Hang-Over: Art Basel Miami Banners are Cultural Bank Notes
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The Gradient

Hang-Over: Art Basel Miami Banners are Cultural Bank Notes

Here in Miami, Art Basel and related fairs are now far-past, full-swing. Art has been shown. Parties have been thrown. Many flights have departed, and tents will now come down. For now and a little longer we are all hung-over on Art, Basel and our drugs of choice. Mine is graphic design.

A few weeks ago—largely overnight—a sea of printed banners popped up all over Miami. Their function was to announce the many, many art and design fairs that are now over. To my eye, they evoke giant bank notes pined-up as visual currency.

I offer readings of these cultural currencies from the perspective of a newly minted Miamian. Walker editors: shudder away. At at the very least I am a graphic designer who (newly) resides here. My humble critique focuses on the relative value of art and design as communicated by the formal character of the various banners. There are a number of graphic design materials that serve as kinds of cultural currency during basel, VIP Passes, brochures, pamphlets and books among others, but I’m most interested in the wider public consumption of the banners.

As an insider/outsider, I am particularly struck by the similarities and differences of graphic design approaches across fairs. Together they tell a story of art, design, and commerce. They tell a story of convention, taste and tradition.

I present a sampling of cases of a wider field of banners as bank notes. Enjoy as I take them and you up into the air of graphic-design-critique, tongue firmly-in-cheek:

Art | Basel Miami Beach Banner
Art Basel

The main fair banner that is most known. It’s a blend of “edgy” and “safe” design decisions. “Edgy” choices: right/top alignment of the headline, fluorescent salmon, are balanced with “safe” choices: a marine blue flood, minimal punctuation, and the largest sponsor logo of the banners in my survey.  It asserts value through name value and visual consistency.

It also asserts value through juxtaposition. Art | Basel, Miami Beach is North America’s largest art fair, but it is named after a city in Europe. There is a sense of displacement and globalness by seeing the name of a very tropical city nestled nect to to the name of a very temperate city. The blue and salmon express this well. Heinz Hoffman’s Block typeset by the brilliant Swiss team of Müller + Hess are in sync with this fair of dualities. It’s Swiss sans serif—all business—but with rough hewn edges—all party. Pretty on point. But it is UBS’ logo, a bank, that puts the commodity nature of our current art “market” front and center. No date or location information needed. Yes, they are ballers like that.

For those who want to go deeper see Rob Giampietro’s excellent essay on the Basel identity in the context of other Art identities inspired by the current masters of low-high-brow Dexter Sinister.

Basel Elevation: 260 m (853 ft), Miami Elevation: 6 ft (2 m). High marks for execution.

Design Miami Banner
Design Miami

Pardon my cruddy photo.

This is one of the few more high-profile fairs to use a photo in the design of the banner (Jewelery Fair, and Miami on the River do as well). Design Miami is the official design satellite of Art Basel and their marketing materials cross-reference each other. However, the currency of the banner has its own distinct visual language.

Design Miami asserts its value through the familiar language of (product) design material culture in one of its most recognizable forms: a silhouetted lounge chair of modernist lineage. The chair is presented on a stark white ground with artful drop shadows. A diagonal black slash echoes the form of the chair’s legs and arm supports also slices the composition and the right side of the word mark “Design Miami.”

The slash does a nice reference to the displacement effect of Basel and Miami Beach. It also is sympathetic to the forms of the chair. Juxtaposition of “safe” and “edgy” (see Basel and Pulse) return in a centered, humanist (see NADA) san-serif that is set upper and lower case.

What at first reads as Helvetica is actually a now familiar Laurence Brunner’s 21st-century redux called Akkurat. It’s the softer side of modernism and looks handsome with a slash.

Miami Projects Banner
Miami Projects

On the spectrum between graphic design signifiers of “safe” and “edgy” (I’m starting to question these terms themselves and where they come from.) Miami projects asserts it’s value by swinging towards “edgy” most strongly of the banners surveyed. Rather than “conventional” vertical or horizontal (the banners tall and skinny format actually lend to the convention of book spines where type is usually on its side) the fair name is wildly askew. Well as wildly as allowable for “safe” reading. The headline is also 1/2 positive and 1/2 knocked out or negative.

Support of black and red-orange wedges suggest a lineage to early 20th Century Russian Constructivist graphic design that has been reinterpreted through the graphic design style cycle far too many times as a set of signs that point to rebellion, upheaval and “up and coming” art and design. The date is present and next largest in the hierarchy  with the location, and the WWW url in place (see Pulse).

What at first seems edgy is actually quiet safe.

NADA, Miami Beach Banner

In an approach that I will call “there, but not there,” NADA asserts its value, by aspiring to be valueless. The banner is mostly white material, with black, outlined san-serif Type, and tiny “mouse type” below with only the month, name of location, and cross street information. See comments about 2×4‘s “Blank” Urban tree project on Speak Up a few years back.

The typeface from my speeding car seems to be Gill Sans, but set in regular or light weight says that value is not about typeface choice, or images, or even color. Its about being a humanist sans serif all in black, artfully  not there. Nada currency is a well positioned nothing.

To use a Fellaism: One hand, formally it’s a love. On the other hand, formally it “seems to mean”  like so much ironic typography trying to be without irony.

Pulse Miami Banner

Visually one of the loudest banners. The very large condensed, sans serif cropped to the edges of the banners paired with with loud colors pushes to the “edgy” pole. It asserts value in the “impoliteness” of it’s typography. It says to me, that this is a fair of youthful energy. The words Pulse and Miami are turned on 180 degrees of each other to further impart dynamism to the composition.

The lack of letter-spacing in the all-caps type of the venue name, address, makes my inner fussy typographer squirm (see Scope below). The need to include a URL and a “WWW” that preceded it come across as a plea in internet-speak to project a youthful, connected fair. Those that are fluid in internet know that no url is needed in this context, especially with the almost anachronistic WWW attached. Just google it.

I often saw the Pulse banner hung as pairs like in the above photo. Perhaps an ad buy strategy to make it stand out more? Though louder than much of the other currency, I question the fidelity of the formal message.

Scope Pavilion Banner

Rather than a large typeset name, the fair is represented by a large and ambiguous typographic mark that evokes both a letter “S” turned on it’s side, and the mathematical symbol for infinity. In other applications it is also a neo-ligature of the lowercase “c” and “o” in scope. Really ingenuous. It uses mystery and intrigue to assert value.

The supporting typography is justified, with inconsistent word spacing in the middle line. The typographer in me cringes at the combination of carefulness and carelessness. To paraphrase my friend, Matt Monk: The banner creates”?” in my head, followed by “!” followed by a “?.” When maybe a better sequence might be to evoke a”?” followed only by “!”

It says they don’t care so much for the details of typographic tradition, or they don’t care that they don’t care.

What does that say about me? “S” for Silas anyone?

Untitled Art Banner

A new fair on the scene. I was drawn in to its more nuanced use of typographic contrast and hierarchy. Less bold and flash than Basel, but more there to hold on visually than NADA. It’s still image free, which says “contemporary art,” but a deep color flood of an unusual color.

It  seemed to be a plain or ultra light cut Andrea Tinnes’ Switch, but after cross referencing the specimen, I realize it to be a formally more restrained copy-cat. I was saddened by this. But why?  Why was I trying to attribute certain moves to type designers in the way that I would certain visual langages or styles to artists? Why end with such a rant?

Perhaps because I know how much work it takes to come up with a distinct typographic concept, and then how hard it is to execute harmoniously. But then I got to thinking what crooked room am I sitting in that makes me feel that this unicase treatment is less worthy than Andrea? (Disclosure: I’ve interviewed Andrea and consider her a hero). Was there not a unicase drawn by Bayer in 1925 of the Bauhaus, redrawn by Matthew Carter in 1991, made popular by Abbot Miller, and Ellen Lupton, and Mike Mills? Tschichold had his unicase. Bradbury Thompson his.


I say these things not to drop names. I am not a graphic design snob. I am a graphic design aficionado. I post this critique not to bash or rip, but to illuminate and to try to understand the rhizomatic connectedness of our current graphic design landscape. I am interested in celebrating our history, and our current moment in a very exciting time of exchange between commerce, art, and design.

I am interested in the discourse of taste, and tradition. But all this is lost without context. Meredith Davis clearly says it is the people, the places and systems along with the things themselves. To paraphrase another colleague, Nikki Juen isn’t design in general, and graphic design in particular about relationships?

What do these banner / bank notes say about the relationships we have to graphic design, art, commerce and other human beings? We can spend the next year contemplating and ruminating.

From Miami beach to Minneapolis we are back to our less fabulous, but (happily) more grounded selves.


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