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Commonplace's new site identity

Notes and inspiration from the team behind Commonplace's design

Published onJul 24, 2020
Commonplace's new site identity

Over the past few months we had the pleasure of working with Catherine Ahearn, Zach Verdin, and Quincy Childs of The Knowledge Future Group on a new identity for their recently debuted online publication, Commonplace. The resulting identity reflects the guiding principles and unique publishing structure of Commonplace while adopting the underlying PubPub Content Management System (CMS) as a way to deploy generative shapes rooted in the patterns of print-based formats.

Through our initial conversations with KFG, it quickly became clear that we wanted to address the legacy of print publications while communicating a digital novelty. The aesthetic canons of academic literature and West-coast start-ups were to be avoided. More importantly, the identity needed to fit practically into the PubPub CMS and be easily implementable by the KFG long-term. While we would be able to help coordinate the design's launch, KFG would have to take responsibility of future updates and extensions. The design needed to be permeable and facilitate growth.

As a guide for the visual identity, we gravitated towards historical work that was "non-computationally generative"—work that consisted of a set of written guidelines that could be manually followed with a lot of variation and flexibility while still maintaining a cohesive visual undercurrent. Specific works by the artists Sol LeWitt and Vera Molnár were particularly helpful:

Within Sol LeWitt's Variations of Infinite Cubes, we find a motif that remains recognizable despite each variation being unique. The cube becomes a signature:

LeWitt's Serial Drawings extend this line of thought. Each physical drawing is just an interpretation of a consistent set of instructions. These instructions are generative without being computational:

Vera Molnár's works are also generative—but in a more conversational way. In her 1975 essay, Toward Aesthetic Guidelines for Paintings with the Aid of a Computer, she discusses how an iterative process means evaluating what works and what doesn't—and then adjusting her process accordingly. Her work values a type of editing similar to that of maintaining a website. Publish → evaluate → edit → publish.

In addition, a technique from the traditions of bookmaking was incredibly helpful in developing the Commonplace identity's actual visual matter. A key component of a book's architecture are the blank pages at the ends of a book (i.e. end-leaves). The very first and last end-leaves are known as the pastedown, and and are used to attach the book's bound pages to book's cover. Historically, the pastedown is both a utility (it holds the book’s contents together) and one of the primary moments of visual flourish.

Especially in older volumes, marbling was used to frame the book's contents. Densely patterned and generative in nature, the craft of marbling consists of clearly outlined techniques for ease of replicability:

Oddly enough, these instructions are eerily similar to LeWitt's Serial Drawings.

The implications of this similarity were clear: it meant we could create an expandable system rooted in a physical process custom to Commonplace's needs:

With this in mind, The Commonplace identity was constructed through a collection of simple rules and custom assets:

  • At its core, the Commonplace identity consists of a series of bespoke marbled motifs. Each Commonplace format has its own personal motif, palette, and pattern. These motifs join forces on the homepage to showcase the site-wide color-palette.

  • To complement the motifs, the Commonplace identity uses the typeface Old Standard TT, an open-sourced revival typeface drawing lineage from old Soviet science papers.

  • The Commonplace site is composed primarily of featured Pubs, but injects slivers of the identity through all sections, themes, formats, and articles by constructing line-breaks and pilcrows out of the marbled motifs. → These motif slivers provide the Commonplace identity with an iterative flexibility to facilitate long-term maintenance: they can be quickly edited, re-arranged, and re-composed as the site grows. Delivered as images, they are fun and easy to play with within the PubPub CMS.

  • Finally, the Commonplace site utilizes embedded stylesheets to introduce custom typography, palettes, and module styling on top of the PubPub CMS.

We're excited to see the site grow!

Best, Lukas & Ariel

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