OK-RM in conversation

18.02.2013, 10:21
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I caught up with Rory McGrath, from graphic design practise OK-RM, to talk to him about work for the Strelka Institute and Strelka Press, which has been nominated for the 2013 Design Museum Design of the Year award.

Jack Self: You founded OK-RM in 2008 with Oliver Knight. Could you tell me how the firm got started?

Rory McGrath: It’s strange you started with firm, OK-RM represents more of a collaborative. Hence OK [Oliver Knight], RM [Rory McGrath]. Especially in British culture, as soon as you give a name to something it becomes a studio, and a brand. We began more as utopian designers than a business per se. One of the key differences is pursuing a broader thesis through all our projects, which is critical. As a result, we keep a very close proximity between our work and personal interests, both in terms of a practise and a discourse.

JS: There’s an incredible consistency in your design work, and to create a unique character across time and projects is quite a difficult thing to establish. Is it a conscious effort on your part?

RM: It’s a conscious effort in that we naturally maintain a strong belief in what our role as designers is and this attracts a certain kind of commission and commissioner who is bold, ambitious and shares some of the same basic beliefs as we do. But we never focus on the consistency of the style of the design; even before OK-RM we believed the modernist philosophy that form follows function, and therefore that style is within that idea of form. OK-RM is more driven by ideology than it is a search for consistent style.

JS: You’re well known for your clean modernist design, could you tell me about the role of typography in your work?

RM: Typography is the backbone of our design; it’s the most essential way to communicate the content. We’re fascinated by the opportunities typography presents to play between form, language, different audiences and their expectations. Elementary shape is also crucial, although these elementary shapes are often quite typographic themselves — in the case of Strelka it’s very much about shapes as signs. Signs as the primary language we can all understand.

JS: To what extent does historical precedent play a role in the design and development of a graphic language? For example, with your covers for Strelka Press…

RM: For Strelka Press it was really crucial. We work a lot with printed media, so it was a change to encounter a publisher primarily focussed on a digital agenda. We wanted to play with the meaning of how, historically, information has been communicated through the form of books, and how that might become relevant in a new digital context. We looked a lot at the historical development of the paperback and the mass-produced book.
There’s a real burning need in a paperback to articulate the very core of the point within the book in a single image. During the modernist period Jan Tschichold, who designed the cover template for Penguin, established a beautiful graphic space that could be used to express a diverse range of ideas. Some designers used it for illustration, or collage, or photography. Within the unifying concept for the covers there was a flexibility to accommodate context. We wanted to work that way, but try to imagine the same process with digital publications.

JS: The Russian context must also have been an influence?

RM: Yes, of course. The cover typeface for Strelka Press is Lazurski, created by Vadim Lazurski, one of the great typographers and graphic designers of the twentieth century. Incidentally, it was a typeface commonly used for cultural books during the Soviet period, so there’s a strong historical link. It also looks beautiful, especially juxtaposed against a modernist clean font.

JS: You’ve been nominated for the Design Museum’s Design of the Year for the Strelka identity… I’m interested in how you think about the adaptability and flexibility of an identity in shifting contexts.

RM: We worked from two positions with the Strelka brand. The first was the need to communicate on a wide variety of platforms: billboards, apps, posters, screens, facades… So legibility, at many different scales, was important, as well as manageability, for both the in-house team and for us, and across every platform. The identity had to house many types of messages, both complex and simple, and to remain consistent in two different languages [Russian and English] which was obviously one of the key criteria for the identity.
At the same time we were really brought into the Strelka philosophy, and the aims of the school, which is about public space, shared space, and the development of space. Physically, the school is centred around a courtyard that is constantly in a state of being transformed from one use to another, reinterpreted and readapted, even though it remains spatially the same volume. We were interested in responding to that conceptually, with a grid that brings flexibility while also underpinning the coherence and continuity of a place.

JS: I’m interested in the modernist ideal of timelessness, especially in the context of what you’ve said about keeping track of trends.

RM: Often we’ll do a lecture, or a presentation of our work, and at the end the first question is: but why haven’t you mentioned modernism, isn’t your work all about modernism? It’s not something we’re deliberately responding to, certainly not in a nostalgic sense. We’re very sensitive to not being fetishistic about modernist approach. In the 90s there was a craze for reapplying the modernist style — in movie posters, and book covers, and so on. But it was a fairly superficial appropriation, and was very much centred on imitation of a style without understanding the philosophies or ideals that produced that style.

JS: It’s interesting to see how modernist ideals have carried through into the 21st century, especially in the context of a digital publishing house. When you design today, you’re not designing something static; it’s perhaps more akin to graphic identity as a user interface…

RM: Technologically, it’s easy today to be precise in an abstract way. I know that sounds contradictory, but, for example, we were able to build the Strelka identity absolutely perfectly on a grid with relatively little effort. Twenty years ago you would have struggled to achieve such graphic precision, and so it necessarily took up more of your time. Technology liberates you from these concerns. This means you have more time to consider the philosophy behind what you’re doing: the strategy, and the planning behind a project that can live up to the ambition.
With Strelka, most of the work which was successful in the project — or if there is a success to the project — is a result of planning really carefully… How should we be communicating across all these platforms: from the big sign to the digital presence and bits of ephemera (stickers, postcards, t-shirts or whatever). You plot this plan; you build up layers, and try to unite your ideas behind one philosophy.

JS: How do you plan for the continued evolution of a design? There’s a big difference, for example, between a one-off book design, like your Russian-language cover for Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, and several series of books, as with the Strelka Press digital titles.

RM: I would like to think we could continually move forward, although it’s not at all easy. The Rem Koolhaas cover exists more at the periphery within our studio, because it’s purely formal. The role of the book design is just to look interesting. We handled it really conceptually to begin with, but then realised that it only wanted to be beautiful, striking, new, and a contemporary translation of the old — it’s a translation of the drawing — and that’s a relatively simple way of designing, compared with the branding of Strelka.
It’s the difference between developing an image and developing a language.
We’re dealing now with Strelka Press Series Two, and that of course is throwing up a lot of healthy challenges. It doesn’t necessarily follow easily from the first development. The first series was graphically strong, with good consistency. Now the second series has to be a logical progression — but an evolution — communicating new ideas and possibilities as well as handling the commercial requirements.