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Anatomy of Design by Mirko Ilic, Steven Heller

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18
ANATOMY OF DESIGN
Red Light Winter, a new play by Adam Rapp, premiered in Chicago in May 2005
at Steppenwolf Theatre and opened off-Broadway in New York in early 2006.
The play is about two college friends who spend a wild, unforgettable evening
in Amsterdam's Red Light District with a beautiful young prostitute. They find
that their lives have changed forever when their bizarre love triangle plays out
in unexpected way a year later in New York's East Village. But that's enough
about the plot (see the play or the forthcoming movie for more). However, we
can tell you the play does contain nudity and sexual situations, and it is very
hip. “It was very good,” says Gail Anderson, senior art director for Spot Co., the
New York-based design and advertising firm, which specializes in entertainment,
“though I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I was twenty-five. I'm way too old
for naked people on a Sunday evening.”
Anderson collaborated with principal designer Darren Cox on a series of
three slightly different posters advertising the New York performance. Although in
movie advertising it is a common practice to produce multiple character posters,
for theater—and especially off-Broadway, where the budgets are fairly tight—it
is virtually unheard of. In fact, theater posters are not actually used to sell the
product but rather to remind the forgetful that the play is running (reviews and
word-of-mouth remain the most effective sales tools). Yet in this case, the
somewhat enigmatic title of the play, rendered by hand in a such violent manner
by Cox (who then manipulated it in PhotoShop), which reveals three photos of the
erotic protagonist, cannot but pique the attention of the unknowing. The tagline
“two men, one woman...in very foreign territory,” adds to this calculated teaser.
The poster comes packed with overt design references and at least one
that is not so obvious: “After seeing the Egon Schiele exhibition at the Neue
Galerie [in New York], I thought that the mood was perfect for Red Light Winter,”
Cox explains. “The black type, color of the light, as well as the general
composition of the figures were all inspired [in this image] by his work.”
Schiele may not instantaneously come to mind, but it certainly makes
sense, given the play's raw sexuality. A more overt influence, however, is
the seemingly ad hoc composition based on Cox's expressive brush-lettered
handwriting. Handwriting has returned to graphic design with a vengeance,
largely due to the first wave of computer typography. With more designers
choosing to render letters and type in ink or paint, all genres of design have
come under the influence of stylistic scrawls. The jacket for Jonathan Safron
Foer's novel
Everything Is Illuminated (shown here) was not the first example of
black and white brush scrawling; it nonetheless helped popularize a renaissance
in raucous, deliberately anarchic hand-wrought calligraphy.
Like many posters today, the lettering for Red Light Winter completely
takes over the image space and builds on an even older technique of using the
letterforms as frames—or reveals—for the image. In the days before Illustrator
and PhotoShop software, when prepress was done by stripping negatives, black
type was often used as windows for line or halftone images. It was common to
see images in the shape of letters, as in the movie posters for
16 Blocks and
Hurly Burly, because the technology made it so easy. It was also a reliable
fallback solution, particularly for movie posters, when one image or a single
star wouldn't carry the weight of the campaign and multiple images within a
title projected two or more messages at once.
In fact, Cox's technique communicates more than one message. It
expresses the sexual timbre of the play but also suggests its locale on the
Lower East Side of New York, where handwritten and DIY flyers for concerts and
demonstrations are wheat-pasted on every available surface. This poster fits
perfectly into that visual continuum.
Red Light Winter
Designer: Darren Cox
2005 Red Light Winter, posters
ad: Gail Anderson d: Darren Cox
Cox’s technique expresses the sexual timbre of the play but also suggests its locale on
the Lower East Side of New York, where handwritten and DIY flyers for concerts and
demonstrations are wheat-pasted on every available surface.
Crowded, handwritten type
Type as a mask
Multiple options

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