Some of Pentagram Austin’s best editorial design work has been a reaction to a problem. In this case the concept for a magazine’s unique cover direction originated from an attempt to get around a low art budget. The Pentagram design team didn’t know it at the time, but in their determination to create something from nothing they inadvertently provided the stimulus for this handsome new book. The Animal Kingdom, published by Rizzoli Books with a foreword by Dan Winters and designed by Pentagram, is a compilation of photographer Randal Ford’s expertly crafted animal portraits―ten years in the making. Here’s how he started down that road.
In 2008 Pentagram Austin redesigned Dairy Today. It was the second dairy magazine and the sixth agricultural trade publication the Austin office had designed. At the time, Dairy Today was rated last among a group of three dairy industry magazines. The publisher called the Pentagram team with a challenge. He had admired their redesign of a competing title and wondered if they could do the same with his publication. He didn’t have any money and his staff was small. The designers told him they’d give it a shot but given those hurdles, he would need to keep an open mind. Pentagram’s solution was the simple idea of featuring a portrait of a dairy cow on the cover of every issue.
Pentagram contacted Randal Ford, a relative newcomer to Austin’s photography scene, and commissioned him to shoot a series of cow portraits for Dairy Today. The photographer came to mind because of a portrait he had taken of a designer holding one of Pentagram’s office dogs (the Austin office routinely hosts a half-dozen dogs). Ford had the portrait in his portfolio, and it was a fine photograph, but the inclusion of the little dog is what made it special. Prior to the Dairy Today session, the magazine’s editor asked the Pentagram team what they hoped to get out of the shoot. The designers told him they wanted portraits that showed the personalities of the cows. That’s easier said than done.
Pentagram located a breeder who raised a variety of dairy cow types and arranged to do a one-day photo shoot at his farm near Waco, Texas. Ford brought a selection of pastel-colored backdrops and set up a makeshift studio in one of the barns. It was a cold, rainy day and during the photo session the art director jumped up and down, hooting and hollering and clanging on a feed bucket. The massive, docile beasts just stared blankly but Ford skillfully captured their quiet, quirky souls. In the end the photographer shot two years’ worth of covers for a single day’s rate, saving Dairy Today money and providing the magazine with a memorable cover identity. Those covers went viral but more significantly, that dairy cow shoot started Ford down the path to becoming one of the premier animal portraitists today.
That was a decade ago, and since that fateful day Ford has perfected his lighting and composition skills and favors neutral backgrounds, light gray and black, over the colorful backdrops used for the original Dairy Today cow portraits which adorn the walls of the Pentagram Austin office today. The book features 130 images representing a broad range of species. To photograph the animals in studio situations, often times with the assistance of the animal’s owner or specialized trainers, Ford traveled to locations all over the world. It’s been quite an adventure and his personal notes and observations about each animal are included in a notes section in the back of the book and scattered throughout as pull-quotes.
“A portrait is a collaboration between subject and artist. These are no different.” Ford writes in the book. “Without collaboration from subjects on both sides of the camera, it would be impossible to create these unique portraits. Every animal I’ve photographed has a story behind the shoot. Some animals are challenging and some are entertaining. In the words of Dr. Seuss, some have ‘scared me right out of my pants.”’
Because of the formal, human-like aspect of the portraits the Pentagram team designed the notes section to resemble a college yearbook, each animal’s headshot is framed in an oval, with their names and the photographer’s recollections underneath. The inclusion of the animal’s names throughout the book in a loopy cursive font called “Said In Script” gives the book a friendly, approachable feeling and underscores the personal relationship Ford experienced with each animal he photographed. Many of the image pairings in the book juxtapose different species, some are playful, and several pairings show different aspects of the same animal.
The design team kept the book’s layouts clean and spare to compliment the simple aesthetic and subtle lighting of the portraits. The styling, which includes ample whitespace and delicate typography printed in gray, was inspired by Audubon prints and other vintage scientific documents.
In addition to wild animals, like tigers, lions, wolves, birds and bears, Ford also included domestic animals and pets as a part of his animal kingdom. College football fans in Texas will love his inclusion of the University of Texas mascot Bevo, the longhorn steer, and Texas A&M’s mascot Reveille, the collie, (A&M is the photographer’s alma mater). Other Texas critters made it into the book too. There’s Luke the horny toad and Queasa the armadillo, and a surly, snot-slinging bull named Wayne Crosby. There are pigs, chickens, and some of the most beautiful horses you’ve ever seen. And there’s more cows of course.