Anh Tuan Pham, For Office Use Only, courtesy Public Art Fund, NY

It’s not always easy for designers to work with art, or with artists. As we’ve previously explored, there’s a fine line between design that stands out and design that overshadows the artist’s own vision.

That task is perhaps all the trickier when working with an artist whose work is both conceptual and political—not to mention sprawling. Such was the case when New York City studio For Office Use Only (FOUO) recently worked with Ai Weiwei to design a book based on his exhibition, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Presented by Public Art Fund in 2017 and 2018, the project spanned the whole of New York City, taking the form of a series of large- and small-scale installations that addressed the international migration crisis through a motif of security fences.

FOUO has worked on a number of projects for Public Art Fund over the years, and was brought in to create an ad campaign around Weiwei’s expansive show and the graphic identity for its signage. Part of the brief was to design the book, also titled Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, which acts as a sort of post-exhibition catalog. Weiwei generally works with a different graphic design team on each project.

Since the public exhibition involved around 300 works across all five NYC boroughs, the main challenge with the book was to find a way to bring them all together.  The editorial design tackles this by laying out the book according to each borough, each of which has its own map to show where the artworks were displayed.

“There wasn’t a lot of documentation until the work was installed, so logistically that made things very different,” says Anh Tuan Pham, creative director and founder of FOUO. “The project was less something for us to art direct; the challenge was more about how to frame the content.”

The book and graphic identity, like the show and its title, use a fence motif as its central concept. While this seems like an obvious symbol of barrier, Pham says that the design aimed to show that although fences seem menacing and, especially in regards to the migration crisis, about physical separation division, the way Weiwei presented them was also more hopeful. “It was about twisting that device around, being more optimistic, and exhibition a yearning for freedom.”

“We were playing into the graphic language of caution… The identities you see in places like passport offices or border checks can be very intimidating.”

The book is striking for its use of large-scale, full-bleed images that serve as documentation of the exhibition, as well as design elements that help represent certain spatial arrangements of the works. In one piece, for instance, visitors entered through a space augmented with a convex mirror which “represents the confinement of the cage, but also has an entryway onto the other side,” says Pham. This duality is reflected in the book’s cover design, which uses a die-cut, chain link fence pattern to create an opening, rather than a barrier,” he adds. “Both the cover and Weiwei’s artwork are making statements about immigrants, migrants, and refugees. Initially, fences seem like they are keeping someone out, but we were looking at how we can turn that around and make it about a pathway to freedom.”

Throughout the book a vibrant, mustard yellow tone is used to mimic the visual language of emergencies or government revolts. “We were playing into the graphic language of caution,” says Pham. “The graphic identities you see in places like passport offices or border checks can be very intimidating.”

Bureau Grotesque, the typeface for the cover and most of the chapter headings, acts as a pared-back reference to the sort of type you might find on protest signage, such as those used in the Civil Rights movement, according to Pham. Elsewhere, the studio made use of Graphic Narrow by Commercial Font and Suisse Works by Swiss Typefaces.

According to Pham, the biggest challenge that comes with working on any art-focused project is making sure the designs don’t get in the way of the artwork and the artist’s ideas. “I think a lot of it is about researching and getting a feel for the artist and what they’re either trying to express, or the main themes of the exhibition,” he says. “Then you create something that seems faithful to those ideas and concepts. That’s our approach to almost all our projects: we have our own style graphically, but we’re always collaborating with our clients, whether they’re artists or organizations, to express something. It’s not about placing our design template on something. It’s about creating a dialogue that results in something we wouldn’t be able to create on our own.”

“Something I always look to capture in our designs is a certain ‘poetry,’ or poetic quality, in the work” he adds. “It could relate to how we frame or sequence content, or how we use white space, or lay out images and text—it’s a certain thoughtfulness to how the design can help the story unfold.”

One thing I’d been told before chatting with Pham was that he’s a rare example of a New York-based designer who maintains a zero-bullshit, zen-like thoughtfulness to his practice; working in a way that’s a meditative riposte to the usual fast-paced, “deadline yesterday” culture we see so much. But how?

“For me, the best design decisions and responses to stressful situations come when you’re in a moment of calm and see the different obstacles and figure out a strategy to respond to them,” he says. “Looking at the bigger picture is what helps with getting that execution to where it needs to be. Often the breakthrough comes when you can take a step back and ask the question again.”