Occasionally NSFW, often designed by untrained hands, and always, always provocative; the images in the stunning YES YES YES show the power of text and image to convey messages about politics, sex, human rights, and any other cause you care to throw the way of someone with the chutzpah to realize it visually.
The book draws on the archive of Amedeo Martegani, owner of the publishing house A+M bookstore Edizioni in Milan, which boasts more than 600 alternative and underground magazines produced between 1966 and 1977. Its designers, Francesco Valtolina and Kevin Pedron of Milan studio Dallas, were faced with the mammoth task of drawing together materials from this archive and enlisted the help of students from Italian design school ISIA Urbino to speed up the cataloging and documentation process. From there, Dallas worked with his editors to source interviews from figures originally involved in this scene, including Steven Heller (Screw, New York Free Press), John Wilcock (The Village Voice, Underground Press Syndicate), Trina Robbins (The East Village Other), and Melchiorre Gerbino (Mondo Beat).
Working with such rich materials meant that Dallas’ design focused on letting these speak as loudly as they were first intended. “What we always try to do is to build a frame for the content, and to let the content speak for itself, so it was natural for us to give as much space as possible to the intrinsic qualities of the magazines,” the studio explains. “It was also important for us to put every magazine in, at least once, to highlight the plurality of messages and forms.
“While obviously the visual potential is practically infinite, we didn’t want to put the textual part on a secondary level. A lot of work, research, and effort went into creating the content for these magazines, be it text or images. We thought the system we adopted allowed us to showcase both elements at a similar level and to give ample possibilities for the reader to enjoy the full content of the materials, swinging from one side to the other.”
To achieve this, Dallas used a monochrome color palette and a typographic system that aims to “connect the different parts of the book, perhaps with a punk touch.” The beauty of working with materials from alternative presses is their unification around a common goal, to be disseminated as widely as possible: “there were no copyright issues or intellectual property demands, as sharing a common idea was a much stronger concept,” says Dallas. “Different magazines often shared collaborators and materials.”
It feels like an important time for such a book to be published. For one, in the face of global political upheavals, dissenting voices are getting louder: through social media of course, but also through marches and protests, and new publications speaking up against political apathy, like Clay Hickson’s The Smudge. Secondly, as Dallas points out, designers today are increasingly looking to the graphical nuances of the period to inspire their own work. “We live in a period of cultural appropriation where things are copied, modified, transformed, rediscovered, edited, and the anonymity of most of these materials—be it because there was no interest in ‘signing’ the work, because editors came and went from magazine to magazine, or for fear of prosecution—makes this process even easier,” says the studio.
How does the studio think the ease and availability of expression through online platforms has impacted the creation of politically-minded print publications? “While things are definitely changing, and not necessarily for the worse if new tools of communication and organization can work in making people gather and push for their ideas—think of what is happening now with President Trump. We don’t think this means an end for printed materials, although maybe most of it is subject to market obligations that weren’t there in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Dallas. “Underground zines are still relevant today especially in the U.S., and publishers like Sternberg Press work in a very interesting way around political and cultural issues in relation to contemporary art.”
Another spin would be that in a world where publishing software is so readily available, new avenues are opened to non-designers who want to get their messages out through print. Historically, these untrained eyes have been vital contributors to the canon of alt-publishing: think punk zines, comics, and of course the magazines that YES YES YES showcases. What Dallas discovered in the process of making the book was not just how these “outsiders” approached magazine-making, but the breadth of ideologies they were promoting.
“We knew a few magazines of course, like The Black Panther or Screw, but mostly from a graphic standpoint, and were not aware of the scale of this movement,” says Dallas. “Most of the materials come from the U.S., and it was also particularly interesting for us to see which analogies and which differences they present compared to Italian or European experiences that we know a bit better—although we are both too young to have lived them firsthand.
“What we find interesting is how, in what is for the most part an amateurish world from a graphic design standpoint, so many visually interesting things were created.”