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Of all the design disciplines, typography is the most commonplace and the least celebrated. We are so exposed to type that we can become oblivious to its impact. But it’s also often perceived as impenetrably nerdy – the work of fussy perfectionists obsessing over how long the tail of a “g” should be. When lampooning designers, a hard kick in the kerning is invariably effective.
Graphic designer Sarah Hyndman is on a mission to make typography more appealing. Last year she launched Type Tasting, which holds typography appreciation classes based on the idea of wine tasting – “an accessible introduction exploring it in everyday language”. She also leads “type safaris” around Dalston in east London, an area she believes tells us a lot about contemporary British typography.
“I have seen Dalston go through this crazy and amazing change over the past few years. One of the big things I noticed was the signage and how that has been part of the barometer of change, how it reflects the DNA of old Dalston and the new Dalston and the mix of it all.”
On her tours Hyndman points out the different tiers of typography in London’s trendiest enclave. There’s the transport signage, with buses and stations emblazoned in Johnston Sans; the visual language brought in with the arrival of a design-savvy community; and then the old multicultural Dalston vernacular. “That reflects the area much more,” says Hyndman. “Loads of the kebab shops are in [American typeface designer] Carol Twombly’s Lithos, which looks like pantomime Greek type, and the doughnut shop has Bauhaus on it just because it looks around and doughnut-y. Here you’re getting away from any intellectual references and associations and into what feels right.”
Dan Rhatigan, type director at the international Monotype Studio, agrees that contemporary British typography is defined by its eclectic influences. “Britain has such a vibrant and international design community that there are so many strands of culture feeding into us. Designers are going to take bits and pieces from all over.”
Rhatigan also sees an ongoing relationship with Britain’s typographic past. “There is a real sense of historical British type style, like the Gills and Clarendons and that aesthetic of 19th-century wood type that is very warmly received by a lot of people,” he says. Since older typefaces are functional and readable, they become a “great counterpoint to the very experimental and expressive typography that does push the boundaries”, he adds. “You can take a lot of chances with typography by tying it to a structure of what people expect. It’s an area where the past is very much alive at some level.”
From Eric Gill (Gill Sans) and Matthew Carter (Georgia and Verdana) to the road signage of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, the 20th century bequeathed a serious British type design heritage. Today, studios such as Dalton Maag and Barnbrook, A2/SW/HK and Colophon bounce off the work of their predecessors to create typefaces for the digitally defined era. Colophon, for example, had huge international success with its Aperçu face. It is aware of the past but not bound by it.
“We don’t believe we consciously compared ourselves to any heritage as we were very young when we started,” founders Anthony Sheret and Edd Harrington explain. “We definitely see ourselves as part of a younger generation of typographers; for us, that involves a continuous dialogue between design and type design.”
In recent years there have been a number of art/design crossover projects in which type plays a central part; think of Why Not Associates and Gordon Young’s Comedy Carpet in Blackpool or Morag Myerscough’s super-bright architectural creations. When David Cameron met Barack Obama in 2010 he gave him a typographic piece by street artist Ben Eine, whose graffiti letters can be found on shop shutters across east London. But it’s misleading to focus solely on the art and design community when taking a nation’s typographic temperature. “We live in an age where everyone has a bit of a relationship with typography because everyone who has a computer has the ability to set type,” Rhatigan points out. “Someone’s mum putting together a flyer for the local message board is thinking, ‘Is this more of a Comic Sans or an Arial message?’”
Rob Alderson is editor-in-chief of design website It’s Nice That (itsnicethat.com)