The Intimacy of Publication

An interview with designer and filmmaker Briar Levit.

For her upcoming film Graphic Means, designer and PSU associate professor Briar Levit set out to explore how graphic design has evolved from rulers and blades to tablets and printers. In this exclusive interview with Roger That Creative Director Yoshini Gunawardena, Levit discusses the changes the industry has seen over the past 50 years, where design is headed, and how hard it is to keep your cool while interviewing your design heroes.

Yoshini Gunawardena: What inspired you to get into the graphic design field?

Briar Levit: I originally wanted to be an exhibition designer. I took a number of classes in that realm, which I really enjoyed. I realized, however, after an internship at The Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central, that the bureaucracy involved in making exhibitions was a bit of a bummer. At the same time, I was falling in love with the intimacy of book and publication design. Basically, I realized that I just wanted to communicate ideas, stories, and information, and that the medium doesn’t matter. So in a way, making a movie is just another kind of design media for me. Fifteen years ago, I probably would have thought an exhibition was the best way to tell this story. Five years ago, I would have thought a book was best (being a publication designer at the time). But after seeing Doug Wilson’s documentary, Linotype: The Eighth Wonder of the World, it was clear to me the way to reach more people, and to show the complexity of the processes, was through film.

YG: What do you hope viewers and designers will take away from this film?

BL: I hope people will come away from the film with a few things. The first thing is just delight in learning and understanding the processes behind graphic design. Some people watching will be seeing these processes and understanding the social aspects of the design world during this era for the first time. Others will be able to reminisce and hopefully feel a sense of pride in their own skills and achievements. I’m getting lots of messages from people saying that I’m essentially telling their story, which is really reassuring on my end. Ultimately, I also hope people come away remembering that these are just tools—from the X-Acto blade to the computer. We as designers have the knowledge and power to make them speak to our audiences.

YG: What do your peers think about you making this film?

BL: My peers have been super supportive—including two close friends who are filmmakers themselves. I’m really lucky to have them to talk to about the process. One of them, Dawn Jones-Redstone, is the director of photography for the film too, so she’s particularly intimate with it.

"Ultimately, I hope people come away remembering that these are just tools — from the X-Acto blade to the computer. We as designers have the knowledge and power to make them speak to our audiences.”

YG: What has been the most interesting or surprising aspect of page layout that you have come across so far?

BL: I think the parts that surprised me most had to do with various technologies that developed toward the end of the photosetting period, in which designers would do layout on computers with very crude previews of the layout (think of those black screens with the green bitmap type). I had known all about paste-up before, but didn’t really have a sense of this period between full-on paste-up and these imagesetters, which allowed some layout to happen on massive computer systems. Frankly, they look harder to work with than just doing everything by hand!

YG: What has been the most challenging part of making this film?

BL: Fundraising! I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, which helped raise the funds for the production (filming and costs around that), but I am still fundraising for the costs that surround the post-production (editing, motion design, color correction, etc.).

YG: What are some of the page layout tools you've used in the past that have been phased out for you?

BL: I came up as a designer starting in 1996, and my school had already made the transition almost entirely to desktop computers. The tools I used then (X-Acto, ruler, and self-healing mat), I still use now. Of course, the tool collection of some of my interviewees is awe-inspiring. Designers needed so many kinds of rulers, blades, templates, french curves, pens, pencils, adhesives, papers, etc.

YG: Did you have any fan-girl moments during the interview process?

BL: Yes! Lots actually. I kept my cool (I think), but I was very excited to meet my heroes Ellen Lupton and Adrian Shaughnessy who practice within the design world in a way I see myself headed—which is focused on the designer-as-author—writing, telling stories, and educating. Talking to Tobias Frere-Jones and Ken Garland was really exciting for me as well.

“I don’t think any of the actual methods are better in the analog era versus digital. What might be better is a sense of starting completely from scratch.”

YG: What do you think the older ways of page layout do better than the digital means of today?

BL: I don’t think any of the actual methods are better in the analog era versus digital. What might be better is a sense of starting completely from scratch, so much more planning, sketching, math, and composition considerations had to be made before taking out a blank piece of paper, ruler, and pencil. Now we open up a document and there are so many defaults already chosen for us. Sometimes it’s too easy to lean on these defaults.

YG: It's clear a lot has changed for page layout in the last 50 do you see page layout going in the next 50 years?

BL: I’m excited about how page-layout will develop on tablet devices in the future. I have a page-layout brief in which my students design a small print magazine, and then translate it to a digital edition, and it’s just wonderful to see the ways you can take advantage of the ability to layer content, and offer supporting interactivity. My favorite real-world example of this is Wired magazine’s digital editions (I always swoon when I get both my print and digital editions). As a person who never learned to code, I like the ability to really control my typesetting choices in a way that design for the web still hasn’t been able to offer.

YG: Do you think you'll do another documentary? If so, what would it be about?

BL: It’s so funny. I really thought this would be my first and last film. We’ll see how I feel, but if I were to make another one, I already know it would be about women of the Russian/Soviet Avant-garde like Varvara Stepanova and Lyubov Popova. This subject merges two of my great passions—feminism and Russian design.

Watch the trailer for Graphic Means below and visit to learn more about the film. You can also catch a work-in-progress screening of the film as a part of Design Week Portland on Wednesday, April 20. Reserve your spot here.

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