It’s easier to feel that you can own a message when it is printed on paper.
Leonardo Sonnoli was born in Trieste in 1962. Partner of the Tassinari/Vetta studio with offices in Trieste and Rimini, he deals mainly with the visual identity of public institutions and private companies. He has worked for, among others, the Venice Biennale, the Château de Versailles, the Centre Pompidou, the Palazzo Grassi-François Pinault Foundation, the Mart in Rovereto, the Giulio Iacchetti Studio, the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Rome, the New York Times, the SNCF (French railways), Artissima, International Fair of Contemporary Art, Turin and the furniture company Zanotta. He has taught at the RISD – Rhode Island School of Design (USA) – and at the IUAV in Venice; he currently teaches at the ISIA in Urbino and holds regular workshops and lectures on his activity in Italy and abroad. Since 2000, he is a member of the AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale). His designs are kept in numerous international public collections and he has received prestigious awards, including the Rodchenko Prize 2008, the silver medal at the Triennial in Toyama (Japan), the first prize at the Biennial of Hangzhou (China), the Merit Award of the Art Directors Club New York (USA) and, in 2011, the Compasso d’Oro (Golden Compass) Prize. He collaborates with the daily business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore (The Sun). He has been living in Rimini with his family for twenty years.
The concept of “meta-design” was probably invented to describe the work of Leonardo Sonnoli. His design solutions are not only conceptual, they are an abstraction of a concept. Practically, it means that he goes beyond the obvious to express a point of view on the work itself. In other words, when you look at a poster or a publication by Leonardo Sonnoli, you feel slightly more intelligent than you did a minute ago. It’s a great feeling!
Sonnoli turns printed matter into an interactive medium with still images that always contain an element of surprise: unexpected letterforms, an unusual graphic treatment, or a startling sense of scale. The surface of the paper on which his work is printed becomes a dynamic environment for the message. “When you communicate on paper, you give readers something to think about,” he explains.
His designs often feature abstract typographical forms that might look difficult to decipher at first glance but turn out to be completely legible after all. The way he spells his name on his website, for instance, with the consonants on top (Lnrd Snnl) and the vowels below (eoao ooi) suggests the rhythm of an accentuated Italian pronunciation. For him, words are alive: from his oversized pixelized scribbles for a series of posters he did recently for the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, to his playful kaleidoscopic typography for Artissima, a contemporary art fair in Torino.
Sonnoli is partial to black typography, using colors sparingly, and only in pastels for his backgrounds. The inky quality of his letterforms is so remarkable (he often prints black on top of black), he should be credited for putting Graphite, a form of carbon that’s a cousin of diamond, back into Graphic Design.
Pop’set Chlorophylle 170g
Leonardo Sonnoli chose this menthol blue number from the 32 colours which make up the Pop'Set range of paper. It is at once soft and cool, forming a perfect alliance with the pale pink of his visuals.
You use paper as if it were white marble: your typography looks almost “carved” rather than merely printed. Are you influenced by Roman stone engravings?
I am Italian, sure, and I live in Rimini, a few steps from a monument with handsome Roman inscriptions. But there is more to my background than just Roman influences. In Rimini there is a library with a huge collection of printed books from the 16th century – so you could say that Renaissance typography is yet another influence. But in reality, it is the 20th century avant-gardes that have had the greatest impact on my work. It’s all because I was born in Trieste, a city on the Adriatic Sea, near Slovenia, in a region where Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures collided. At some point, Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was then an artistic center on a par with Vienna, Prague and Budapest. There, a great number of avant-garde graphic art movements flourished, from the Vienna Secession to the Futurists.
You have been able to translate all these typographic currents into a very coherent personal style. How do you do it?
Nothing I do is decorative or gratuitous. I always focus on the message. Once, I was asked to design a poster for an international poster show in China, but there was no central theme, no main topic. So I decided to take this absence of idea as my idea, and I designed a typographic poster that highlighted this lack of content. I punched out the word “emptypeness” across the width of a sheet of white paper, as a critical gesture to mock the futility of trying to say something when you have nothing to say.
You compressed “empty” and “type” and added the suffix “ness” to denote a condition that you deplore – design with no real message?
Yes, the poster was bare, empty, meaningless, except for a short text that explained my intention.
In general, there is very little color in your work. Is it because you feel that colors take away from the purity of the typography?
I figured that if something works in black & white it usually means that it works. And since I use mostly letters in my designs, it doesn’t bother me: it’s like writing with ink on paper. However, in Italy, black is considered a “sad” color, so, to defend this choice, I have many animated discussions with my “sponsors” or “commissioners” (sorry, I don’t like the work “client” to describe the people who come to me for my design expertise and services).
You are a minimalist with colors, but, in contrast, you experiment with a lot of different printing techniques…
As long as they are not simply decorative, but serve a function, I will consider using all sorts of coatings, varnishes, metallic inks, cutouts, etc. I always look for the most economical way to highlight a few key elements on a page without creating additional distractions. In fact, well-chosen finishing touches can make the overall composition look less fussy.
And what about the paper itself? Do you have a favorite one?
I prefer paper that absorbs light to paper that reflects it. In other words, I prefer uncoated papers or very opaque coated papers. But obviously the choice depends on the function of the final product. Some books require photographic coated paper, but often I use opaque uncoated paper – then apply a gloss varnish only on the photos. This prevents glare on the rest of the page: shiny surfaces enhance photographs but make reading the text less comfortable. In fact, when there is a lot of text, I specify a natural paper, something not too white, to make sure that reading is not tiring to the eye.
Do you sometimes design for the screen?
Like everyone today, I use digital technology, but for me the computer is a visualizing tool, not an end to itself. Often, I do computer animations to explore all the dimensions of the letterforms I design. They become more interesting when viewed from some unusual angles. But when I am finished playing, I end up selecting only a couple of screen captures of the moving images.
I believe that when you are trying to communicate actual content, paper is better. If you are reading something, it’s easier to feel that you own a message on paper than a message on a screen, where it is public property.
But posters are designed to be seen in a public space!
Yes, you cannot generalize. Not all objects made of paper are the same. There are specific sets of rules that apply to one type of paper product but would be totally inappropriate for others.
On posters, for instance, the information needs to be laid out as a single “map” with a strict visual hierarchy that emphasizes some parts of the message while minimizing others. With books, the mapping of information obeys totally different rules: the hierarchy is managed not in a single layout, but as a sequence of pages. With books, you deal with two, three and even four dimensions – with the time you take to turn the pages a critical element.
Another important difference between posters and books is the distance from which you view them. Posters must be seen from far away, so they must “scream” at you – while books are intimate objects that are graphically a lot less loud.
What sort of books do you like?
Some of my favorite books are not just visual, they are melodic – they produce sounds. An example is Keith Godard‘s famous “Sounds” book, made with different paper stocks, some thin, some brittle, and some very dense. As you turn the pages, the book produces a series of distinctive and intriguing noises. But it is not always possible to use paper for its auditory qualities! The thinnest papers are usually the noisiest, but they are fragile or do not absorb ink evenly. I have to give priority to readability of text and images, so I seldom specify translucent or lightweight stocks, even though they are irresistible to the touch… and the ear.
Most people only know the screen version of your posters. Does it bother you?
In my opinion, the digital and the analog version are both valid experiences. Paper and screen are two different means of communication. They need not be in competition. However, to make sure that a poster looks as good in reality as it does on your LCD monitor, you must do some printed tests. There is a reason why you still do proofs on the same paper on which you will print the final project. Better yet to choose the paper before you start designing, and adjust the brightness of the screen to the paper, not the other way around.
But beware: for a great result, the quality of the paper is almost always as important as the quality of the design.