Branding Cities – Q&A with Creative Review

I was asked by Rachael Steven of Creative Review to take part in a feature on branding cities. The full Q&A is below. The pictures above are responses by members of the public to a request by the BBC to send in their alternative London 2012 logos.

The London typeface and logo proved quite controversial when it was released – why do you think this was?

It didn’t conform to expectation. the 2012 branding expressed an idea – successfully or not – of the spirit of the Games as expressed by the London Organising Committee and the spirit that London has – of dynamism, energy, youth. So London was presented through this idea rather than through historical imagery or architectural landmarks. This and the spiky, abrasive design of the identity as a whole clearly bothered a lot of people. More so before – rather than during – the Games, when the design scheme could be seen as a whole.

What was your brief for the London 2012 typeface?

My brief was to extend the aesthetic of the already designed logo to a high impact, headline-use, unique typeface. So a spiky logo for a spiky typeface.

How did it compare to working on a typeface for a brand?

It was the same. Sometimes we adapt or expand existing ideas, sometimes we create identities from scratch.

Any attempt to rebrand/design visual identities for places often seems to prove quite controversial, particularly with residents. How do you think designers can address this when working on identities or typefaces for a place, or do you think it’s not something they should worry about?

They are controversial because they represent things people understandably feel very strongly about. Designers should be conscious of this, but need be separate from what is narrowly literal or specific and look to what will have meaning and impact to the wider world. It doesn’t help that branding is a concept that people seem to mistrust, and regard how it as presented as the smoke and mirrors of management-speak gobbledegook. The recent logo and rebranding controversies, 2012, Everton FC and in America Gap and University of California show how social media has given a voice to individuals and groups to express opinion and impact decisions. In design terms, this has not necessarily been for the better. Clients and designers need to be brave, pandering to a vocal minority or too many different opinions will lead to mediocrity and lack of focus.

How closely do you think typefaces for destinations should reflect their heritage/visual history/culture, if at all, and why?

How should a typeface reflect a place’s heritage or history? If London, does that mean it has little pictures of Tower Bridge or Buckingham Palace? A (properly functioning) typeface isn’t pictures or photographs, it can’t hope to encapsulate every part of what a company – or place – are or represents. It can express old or new, or hard and soft, a point of view, an attitude. It needs to do this in a way that is relevant to now, and that separates it from its competitors, and that functions in the ways it needs to function

And lastly, we’ve seen quite a few recent examples of smaller towns and cities commissioning bespoke faces as well as countries. Do you think more places should have their own, and why? What are the key benefits and why is it important, or not important?

In today’s economic climate, with high streets struggling, with competition for shopping from out of town malls and the internet, I think anything that helps towns and cities present themselves in the best possible way is a good idea. Bespoke type allows them to present what makes them special and different in a unique, tailored way through every facet of their communications. As with any other product, if a town can’t present something different, enticing, valuable, why would it succeed?

Typecast Q&A

Shelly Wilson at Typecast asked me some questions for their blog typecast.com/blog in which I ‘explain the relationship between type and brands, where brands are going wrong, and how I identify a brand’s essence before choosing type’. Well, I’ll let you decide whether I do that or not.

They had seen I think my Q&A for Form magazine, so some of the questions and answers may overlap that a bit, so sorry if I’m repeating myself!

Thanks to Shelly Wilson and Typecast for being interested in what I had to say.

What does branding mean today?

Branding has to demonstrate that it adds value and doesn’t disguise failings or present a message that isn’t supported by experience. It also seemingly has to be liked by everyone, and if it’s not, the opportunities for debate and comment allowed by social media drive strong (and sometimes hyperbolic) opinion.

The London 2012 and ITV identities are two recent examples of large-scale ‘public’ branding projects that have received hugely vocal online debate, with 2012 being a notably extreme example. In America, attempted rebrands of Gap and University of California were withdrawn after online protests. Recently in the UK, supporters of Everton FC campaigned against a new logo for their football club, which has now been withdrawn.

This makes me wonder how much the public trusts ‘branding’ and branding agencies, and if agencies and companies need to find ways of engaging and explaining what they do. There is an emphasis on management-speak that might be successful with clients in a business environment, but is little liked, believed or understood in the wider world.

What do you feel typifies a great brand?

More than anything else, successful brands have a confidence in what they do or sell and how they present themselves. The two go together, but great brands have a great, wantable, useful, innovative, functional, exciting product.

In an environment where similar services are offered at similar costs by competing companies – whether utilities, groceries, or clothes – what separates them is, firstly, how they present themselves and how they interact with their customers and would-be customers. Different digital platforms offer more ways of doing this – through type, still and moving image, and sound – but all have to express a consistent, holistic vision.

How would you describe the relationship between typography and brands?

Type is the tangible medium through which language is disseminated, so it has a primary importance in any kind of print and screen communication.

In branding, type’s role is to drive a message of difference – what it is about a brand that is distinctive, special, valuable and relevant to a consumer.

Developments in web typography mean website and mobile design can be synced with design for print and tv. This is extremely beneficial and a huge opportunity for brands to communicate different expressions of the same message.

Having created designs for some real uber-brands, describe the challenges of pairing type with already strong and distinctive typographic identities.

If this is a challenge, it’s a good one. A distinctive typographic logo is a great starting point as well as being a hugely valuable asset.

For example, Prada’s eclectic and striking logotype was a great start point for a typeface. Making it an alphabet for limited, high-impact uses such as advertising or packaging branding made everything about those uses ‘Prada’ – expressing the values of Prada without saying the word.

For London 2012, the requirement was for a typeface to connect with the existing angular, type-ish logo – to belong in the same world without clashing or overpowering it. In the end, it was used separately to the logo as a central branding device of the Games – from lane numbers and magazine design to stadium screens.

The logo, typography, brand colors and any other supporting design elements are a kit of parts that drive the brand message. These can be distinctive individually, or not, as long as they work together as a distinctive whole.

You’ve joked on Twitter that most of your design work uses custom fonts that you, yourself, designed. Why create custom fonts when there already are tens of thousands of fonts to choose from?

The value of having a unique, bespoke, crafted type identity is that it expresses the particular, specific values of a company. For example, for a company that designs, makes or produces things – whether materials, food or products – it reinforces the idea of being tailored, crafted, special and different. This idea of bespoke makes an identity thought about and thoroughly conceived at every level and indicates a company that thinks about every facet of itself in the same way.

It’s not the only way of making a distinctive, rounded identity, and it’s not necessarily the right way for every company.

You’re fortunate to work for clients who understand the value of a good type solution, but there are still many clients (small and large) who just do not want to pay for typefaces despite having loved and signed them off during the design phase. How can designers help clients care about (and be willing to pay for) quality type?

Fonts are intellectual property – licensed software as well as creative assets. As such, fonts have a value. Unfortunately there is still a lack of awareness that this fundamental and key factor in communication comes with a price. There is an expectation that fonts should somehow be free. Why? What else is free?

They need to help clients understand that the investment they make in their type choices will see a return in the effectiveness of their communication. As well as adding an aesthetic quality to a client’s identity, having a consistent, structured typographic identity maintains and promotes their brand values and saves money by being quick (and therefore cheaper) to implement. By using a typeface specific to the their needs and matched by clear, consistent copywriting, the client’s message is expressed with a unified tone of voice through every facet of its communications.

How do you get to the heart of a new client’s brand in order to do it justice through typography?

My process depends on the type of project. We could be designing an identity for a new company (Hunter Gather), adding to an existing identity (London 2012, 3.1 Phillip Lim), adding a product to an existing system (Calvin Klein Beauty), or developing a logotype into a typeface (Prada).

We define how and where the typeface will be used. Then, we identify key words that sum up (simply and without business gobbledygook) what the company is and does. The subtle differences in the client’s product, requirements, or even how they’re named, can be helpful here. Our summary might be separate from how they think about themselves, or it might be a way of presenting their proposition to the world in a new or different way.

We present options and work to define the right typographic solution at the same time as developing layout, application proposals, and a copywriting tone of voice. All of these help define the design of the typeface. The more these are worked on at the same time and at the start of the project, the better the outcome.

However, type isn’t and can’t be a visual representation of every facet of what a company does or its content. Yes, if you want to be obvious then hand drawn type can mean ‘hand made’ or a wobbly old-looking serif typeface can mean ‘traditional’. But type selection should avoid the cliché or familiar. Instead, it should try to express a clear, focused, uncomplicated, message in a clear, focused, uncomplicated – and immediate – way.

How does designing for fashion brands differ from other industries?

Although it’s renown as a creative industry, fashion is big business. Luxury groups such as Moët Hennessy –Louis Vuitton and the Gucci Group are multinational corporations with the same considerations as any other big business in terms of expressing its particular message, values and product to the world. However, fashion brands represent themselves through image rather than type, and tend to work best with the fewer words. On these projects, the role of type is to separate itself from the essence of a particular fashion moment or campaign – to capture a designer’s or brand’s ethos or spirit and remain relevant through different fashion collections over a period of time.

However, the type can still be striking and impactful. Fashion houses have some of the most iconic, famous identities of any industry – Yves St. Laurent, Prada, Chanel. You can use support type, layout and website navigation to make a bold statement, too, particularly for brands aimed at youth culture.

How effectively do you feel companies are carrying their brand identities to the web? Who’s doing it right, and what could brands (and their agencies) be doing better?

Who could do better? In pure design terms, anybody still using default system typefaces with the default ideas and lazy thinking they represent. A default typeface and ill-considered typography says ‘This is not thought about, is a rushed, easy solution. Not functional, and not a positive message.’

If a brand matches type design and typography to message in a way that is different from their competitors, consistent across all its formats, and that expresses what makes them unique, then they are giving the consumer every opportunity to decide in their favour – if, of course, they have the right product or service.

If your brand’s supporting typography is system Helvetica, or Times, why? How is it relevant? What does that choice of typeface say about your company? How does it present your message? If everything about your brand isn’t distinctive, isn’t different, why not? If your brand isn’t distinctive, or different, what is it? Why is it there?

Type and Fashion for Form magazine

Form Magazine (form.de) recently featured us in article in which, as they describe as on their website ‘Angharad Lewis analyses the not always easy relationship between typography and luxury labels, taking the works of Gareth Hague of Alias as an example’.

For that article I completed a Q&A for Angharad, revised text below. In this article I talk about the role of type in branding and advertising, not collateral design such as websites.

Could you explain the commissioning process for your work and outline the expertise you bring to fashion branding projects?

I’m not sure this process is any different in fashion than it is for anything else – the role of type is to capture something of the essence of the brand, what makes it special and unique.

Are there any unique considerations for type design in a fashion context as opposed to other sectors?

The fashion image is best left to do its thing unexplained. So, whether subtle or obvious, it connects with the viewer long enough to make its point.

Fashion brands represent themselves through image rather than type, and tend to work best with the fewer words the better. Fashion advertising is most successful when the right combination of art director, photographer and stylist combine to present a fashion designer’s vision in a striking, magical way.

If you see a fashion campaign with supporting typography, catchy tag line or slogan, it will have been done  – usually – by a misguided advertising agency or un-art directed in-house marketing department.

Fashion should let you fill on the gaps yourself, become what you want it to be. So if you want to make a fashion campaign with type that has to be its start point. See Peter Saville’s work for Yohji Yamamoto with cityscapes constructed from type, or some of Comme des Garçons’ super-oblique campaigns. Note that these are two cerebral, conceptual designers.

The technical, detailed work of type design can seem far-removed from the fashion world – what is your view on the role of good typography in fashion branding?

Type design shares the same spirit of (for example) craft, innovation, modernity and heritage as fashion. So when you talk about (good) branding in (good) fashion you’re talking about design that expresses the appropriate combination of these ideas through a name or word.

Type most powerfully represents a brand through its logotype. With a tradition of some of the greatest, most famous logos from any industry – YSL, Prada, Chanel – there is a challenge to live up to that.

What for you has been the most successful or rewarding application of an Alias font in the fashion world?

Making logotype part of a wider, more complete identity. So expanding the Prada logo to a typeface, and developing the Hunter Gather logotype and typefaces.

Also, Another Man and Another magazines I think are successful examples of combining fashion photography and striking typography in a progressive, innovative way, bringing image and type into a cohesive whole.

Can you pin-point any seminal graphics/ fashion intersections that have inspired your practice?

Logos for YSL, Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons…

In terms of strategies and approaches, what can graphic designers and their fashion clients learn from each other’s way of working?

Fashion designers and art directors share a connection more than type designers, type being outside and separate to the photographic fashion image. There is a shared sense of creative spirit, but in terms of branding typography needs to separate itself from the essence of a particular image, fashion moment or campaign. Instead it s role is to create a solution that captures a designer or brand’s ethos or spirit. So something that remains relevant through different fashion collections over a period of time.

Thanks to Form magazine and Angharad Lewis.

 

Why new typefaces?

There could be 30,000 or 300,000 fonts available to purchase and use, covering every use and circumstance. So why design more?

No one knows how many typefaces there are. Affordable, easy to use software such as Fontographer, and later Fontlab and others have revolutionised type design and production beyond belief. From cumbersome and expensive woodblock or hot metal to cumbersome and expensive photosetting the design and dissemination of type had previously been hugely limited. Computer design made it democratic – doable and easy to distribute.

Why new typefaces? Why new anything? So if too many typefaces, then surely we have enough songs, or films, or books. No? Are songs, films and books different somehow? Perhaps the argument is that they’re somehow more creative. Or are they creative in their own right, whereas presumably type design needs the conduit of graphic design to exist.

As well as ignoring the layers of processes, skills and crafts needed in any creative enterprise, this suggests that there is somehow a sliding scale of creativity, where some skills are more important than others, and that they are not part of a connected cultural whole. In this thing that is all around us that we call Culture everything that is made, designed or recorded and disseminated shifts, develops and changes, reacting to each other and according to myriad social, political, technical (etc) reference points. We may not be aware of or like a lot of it, may cherry pick as ‘cultural’ the things we like, but it all interconnects, even as opposites pushing each other to extremes of separation or difference.

So as all these factors change, so culture changes also. Just as we change as we grow up, our bodies, opinions and tastes. This is Time. This is Life. They are defined by Change. So Change is inevitable, it’s outside of need or necessity. It just Is.

If what is said and written exists of this world of change, on page or screen, then how can the shape of the individual letters through which this is expressed not be? Whether better than before, or different, of course there is always opportunity for New. To suggest otherwise is a redundant argument, supported by what? What is too many? Is there a specific number? Who decides?

Type has a uniquely special and important place in culture as the medium through which language is recorded and disseminated. To suggest there are ‘enough’ or ‘too many’ ways of doing this I find odd and wrong.

New messages in new media can be best described through new design. Specialists in screen based type design are amending existing fonts to meet its particular requirements, in part of a continuing process of making new according to context – in manufacture and use.

Graphic designers can choose to use new typefaces, old, or like Massimo Vignelli just three. They can choose to use none, writing everything by hand – that would look amazing. There is room for every approach, just as there are type designers specialising in every kind of niche market of design.

Type designers will disagree with what I consider to be new and relevant, graphic designers will respond to the needs of function and fashion in what they use, and new work good and bad will be made and argued about.

There are commercial imperatives to consider also, too many new fonts are effectively tweaks of existing designs, aiming to cash in on profitable niche markets. Notions of difference in these cases become subtle, with myriad new designs openly marketing themselves as a ‘new’ or ‘better’ Helvetica, Caslon or whatever. In such circumstances clashes over perceived similarity become complex to argue. How to define closeness of appearance between two functional, 1950s derived sans serif fonts? What amount of similarity is acceptable? It is generally an easier claim to make of someone else’s work than your own.

If there is one basic shape per letter (it isn’t quite that straightforward, but you know what I mean), then there are only a set number of musical notes, or basic story structures. There is always room for difference within systems. If a start point is Difference rather than Similarity, then you will make work that defines your position in the world and asserts your value within it.

Above are four Alias responses to Helvetica – Grist, Noah, Glue and Progress.

Hexagons

This is a geometric design that is more about Idea than it is about Craft. Design, like art, is Craft and / or Idea. Any amount of craft, or technical skill, cannot replace the need for an idea, an idea with purpose, relevance, and, in a world of image overload – difference. If not different, why bother?

These are unrealised identity proposals for RSA – Royse Sanders Amfitheatrof – a company specialising in arts related projects. That rather opaque phrase means that they initiated and organised collaborations with artists.

The Chess project was artist designed chess sets, where artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Maurizio Cattelan and Damian Hirst made a super-limited edition chess set, which were exhibited and (at least initially) available to buy. They were all high-end artists, and large objects, so the prices were in the tens of thousands of pounds.

The idea of the hexagon was the silhouette shape of the isometric cube and its internal keyline construction. It came from the square shape of the chess board and its individual squares. Its a flat and impossible, artificial rendition of something three dimensional, and a good skeleton to hang different variations and ideas from. Logos or marks for individual exhibitions could inhabit the same hexagon shape.

The logo is a monogram of R,S and A, they’re in there somewhere. More than that it’s a striking looking object, an interconnecting, dynamic, mazey pattern. Something you could imagine made in three dimensions, or stamped into metal or leather as an identifying hallmark.

As a company involved in creativity it was important that they have an identity that was striking, bold and statement-making. It was an opportunity to attempt something adventurous and interesting.

The Chess word was inspired by Sol Le Witt’s ‘Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes’ drawings, where he took a keyline drawing of an isometric cube and systematically drew versions missing its component parts in various configurations. It connected with the hexagon logo by having the same weight of line, and looked like it was made from elements pulled apart from it, so letters made from a very non-letter grid. It is readable but very much a ‘thing’, a graphic device, as much as it is a word.

The RSA logotype uses the hexagon silhouette as a grid to construct letters from. A hexagon- rather than dot-matrix. Its shape defines at least to a certain extent the shape of the letters, maintaining their clarity, and makes interesting and spikey interior shapes. The hexagon gives them a faceted shape that suggests jewellery and the precious nature of the objects the company was to be associated with.

See the finished project in the Archive section at alias.dj. It’s a bit different.

RSA’s disappointingly so far unrealised next project is Flush Art, artist designed toilets. See the logo in the Archive section at alias.dj. It has a typographic poo.

 

Stencils

As their names suggest Grist and Glue share an idea. Broadly that is making stencil letters using simple shapes.

Grist, as discussed in a previous blog post, was designed originally as a logo proposal for art-pop band Fischerspooner. It was one of a series of ideas exploring ways of taking an upper case serif font and making it ‘graphic’, so like a logo rather than a typeface. I tried this in various ways – by making the serifs thicker, or making the serif oversized and angular. These generally weren’t very successful.

The most successful version stripped out the thin stress of the typeface and added a circle as an occasional serif. This made a dotting effect when set as multiple words. This was presented, to be rejected and a more neutral serif typeface used in what became a very untypographic series of record sleeves (also discussed elsewhere and on alias.dj).

Having written the blog post and reminding myself about the project, I wanted to develop this serif stencil circle typeface further. As it happened during the Fischerspooner project and in a fit of enthusiasm I had drawn a complete A-Z.

What I liked about the idea originally was that the typeface was made up of these big, dramatic shapes, either the circle or bits of circle or these swashy triangles or rectangles. There were no small fussy shapes, so it could be cut out and used as a stencil. The serif was a useful connecting device and the letters were, generally, readable.

As I developed the character set rows of circles became diagonal lines or dashes, so accented characters, or currency, hash or @ signs (etc) became these codified, braille-like shapes. I enjoyed designing them. As a headline typeface they were free of at least some of the rigours of clarity, and able to rely on impact.

As I was designing these – particularly @, © – I noticed that I was removing the seriffy connecting swash and the characters were getting more simplified and abstract. It was or could be a separate idea, and I developed the typeface Glue from these.

It is more clearly a typeface from a limited set of graphic shapes. It is modular, but its grid forces the shapes to work fit together in non obvious ways making non obvious shapes. Its limited modular structure means that shape arrangements are recycled, with an A flipped to make  a 7, or X flipped to make a Z – I’m rather proud of these typographic firsts, I suspect they’re my only ones.

So it is semi abstract, but readable. It expects the reader to try quite hard, expecting them to decide for themselves whether its design makes it worth the effort.

Grist and Glue are available from FontShop.

 

Blackletter bitmap

Issue 14 of Emigré magazine was the Heritage issue. This word was set large on the cover in bitmapped blackletter type. This was a clash of opposites – calligraphy versus computer – and as opposites often do, it looked incredibly effective. Blackletter and bitmap share a black, angular, modular and abrasive aesthetic, but separated by a thousand years. More in fact. It’s pretty amazing.

The Pages window in InDesign gives thumbnail size renderings of its content that allows you to navigate a multi-page document. These will be blocks of grey usually for text, or crunchy bitmapped pictures. Text large enough will be an approximated jumble of bitmaps.

These usually look pretty abstract, but for some reason our typeface Caustic was semi-readable. Screen-grabbed and scaled-up, these page icons look quite striking. The differences in type size producing different results, odd but characterful and recognisable letter shapes.

Maybe the idea of basic-ness and simplicity of bitmaps is old enough to become interesting again, it’s years of over-use safely 25 years ago. Maybe the new norm of super-sharp retina screens and high-definition TVs mean that something new or different comes from a different direction.

With this idea it’s also an appealing as its ‘found’ or ‘ready-made’. It’s an idea that involved no design, just noticing and using something already there, that would otherwise be discarded or ignored.

So screen grabbing is not a new idea, bitmap type obviously isn’t, sometimes it’s the change in combinations or use that makes something new. New-ish. Or not new, but still good.

Like signing off a proof

Do Creatives from other industries see in graphic design the same opportunities for progressive spirit, for newness or individuality that they see in their own work? You’d assume they would, though it’s reasonable to assume they don’t have the same awareness of current trends, or of context or design history.

When you think of logos for fashion companies you think of fantastic but surprisingly old designs such as Cassandre’s semi-calligraphic lettering for (pre-Hedi Slimane) YSL, Prada’s quirky Engravers-ish type (no one’s tracked down the source typeface, if there was one), Chanel’s much-copied Sackers type… These are all-time classics of logo design from any industry. Yohji Yamamoto’s angular signature and Comme des Garcons’ asterisk-cedilla are newer examples of striking, appropriate designs – for great designers, note.

There are of course lots of less successful, lazy, designs that subscribe to familiar fashion-cliché tropes. There always will be, not everything’s great, but fashion designers surely should want to present themselves in –  for want of a better word – a creative way?

Also, when you think of fashion magazine design you think of the groundbreaking work of Alexey Brodovitch for Harper Bazaar magazine. This seems to have defined some kind of archetype for Fashion magazine typography and design. It set the tone for a myriad of magazine mastheads and layouts with spindly serif typography, lovingly researched from archives and historical sources, expertly redrawn, but familiar and lacking in progressive spirit – or new idea.

Type design for fashion is separate from the fashion industry. It’s outside the creation of fashion imagery, which is photographic and ephemeral. Ephemeral to season and to the fashion moment. It is the job of type, in terms of branding, to create a solution that captures a designer or brand’s ethos or spirit, something that remains relevant through different fashion collections.

So to not be ‘fashionable’. Kind of. Fashion isn’t soap powder or petrol, Fashion can be conceptual, driven by idea, is Creative. So there is the possibility of typography – in terms of logo and its applications – with extra, different levels of design ethos perhaps not available to other branding projects. It is still branding in and for the world of commerce though, with the same needs and limits as branding for other industries. A balancing that with the particular needs of fashion can be difficult to achieve.

Fashion houses tend to be named after their founder, so particularly with newer companies there is an issue of how the designer represents themselves as people as well as a company. There is an extra sense of the personal, which can be difficult to overcome.

In the case of Phillip Lim, he chose to represent himself with the codified 3.1 and his name as a signature. This connects him in a very direct, intimate way with his ’brand’. Perhaps, as companies expands, this personal connection becomes less important, and a brand’s iconography is defined by other factors, broader ideas about what it represents, more obliquely or graphically applied.

This mark for 3.1 Phillip Lim was designed to work with their redrawn (not by me) logotype. They needed something they could put on spectacle frames, buttons, inside shoes, that sort of thing. It’s their favicon too – that mini logo next to the URL in your web browser’s address bar.

As the logo is Phillip’s signature, it made sense for the mark to be a shortened version of that, like the initial mark he might make when signing off a proof. It had to look ‘designed’ though, not a doodle but a clearly defined letter that connects to and make sense with the logo – in the same world, as we designers like to say. So a P in the same style is almost enclosed in a circle, like an @. Positioned next to the logo it looks like an oversized full stop.

Covers for a proposed book

A cover for the proposed book A Protest Against Forgetting – Interviews with Eric Hobsbawm by Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Hobsbawm was a Marxist historian and thinker, he is celebrated as one of the most important historians of the twentieth century. He was a committed and outspoken adherent to the principles of Marxism, in the face of frequent, overwhelming opposition.

The constructivist typography associated with Soviet Russia and therefore Communism is awesome – bold, inventive, striking. When designing a cover for content associated with Communism there is therefore a lot of fantastic reference points. Some of the themes of constructivism – geometry, asymmetry and its sense of energy can be used differently, these ideas presented in a changed, new(er) way.

There are pitfalls too in having such strong starting points. Book covers in particular seem to use pastiche of historic designs as a handy shortcut to making an obvious, literal connection between cover and content. I don’t like pastiche, don’t understand it or see why it’s relevant as an idea. Also, for someone like Hobsbawm, presenting his spirited and unpopular viewpoint there was a need for an added sense of subversive vibrancy, a sense of clash.

I’ve named the ideas, from top to bottom as Overlap, Graffiti, Stencil and Writing, and brief descriptions follow.

Overlap

Clashing and overlapping type represents the ideas of PROTEST and AGAINST in the book title, and the way layers of graffiti overlap. Graffiti, because of it is a way of expressing the angry, subversive, anti-establishment. The type is an amended version of our Ano typeface. Like Constructivist typography, it is based on geometry, but is a very different and modern expression of this idea.

The red, gold and black colourway throughout takes reference from – of course – Communist flags, and Soviet typography. Gold also suggests the gilding of traditional bookbinding and that sense of craft and care. The gold separates Eric Hobsbawm text. This represents his status as a special and precious talent.

Graffiti

The angled, graphic, stencil type is a pure and typographic version of the randomness of graffiti and subversive spirit of stencil and spray-paint, or police DO NOT CROSS tape. The serif / circle / stencil typeface (I’m currently developing) is expressive and has something of the decorative nature of Cyrillic types.

Stencil

Stencil type made from basic, geometric shapes adapted from our Ano typeface, filling the page to make a kind of pattern. Again, the type is abrasive, the word breaks are arbitrary, depending on where the line ends rather than any sense of grammar.

Writing

Typography uses Caustic – a graphic, stylised version of handwriting or calligraphy, so suggests something intimate, like a diary or record of a conversation. However, it is angular and pointy, so suggests an opinion that is discordant, that might not be  widely popular. The classic, centred layout looks serious. This is a serious book.

 

Computer Arts

The full interview for Computer Arts Collection, part of a feature on Typographic Trends. Available February 2013.

1. What’s the appeal of blackletter-style type, for you – why do you think it’s enjoying a revival?

The popularity of Blackletter type is odd in many ways. Medieval typography’s associations, particularly religious text and Nazi Propaganda, should make it deeply unappealing in a secular wannabe-tolerant society. It is also difficult to read, and the values the style represents seemingly old, or out of fashion, or out of context, where the other creative arts express modernity through minimalism, technology and ease of use.

However, it has been consistently used, certainly throughout the twentieth century, whether by iconic figures such as William Morris, Jan Tschichold or Herb Lubalin, or any current example. Medieval lettering has beauty and mystery, the evocative imagery of having been written by hand, so long ago, with so much skill. But also it’s dynamic, graphic, bold and striking, so usable, statement-making. In contemporary popular culture, the Gothic heritage of the form makes it appropriate for the doom laden imagery Heavy Metal band logos, and street-style lettering and tag graffiti often references or takes influence from the decorative strength of the form.

2. How do you go about adapting the Medieval / Gothic type style to make it current and fresh?

I explored ways of combining latin lettershapes with the exotic blackness the lettering has, making these expressively angular letterforms familiar and more functional. This has always seemed more relevant, more interesting, than a more direct redrawing. Text and Klute do this in different ways. Text constructs letters from a series of graphic shapes, swashy curves suggest writing with a brush, letter elements connected at a sharp point. Its letterforms have the modular similarity of Blackletter styles. Klute mixes references from blackletter and the freer shapes derived from tagging, so it looks as if it was written with a thick marker pen as much as having been carved with a chisel.

3. Traditionally, Gothic typefaces are dense and can be difficult to read, how do you tackle this challenge?

I don’t think Klute or Text are hugely readable, they’re designed for impact. Text’s name highlights this issue of legibility, and the fact that 500 years ago this exotic graphic typeface might have been a design for text. As type designer Zuzana Licko said – “you read best what you read most”.

4. Do you consciously draw on the look and feel of traditional calligraphic tools and techniques in your type design work? Do you experiment with pen / brush work as part of the development process?

No, my work has nothing to do with calligraphy, pens, brushes, chisels etc. My type designs are drawn entirely on computer. That separates them from the inherent logic of writing, the shapes made by the movement of hand and arm, and the thickness of line determined from the angle of brush or pen. This makes new, different shapes possible.

5. How do you feel this re-emergence of ‘old-fashioned’ styles of type ties into the wider trend for a handcrafted, authentic approach to design?

I don’t like old fashioned as an idea, new media and new messages require new ideas. That doesn’t mean you can’t take references from old ideas, just mix them and make something new. I don’t accept that handcrafted is more authentic than computer drawn, and don’t accept that authentic is relevant as a premise. Being good is what’s important. Certainly there is a resurgence in hand drawn lettering, as there is presumably a need to make a connection with the human-ness of the craft process. Personally I’d like to see this expressed in more progressive ways than traditional forms of calligraphy or handwriting.