It's not often I take time out of the studio to do some proper thinking and learning but last week was different. Last week was Type Writing: a one-day symposium organised and curated by Dr Caroline Archer of The Typographic Hub; a Birmingham City University research centre which works to promote the history, theory and practice of typographic design. An event about typography being held on my doorstep? How could I resist?
A total of thirteen speakers from the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, USA and New Zealand explored "the link between typographer and the writer of words", with each person interpreting this deceptively tricky brief in a very different way. This made for a wildly diverse range of topics, presentation styles and trains of thought.
Juliette Kristensen’s take on the subject was immediately intriguing. Entitled “Talking Boards, Writing Machines: Ouija boards, index typewriters and the ventriloquism of agency in the fin-de-siecle”, we were lured back to the late nineteenth century to explore the emergence of the index typewriter. Beautifully complex machines, index typewriters operate by using one hand to select a letter with a pointer while the other hand is used to push a lever, pressing type to the page.
This protracted process was carried out by machinists who acted as intermediaries between the writer and the manifestation of their words. These women (more often than not they were women) were known as amanuenses (meaning servant of the hands), a term also used to refer to spirit mediums who operated Ouija boards; a popular parlour game of the time.
Henrik Birkvig from the School of Media and Journalism in Denmark reveals an obsession with typograms.
In contrast, Henrik Birkvig (above) focused more literally on typography itself, telling us of his search to find the correct name for a design in which one or more letters of a word are replaced with a picture, in an attempt to enhance the word's meaning. Settling on the definition 'typogram' we were drawn into an obsessive yet witty examination of Birkvig's 192-strong typogram collection, including an analysis of which letters are most often modified (the letter 'O' came out at no. 1) and a tally of good vs. bad typogram design – although a picture speaks a thousand words, it has to be the right picture in order for the design to be effective.
And effective design is clearly important to Gregg Bernstein, who's been paying close attention to the things most of us ignore. He's taken it upon himself to redesign the clickwrap End User License Agreement (EULA) used by iTunes, and discussed how use of clear, considered design can turn overwhelming strings of legalese into elegant, useful and understandable pieces of information design. Gregg further highlighted the importance of information design, showing Deborah Adler's award-winning 2005 redesign of Target's medicine bottles (simple labels, now on flat rather than rounded bottles – much easier to read) and the 'hanging chads' fiasco of the US presidential election in 2000.
An accompanying Type Writing exhibition meant that even breaks between lectures were brimming with typographic treats.
Detail of Virginia Woolf Triptych by Nicky McNaney and Tracy Allanson-Smith (Part of the Type Writing exhibition).
So what did I get out of the day?
I learnt loads (including the words 'typogram' and 'clickwrap'), was surprised by the many synchronicities between what was being talked about and my own work, and have subsequently decided that as soon as I can, I need to visit the Amsterdam University Library to get a closer, first-hand glimpse of their vast and impressive-looking typographic collection. (Original Jan Tschichold drawings, anyone? Yes please!)
An original Jan Tschichold sketch of his first published typeface Transito (c.1929) – part of Amsterdam University Library's typographic collection.
As a designer I need to create and produce work for clients but until last week, I'd forgotten the value of simply the taking time to learn new things; unexpected things, unrelated to specific projects. I'd been missing out on the joy of listening to people enthuse about subjects close to their hearts, and I'd lost that sense of freedom you get from simply doing something out of the ordinary.
The biggest impact that Type Writing had on me was perhaps less to do with typography and more about geography. It reminded me that I should get out more; put some extra "out of office" into my working life.
One of the Sentimental Journey series; a collaboration between New Zealand artist and illustrator Sarah Maxey, poet Kate Camp and typographer Kris Sowersby.
I'd like to thank each and every one of the speakers for reminding this designer what 'inspiration' means.
Steven McCarthy (University of Minnesota); Juliette Kristensen (University of Kingston); John Neilson (Letter-carver); Mathieu Lommen (University of Amsterdam);
Kathryn Moore (Landscape architect and writer) and Alex Lazarou (Designer); Henrik Birkvig (School of Media and Journalism, Denmark); Jessica Glaser (University of Wolverhampton); Ben Waddington (Local historian); Sarah Maxey (Artist and illustrator); Gregg Bernstein (Georgia State University); Rachel Marsden (Artist); Borja Goyarrola (Will Alsop RMJM) and Type Writing organiser, Dr Caroline Archer.
Keep an eye on www.typographichub.org where all the Type Writing presentations will be uploaded (in the Articles section, I think) over the coming weeks.
A professionally tweaked and condensed version of this article appears on the website of Eye, the international journal of graphic design.