Graphic designers—almost by definition—strive to simplify the complex. At its Portland and Seattle offices, Rumors design studio takes this one step further, distilling complicated ideas from some of the world’s most subversive thinkers into visual design that clarifies while still managing to retain an air of intrigue. For example, its book covers, website design, and art direction for radical publisher Verso rely on graphics that abstractly communicate theories by the likes of Hal Foster, Paul Virilio, and Jean Baudrillard through simple use of color and shape that have established a “spectacularly impressive, varied, consistent, and instantly recognizable” identity for the publisher, according to Owen Hatherly of 3am Magazine.
Set up in 2008 by Andy Pressman, Rumors designs diverse visual identities and websites for cultural institutions, commercial clients, and editorial groups. The studio works on a global scale, with clients including publishers in London, start-ups in New York, and non-profits in Helsinki. On its website, Rumors explains its approach to projects carefully and in a lot of detail. Writing is crucial not only to the way the studio presents its work, but to the creative process as well; the studio uses intense bouts of writing as a way to develop concepts. It’s through writing down thoughts, then revising and re-reading them that ideas often emerge. As Pressman explains, “The only consistent element in our approach is research and writing, which is how every project begins. From there it varies.”
The studio’s projects for Verso attests to its deft ability to hone complex ideas into something simple and evocative. In particular, the work for the publisher’s Radical Thinkers series uses a playful design language to attract readers who may have heard of, say, Walter Benjamin, but have never read his texts. Pressman’s intention wasn’t to summarize or represent the texts in full, but to create something seductive instead. “I didn’t want to be the one telling a reader what the texts mean. That’s why the use of brutally simple illustration is so handy—it forces me to be vague. It gets closer to the poetic than a photograph would.”
To remain mysterious and abstract, Pressman finds it important not read the books that he illustrates in their entirety. Instead, he reads excerpts, the introduction, the conclusion, and related essays, constantly reminding himself that “It’s not [his] job to summarize.” The most difficult cover he designed to date was for Hal Foster’s Design and Crime—especially seeing as the book is a critique of the design industry and its role in the economy.
“I put it off for days, and then came up with a really dumb cover that plays on plaster over wallpaper,” recalls Pressman. “But just before the book went to production, I realized the perfect image—I could see it, suddenly, just floating there, a looping circuit of production and consumption.” The result is simple, yet crisply communicates an idea central to the text.
Rumors also took a thoughtful, systematic approach when redesigning Dissent, a left-wing politics and cultural magazine that’s been published in New York since 1954. As Pressman explains, the design had to be “bullet-proof” as there’s no in-house art director to work on each issue.
“For the interior, we focused on a (nearly) strictly typographic solution, built on a fairly strict grid system to better accommodate the production gap between designer and typesetter.” Using just a few weights and style variations keeps things simple, but at the center of the magazine Rumors created a space for gathering all the pull quotes from all the issue’s articles together in one giant typographic explosion, creating an energetic change of pace.
“If you were interested in a pull quote, you’d have to read the article to understand the context—it’s like a second table of contents,” says Pressman. “I wanted them to feel like miniature posters too, something the younger me would have ripped out and put up on the wall.” These “poster” pages require typography that vibrantly juxtaposes with the body copy—David Rudnick’s Cosmos was a perfect choice.
And while Rumors created a rigid template for Dissent, for Bidoun magazine—which covers arts and culture in the Middle East—Pressman designs each new issue practically from scratch. “I like to think of it as an organic and evolving set of games,” he says thoughtfully. “The rule set is built from the ground up with each new issue, with some goals or rules sticking around from issue to issue, even as the core mechanics is completely changed.”
Rumors has also applied its critical thinking to the initial brand identity and UX for Upworthy, the first design of Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie magazine, and the identity for AMP gallery in Greece. Whether its next project is a book or a physical space, we know it’ll create something unique with the ability to transform dense themes or ideas into strikingly simple forms.