Art 169 Web Design: Thoughts on a Website

I’ve selected the website of a not-for-profit arts organization, the Village Light Opera Group, as the subject for my Web Design project this month. (My fiancee Kathy has been a member for some 20 years.)

The NYC-based group, formed in 1935, specializes in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas but also produces classic Broadway shows such as Oklahoma! and Fiddler on the Roof. Many performers have appeared in professional productions and have resumes with programs whose names you would recognize.

A screenshot of the group’s home page appears below:


vlog homepage

The site appears structured around providing potential members with an easy way to pay dues or just to make donations to the cash-strapped organization. Those are important aims, but my thought was that the site might advance its members’ cause better if it provided more content around the group’s productions and other activities.

The site doesn’t convey the fun and excitement that goes in hand with putting on a show. The “past shows” page is just a slideshow of posters of programs that VLOG has done. (The slideshow also moves at an interminably slow pace, unfortunately, and users can’t control what they’re looking at.)

Members have loads of high-quality digital photos  that could tell a compelling story about what they do. It goes without saying that embedded videos of musical numbers would vastly improve traffic.

The site also lacks the engagement aspects of social media, such as a blog or a page where the members can promote themselves and the shows they’ve appeared in.

The sad part of Gilbert and Sullivan companies is that this specialty form of theater is falling by the wayside across the country. Public taste for light opera has always been limited, so membership is falling at VLOG and other companies; indeed, light opera clubs at college are closing their doors — a bad omen for the future of the genre.

A livelier web presence could convey a broader and more engaging sense of what VLOG does, drawing more members and infusing fresh energy into its activities. My general strategy for the site is more visual and less text-driven, while retaining important functions such as payment links for membership and ticket sales. (Their logo with the name folded into a scale of musical notes is especially strong graphically.)

The end goal is to raise interest in participation in VLOG activities.


Art 265 final, part 2

The poster uses Bauhaus-style type and design for a clean, uncluttered look that employs negative space (center top and bottom left). The focal point is the KANDINSKY name in bold letters across the center. Secondary elements (headshot, text in top right) are anchored to the design via vertical and horizontal bars, which also help define negative space. International Typographic Style, AKA Swiss style, also stresses clean design, readability, and asymmetric layouts with sans serif type. The idea is to use typeface not just for text but to serve as a design element in itself, as the KANDINSKY name demonstrates.Image

A signature typeface, but not his own

A sans serif typeface has always been associated with Saul Bass’ work — even if he didn’t actually design it himself.

The rough, hand-hewn style appeared in movie posters throughout his career, and has been used to replicate Bass-style posters for more modern films with which Bass had nothing to do. (See an example here.) A 2007 post on cites sources that maintain Bass didn’t do the lettering, which was left to colleagues Art Goodman and Dave Nagata. The style has often been imitated; a typeface called Hitchcock, designed by Matt Terich, is available on the Typographica site.



Career advice: Get to know your pencil

In a video interview, Saul Bass was asked what tips he would give to students starting out in the field. The answer sounded basic, but it came from a career perspective of many years.

“Learn to draw,” he says. Students who don’t master this skill spend their careers trying to get around it, and they end up compensating in ways that lead to inferior solutions to design problems.

“It’s a crippling absence,” Bass warns. “The unfortunate thing is you can get by without it, and you can even get a job and you can move to a certain point. But that’s when you realize that you really wish you knew how to draw — and it’s too late. Because youll never go back to school, you’ll never have the discipline to take a night class. You can’t afford the drop in salary any more, you’ve geared your life to that money — and you’re finished.

“You’re never going to learn how to draw, and isn’t that awful?”

In this video, he also talks about the tension between the demands of his clients and his desire to create beauty. It includes a signature quote:

“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.”

Oscar Time

Bass explored the nature of creativity in a short and whimsical animated film he made in 1968 called Why Man Creates. (Click here to watch.)  Among other things, he looks at the role that creativity has played in the history of the human race, and how man wrestles with creative challenges.


“Where do ideas come from?” the film’s narrator asks. “From looking at one thing and seeing another, from fooling around and playing with possibilities…pushing and pulling, transforming. And if you’re lucky and come up with something maybe worth saving, using and building on, that’s where the game stops and the work begins.”

Sounds like a good philosophy for graphic artists. Bass produced, directed and co-wrote the short, which won an Oscar for best documentary short subject.

“Symbolize and summarize”

“Symbolize and summarize” was a signature Bass philosophy. In his poster for the 1965 psychological  thriller by Otto Preminger, “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” Bass created variations on the theme of the disappearance of a small child. In some posters, the last few letters of the word “Missing” themselves fade out. In others an image of the mother appears in the iconic cutout design in the black field at lower right. The cutout is a central motif in all the posters, but it can be read in multiple ways — an image in the shape of a child, perhaps, or a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The ambiguity, without a doubt, is intentional.