Saturday, September 22, 2018

Design Study, The Phoblographer's "Emulsion" Zine

I recently acquired a copy of Chris Gampat's (of The Phoblographer) zine of analog photography, which he kickstarted a year and a half ago.

This initially started out as a review. Since I personally dislike the man behind this project, I felt it behooved me to take some real time with the material, so I wouldn't just bleat out a biting essay on how much I hate it. So, I did take time. As I write this, I am still taking time.

I have found a few things to like, a few things that are OK, and an almost infinite well of terrible. Digging in to it, I began to look things up, to compare with other work, to study other publications in ways I had not, and what began to emerge were some real lessons in design. I am now, and am continuing to become, a better designer for spending time with this thing. As I worked on initial draft material I began to insert "takeaway" sidebars, and after a time these came to dominate the text.

There is no way that this magazine is anything but a catastrophic failure. From concept to copy-editing, the thing appears to be an almost unending wall of mistakes and lousy ideas. Some I knew, some I did not, which I found interesting. Failure analysis is one way we learn. It's why air travel is so safe. When we see what is wrong, we compare with what is right, and we glean thereby a lesson.

I'm going to write and publish a series of essays about various aspects of "Emulsion" and I will compare with other, well-made, publications, and try to extract therefrom something to take away.

The overall impression of "Emulsion" is instantly positive. It's a weighty well-built physical object, as we expect from the premium blurb products. The overall print and build quality is good. The cover is sound. The first few pages are OK, although we begin to feel a sense of shoddy slapdash design more or less the moment we open the thing. Paging through it, the shoddiness of layout and design gradually rises, reaching ludicrous levels after a few pages, and then leveling off at "ludicrous" for the duration.

As a nerd, I can go identify dozens and dozens of specific things that are wrong. As a non-nerd, I think even without specifically noticing much you will feel that this is poorly done, that it is sloppy and amateurish. Squinting at some of the tinier pictures you will surely feel that perhaps they could have been printed a bit larger. You might notice the font sizes jumping around. You might notice the nonsensical font changes. Likely that's about it, but there's more. Boy howdy, is there more.

In my judgement as a bit of a book nerd, this object would be terrible even as a first draft. I propose to dig in to a demonstration of that, together with some guesswork about how it could have happened. There will be discussions of fonts, of descenders, of word counts, of bleeds and probably margins.


  1. If you've not read this short essay by Craig Mod, I'd recommend giving it a whirl - this post recalled it to my mind.

    ..."On the other hand, cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins."

  2. Looking forward to the whole series!

  3. This Gampat guy manifests occasionally in my occasional internet photosurfing sessions. I had him pegged as a bit of a fuck-wit without knowing anything about him. I do recall the fund raiser for this and thought it couldn't ever be anything other than a hot air balloon crash into HV power lines.

  4. Your title is misleading, and unfair: no designer was ever near this project, just some dude with desktop-publishing software.

    1. Should I have titled it "Anti-Design Study"? I think I learned a lot about Design from studying it, though.