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“Hand Job” Revisited

“HAND JOB” REVISITED

Interview with Joshua Hardisty about the MVA’s work in the book “Hand Job: A Catalog of Type” and hand-drawn typography today.

“Hand Job: A Catalog of Type” cover. Designed by Mike Perry.

“Hand Job: A Catalog of Type” cover. Designed by Mike Perry.

The MVA’s work was published in Mike Perry’s book of hand-drawn typography “Hand Job” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). Joshua also contributed the foreword “All Hail To My Hands”—a reflection on more than 10 years of making graphic design by hand.

4 years later Norwegian design student Helene Slimming sent us a request for an email interview to get more insight into hand-made typography and it’s relationship to trends and punk rock.

Reading these answers now in 2019 is interesting because analog methods have crept back into our work. As I write this there are hand-made elements in almost everything we’ve done in the last 18 months. That said, I don’t disagree with anything I said in this interview and it’s still an accurate depiction of what we’re about. — Joshua

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Interview by Helene Slimming

Helene Slimming (HS): I first found your work through the book “Hand Job: A Catalog of Type” by Michael Perry. I see that the work in this book is from 2003–2004. Do you still do a lot of handmade work?

Joshua Hardisty (JNH): I don’t do much hand-made work these days. It still has a value to me but if we do something analog at The MVA its usually because we want something transformative to happen, as in the case of the “What Remains” exhibition mailer or because it just makes sense like our design for the book “DIY Album Art: Paper Bags & Office Supplies”.

“What Remains” exhibition mailer, 2010. Typography and art direction: The MVA Studio. Drawing: John Vogt.

“What Remains” exhibition mailer, 2010. Typography and art direction: The MVA Studio. Drawing: John Vogt.

“Minneapolis 55408” exhibition poster, 2004. Design and illustration by Joshua Hardisty.

Up until “Hand Job” came out, I worked by hand almost by default. By 2007, I more or less abandoned working by hand or making heavy use of hand-made elements. The reasons are fairly complex but one of the bigger ones is that I often used the hand-made work as a way to “hide.” What I mean is that I often wanted to respond to projects with very straight-forward simple designs but I felt that it wasn’t “enough.” If I didn’t embed the work with a high level of visual or conceptual complexity then I felt that I was reverting back to a kind of lazy Modernism. My way of dealing with this was to do ridiculous amounts of labor-intensive drawing and tracing. A good example of this was a poster I did for Minneapolis 55408 an exhibition about artists working in a specific postal code. I went for a walk in the 55408 neighborhoods and collected scraps of paper, metal, leaves, and garbage and then photocopied each item to simplify it. I then traced and inked each drawing, scanned it in, and outlined it using the now-defunct Adobe Streamline. The tracing added nothing to the final piece but I felt compelled to do it. 

On the other hand there were a few times where I achieved the level of directness that I craved though hand-made graphics. The flyer “Collective: Intensive” that is reproduced in “Hand Job” came close but I wish that all the lettering was just my hand-writing without the hand-drawn stencil part.

“The Collective: Intensive” flyer designed by Joshua Hardisty in 2004 was one of the MVA’s pieces that was reproduced in “Hand Job”

“The Collective: Intensive” flyer designed by Joshua Hardisty in 2004 was one of the MVA’s pieces that was reproduced in “Hand Job”

When I look at the work done by my colleagues in “Hand Job” you can tell that I wasn’t as “free” or truly comfortable with these methods as they were. When I began to embrace a more minimal and brutalist digital aesthetic I began to produce work that really felt like me.

But I also don’t want to totally dismiss the work I did then. I took it seriously at the time and my motivations were driven by an interest in post-modernism and a desire to create something that could have only come from me and my world. I also wanted evidence of my labor and tools (pen marks, photocopy glitch, uneven lines and the odd smoothness that Adobe Streamline [now called Live Trace in Illustrator] brought to it in the vector-tracing process) to be embedded in the visual outcomes. I was fascinated by what happened if I took a photo of a sign in my neighborhood, then made a drawing of it, then made a font from the drawing, scanned that in to design a poster and finally screen-printed it. Just writing about that work piques my interest in re-visiting those methods.

“Live Hip Hop” poster designed by Joshua Hardisty in 2004. Each artist’s name was drawn from a different photograph of signage in Minneapolis. Leitah’s was from the photo to the right.

Church sign in Minneapolis circa 2002. Photo by Joshua Hardisty.

HS: What are your thoughts on the specific characteristics of handmade graphic design?

JNH: The biggest thing is evidence of the maker. The really good hand-made stuff leaves behind a trace of its process. Obviously there are really talented illustrators like Si Scott who work by hand but make beautifully perfect work but my interest has always been in the things that are “off” or imperfect. I always liked Ed Fella’s line that you should “keep the inconsistencies inconsistent.”

Spread from “Hand Job” featuring Joshua Hardisty’s foreword. Design by Mike Perry. Illustration at top left by Joshua.

Spread from “Hand Job” featuring Joshua Hardisty’s foreword. Design by Mike Perry. Illustration at top left by Joshua.

HS: Which values are expressed through the handmade, in your opinion?

JNH: There are so many values present in the handmade from resistance to the computer to the joy of working by hand. For me, I enjoyed the obsessive nature of filling in the drawings, embracing the inadequacies of my own skill set, celebrating imperfection, sharing the things I found inspiring (vernacular signage or fonts) by drawing them, and declaring my own commitment to my work by taking the hard way out. I often felt that what I was doing was trying to give a gift to the viewer, sacrificing myself in a way by doing something that my have been futile in light of how design was made in the world—where it was quick, “appropriate”, clean, trend-driven.

Spread from “Hand Job”. Photograph of Joshua drawing by Kimberlee Whaley. Numbers from a sketch book of type copied from photos of vernacular typography by Joshua. Page design by Mike Perry.

Spread from “Hand Job”. Photograph of Joshua drawing by Kimberlee Whaley. Numbers from a sketch book of type copied from photos of vernacular typography by Joshua. Page design by Mike Perry.


HS: What do you see as the main reasons for working by hand in a time where the computer is so dominant in the design field?

JNH: The obvious reason for the continued presence of the hand precisely because the computer is so dominant but there’s a lot more to it than that. Most designers enter the field because they had an interest in art and even though you can make art with digital tools drawing is still the gateway to art-making. To totally give up drawing is insane to most people who came to design through art. Most designers with an art school background usually have a guilt-complex about drawing like “oh, I really should draw more….” Its very ingrained in designers.

There are other dimensions as well. Hand-made things just resonate with people. The popularity of Instagram has so much to do with the veneer of nostalgia. Even though we know its a fake layer of discoloration and soft-focus we still feel something deep inside when we look at these digitally-processed snapshots. I think there’s a political aspect to it as well that has to do with autonomy—that the mark made is one that only you could have made. Lastly, it reflects a world that is sometime feels like its disappearing, one where imperfection, overlap and eccentricities are still allowed. Sometimes there’s also a quality of being ridiculous, of drawing things that don’t necessarily need to be drawn. That has a value that comes through to viewers as well. My friend Dan Black once drew a free-hand Spirograph pattern for a poster. That strikes me as an absurd and wonderful gesture. (One of the things that wasn’t reflected in “Hand Job” was the extent to which I was using obsessive hand-made methodologies for everything from letter-press printing to blacking out magazines with white out and a marker and making images of mummies with masking tape.) And then, sadly, it also continues because corporate America sees how well it works for marketing to teenagers (though, hopefully that’s coming to an end).

Japandroids poster, 2011. designed by Landland.

Japandroids poster, 2011. designed by Landland.



HS: Do you have any role models or inspirations in the field of handmade design?

JNH: Totally.

My friend Mike Perry is one of my heroes. I love the work he makes but I also appreciate the confidence and joy that he brings to his work. When you look at his work you can tell that you’re looking at the product of someone who loves what they do.

Our fellow MCAD classmate Dan Black of Landland is another huge inspiration. His hand-drawn flyers and album packaging make me want to quit design so that I am not competing with him in any way. Ed Fella was an idol of mine for a long time and I find his on-going series of flyers to be some of my favorite work of all time.

Kevin Lyons achieves the level of direct-ness that I wished I could’ve brought to my work. Its always simple and straight-forward but also clever.

In the mid-00’s, the headline treatments that Non-Format were doing for The Wire and Deanne Cheuk was doing for Tokion were a huge inspiration.

I want to put down the mouse and pick up a brush whenever I spend time with a book of Evan Hecox or Margaret Kilgallen work.

When I first became interested in the “professional” world of graphic design, Tomato’s early record sleeves immediately “clicked” with me. These people all made me want to work by hand and were probably part of the reason I kept with it for so long even though it wasn’t comfortable.

Maybe most relevant is Martin Venezky whose work always makes me want to pick up an x-acto knife and give each letter its own loving attention. There’s a huge list beyond them as well—Kim HiorthøyKindra MurphyEd TempletonDan FunderburghAdam R. GarciaJohn WieseYokolandNeasden Control Centre, Mat Brinkman, GHAVA, Andrew Jeffrey Wright, and Faile all excite me.

HS: How do you see the role of handmade graphic design in the future?

JNH: For the reasons I outlined above when discussing the values expressed through the work and why it continues to have relevance. Feeling in control of the process, feeling free, making emotional connections with the viewers; none of these things will change in the future because we will continue to feel.

What I do truly hope will happen though is a move away from everyone making things by hand that look the same—the teenage doodle aesthetic. I want to see more eccentric and personal voices coming through. More Ed Fella and Martin Venezky and less of people using Hand Job as if its corporate identity manual. “Hand-made” shouldn’t describe a style, it should describe a methodology or philosophy.

HS: The book “Hand Job” mentions that you used to make punk zines. How has this background shaped your work as a graphic designer?

Corleone records ad designed by Joshua Hardisty in 1998 using rub-down lettering, photocopies and type drawn from photos of No Parking signs in Rhode Island.

Corleone records ad designed by Joshua Hardisty in 1998 using rub-down lettering, photocopies and type drawn from photos of No Parking signs in Rhode Island.

JNH: If it wasn’t for zines and punk rock I wouldn’t be a graphic designer at all. I started designing zines, flyers and ads before I had heard the term graphic design. When I decided to go to college after dropping out of high school I picked graphic design based on the idea that I would probably spend my life working as a dishwasher and making zines and records at night. I figured I should I either study writing or design. Design seemed more challenging so that’s what I chose.

The DIY aspect of punk rock continues to inform how I work. Its why I favor simple direct communication over being clever or conceptual, but the minimalism of my studio’s work is also meant to be confrontational. We think its a declaration that we have a lot of things to do and don’t want to spend all day making things look cool. Its some kind of equivalent to a 7" hardcore record—we get in, say our piece, and get out.

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“Function, Restraint & Subversion in Typography” book written and designed by The MVA Studio in 2010. The design reflects the more minimal, brutalist work the studio did around this time.

“Function, Restraint & Subversion in Typography” book written and designed by The MVA Studio in 2010. The design reflects the more minimal, brutalist work the studio did around this time.

HS: Your book “DIY Album Art: Paper Bags & Office Supplies” seems to be a very good example of graphic design where form follows content, but is still contemporary and clean. Could you say a few words on your thoughts about when the handmade is especially appropriate? 

“DIY Album Art: Paper Bags and Office Supplies” written and designed by The MVA Studio in 2009. The entire book was typeset with typewriters. Pitchfork illustration from Indian Summer’s debut 7” (1994).

“DIY Album Art: Paper Bags and Office Supplies” written and designed by The MVA Studio in 2009. The entire book was typeset with typewriters. Pitchfork illustration from Indian Summer’s debut 7” (1994).

JNH: You’ve described the design of “DIY Album Art” in exactly the way we thought about it. Our approach was to design the book in the same way we would have done it in 1995 but with the guiding principles of our aesthetic now. We type-set everything on typewriters and used hand-writing or Letraset for any additional typography, but we knew we wanted to make it our book. So the actual composition is quite traditional and it looks like a very basic pre-1990’s coffee-table art book except the Helvetica is replaced with a typewriter and nothing is precise. There’s a handful of templates but no real grid and no default sizes. Every element was eye-balled into place, which is exactly how I approached similar projects before I had access to a computer.

Original sheet of type-writer page numbers from “DIY Album Art”

Original sheet of type-writer page numbers from “DIY Album Art”

In regards to appropriateness, I don’t know how I feel about that. For “DIY Album Art” this almost-stupid unbelievably labor-intensive idea popped into my head and I couldn’t let go of it. I honestly don’t know how we would have designed it if the publisher had rejected the early spreads. So its obviously appropriate for this book of hand-made record packaging but in reality I don’t think people should worry about whether something is “appropriate” or not. Maybe the field of graphic design would be a lot more interesting if more of the work wasn’t appropriate, if it was “off” or out-of-sync in some way. Often its the “inappropriate” or subversive responses to a project that are most interesting. I like to see things that have their own internal logic that might not seem right for the content but are compelling nonetheless.

HS: How do you think the DIY tradition of the punk culture has influenced the handmade tradition in graphic design?

JNH: A lot of the designers and artists in “Hand Job” have a connection to punk and hardcore but I think that in any design discipline now you’ll see punk rockers, skateboarders, and graffiti artists due to the emergence of vibrant youth cultures in the 1970’s and 80’s. These cultures are a natural “gate-way drug” to design and art. 


Images of the book “Hand Job” taken from Mike Perry Studio.