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.
In 1990 the process of graphic design – getting your idea to the printed page – was very different. Smooth powdered-china coated CS10 board was masking taped onto drawing board, artwork formats drawn with rotring pen and the various graphic elements glued into position. Typography was specced from a typesetting house and supplied as bromide. A mathematical system based on the standard character width of your typeface of choice, word count and the width of line required provided with your point size and leading choice a hopefully accurate estimate of the space needed. Photography was supplied as photocopies at the size to be used and dropped in at repro. This artwork marked up for colour.
It was all very laborious. And expensive. We regularly spent at least a third of our total design fee on typesetting, as it went back and forth with amendments and corrections. As we were generally designing on the hoof we would receive typesetting as galleys, cut it up and try different ideas. If the size changed a little we would PMT the typesetting up and down. The poor (300dpi) outputting quality of photosetting didn’t allow too much change in scale.
The typeface for these Sindecut sleeves is AG Buch Inline Medium Shaded. It was sourced from a 1980’s Berthold catalogue, listing often exotic, dramatic typefaces like the rarities in a museum catalogue, with opaque codes designating which photosetting system was required for their output. Typically and frustratingly the more exotic ones were inevitably unavailable.
There was a fantastically Lubalin-ish gloopy script called Arvelin which I was desperate to get (notice, not ‘use’ – ‘get’) but never tracked down, maybe the photosetting system it used was never actually built. It seems to have completely disappeared, I’ve googled it and nothing comes up. This is probably why I decided ultimately to draw my own, I couldn’t take the disappointment.
The problem continues mind you, AG Buch Inline Medium Shaded not having made it on to any Akzidenz Grotesk roster of weights in any digital library. Have all those crazy swash versions of Helvetica you used to see been digitised I wonder? There did seem to be a quaint kind of free for all when it came to redrawing versions of existing designs. I say quaint of course because it didn’t involve any work of mine being plagiarised.
Surprisingly, happily, AG Buch Inline Medium Shaded – the most extreme version of this workhorse typeface – was available. And supplied in long strips of 3 inch high stiffish glossy bromide. These were enlarged by photocopy (cheaper and quicker than PMT camera), cut out, arranged and stuck down with tape and glue. Colour was marked up with felt tip pen on a tracing paper overlay (this could take a while to do and felt a bit like doing a children’s colouring-in book).
Hopefully the record company would pay for the number of colour separations the design required. There was a recession going on and they were short of money. If they didn’t, they would just leave some off. Without telling you. See those lines between the letters on the SINDECUT lettering of the back cover of the Live The Life Remix sleeve? They were put there by the printer, making a bad job of the colour separations.
The Sindecut sleeves were a kind of formalised, typographic, graffiti letter pattern. The inline and shadow of the typeface being the kind of ideas used by graffiti artists. The minimal, consistent colour scheme and basic secondary typography gave a structure so it all didn’t look like a pastiche or too ‘pop’.
It’s a bit like a 1990 version of the 2012 Olympics identity.
Hunter Gather is an e-commerce website and stand alone shop in Marylebone, London. It sells modern, cool versions of menswear staples, peacoat, leather bomber jacket, denim etc.
Art direction and graphic design was by DJA, logotype and typeface design by Alias. Website layout was by Spring Studios.
The direction for the graphics was to be tribal, like the tribal fashion of youth culture and specially that of London, so urban, hard and graphic. And modern, different. Of course.
A linear logotype, that looked like mark making, graphic like a logo or symbol as much as being a word. Being a logo for a fashion label, it needed to work in cloth at small sizes,and as an architectural device at the front of the shop.
There were various reference points from our own work, as well as an awareness of the zeitgeisty brutalist linear typography as shown on graphic design blogs such as manystuff.org, or European independent arts publishing. By awareness, I man an understanding that we had to do something different to this, in type design, typography and layout.
The two key reference points we had were our Vacant typeface and custom lettering designed for a show invitation for Prada. Both angular, one arbitrary and thick lines, one modular and thin lines. Vacant looked tribal, abrasive, but its arbitrary design was too much. Good for a magazine, but maybe too wearing for a logo, too specific. The Prada invite lettering, with kits Asteroids video game tech-linear design suggested a structure for a cleaner, more pure design direction. The logo is strongly modular, with it’s diagonal device rotating and flipping.
A three tier graphic system, with the logotype and a text typeface at either end, and an impact headline typeface in between, its design as if interpolated half way between the two. A typeface dramatic enough to stand out online, in a layout constricted by the speedily functional needs of e-commerce, of displaying product and information in an immediately understood way. It is interesting that with all the possibilities digital media makes possible, in terms of layout there are design ideas that are surprisingly recurring and consistent.
Ano typeface was used for text, its geometric nature balancing the angular logo, at one end of the tier straight lines, the other, circles. It therefore made sense for the interpolated headline type to mix angles and circles, but be readable, not abstracted or conceptual. Partly a more functional version of the Prada invitation type, but clearly connected to Ano, so that the idea of that typeface morphing into the angular design of the logo is made clear. While maintaining enough difference in terms of style and weight so that the logo stands out, is clearly separate and important.
It seems to me that online typography has a particular, extra impact to make, bearing in mind the different way the user connects with a website, particularly a selling website, to a book, magazine or poster. By that I mean there is an extra imperative to make a connection and transference of message quickly. There is a different way of reading a magazine layout, through the rhythm of its use, of turning pages, of connecting developing ideas from front to back and issue to issue.
An e-commerce idea can include editorial, text and still and moving image, as huntergather.com plans to do, but its purpose is to sell, to direct you to what can be long lists of modular-presented product – and the process of buying as smoothly and as quickly as possible. A volume of product that in a shop looks enticing, on a website looks bewildering, obfuscating, without any sense of luxury. They will hope that users stop and browse, will research hits and page views, but will aim to sell, quickly.
The carrier bags have a bolder graphic approach. These use the HG of the logotype to make a monogram, the bag scaled to fit its proportions. Its bold colours with thick black borders suggest maybe Memphis, maybe abstract art or new-wave record sleeve. It is dramatic, has impact, it represents a brand that is doing something interesting, that a customer will want to buy into.
A lot of my typefaces were originally drawn as ideas or proposals from graphic design projects, the particularities of each brief producing directions and design I wouldn’t otherwise have thought of. Sometimes these are ideas that were approved, sometimes not.
Noah, to be released next year, was a rejected logotype design for a spirit (alcohol, not ghost), Alias Didot a rejected design for a fashion magazine. Working ideas up into typefaces makes use of the designs with sufficient potential, getting the value from these ideas and learning experiences.
Sometimes rejected designs despite having some potential get a bit lost, or forrgotten about. Like these designs from 2004 for Fischerspooner, maybe because they were so radically different from the finished design – see its blog post or at alias.dj.
There’s something code-like, like braille or morse-code, or musical notations in the circle and bar design. It also looks a bit new-wave, probably the influence of my formative music design heroes Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett, and their work for OMD and Buzzcocks respectively. For OMDs single ‘Elecricity’ Saville used Stockhausen’s music notation system of graphic shapes, for Buzzcocks Garrett referenced information graphics, bars, boxes and arrows.
Fischerspooner however were going back a few years before, thinking more of a techno day-glo Dark Side of the Moon. This iconic sleeve was designed by design group Hipgnosis, maybe half a generation before Saville and Garrett. With their striking and surreal work for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and 10cc (amongst others), they are also one of my design heroes.
They are probably best known for their art direction and manipulation of imagery for those bands, but with illustrator George Hardie they drew beautifully crafted band logos from graphic shapes, circuit boards and bits of machines. At about the same time Barney Bubbles produced similarly semi-abstract and illustrative lettering, for bands including Hawkwind and Ian Dury. These designers mark a high point in music design.
The circles for serifs of the second design is a more formal, familiar design, particularly with the same idea (more) recently used for The Times Eureka magazine. Its heavyish weight, extra wide flared serifs and stencil motif make it look super graphic. Stencil-separated its component parts are curvaceous, simple, dramatic shapes.When line-breaked after each syllable this is exaggerated.
It is a classic-ish style typeface, cut-up and amended - Neville Brody would no doubt say ‘remixed’ – an interesting idea for a band melding ideas from different sources.
Making new from something old.
They have potential to be developed further, if the right project comes along…
The collection started in my earlyish-teens as a label-conscious teenager, and as someone who has always been interested in design, in ‘Things’. The bag was a way of remembering the purchase, always an exciting, grown-up moment when you’re young. And I was keeping something I perceived to have value, that would otherwise be thrown away.
I had a phase of being fascinated by a french brand called New Man, this came from seeing their shops when on family holidays to France, from the fact that the clothes were not available in the UK at this time (thus exotic) – and that they had a great logo by Paul Rand which read the same way upside down. As I found out later, this was ‘graphic design’. A yellow rectangular plastic bag with a vertical New Man logo is probably my first one.
So the collection is partly nostalgia, starting out pretty much a catalogue of shops and brands I was infatuated with in my youth – New Man, Henry Cottons, Chipie, Matinique, Emporio Armani. Being quite old it’s also a reminder of shops long gone and branding changes in shops still here.
When I first started the collection it was entirely made up of bags from purchases my brother (who had more money than me), or I had made. Now it is occasionally from my purchases, from donations (everyone I know has been carefully briefed) and from eBay. Collecting is by keystroke nowadays. Easier, less challenging, less fun maybe.
As I get older and have more bags the slower the rate of additions. I’m currently interested in how ‘interesting’ brands, shops etc present themselves, for example, Balenciaga look like they spent 20 minutes doing their basic big logo on basic white card bag. Why? Can they not be bothered? Great clothes, bland bag. Odd.
Note the difference between the pre and post Tom Ford Gucci bags, with faux gold and ribbons giving way to tone on tone dark browns. Miu Miu matched quirky clothes with bubble-wrap bags in blue, pink and grey, Maison Martin Margiela carried on a theme from their hand bags in producing a standard thrift-shaped branded bag in white cotton, D&G a bag in stitch-quilted plastic.
Some are beautiful, in terms of design, printing and material. But that isn’t why I collect them. Beyond this they record the care people, stores, brands take in presenting what they do and how this changes. They are a record of their time, ephemeral, made to be used once to take your shopping home and then thrown away.
So I also like ‘undesigned’ bags, or bags that are unusual in some way, for example brought back shops that are maybe too small to care about branding, or from holidays. So a badly printed Madonna or Snoopy on rough brown card bag from Thailand is just as important and precious as a bells-and-whistles produced luxury brand bag.
As with any ephemera collection to keep and collect something that isn’t made to be kept is more valuable that collecting ‘collectables’. Unless you’re a schoolboy sharing or swapping in the playground, collecting something that’s meant to be collected feels a bit soulless, odd to me.
The collection is eclectic, and focuses on my interests – youth culture, design, fashion, otherwise it would be huge. With the volume of bags available, if as a private collector you attempt a completist approach, the storage space needed would be overwhelming. There are other bag collectors – something I’m not entirely happy about, growing up I was convinced I was the only one - and the V&A had a carrier bag exhibition in its Terence Conran led Boilerhouse space in 1985 and has a collection. I know of no official archive however. This surprises me, as ephemera is everywhere and as such is a fascinating record of social history, a barometer for changes in taste, interests. The Robert Opie Collection, the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, is the closets we’ve got. It is an archive of toys, magazines, technology, travel, souvenirs, fashion and design.
The collection isn’t really about branding, per se. But the rate of slowdown in the amount of bags I collect perhaps demonstrates a difference in the care taken or money spent in producing carrier bags now. The digital and post bank-collapse retail landscape is of course hugely different and hugely challenging. There feels – with exceptions – a greater level of homogeneity nowadays.
Perhaps I just view the 1980s high street of my formative teens with rose-tinted specs. Carrier bags, along with music, clothes, sweets, were all better then.
What to do with them? Their current storage space is in eight under-bed storage boxes. I’ve no idea how to store them, though have a plan to catalogue and photograph them all (big job). At the moment, as the bags are all stacked in boxes it’s a bit tricky to look at them. The problem is, there’s a lot of them and they’re quite big…
Above is a small part of the collection, pics by Salvador Brown for Mother London
Mantis is one of our earliest typefaces, designed in the early 1990s. Designed in one weight, maybe for a client, more likely as a test.
It is a typeface where curves are rendered as multi-angle, bevelled-like shapes, deconstructing them as if applied through a filter, but not quite a curve at low resolution. There is also a suggestion of the facetted edges of jewels.
Though called Mantis to suggest the characteristic shape of that animal, they are more pylon-like. Mantis is modular, the diagonal shape is consistent(ish) throughout the whole typeface, but there is enough scope and movement in the way everything fits together to give the letter shapes difference and individual character. Though curve-less, and so ‘hard’, Mantis’s construction is such that the typeface does seem to have a roundness, specially so from a distance.
Mantis has something of the appearance of the lowish resolution first-attempt fonts of DTP design, from the middish 19980s. Most notably designed by Zuzana Licko of Emigré, these were initially designed as bitmap typefaces with public domain software on computers with a tiny 512k memory and no hard drive. Software and hardware steadily improved.
As Emigré’s Rudy Vanderlans puts it this was a ‘seminal time’ in graphic design. These newly developing and improving digital processes allowed for an unprecedented level of control over type, layout and image, and opened up new possibilities in self-publishing, authorship and entrepreneurism. The striking, hugely influential Emigré magazine documented and drove the new aesthetic. This is particularly evident in Licko’s typefaces, sold through the magazine and online.
Licko’s early designs in particular had a sureness of touch and a real missionary zeal – this determination to produce work that came from the computer’s capabilities outwards. The layout, mixing typefaces, type sizes and line lengths in multi-layered freeform page designs, as Vanderlans says, made each issue a kind of extended type brochure.
As Licko said in an interview from 1986 “My aim is to explore two things. First of all, I like to experiment with what the computer can do with things that were not possible with other technologies. I like to design letter forms that work well with the computer, both for pragmatic reasons and stylistic reasons”. It is this that is important beyond historical precedent, designs makable within the parameters available.
The development from bitmap to outline typefaces was made possible by the PostScript programming language developed by Adobe and made available in 1985, and the release of the font editing software Altsys Fontographer. This made drawing precise and scaleable outline fonts constructed from bézier curves possible.
At this time developments in software outstripped hardware, in terms of memory space, processing power, rasterizers and output devices. So to save precious memory space typefaces used either straight lines, geometric curves or a limited set of easily rendered angles. Simple shapes also meant quicker desk-top printing. Emigré’s Modular and Matrix typefaces are examples of this, being essentially developments and redraws of their earlier bitmap designs, with bézier curves and diagonals, not built from blocks of squares. For example, the serifs for Matrix are at a 45 degree angle, that most easily and smoothly rendered and quickly printed.
The newly available laser printers used in desk top publishing at this time provided a ‘smooth’ printing option as a short-cut automated way of increasing resolution of bitmaps from screen to printer. Early Macintosh computers processed 72 dpi bitmaps into 300 dpi bitmaps for laser printers, giving an approximated rounded effect. Emigré’s Citizen typeface is based on this idea with a blocky diagonal, polygon shape of staggered angled lines instead of the stepping of pixel squares. It is a basic, clumsily and abrasively modern typeface.
Mantis has something of this look, but its design is less arbitrary than Citizen, it it more systematic and simpler in construction. It is more about celebrating this alternative to a curve, giving it a separate, graphic and dramatic logic.
Mantis is available from MyFonts, T26 and Fontworks
This first and second generation of DTP typeface design is discussed on Emigré’s website.
The lettercutting of studios such as Cardozo Kindersley, in materials such as stone and wood, but also glass, metal and paper, is often commemorative. Often for headstones and plaques, in architecture or architectural materials. Built to last. Lettering is drawn to be cut, carved or chiselled, fit for purpose – for its method of making and appropriate to its message. It’s a big thing to commission, as I sadly know, and a big thing on their part to undertake.
Where digital technology has simplified and sped up a process that remains layered and complex, cutting out of stone or wood suggests something slow, contemplative, spiritual. Designing by computer removes or separates the connection between drawing and the design process, lettercutting celebrates this.
Typeface designers draw of course, sketch initial designs, sometimes draw or write letters entirely on paper and scan and digitise these as finished artwork. I don’t.
Lettercutting has a direct connection with the past. it has a particular resonance, it is made with care and the joy of craft. Its permanence, its expertise, the materials used, are all expensive, feel special and important. Unlike the more ephemeral ink or paint-craft of signwriting this permanence is what protects it from being overtaken by readymade, automated or mechanical alternatives. Studios are small, few in number but thankfully still here.
Letterforms aren’t all the portentous serif capitals you would expect, there are beautiful seriffed italics and various versions of humanist types, often stretched and ligature-heavy. There is an obvious, linear connection with the past which adds to the resonance of the work but a fresh, breathing energy.
There’s a logic to the shape of carved type, dependent on the process of carving, the angle of hand and arm. So carved type looks different to brushed or written, the differences in material requiring subtleties of difference in craft skills. Drawn type is freed of this logic so is defined more solely and specifically by idea. Computer-drawn type more so, with ideas of craft being skewed by the digital-automated short-cuts of its process. The huge increase in availability fonts that this has allowed require new designs to be ‘new’. To express new ideas, difference, relevance.
Of course lettershape is defined by historical precedent and the needs of its use (I’m paraphrasing).
There is something skeuomorphic about too close a rendering of an historical model or precedent. By skeuomorphic I mean inappropriate, irrelevant. A layering or veneer of old onto something newly made, unnecessary to its function. Its styling a copy, so inappropriate, or unnecessary to its method of manufacture, irrelevant to its time. They are renderings, or pictures of old things, not new things in their own right.
As with the leather or brushed steel textures of the Mac interface, so with the rounded serif of another ‘new’ Garamond or correct angle of letter terminal of the latest ‘new’ mid-century Grot.
Though readability requires familiarity of lettershape (amongst other things, I’m paraphrasing again), this can be expressed in new and different ways. Gerard Unger’s Swift is an example of this, and in the particularly challenging field of designing type for newspaper use. There are many others.
There are many ways to be modern, not just the generic and over-used model of geometric, modular or rounded, or angular technical. Advances in the typographic capabilities of web browsers and increases in screen sharpness allow for greater choices for the ever-expanding needs of digital media.
Mixing ideas or inspirations brings something new. Noah’s basic shape, heavyish weight and its use of angled letter-endings and sharp connection between its internal shapes suggest carving, as if the letters are made to be inscribed. It is very loose in its expression of these ideas, there are other reference points too. It has references from historical models but is really a mix of our typefaces Harbour and Asperity, with their bold, simple, graphic and angular letter shapes.
Noah is available two weights – Medium and Bold – and in three versions; Text, which has a standard relationship between upper and lower case; Unicase, which has upper and lowercase sitting inside the same top and bottom letter height, ascenders and descenders and accented characters included; Upper Lower, where the uppercase is a stretched, enlarged lower case. In doing this it borrows an idea from our typeface Ano, so the cross-referencing with other Alias typefaces continues.
The same character exists in several different forms, with lower case characters having two or three levels of stretch or shifts of position along the baseline. This allows plenty of scope in word shapes, for words as expressive, decorative objects.
While the medium weight has a Berthold Wolpe-ish Anglo/Germanic feel (he moved from Germany to England to flee the Nazis), the Bold weight has something of Tom Carnase’s Grouch. Grouch is a kind of remixed 1970s heavy weight of Caslon. Carnase is a master of bold, idiosyncratic and expressive interpretations of classic typefaces such as Caslon, Didot or Victorian era Fat Face style headline types. He is also a phenomenally good hand letterer, working with Herb Lubalin on some of his most renowned designs. So it’s an unplanned or unintended but heartfelt acknowledgement of my admiration for his work.
If Noah is essentially a continuation of Harbour, Asperity, Caustic, maybe Text and Klute a bit also, maybe it’s time for a new idea.
Available from FontShop.
There is a healthy stonecutting community. Thanks to Phil Baines for pointing me to memorialsbyartists.co.uk, a site that brings together outstanding practitioners of their craft. If you’re a designer and you bandy that word around about your own work, you should go to that site and see the real thing.
Designed for Another magazine issues 18 and 19, A typeface in three versions, Hard, Soft and Script, three typefaces with the same character shape, where hard is angular, Soft is brushlike, and Script a painted-ish connected design.
We had designed a typographic system for Another Man – a sans serif typeface in multiple versions (discussed elesewhere), and a serif version of that typeface for Another. Our typefaces Aminta and Sylvia are also the same character shape with and without (slab) serifs. This was a different way of exploring the idea of a typographic system, of difference within a framework. Taking a character shape and applying different approaches to their drawing.
Different influences and reference points defined the different directions, though the italic nature of the design shows that they all have versions of writing as a starting point, maybe writing using different tools. Asperity as its name implies is a hard, angular design. If it was written, maybe it might have been with a pen. With Caustic it continues an idea started with Harbour, though Harbour has more of a feeling of its blackletter influences. Where Caustic is extreme and dramatically spiky, Asperity is more pragamatic, rounded in character shape and useable in blocks of text. It’s the ‘Hard’ of this multi-version idea, but not very hard.
It was to be used big in impactful graphic layouts in the magazine, mixing horizontal and vertical type that suggests one of its references – the 1950s book design of Berthold Wolpe (again, as with Caustic). For a fashion magazine it was completely unexpected and separate from the usual design clichés, and that is its success.
If Asperity references pen-drawn and carved lettering, Aspic and Aphalt had a different set of influences, but still based on crafted, calligraphic hand lettering. Aspic takes ideas from the lettering you might find on cereal packets or toilet rolls. Seemingly throwaway or ephemeral, these are skilfully drawn, crafted lettering designs, presumably brush-like and handwritten to signify friendliness, warmth. Aspic has that same swashy character, but is not overly informal. Rounded, but not hand-done.
For Asphalt, Aspic’s brushy forms are connected into an expressive, striking script typeface. It has a feeling of having been painted by a sign writer, with a brush dipped in too much paint as it has a gloopy, fluid but still readable, quality. Signwriting is seemingly a dying craft, but as with other crafts outmoded by technology or the needs of speed and cheapness of delivery, it is highly revered. At its best it is hugely skilful, quirky, idiosyncratic and expressive. It can occasionally be naive and amateurish, but that’s good too. In a retail environment of familiar brands, any opportunity for individual expression should be cherished.
Shown in layout tests for Another magazine issue 19. The large page navigation and oversized vertical and horizontal headline and standfirst typography frame the text and had a real impact on the page, but disrupted photography which had to be positioned and sized accordingly. It was an all-or-nothing layout idea, one which didn’t work if scaled back or watered down.
Asperity, Aspic and Asphalt are available from FontShop
When discussing my type design I often use the words incised, chiselled, or carved. As if the work is like that of the great twentieth century masters like Rudolf Koch or Berthold Wolpe lettering is pen-drawn, or like the work of the Kindersley-Cardozo workshop letters are stone or wood cut. It isn’t, of course.
These forms are strikingly graphic, a big part of their enduring appeal (discussed in the post ‘Not Blackletter’). From our early typefaces such as Text and Harbour through to Klute and the new designs Asperity, Caustic and the forthcoming Noah I have explored computer-designed and drawn versions of these historic-ish forms, trying to capture something of their energy and spirit and present them in a different, new way.
Of course the work of Koch, Wolpe, and others, have a great beauty that is of course from their mastery of calligraphy and understanding of historic forms. This roots them in their time, and can be at the expense of making work that is forward-thinking or progressive. Koch for example had an almost medieval, monk-ish approach to his work and life that was separate to his time and didn’t address issues of newness or modernity.
Berthold Wolpe had an extra, eclectic edge to his design and lettering, particularly in his book cover work for Gollancz and Faber and Faber. This was at least in part loosely-rendered, free and calligraphic but modern, quirky, surprising. Letters are bold and striking, (over)large in daring, sometimes abrasive, luridly coloured layouts that had little to do with the work of his contemporaries and everything to do with using what was available to him in terms of print as well as his skill, his own vision and point of view.
That is a lot to aspire to. Not being a calligrapher, I have a different approach. Being designed entirely on the computer, no attempt is made to match or pastiche handwriting. Even our script types Lily and Anoscript are clearly constructed rather than written, exploring graphic ideas such as combinations of geometric shapes or connections between stresses. They look modern, technical, outside of the current trend for ‘hand drawn’, home made scripts.
I understand the popularity for type that demonstrates the human connection of handcraft or handwriting, but Lily and Anoscript, and my other work, is about something different. My typefaces Asphalt and Aspic are unusual for me in that they are round and brush-ish, more often as with Caustic I tend to explore hard, angular shapes. Alias Didot is a version of historic Didone forms mixed with other references, to be used for headlines but very much a ‘serious’ classical(ish) design.
Where the similarly angular and incised Text and Harbour have a strong modular emphasis with repeating, rotating shapes, Caustic (and Asperity) was to have something closer to the freeness and looseness of calligraphy, an extra energy which was partly from being slanted but also its quirky take on its reference points. These became somewhat skewed or mangled in the design process.
As it is drawn rather than written Caustic has unwritable shapes. Its stresses and combinations are impossible to achieve with writing, but approximately in the style of writing. It is writing-ish but jaggedy, spikey, uncomfortably angular. It looks hand done, but not quite, having something of the constructed forms of signwriting.
Different versions of the f and g explore alternative semi-calligraphic forms. In the upper case various characters have thick bar-like diagonals, or versions of more traditional thick and thin stresses.
Astral America is an unpublished publication, a collaboration between David James and fashion stylist/consultant David Bradshaw. It was to riff on their experiences working on fashion projects in scruffily scrub and semi-urban, arse-end America, most notably with photographer Norbert Schoerner for Prada.
The introductory Astral America paragraph (from which the publication got its name) is a beautiful piece of writing from Jean Baudrillard. He gives this hard, bleak landscape a beauty and an exciting, heroic quality. It was this that the publication at least partly wanted to express and explore.
Vacant was based on poster lettering by Armin Hoffman, a master of lettering design of myriad styles, always matching design to content. It is interesting that, though drawn in 1999, Vacant is of a style that is very much the zeitgeist in type design. Driven by designers such as Karl Nawrot and Walter Warton of Voidwreck, this is sans serif type, deconstructed and amended with geometric shape and line to give a bold, industrial, abstracted graphic emphasis. Types are simply constructed, suggesting something tribal, raw or primitive. With Vacant, without the zeitgeist, stark character shape matched stark landscape.
In type design, context is all. What looks clumsy or arbitrary in one context becomes boldly graphic or iconic in another. The Vacant typeface was drawn specifically for use in Astral America. It is untypographic, sparse, somewhat brutal, angular like roads, pylons, basic architecture like silo or garage. Shapes and angles repeat, but outside the comfortable mathematical modular system of a grid. In the layout it achieves an almost elegance, like the brutalist concrete architecture of London’s South Bank.
Through tight setting and line spacing and use of empty space the typography achieves the look of an American roadmap or urban-scape, viewed from above. This is effect particularly demonstrated on the front cover, as the Astral America type wraps around the front and back cover, only a partial semi-abstract segment is visible at a time.
The small centred credit text underneath the headline typography suggests a caption to an artwork, as if the large type pages are some kind of abstract angular artwork, Donald Judd meets Christopher Wool maybe.
Vacant is otherwise quite difficult to use, being somewhat unforgiving, limited by its focussed, narrow concept. It was designed to be used in very specific way, expressing a particular idea. The butting, connected letters make single, spikey shapes out of words, not illegible but definitely challenging to read. The effect is striking and the aim at least is to make that challenge engaging and worthwhile, with an aesthetic that reinforces its content.
When used more open spaced to allow space between letters in a standard way, and therefore more useable and legible, it becomes clumsy, ill-considered, half-hearted somehow and stripped of its impact. It becomes another unthought about, uncrafted typeface, of which there are many. Drawn without curves so easily drawn.
Craft, in the sense of expertise and finesse in drawing, isn’t the sole indicator of successful design. This is even true of type design, and certainly not without being driven by original, progressive idea. The design and use of Vacant in Astral America was about the connectivity between lettering, page layout and content.
Though made available for sale, it was never going to be widely used, and a type we’ve only rarely seen in use and not used well.