I’m co-editor of South African contemporary art magazine ArtThrob. We were long overdue for a redesign, and it made sense from a budgetary perspective to undertake the task as close to in-house as possible (my partner here at Blackman Rossouw is a former editor, so it’s all pretty much family). This put me in the enviable position of being my own client. This is a lot of fun, but also sets the challenge of not succumbing to every flight of fancy.
My first desire was to break the white square. A survey of online arts publications showed an inherent conservatism: Swiss-y sans-serifs, immaculate greys and super-refined spacing. There is a sense of sanctity to these sites – cleanliness and neutrality. It reflects the aesthetics of the global art world – faux-industrial chic, white walls, understated elegance. These are part of the marketing of art as a luxury object of high culture. This is no bad thing: ArtThrob supports itself through sales. But it also doesn’t reflect our core principles of creating engagement and insight into the artworks and artists themselves, trying to figure out their meaning not their function.
My first flash of inspiration was from the file sharing site WeTransfer, of all places. I fell in love with their font (GT Super from Grillitype). It’s one of several throwback fonts looking to 70s type design. But it felt so friendly yet trustworthy. My co-editor Tim Leibbrandt put his finger on it, suggesting that it hearkens back to 70s media, when publications were if not trustworthy at least simpler to figure out. These throwback fonts are great, because they hint at that nostalgia, but they feel contemporary enough to not be revivalist… after all, we definitely aren’t pining for 70s South Africa in any form. I settled on Recoleta from Latinotype: it’s warm and rich and friendly, but also the quirky slanted lowercase ‘a’ really breaks the grid (And the tilt to the ‘O’, seems a small backwards nod to Robert Indiana’s LOVE) .
The color scheme fell into place around the font: browns, oranges and yellows, with a pink for differentiation (and because ArtThrob has always had pink in its design somewhere) and a warm grey for main text pages. The body font needed to be less showy, but strong enough to hold up against the dominant Recoleta. Cooper Hewitt fitted this bill, with the benefit of being open source (a principle that ArtThrob follows in text form: all our content is licensed under Creative Commons). It’s crisp geometry, coupled with a slightly condensed aspect gives it gravitas even in lighter weights.
The final elements of the site were in part a visual quirk to break the grids of a website: overlapping kerning for section titles, bold movements on the home page and text running over images. The latter has a philosophical base to it. I wanted to encourage a sense of the interconnectedness of the text that we produce and the art that we reflect on.
While this is the most radical redesign that ArtThrob has undergone in its 20-odd years (and five previous redesigns), my hope is that this will form a new direction that will continue to be refined and embraced by future editors in the next 20 years.