Issues 1-4, NZ$19.95 each | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

The National Grid first appeared in March 2006, and is now up to issue four. The publication declares itself to be either “a peripheral publication for graphic design”, “a provincial publication for graphic design”, “a paranoid publication for graphic design”, or “a frail barricade for graphic design” – depending on which issue you have.

I’m not sure about the “paranoid” but the other definitions are apt. According to their website “The National Grid is a space to speculate, critically enquire, research and explore graphic design issues within a New Zealand context... is a project motivated by a conspicuous void in New Zealand’s design discourse... aims to be a centre for the collection and transmission of projects and ideas that currently have no home... The National Grid is interested in the artefacts and methodologies of the practitioner – the designers of everyday things – who seek to transform, in some small way, both their own and their audiences’ experience of the world around them.

I have an embarrassing admission to make. I bought Issue #1 the day I saw. I flicked through it, thought looked interesting, so bought it. I got it home and it joined the continually growing pile of magazines and books awaiting my attention, and it remained unread. This, however, didn’t stop me buying Issues #2 and #3, both of which also joined said pile, and also remained unread. Come Issue #4, I managed to score a review copy, and thought that maybe it was time to start reading the things.

The above manifesto is a reasonable overview of what The National Grid attempts to do. I’m not really that interested in an intellectual discourse of graphic design. I like good design, have even been excited about it on occasion, and I’ve done a bit myself and enjoyed the challenge. But that doesn’t mean I want to read deconstructions of it. And, it appears, neither does The National Grid editorial team. While design is a feature, they look at where design meets the real world, music, and art, and publishing.

I’ve decided Issue #4 is the facsimile issue. It opens with pages from Typo, a New Zealand based typography magazine started in 1887 by Robert Coupland Harding. Who would’ve thought New Zealand had such a grand tradition of design discourse? There’s also a biography of Harding borrowed from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography to give a greater historical context.

Then we jump forward 90 years and look at UK punk 7” record sleeves and talk to Russell Bestley who is doing a PhD on the subject. Naturally there are plenty of facsimiles of record sleeves. We get a brief history of the wider UK punk scene, as well as an intriguing journey of design from the anarchic to the mass produced. And it appears that there could be more in the next issue.

Editor Jonty Valentine writes a beautiful, thoughtful piece about Max Hailstone’s ten cover designs for literary magazine Landfall. And naturally we get facsimiles of these too. It’s a fascinating set of covers, which demonstrate the talent of Hailstone as someone who thought a lot about design and how it can be applied. Valentine places Hailstone’s work in an international context. Having seen so many boring book covers from the period it was eye-opening to know that some NZ designers were doing really arresting and clever work.

Jumping back to Issue #1 we get a facsimile of a chapter from Hailstone’s 1985 publication Design and Designers. I have to say, it’s cool that these guys just scan the original and reproduce it, rather than taking the text and re-publishing and re-contextualising it.

Most excitingly, for me anyway, Issue #1 opens with Steve Kerr’s reflections on the “Beautiful, Boring Postcard”, and more specifically the wonderful work of Gladys Goodall. I’ve long been a fan, and it’s good to know that there are other people who appreciate her photography. Her work has a quality which no one seems to capture these days – a beautiful boringness which celebrates New Zealand’s post-war civic boom and optimism.

These guys seem to love their music. In Issue #2 Steve Kerr writes about the quirks and joys of Flying Nun record labels – those little bits of paper stuck onto the vinyl so you can identify the record, and positions both the design and the music in an international post-punk context. Earlier in the same issue there’s a discussion of the art of defunct Dunedin cult label Corpus Hermeticum albums and band posters, and an interview with head honcho, designer, and noisemaker/musician Bruce Russell. In Issue #3 the album art of 1970s British designer Hipgnosis and contemporary NZ photographer Louise Clifton is examined and compared. At a time when New Zealand music is growing commercially and numerous people have studied the musical side of things, it’s good to see a discussion of the artwork. Much of the early Flying Nun DIY design stuff in particular is fantastic and deserves greater coverage. Then there’s the editorial in Issue #2 comprising of quotes about band’s 2nd albums. Funny. And maybe serious.

Also in Issue #2 there is Kris Sowersby’s trials and tribulations about designing a specific New Zealand font – all because he saw Helvetica being used in Issue #1. The best thing about the article is that rather than being bogged down with discussion, essentially the same two pages are repeated with variations in font design. We are given insight into the mind of a typographer and font designer.

Popping up in Issue #1 and more fully realised in Issue #2 is Valentine’s “structural analysis using semiotics” of the old Carlaw Park scoreboard signs. It’s wonderful that he saved them. But then to write about them too. An important piece of our sporting history become items of greater significance in Valentine’s hands.

Issue #3 has part one of an interesting conversation between David Bennewith, Warren Olds and type designer Joseph Churchland, made up of transcripts and video stills and arranged alphabetically according to index notes, thereby avoiding any typical conversational flow. The conversation is concluded in Issue #4.

Elaina Hamilton’s fascinating discussion of typography in protest in Issue #3 focuses on the 1981 Springbok Tour protests, a period still prominent in the NZ psyche. She points out the uniqueness of the protest sign – its reactionary impulsiveness, personal expression and individualistic qualities, and the temporality of its purpose.

As you would expect in a periodical about design the publication is clearly designed. It seems a bit of a mishmash with different paper stocks and different page layouts, but these elements define and separate the various articles without necessarily seeming out of place in the whole.

I could go on and on about the contents but really all I need to say is I should have read each issue when I first got them. I’m still picking through the old issues, reading random articles when time allows. The National Grid represents a new and different approach to discussing New Zealand culture, one which I’m sure many will find fascinating.

I’m already looking forward to Issue #5. If you haven’t already, you can pick up various issues at selected stores or from the website,