Computer Arts Projects - Black and White Design
Computer Arts Projects
December 2007

Black and White

Black and White design - a case of Less is More or Form Follows Function? Lawrence Zeegen examines the resurgence in monochrome working methods and it’s graphic language…

Black and White and Red all Over
Q: What’s black and white and red all over? A: A newspaper! Tell that joke today and you’ll get looks of utter confusion from anyone under the age of twenty-five. Believe it not – there once was a time when newspapers were reproduced purely in black and white, no really it’s true. Today newspaper launched in the UK in 1986, and despite surviving less than a decade, changed the face of modern newspaper publishing with the introduction of colour printing on every page - kick-starting a colour revolution in Fleet Street.

It wasn’t just print that had undergone a revolution. In the not so distant past, we all lived in a predominantly black and white world; television was a distinctly monochrome affair until the broadcasting of colour, first witnessed on BBC 2 in 1967. A trip to the local cinema, just over a decade before colour TV, had been a wholly black and white experience too. Even The Digital Age hadn’t started with an explosion of colour – Apple may have introduced the Mac in 1984, but it would take a year or two before designers would get to view millions of colours on screen. Now, hit Control P and we all demand full colour print straight into our waiting hands, churned out in our studios within a matter of seconds - all before our very eyes.

Now everything in our fast-paced, ever-changing world, it seems, is brought to us in glorious, vivid, techno-colour – and we’ve become blasé about colour; it just isn’t so special any longer. In our fully saturated, full-on, full-colour global media age, we’ve become accustomed to a multitude of TV channels spewing forth up-to-the-moment, state-of-the-art news images from every corner of the globe, we’re bombarded at the newsstands by a plethora of full-colour lifestyle, gossip and soap-star magazines – all screaming for our attention, assaulting our senses to a point where we’ve just stopped seeing any longer. From the SONY ad campaign featuring billions of brightly coloured balls bouncing the streets of San Francisco to the new-rave pop promos of band-of-the-minute, the Klaxons – colour is the default position. It’s only when a movie - Control, about the life and death of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, directed by infamous photographer Anton Corbyn, appears solely shot in black and white do we sit up and take notice of the power of black and white, once again. The colour balance is a readdressed for a moment – colour’s saturation point is challenged and monochrome comes into focus.

From Beardsley to Banksy
What of black and white in communication design? Graphic Design is a relatively young profession, only having been recognised as a term itself since the mid twentieth century, and until the end of the nineteenth century graphic arts could only be reproduced in black and white – colour was not even an option. This meant that the relationship of the image and background and the positive and negative space created by the inked and non-inked was absolutely vital to the overall aesthetics of the design. Nothing could be hidden under layers of colour – essentially the graphic arts were honest, clear-cut and, well, graphic.

Even with the introduction of lithographic printing and with it the emergence and dawn of colour reprographic techniques some artists and designers, such as Aubrey Beardsley, remained resolutely rooted in the black and white. Beardley’s mastery of illustration and his use of black and white remain unparalleled; his unique drawing ability with an extreme economy of line, coupled with an amazing design finesse created works that remain iconic to this day. And what of today’s iconic graphic images, who is it that is creating the images that have captured the imagination of the art and design world and, to some extent, that of the general public – Banksy. Yes, over a century after Beardsley, and despite the proliferation and availability of full colour, it has been the predominantly monochrome stencilling of a mystery street artist that has captured a zeitgeist and has, once again, made us aware of the power of black and white.

Of course, in the space between Beardsley and Banksy there have been many other truly iconic black and white graphic images, think – M. C. Escher’s illustrations of impossible structures created in the 50’s and 60’s, Gerald Holtom’s graphic identity for CND in the late 50’s, Bridget Riley’s op-art paintings of the 60’s, Klaus Voorman’s graphic album art for The Beatles Revolver, the bold black and white corporate identities for brands such as Olivetti and Sony from the 70’s and Peter Saville’s album sleeve design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures at the end of the decade. More recently Tomato’s ten-year collaboration with Underworld that commenced in the 90’s, Tom Hingston Studio’s touch-sensitive darker-than-dark box-set design for seminal band Massive Attack, the list goes on…

It’s there, in Black and White…
So, why with such easy access to colour reprographic techniques, do so many of today’s designers and image-makers hanker after the challenges of working with such a limited palette? What is it about monochrome working methods that ensure that it still has an active fan-base? UK-based Illustrator Joe McLaren,, believes that in some quarters it is the very fact that digital technology has usurped traditional techniques that makes them so sought after – ‘it’s the abandonment of letterpress, wood-cuts, lino-cuts and to some extent black and white photography as techniques in mainstream practice,’ explains McLaren, ‘that has given them an attractive aura of exclusivity. Block printing,’ he continues, ‘like many other processes, has stopped on an industrial scale but is beginning to thrive on a craft ‘boutique’ basis. Anything with a ‘handmadeness’ is now perceived as of being of a higher value.’ According to McLaren, it is the very back-to-basics nature of ‘old’ craft-based technology that is attracting a new wave; those keen to put some distance between themselves and ‘new’ digital technology.

Over to illustrator Peter James Field,, who concurs with McLaren going one further – ‘I think Stanley Downwood’s work for Thom Yorke’s solo album was representative of something – lino-printing making a comeback,’ he explains. ‘There was a recent book about the design for the 1951 Festival of Britain and also an exhibition in homage to Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious and I do think that this post war era, with it’s strong graphic leanings, may be influencing a return to black and white letterpress and relief printing.’ Field pauses before adding, ‘that’s not the full story, of course, artists like myself have simply felt a personal need to keep things simple and economic.’

Barcelona-based designer Patrick Thomas, Creative Director at La Vista,, cites a far earlier monochrome artwork as a genuine influence on his approach – ‘William Hogarth’s Gin Lane of 1751,’ he states, ‘I saw it again recently in a show here in Barcelona, and it terrified me!’ In 2005 Thomas published, Black & White, a collection of his own monochrome commissioned images for a key client. ‘I’ve collaborated with La Vanguardia Newspaper, Barcelona’s best-selling daily, for over six years and I’ve made more than 150 covers for the financial supplement, Dinero,’ states Thomas in a matter-of-fact fashion. ‘Initially it was hard work to convince them to take a conceptual route because they had previously only used decorative tutti colore, feel-good images. After 9/11 I sent in several very hard graphic cover ideas in black and white and despite the cover being printed CMYK, they worked and the newspaper then realised there was to be no turning back.’

Black & White features a collection of images from Thomas’s portfolio of work for Dinero and La Vanguardia and was printed in an edition of 750, so popular it has completely sold out – ‘I decided to publish Black & White,’ acknowledges Thomas, ‘to emphasise the conceptual nature of my work. When you use just black and white there is less room for bullshit. A good idea should be able to work solely in black and white – to opt for decoration when a solution can’t be found is merely a form of escape.’ Thomas has a harsh but blatantly honest viewpoint, his own rationale for working in monochrome.

Form Follows Function
It may have been architect Louis Sullivan, describing a modernist approach to his own discipline, that popularised the phrase, Form Follows Function, but his words have since become synonymous across all aspects of design. In graphic arts and visual communication, it simply describes an approach that puts creative thinking and ideas at the forefront, with their physical realisation and execution being led by the idea or the function.

Ian Stevenson –, illustrator and artist with a client list that includes MTV, Perrier, Paul Smith, Carhartt, London Transport and The Barbican agrees with Louis Sullivan’s sentiment. ‘I definitely don’t like drawing things that aren’t necessary – I don’t like to work with lots of random things and to me over-embellishment is often because the original idea just isn’t very strong. When working purely in black and white,’ he states, ‘you get to see if the idea works in it’s simplest form.’

Kerry Roper, designer and image-maker –, picks up on Stevenson’s point – ‘I’m from a background in advertising and am a great believer in pure ideas – they should be as instant and accessible as possible. When working in black and white I think that an idea has to be a lot more focussed than when working in colour. Colour can help convey an idea or an emotion but working in black and white means you have to really strive to communicate with a strong idea and a very focused composition.’

Black, White and Green
It’s clear that many designers believe that the use of black and white leads to a purer, more honest form of graphic communication, but what other reasons do designers cite for working away from a full colour palette?

SEA Design’s Matt Judge,, has another rationale – ‘I do think, of course, that more often than not it’s a case of the medium suiting the message, or brief, but in our increasingly environmentally conscious community, more and more the message seems to be driven by reduction,’ Judge states. ‘Clients are genuinely more concerned with their carbon footprint, not wanting to appear over indulgent at the expense of rainforest in Brazil, he continues.

So, clients are opting for black and white design and print over full colour, in some instances, purely because environmentally a single-colour print process is less damaging and a greener option. ‘Sustainability, both economically and environmentally, will often be a driving force behind a brief for many clients,’ declares Judge, predicting an increasingly upward trend.

Economy – Financial and Conceptual
As well as the environmental issue of using fewer materials and processes, and the train of thought that in terms of design, less is more – there is also the implication of cost. Ian Stevenson, well-known for his drawings on street rubbish, admits – ‘no question about it, black and white is cheaper to print!’ Matt Judge at SEA Design steps in quickly – ‘some of the most iconic pieces of design are black and white and by no means look cheap. Take The Beatles Revolver artwork – beautiful, seminal but by no means economy,’ he advises.

Peter James Field is realistic about the issue of colour over black and white; ‘It’s quite a brave move in this day and age for an art director with a colour magazine to actually opt for black and white,’ states Field, ‘To me it signals confidence.’ Field hits the nail on the head – with colour so readily available in print and on screen – it is a special type of designer, illustrator, image-maker or animator that relishes the challenge of working to the principle of less is more.

The monochrome world of black and white movies, TV and newspapers may well have been super-ceded by the onslaught of the full-colour experience that we all now take for granted, but it is heartening to know that there remains pockets of resistance; dedicated to keeping graphic messages succinct and free from over-embellishment and ornamentation.

A tip or two from the masters are worth their weight – firstly Abram Games, legendary designer and illustrator and Official War Artist during World War II, in summing up his own design mantra issued these eloquent words – ‘Maximum meaning, minimum means.’

It was, however, the master of thinking himself, Mr Einstein; that gave us the following guidance, particularly useful for designers across all disciplines - ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.’

Xtra 01
None More White – The Beatles The White Album…
Released on November 22nd1968 in the UK and three days later in the US and known to fans simply as The White Album, The Beatles seminal release is reported to have sold over 2 million copies in it’s first week of release in the US alone.

The first album release following the death, from a drugs overdose the previous August of Brian Epstein, the band’s manager and ‘fifth Beatle’ – The White Album had originally been titled A Doll’s House. An illustration was created for the cover but Richard Hamilton, acclaimed British Pop Artist, was then commissioned to design a new cover for the ret-itled album. Hamilton, a friend of Paul McCartney, also created a collage poster, given free with the album along with four black and white photographs of the band members.

It was Hamilton’s distinct and confident packaging that assisted in lending the record it’s iconic status – a pure white sleeve with simple embossed type on the cover said all it needed to – absolutely no requirement for images of the band, by then the most recognisable men in popular music.

Xtra 02
None More Black and Grey...
Other artists have attempted to follow in footsteps of The Beatles and capture the essence and the mystic of The White Album - mostly though without any similarities in their design concepts.

The 1991 release of Metallica’s self-titled album – Metallica is best-known by fans as The Black Album. The all black sleeve features the band’s logo black-on-black in the upper left hand corner and an illustration of a snake in the lower right hand corner – a simple, yet effective piece of graphic design.

Metallica later admitted that the artwork was directly influenced by Spinal Tap’s Black album although the band claimed that the reason for the stark design was to encourage their fans to examine the music, rather than any symbolism that a full colour cover might represent.

Shawn Corey Carter, better known as Jay-Z - the rap artist and CEO of Def Jam Recordings, released The Black Album in 2003. Having toured with 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and Sean Paul, Jay-Z got to work on what was announced as his final album. Graphically not an exceptional solution – a black and white portrait of the man himself glares at the viewer – not particularly subtle.

Jay-Z’s Black Album was followed a year later by DJ Dangermouse’s Grey Album, featuring illegal mixes of The Beatles and Jay-Z tunes. The cover depicts both a parody of The Beatles and Jay-Z in an illustration by Justin Hampton.

Xtra 03
Three Insider’s views on working in Black and White.

1. SEA Design’s Matt Judge explains the philosophy behind the company’s approach – ‘Our design mantra has always been less is more – to approach each project by reducing it down to it’s core values then building from there,’ he explains. ‘When approaching identity work in particular I always start using black only,’ he adds, ‘for me the very best mark, or logo, is one that can be reproduced in black at 20mm but still retain it’s brand values – the Nike Swoosh and the Recycling logo, both perfect examples of this.’

2. Illustrator Joe McLaren has set up his own Flickr blog site to allow people to contribute work and discuss the merits of monochrome. ‘I think any restriction helps creativity,’ explains McLaren, ‘it’s often the most restrictive brief that yields the best work, because you’re forced to find alternatives to your normal working habits.’

3. Kerry Roper, designer and image-maker, offers advice on creating black and work with distinctiveness. ‘Achieve this, by using strong compositions and the use of textures,’ Roper offers, ‘I approach black and white work as I do colour – try to be as organic and as spontaneous as possible and preserve the creative energy in the design’.