a lot, seems to enhance the crumple effect. For some reason the first one (Borderland) works better than the other, maybe a legibility thing.

  5. Yes, the names of the photographers were added after the fact, via Photoshop. That was one element I wanted to be able to control. Should’ve made that clearer from the beginning, sorry.

  6. And of course you typeset it in Helvetica. Not that there was much of a choice there, but I do think you picked a great typeface for this application. The rigidness of Helvetica and the distortion from the paper play off each other beautifully. By the way, thank you Khoi for re-invigorating my love for this wonderful typeface.

  7. great presentation saturday! i’m eager to figure out more about the new css grid compliance you were talking about in the presentation.

    hope all is well.

  8. Yes, thanks for contributing to a really rich weekend of insight and inspiration at the AIGA conference in Denver. Your presentation was definitely one of the highlights!

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