Am I a typographer and why should you care?

I’ll begin with a quote:

“Look how clever I am, I can make letters out of lots of things. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t communicate effectively or add to the meaning being communicated, because I am being ‘experimental’. Some of Ward’s stuff does work, but alot of it is, to someone who is obsessive about type and how it works, not really typography”.

2010-08-20 14:59:00

OK. You live by the blogs, you die by the blogs. If you put your work out there online and bang the drum about it, there’ll be someone willing to take potshots at it sooner or later. I certainly don’t read everything that’s written about me however, and if I’m honest I pay very little attention to that which I do. If I’m equally honest, I was delighted about these comments and, in particular, Patrick Burgoyne’s retort about my having reached ‘the hating point’…

But the above quote struck a chord with me. Not in a hurtful way – I couldn’t really care less about what someone who’s not willing to share their name or a link to their work has to say about my stuff – but only because it’s something I’ve been contemplating myself lately: am I even a typographer anymore? And was I ever?

It’s something I was always happy to have on my business card. And, yes, all of my work is built around the use of words and letters, but really is it any more so than the work of any other designer? Type is really just one of the building blocks of design. Images being another and a lovely grid being the mortar that binds the two together, allowing infinite combinations thereof. That I choose to ignore the image part of the equation, or rather, consider the type AS the image (Words are Pictures, it’s all in the name…) is by the by.

At the recent OFFF Festival in Paris I referred to myself as more of a storyteller. This was particularly in reference to my work setting headlines in magazines and advertisements. I use as few words as possible (or as many as I am given) to tell as much of a story as I can by altering their position, weighting and construction. Sometimes the type requires no embellishment at all and just a clever line break will suffice, but sometimes you need the type to work that much harder.

Is this the work of a typographer? Possibly, but allow me to build my case.

A lot of my work, certainly over the last year, has moved away from, what you might consider ‘traditional typography’. Traditional typography I take to be describing ‘movable type’ – be that in letterpress form or in InDesign.

I believe I’ve paid my dues to the old school. I spent the first few years of my career hunched over an Adana letterpress in my spare bedroom creating printed work for The New York Times, The Economist and a variety of other clients. My old type tutor Henrik Kubel (of A2 Graphics) believed a grounding in this area to be important for all designers. That if you had to manually re-set and compose each paragraph by letter, that you’d make better decisions before doing so rather than just throwing stuff around in a text box onscreen until it kind of works. I couldn’t agree more.

Fast forward a few years and yes, my work has moved off the composing stick. But I still believe that everything I do has a point and is conceptually and stylistically relevant. Case in point Discover magazine. Discover is a science journal and wanted a scientific image that reflected advancements made in the last 30 years. NASA discovered ferrofluids in the late 1960’s but their application and use in the day-to-day has only come around in the last 20 or so years. It was for that reason that Frank and I decided to try and manipulate it into letterforms. As a bonus, it looks way cool.

One of the main reasons I decided to move into this kind of real-world type-based design (let’s not get ahead of ourselves and call it typography just yet) is due to the explosion of interest in typographic illustration over the last few years. I mean it really kicked off didn’t it?

Consider my agents, Debut Art. When I signed with them 3 or so years ago now, maybe a little longer, the typographic contingent on their books consisted essentially just myself and Alan Kitching. I’d been signed on because of work for GQ and suchlike. I did letterpress, yes, but I also had other strings to my bow.

And then they signed Alex Trochut. And a little while afterwards his other half Marta Cerda. Before long, we were joined by Yehrin Tong, Oscar Wilson and Sean Freeman. All great illustrators in their own right – and each, in turn, has spawned their own imitators within the industry. Honestly though, I was feeling a little crowded out. I mean, great to be in such good company but, with each new artist, the demand for my own 2D work, I felt, was being chipped away.

For that reason, I decided to move away from ‘traditional’ typography and into this real world, tangible type that I am beginning to be known for. It began, I suppose, with my collaboration with Jason Tozer (You Blow Me Away) and has led to some really interesting work since. I don’t think, over the last 18 months since I began working in this way, I could ever be accused of just doing things for the sake of it. The CR Annual cover was a reaction to the increasingly large set-ups of the previous year’s covers, so I went small. The CR subs page brief was ‘Make Creative Review a part of your world’. So we did just that. Covered the wall and floor of Jason’s flat with the CR logo. The Hot 100 logo for Maxim is some flaming type – it’s hot, see? The Lexus campaign using projected type was all about moving forward and forward thinking; I used projecting light as a metaphor to illustrate this. I don’t think I need to justify my entire portfolio of work here, but I honestly don’t believe in doing things for the sake of it and only ever attempt to treat type in a way that is conceptually relevant.

Forcing a concept or style onto a headline. THAT would be incorrect. That would then make it an illustration, as opposed to a piece of typography. I have fought against having a ‘style’ for as long as I have been working and believe that my style is in my approach. And that is something that, thanks to my new path, has become extremely hard to immitate.

So, does it matter that much of this work doesn’t use a recognisable typeface? I’d like to argue not.  Let’s consider one possible definition I found for typography:

Typography [taɪˈpɒgrəfɪ]: noun
1. The design, theory, and art of creating characters for printing.

Does my work meet these criteria? Have I designed and created characters for printing? I believe I have. They might not fit the serif/sans-serif etc model traditionally associated with type design but these words and numbers are as much ‘type’ as my drawers full of 6pt Garamond that are languishing in storage back in London. And they were all printed. On paper.

Does my work meet our friend B’s criteria for what constitutes typography? I can only hope that he/she will read this post and offer up what exactly they may be.

OK. I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

I believe I am a typographer as far as I’m concerned and hope I’ve made my case well enough that you agree. I may not squint at bezier curves (that often) and spend days creating kerning pairs but I believe that what do is just as relevant. I have the utmost of respect for type designers who can create beautiful, original typefaces adhering to grids which I would never have conceived but I have chosen to focus my efforts in a different area of the art.

All of which answers the first half of the title, but to continue – why should any of this matter to anyone else.

I’d like to return to the CR blog. We all know that the internet has made it easy to voice your opinion or disagree with something you see and for that we should all be thankful. But the small-mindedness of a couple of the comments, however, are a worry. These are people working in the creative industries who are obviously clued up enough to be reading the CR blog. And yet, still you find comments like:

I just don’t see the point…

Once again this is a perfect example of an advertising creative/designer ripping off ideas from the fine art world.

Why, oh why, oh why.
Right that’s it, I’m just off to create a number two.

…and the opener from ‘B’ just don’t sound like people I’d particularly like to work with.

Here’s the thing. It is 2010. As well as giving the above people the opportunity to voice their dissent, the internet made my collaborations with specialists like Jason Tozer, Frank Conrad and Cedrik Kiefer (amongst others) as easy as tapping up an email. I approach these people with a concept or an opportunity and they chose to work with me. It’s awesome.

I am a typographer, and I bring with me my knowledge of legibility, of design, of hierarchy of message and the people I choose to work with appreciate that as much as I appreciate the knowledge behind specific conditions required to encourage the growth of chinese hamster ovaries.

I am obsessive about type and how it works. Of equal interest to me is the mind’s ability to make the cognitive leaps required to decide that a triangular arrangement of cells is an A or that a semi-circle is a C and the opportunities to cross-pollinate my typographic ideas with those from other disciplines are too delicious to ignore. And I would urge those in all areas of the creative disciplines to do the same; to broaden your horizons and don’t feel the need to limit yourself because an idea might not fit within the remit of your acknowledged role. Get in touch with the people you need to and make it happen.

Like one big love in.

I’m aware that I’m not alone in this opinion, but  as long as people in the creative industries ‘don’t see the point’ in working with other people to create interesting new work then I’ll just keep harping on about it.

My next major project may surprise those that appreciate and detract from my work alike. It’s a solo affair and actually is much closer to what may be deemed ‘traditional typography’ than anything I’ve created in the last couple of years. Black and white, printed typography. And there’s a lot of it. I’m looking forward to sharing it soon enough.

I’d love to hear anyone’s comments on the above (or at least, anyone that could be bothered to read it).

– c