New Faces (Chapter Four: London)
The fourth chapter of Emily King’s doctoral thesis which focuses on typeface design in the United States, England and the Netherlands between 1987 and 1997.
A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999)
(ii) Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models
Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene
Mapping Contemporary Type Design
Chapter Two: The West Coast
Chapter Three: The East Coast
Chapter Four: London
Chapter Five: The Netherlands
List of Interviews
Chapter Four: London
This chapter sets out to explore recent London-based type design activity in the context of the culture that has evolved around graphic design and typography since the expansion of London’s media industry in the 1960s. What has happened in London has been informed by and responded to national and international developments, but this section of the thesis will concentrate upon English metropolitan type design in order to place a strand of current practice within a specific, historically-evolved, cultural setting. Consistent with the thesis’s focus upon type design since the late 1980s, this chapter is examining the work of the last decade that has been prompted by the technological changes that have been described in previous chapters. These changes will be acknowledged as having had a important influence upon the scope of recent type design. Recognising technological innovation as significant, it will be argued that the nature of this design activity can only be properly read as the outcome of a particular cultural locale.
The spectrum of current London-based type design practice is very broad and this is reflected in the range of work that has been produced by the designers that are the focus of this chapter. In spite of this variety of output, each of these designers can nonetheless be placed within a specific local cultural history: that of the network of small creative industries that has grown up around London’s advertising business since it was established in the post-war period. This background, which will be mapped out later in the chapter, is quite distinct from that associated with traditional typographic culture, a culture which has concentrated on the book, with the occasional glance toward the newspaper. The type designers addressed in this chapter are not ignorant of typographic history or traditional typographic concerns, and in some cases are extremely engaged with these kinds of issues, but their commercial and cultural roots are within the advertising industry.
All the designers discussed in this chapter have worked either independently or in small groups. Immediately, this would appear to be the outcome of new technologies that have facilitated this sort of working practice. Undeniably technology has played an important role in determining current forms of design practice, but in many cases London-based designers pre-empted technological developments, setting themselves up as independents well before new technologies encouraged them to do so. London’s advertising industry has supported a number of small-scale creative businesses ever since it took off in the post-war period. This might be because it is to the advantage of the advertising companies to buy in creative talent when it is needed rather than paying its wages. Whatever the economics, members of this creative community, many of them located in small studios in Soho, an area that has been the hub of London’s media activity since the early 1970s, appear well suited to the situation. London’s tradition of small-scale creative activity was given a boost during the punk period when it suddenly seemed possible for young people to create their own culture (this is a moment that will be examined in more detail later in this chapter). Parallel with the surge of independent record labels since the late 1970s, there was also an increase in the number of independent designers or small design groups operating in the capital. The trend toward independent activity will be a theme of this section.
While this thesis’s sample of London-based type designers are far from uniform, they could not be said to represent the full extent of type design practice within Britain. Largely designing typefaces for the purpose of promoting products or companies, they do not address the full range of issues that might concern the typographer. Other British type designers who are engaged in very different sets of typographic issues include Richard Southall who has designed typefaces for use on the screens of air traffic controllers, an exercise in dealing with extreme technological restraints. Southall has pursued modes of practice that refer to strands of typographic discourse other than those associated with the London based graphic and typographic scene. The purpose of discussing the given set of designers is to map a set of practices that can properly be viewed as the outcome of an interaction between recent technological change and longer-term cultural and commercial developments.
The central case studies of this thesis will be the designers David Quay and Freda Sack, who work in partnership as The Foundry, and Jonathan Barnbrook, a graphic designer who maintains an independent digital foundry called Virus. The typographic enterprises of both Sack and Quay and that of Barnbrook can be viewed as part of the small-scale creative industry that has grown up around London’s advertising business. Despite all working from studios located within a single block on Soho’s Archer Street, Barnbrook, and Quay and Sack’s relationships to the graphic and typographic culture that has been nurtured within the capital are very different. They were chosen here as case studies because, while they can be located on the same commercial/creative map, they have claimed very different territories.
A large part of the distance between the designers of The Foundry and Jonathan Barnbrook is generational. While David Quay (born 1948) and Freda Sack (born 1951) began their careers in the years when hot metal was giving way to photosetting, Jonathan Barnbrook (born 1966) is decidedly of the digital age. The gap between these designers can be conceived of as that between certain technological waves, but it cannot be fully accounted for in those terms. Not just a matter of their relationships to technology, these designers place themselves very differently within the culture of their craft. In spite of their commercial ties with London’s advertising and media world, Quay and Sack are keen to locate themselves in an established, professionalised typographic culture. As co-chairs of the Society of Typographic Designers (STD) they have been active in its perpetuation. Through the sponsorship of an annual lecture series and various professional and student competitions, the STD strives toward the maintenance of professional standards. In contrast, Jonathan Barnbrook has had little to do with that kind of organised typographic scene. His engagement with typographic history and culture has been of a more idiosyncratic kind, which will be explored in more detail later in this chaper.
Significant within the project of David Quay and Freda Sack is a disparity between their actual commercial roots and the culture with which they identify. Described below, the commercial heritage of The Foundry lies with the emergence of small-scale typographic concerns in the wake of the widespread adoption of photo-typesetting in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is a history that Quay and Sack choose to ignore, associating themselves instead with the kind of unimpeachable typographic standards that prevailed in earlier decades. As a result, placing the output of Quay and Sack in context, both commercially and intellectually, demands an acknowledgement of the sweep of British post-war typographic history.
British typographic tradition and the challenges of European modernism and American pop
The concept of unassailable typographic value is very much bound up with companies such as Monotype. At the high point of their influence, during the period when hot-metal typesetting was employed for printed material of any significance, the manufacturers of the typesetting machines were very powerful in their ability to promote their understanding of typographic worth. The influence of these companies was so significant that the construction of value that they promoted remains current even while many of the firms have gone out of business. Writers such as Lawrence Wallis, who railed against the “ravages” of “new technology” in his 1993 book Typomania, have based their polemic upon the notion of typographic hierarchy established by the hot metal manufacturers over the course of this century.
The critical influence of the hot metal manufacturers survives, and the type designs released by Monotype in the interwar and immediate post-war years are still thought of as exemplary British designs. Alongside Monotype’s more traditional, historically-based faces such as Centaur, Bembo and Dante, the company’s experimental face from that period, Gill Sans, has also entered a national typographic canon. Released in 1927, Gill Sans was originally a highly controversial addition to Monotype’s Library, but in the post-war years association with the company outweighed any controversy and the face became widely accepted within the typographic community. Now a long-standing Monotype best-seller, the West Coast designer Barry Deck has argued that “it constitutes [Britain’s] national type”.
Whatever the remaining influence of the hot metal manufacturers, it appears perverse that the designers at The Foundry have self-consciously allied themselves to this kind of notion of unimpeachable typographic value. Beginning their careers well after the heyday of that technique, both Quay and Sack have been involved in promoting methods of typesetting which threatened directly the hegemony of those companies. In supporting the idea of absolute typographic value, Quay and Sack appear to have harnessed themselves to a cultural hierarchy which was effectively overturned by the expansion of an industry of which they are actually a part.
Examining the uptake of new typographic techniques and idioms in Britain during the media explosion of the 1950s and 1960s, it is important to remember that it was never the case that any single set of typographic values determined the texture of the British typographic environment. Even at the high point of the influence of companies such as Monotype, when hot metal was the method by which books and newspapers were reproduced, working alongside the large manufacturers were a number of small-scale jobbing printers who offered a wide range of ornamental display faces. These jobbing printers must have been enormously significant in determining the visual language of the nation, but their activities have nonetheless been very much marginalised within histories of type design and typography. This is partly due to the influence of men like Stanley Morison (the influential type director of Monotype who managed to combine radical left-wing views with rampant elitism) and John Dreyfus (a book typographer and Stanley Morison’s successor). These looming figures of mid twentieth- century typography would have had no problem in drawing a distinction between legitimate typography and the creation of ephemeral printed material.
As has already been intimated, however authoritative and assured the views of influential individuals such as Dreyfus and Morison, the typographic pecking order was not to remain unchallenged. The vast explosion in printed media that occurred from the late 1950s onwards combined with concurrent changes in typesetting technologies led to dramatic developments in Britain’s typographic environment in a very short time. After the 1950s, the use of photographic typesetting systems became increasingly widespread. These systems allowed more flexibility in typesetting than their hot metal counterparts and it was no longer possible for the hot-metal machine manufacturers effectively to dictate typographic norms. The established rules of typography were further threatened by the introduction of Letraset type. First released in 1956, this dry transfer typesetting system became widely used in the 1960s and brought a huge range of display typefaces into mainstream use. As a result of these developments, Monotype’s claim over typographic authority came under threat. Striking graphic modes of type design and typography were no longer kept within the small-scale confines of the jobbing printer: these modes even began to invade the broadsheet newspaper, an area where traditional typographic values had once been strongly upheld.
In the early 1960s, as part of a rapid expansion in the production of popular, glossy printed material, both The Sunday Times and the Observer began to produce colour supplements. Not only breaking with the sober conventions of newspaper typography, these magazines also reflected a departure from many of the cultural assumptions that had been associated with those styles. The first issue of the The Sunday Times magazine clearly reflected the mood of the period. Brightly coloured and typographically various, an article in the magazine on the “People of the 60s” included profiles of an artist, a fashion designer and a footballer, a juxtaposition which amounted to a complete disavowal of values that had prevailed only a decade earlier. Also in the early 1960s, the formats of magazines such as Queen and Man About Town were radically overhauled. The layouts of these publications became increasingly image-led and conventional, regularly composed blocks of text appeared under threat. Magazines such as these were aiming simultaneously to challenge typographic and social mores.
Studying through the 1950s and starting his career in 1959, the graphic designer Ken Garland has offered an overview of this period. Reflecting on his years as a student, Garland recalled the enthusiastic uptake of graphic models from America and Europe at the Royal College of Art in the 1950s. Encouraged by the buoyant economic circumstances of the period, Ken Garland established a freelance practice three years after leaving the RCA. He has recounted his motive, and that of his design and art directing colleagues who had embarked on similar projects, as “a determination to raise existing design standards, which did not compare well with the US and Europe – or so we thought.” Garland and his peers benefited from the unprecedented level of attention that was being paid to corporate design and advertising in that period and the concomitant amount of money that was being spent in those areas. These designers and art directors exploited the new found status of their professions and their financial security to challenge established graphic and typographic models, effectively heightening their profile even further.
In his essay ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, Andreas Huyssen argued that the renegotiation of the relationship between mass and elite cultures is characteristic of postmodernism. Taking his cue from Huyssen’s text, the historian Alex Seago has suggested that the cultural shifts of the late 1950s and early 1960s amounted to the emergence of a British form of postmodernism. With a focus upon the Royal College of Art in London, Seago plotted the social and cultural revolution of the period in his book Burning the Box of Beautiful Things. His argument was that, pioneered within the academy, the English adoption of influences as wide as “pre-war Dada, ‘uptown’ American graphics and movie imagery, ‘downtown’ London pop culture, the modernism of Kepes and Moholy-Nagy, Situationism, the jazz and poetry of American Beats, the Tachisme of Mathieu, the rock’n’roll of Elvis and the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock” amounted to the emergence of a national “postmodern sensibility”. According to Seago, British postmodernism was not a reaction to a prevailing modernist ideology, rather it was a route by which to evade “traditional categories of value”, his suggestion being that “from the vantage-point of English culture... pop and postmodern sensibilities are very closely related, if not actually synonymous”.
Whether or not the concept of postmodernism is particularly useful in this context, it is undeniable that over the late 1950s and 1960s there was a profound shift in the cultural mood of the nation. During that time, the British became thoroughly exposed to mass culture. Either imported directly from America, or derived from American models, the vehicles of the mass media became an integral part of national life. Although the (largely youthful) British adopters of American popular culture did negotiate their own relationships with that culture, it remains correct to view the cultural transformations of the 50s and 60s broadly as a process of Americanisation. In spite of resistance to this process amongst conservatives from both the left and the right, from both elitists and populists, it is undeniable that during the period many assumptions about cultural value were overturned.
From the 1960s onwards, typography and graphic design in Britain have been subject to successive waves of influence. For the most part these have been the reverberations of various pop/youth cultures, but, not entirely isolated from these cultures, activities within the design academy have remained significant. The revolution within British visual culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s meant that typographic form could no longer be dictated by convention or by elitist notions of good taste. Since then, printed material, from books, through newspapers, to packaging, have been through frequent redesigns in order to remain in line with contemporary taste. While conservatism has remained a powerful force in British culture, the hegemony of the British conservative has never recovered from the challenges of 30 years ago.
David Quay and Freda Sack
David Quay studied graphic design at Ravensbourne College of Art in the late 1960s. His tutor had been an apprentice to Eric Gill, a connection which might have encouraged Quay to see himself as the inheritor of type design’s established historic culture. Whatever Quay’s views of his own heritage, and in spite of the college’s links with Gill, Ravensbourne itself did not promote an approach to type design which might be closely allied to that of the craftsman. Quay has remembered that during the period in which he attended the school European modernist styles held sway to such an extent that students “were only ever allowed to use Helvetica.” In the 1960s the typographic styles of the European modernists, in parallel with American influenced popular graphic styles (co-existing strands within Seago’s definition of English postmodernism) exerted a powerful influence over British designers keen to break with more traditional styles that had become associated with stuffy conservatism. In receiving an education shot through with the values of continental modernism, Quay came directly under the influence of those who sought to challenge typographic traditionalism.
Quay began his working life employed in a series of small London design studios, immediately becoming part of the network of small creative businesses that had sprung up in London since the early 1960s. Later on Quay became a freelance letterer: early employment included creating lettering for printed publicity and book jackets. Quay’s first complete typefaces were those that he created for Letraset in the early 1980s. These faces, which include the fluid display faces Santa Fe (1983) and Vegas (1984), can be seen as extensions of his lettering work. Quay remained freelance until teaming up with Freda Sack to form The Foundry. Building a successful career first as a freelance letterer and later as a designer for Letraset, Quay’s path has been characteristic of someone working in London after the expansion of the advertising industry in the post-war period.
Freda Sack’s background is more firmly based in the world of commercial type design. After studying typography at Maidstone College of Art and School of Printing, she joined Letraset as a type designer in the early 1970s. Working at Letraset for several years, Sack was mainly concerned with the Letragraphica range. This involved translating ideas for typefaces, largely from graphic designers rather than type designers, into functioning dry transfer fonts. Reviewing the advertising of that period, it becomes apparent that typefaces were being employed as an easy to apply, relatively cheap device of creating a visual impact: a usage which runs counter to any idea of absolute typographic value. For example, in a set of print advertisements designed for the small north London bakery Grodzinski’s in 1968 the message relies entirely upon the use of a range of attention-grabbing headline faces. Offering a large range of extravagant display fonts, Letraset fed the advertising world’s voracious appetite for typographic novelty.
Sack left Letraset briefly to work at the London based photo-typesetting company Fonts, where she was employed to design and craft the 2" film fonts that were used by the company’s proprietary typesetting system. This company, based just off Oxford Street in Central London, was similarly concerned with supplying typefaces to local media businesses. In 1978 Sack returned to Letraset, where she was employed to convert their existing library into digital data to be set upon a newly acquired digital system for manufacturing and storing typefaces. Sack remained at Letraset until teaming up with David Quay in the late 1980s.
As designers of a generation whose career in type pre-dates the emergence of device-independent typesetting, Quay and Sack have worked through a period of extreme technological instability. They have made type in a variety of manners and materials; every change in technology requiring a parallel change in creative and commercial circumstance. Since the late 1980s, these designers have been searching for a mode of practice that will allow them to apply their skills profitably to new type design technologies. While, with a background in lettering, David Quay might seem more allied than Sack to some kind of craft-based tradition, both have had careers spent designing alphabets intended to create instant, spectacular visual impact. At the Foundry, Quay and Sack have continued to serve a network of advertising and design agencies, many of which are based near them in the centre of London. While they might have become digital and repackaged themselves as a foundry (a term which reeks of typographic traditionalism), their mode of practice is in many ways similar to that of the earlier years of their careers.
In 1989, David Quay and Freda Sack began working together as partners, designing typefaces as a team. Initially they released these typefaces through an external distributor, but in 1993 they severed ties with the distributor and began to retail direct to their customers. Quay and Sack were quick to take up the opportunities for independent design and distribution offered by new technologies, but it took them several years to realise the extremely slimmed down form of operation that they now believe to be commercially and creatively optimum.
Quay and Sack always design their typefaces on paper, hiring others to realise their completed drawings as functioning digital fonts. For them digitisation is no more than a method of mechanical production and this sets them apart from designers who, more comfortable with mouse and screen, see the realisation of digital form as part of the design process. David Quay is confident that type designers need know nothing of the in and outs of current technology, and has implied that a superiority is embedded in his own lack of interest. He has suggested that type designed in Fontographer is “in some way compromised”, lacking an “edge”. According to Quay, he and Sack are marked out as true type designers because they are “working traditionally with all the sort of skills that type designers have had through the centuries, the hand and eye skills.” This analysis suggests that the value of a typeface is linked to the method by which it was produced, traditional methods and typographic worth becoming intimately bound.
Although it might seem contrary, the emergence of digital typesetting technologies has encouraged Quay and Sack to adopt an apparently more traditionalist approach to type design than was permitted by their previous working modes. David Quay has been keen to make a bid for a place in an elevated, historically continuous typographic culture. Dismissing a large body of the work of his contemporaries as “graphic design exercises, not typefaces” he has been careful to distinguish between the kind of type design undertaken at The Foundry and that at other small-scale digital foundries, many of which are associated with typographic radicalism. Opportunities for independent typeface distribution have allowed Sack and Quay to design typefaces for retail alongside their bread and butter commission work. It is these retail typeface designs, called The Foundry Collection, that have been the focus of the pair’s discussions about absolute typographic value. Insisting that the faces in their retail library are of the highest standard, they have argued that, due to lack of typographic merit, they would not “add any of the recent corporate typefaces to the Foundry collection.”
This approach might seem disingenuous. In some cases, Quay and Sack appear to have contributed to a typographic environment that they actually claim to despise. For example, The Foundry were in part responsible for the corporate typeface adopted by the National Westminster Bank in 1996. Adding serifs to letterforms based upon Otl Aicher’s Rotis, they arrived at an eerily gothic face which drips sinisterly from Nat West’s printed publicity. Taking liberties with the designs of one of typography’s most notorious dogmats, such a project offended the sensibilities of many of their colleagues. The Nat West typeface is an example of easy-to-apply, instant typographic style that is akin to the manner in which Letraset type was used in an earlier decades.
Possibly the most significant difference between digital custom fonts such as the Nat West Rotis and earlier Letraset or photographic novelties is that they tend to be exclusive to a single customer and can be quickly and cheaply applied to an entire body of printed and promotional material. Digital fonts have become low cost and accessible ingredients within a number of recent identity programmes. No longer just the province of the advertisers, unconventional type design has invaded the corporate world. The demand for quirky, individual typefaces has created a steady source of employment for the designers of The Foundry. In spite of the fact that this kind of design is consistent in nature with Quay and Sack’s earlier designs for companies such as Letraset, and also has provided a significant proportion of their income (about fifty percent), Quay and Sack have been keen to distance themselves from these projects.
The Foundry have considered the market for their retail typefaces to be the discriminating, professional designer and accordingly they have charged relatively high prices for Foundry fonts. Taking out little advertising, they have relied heavily upon reputation and word of mouth. The Foundry have worked within a commercial sphere which has remained sufficiently contained for them to be able reach through “networking” and many of their customers are known to them. Their vision of a contained, professional type world has been challenged to some extent by the sale of certain of their typefaces in the form of multi-user licenses. The outcome of these licenses, which are generally sold to large companies (one recently became part of the redesign of a former nationalised industry), has been to put their typefaces directly into the hands of new users. This has brought a host of problems, such as converting the faces to the PC format, that favoured by the corporate world. Sack and Quay have contracted in a technical adviser to deal with any hitches that might be experienced by their non-professional customers and so have continued to work with the assumption that they are distributing type to their colleagues in the design world.
Amongst the first faces launched by The Foundry was Foundry Sans, released in 1990. This typeface is a humanistic sans serif based upon the proportions of Stempel Garamond. The inspiration behind Foundry Sans was said to be Hans Meyer’s Syntax, a sans serif face based upon Tschichold’s Sabon. The design of sans serif faces which have their roots in seriffed form has been a theme of type design since the late 1980s, with several faces including Dutch designer Martin Majoor’s Scala Sans and his compatriot Luc(as) de Groot’s Thesis falling into this category. That this kind of type design has recently become a preoccupation might be seen as the outcome of a broadly post-modern belief that it is possible to reconcile apparently incompatible historical chapters into a positive whole. While each of these typefaces is based on an existing text face, Quay and Sack’s Foundry Sans exploits the use of contrast within the letterform to a much greater degree than either Scala Sans or Thesis. The result is a typeface that, rather than the cool precision of its continental European counterparts, has an attention-grabbing, graphic quality, a quality that might be associated with advertising typography.
Foundry Sans was first released in four weights: Book, Medium, Demi and Bold. Since then two more weights have been added: light and extra bold. These additions have been responses to perceived demand, the light face being designed to meet the mid-1990s fashion of setting headline faces in very fine type. Catering to design trends, Quay and Sack emphasise their role as professionals within a defined community. Pursuing self-generated typographic enquiries, they do not lose sight of what they expect to sell.
Some of the faces from The Foundry collection have been prompted directly by encouragement from outside the company. For example Foundry Wilson, a typeface which was designed with the help of development money from ITC (who hoped to recoup their investment in sales). An alternative transitional face to the well known Baskerville, David Quay has described Foundry Wilson as “an enlightened face”, suggesting that while it is “almost modern” it retains a sense of the “traditional.” Taking as their source a typeface designed by an eighteenth-century Scottish type founder, Alexander Wilson, Quay and Sack explored archives in Edinburgh and London in pursuit of their digital interpretation. The result, a “lovingly interpreted” face “for today’s discerning designers,” meets the need of many contemporary designers to be classical with a twist, the desire to be just a shade obscurantist. In a period when typefaces have flooded onto the market, typographic one-upmanship has thrived.
Amongst the typefaces within the Foundry collection, it could be argued that those most akin to Quay and Sack’s previous work for Letraset are the fonts in their Architype collection. These typefaces were intended as outings into typographic history, but with them Quay and Sack have adapted the experimental letterforms derived by various early twentieth-century modernists into ready-to-wear typographic style. Developing incomplete alphabets into comprehensive digital character sets, included in the first volume of Architypes are Architype Tschichold, Architype Bayer and Architype Renner and in the second are Architype Albers and Architype Schwitters.
Discussing the collection of faces in an article in Eye magazine, Quay and Sack pointed out that, like their Architypes, a large part of experimental typography from the early 1990s owed a great deal to the work of the early modernists. They argued that, while other designs were merely concerned with “style”, their typefaces engaged fully with the “philosophy” behind early modern form. Their contention was that the Architypes are “adding to the dialogue” that ought to take place around revival of interwar modernist form. On David Quay’s part, the desire to deal with the ideology of early modernism might have arisen from his education. Attending Ravensbourne in the 1960s, Quay was fed a heavy dose of the modernist orthodoxy. He has fully subscribed to the notion that modernist designers (of both the interwar and postwar generation) were trying to “efface their own ego,” suggesting of the designer Frutiger “that his sole aim was to design at the service of the community”. Reading Frutiger’s Type, Sign, Symbol, it is hard to imagine the author as a self-effacing individual, and were the design press still not in its infancy at the height of his career, he might have achieved the high profile of a Brody or a Carson. The apparent ego of Frutiger aside, it is common amongst Quay’s generation to criticise contemporary designers for being “more concerned with pushing themselves forward than producing something for the client or for the reader.”
Whatever Quay’s motivation for producing the Architypes, whether or not these typefaces do engage with modernist philosophy in any significant sense is arguable. In response to Quay and Sack’s Eye article, the typographer and critic Robin Kinross pointed out that in rendering early modern letterforms into working digital alphabets, the designers at The Foundry have made interventions that contravene directly the intentions behind those faces. For example, the Architype version of Tschichold’s alphabet, an adaptation of a proposal for a face that was first published in Typographische Mitteilungen in 1930, adds characters such as ‘k’ and ‘y’ to the original set. These characters were deliberately excluded from Tschichold’s scheme because the face was intended to be employed in combination with a new phonetic system of spelling. By slotting them in, The Foundry have failed to deal with the radical ambition behind the face. As Kinross remarked, “it is like adding a pitched roof to the Bauhaus buildings.”
Kinross suggested that the fault with the Architypes arose because, rather than dealing with “a context of human need and use”, the designers slipped into “empty formal play.” The faces reveal a sentimental nostalgia for a time when it was “believed that art and design could help build a better society”, but do not tackle the problems that pursuing such a belief might raise for the contemporary designer. Continuing to nurture a faith in the ideals of modernism, Kinross is disappointed with the Architype collection, and given Quay and Sack’s own high-minded justification of the project, his criticisms seem justified. Taking a less morally-elevated position, the Architypes could be deemed a successful collection of stylish, novel typographic form.
Quay has distinguished between the ephemerality of many contemporary typefaces (“here today, gone tomorrow”) and the work of The Foundry. Believing that he occupies a position at “the other end of the spectrum” from designers of what could be seen as throwaway display faces (his example being David Carson), he has justified that claim by reference to his well-honed collection of “the sort of skills that type designers have had through the centuries.” Quay’s bid for typographic permanence might seem a little odd in light of the fact that, at one point in his career, he designed over 32 Letraset typefaces in two years. The alliance between traditionally acquired typographic skills and profundity of typographic contribution has never been self-evident. Quay’s claim can be best understood as part of the intergenerational and international battle between graphic designers, which has set up the designers who adopted the Mac against those that grew up with the machine.
Working amongst the professional design community in London’s Soho, Quay and Sack’s venture into independent type design with The Foundry can be seen as continuous with the rest of their type design career. While the opportunity to create their own digital type library has prompted them to invoke the concepts of unchanging typographic value, they are in fact still catering for the appetite for typographic novelty that they served at the outset of their careers through companies such as Letraset.
Quay and Sack are not unique. Roughly their contemporary, Adrian Williams (born 1950) shares much of their typographic background. Beginning his career in type in London in the late 1960s, Williams also witnessed a bewildering parade of typesetting technologies. Working within a series of the small photo-typesetting companies that emerged in London in the early 1970s, he acquired the skill of crafting the stencils that were used in the film setting process. Using those techniques, Williams catered to the voracious demand for novel typographic style that had emerged in the 1970s. Visual Graphic Corporation (VGC), the major manufacturer of photo-setting systems, had failed to keep up with the demand for new typefaces. As a result small typesetting companies were both putting together their own systems and designing the faces to be used on those systems. At his company Mushroom, Williams was designing faces to be used on a home-made typesetter that was based loosely upon the VGC model. At its better trodden end, the Mushroom collection overlapped heavily with the libraries offered by other similar photo-typesetters, but within these small scale type design operations there was also a great deal of room for idiosyncrasy.
Through the 70s and into the 80s, Williams worked with a number of photographic and early digital typesetting systems. In the late 1970s, he and several of his colleagues were invited to Germany by René Kerfante in order to translate their library into a photographic format. That a group of British designers were employed to undertake such a task is a reflection upon the nature of London’s type design community in the mid-1970s. Generally engaged in small-scale, low-key advertising projects, their wages were a fraction of that of their German counterparts. Williams and his colleagues provided the German firm with a source of cheap skilled labour.
In 1986 Williams acquired a Macintosh and taught himself to craft Ikarus versions of his fonts. Since that time, trading under the name Club Type, he has been attempting to find a way to market digital type. In 1996, Williams launched a Club Type website in an attempt to bypass font distributing networks and reach his customers directly, but his ability to negotiate new technologies has not been the foundation of a thriving business. Working in isolation in Surrey, Williams’s Club Type has lacked the professional customer base of Quay and Sack’s business.
Looking at the Club Type library, a certain naivety in Williams’s approach toward typographic form is evident. For example, the 1987 design Eurocrat is an attempt to reconcile elements of the typographic styles that are associated with each EEC nation into a face of “a characteristically European style.” This face was accompanied by a publicity brochure illustrated with the clichés of European national identity (sausages, clogs, spaghetti, etc.). Intended to anticipate 1992, Eurocrat made a style-led bid to capture a typographic zeitgeist.
Eurocrat was not a great retail success (though it has earned money for Williams as the corporate face of Pentel). If any face actually did seize the cultural current at which Williams was aiming it was probably Eric Spiekermann’s Meta. Nothing like Williams’s melting pot of cultural styles, this face triumphed in expressing a kind of Euro-sensibility in the early 1990s. A theoretically driven synthesis of various models of sans serif type, Meta appeared to lie somewhere between the disciplined Germanic sans serifs and other less severe typographic styles. In the first half of the decade, the face found its way onto everything from signage systems, through cookbooks, to art catalogues.
One of Williams’s more successful digital typefaces has been Sassoon Primary. This typeface emerged from an academic research project based at Reading University conducted by Rosemary Sassoon. Sassoon had attempted to determine which typeface could most successfully promote literacy in children. Researching within schools, she presented subjects with short texts set according to various typographic models and interviewed these subjects to determine their responses. Synthesising her findings, she arrived at a set of letterforms which Adrian Williams then developed into a complete digital typeface. Sassoon Primary has been widely licensed to the manufacturers of educational software and also has been well used within children’s literature. The only typeface of its kind that is backed up by any formal research, Sassoon Primary found a ready market. Sassoon Primary is an exception within the Club Type collection. With a very specific target in mind, in some ways it is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the large part of Williams’s vaguely focused display types.
Anticipating demand for type has became increasingly difficult, with the general type using community becoming ever more broad and more dispersed after the late 1980s. Large-scale operators such as Adobe and FontShop seem to have had some success, but they are backed up by marketing departments which themselves wield significant influence. The broad, coherent community of professional users that Williams has targeted through his designs and promotional material no longer exists. The problems faced by Adrian Williams have been avoided by Quay and Sack, who have chosen to cater to the better defined typographic demands of limited sector of the design world. Reflected by the increasingly narrow audiences for certain forms of typographic style are attitudes to design that could be said to have first emerged in the late 1970s, in the wake of challenges to the notion of a mass market. While type has continued to be used as an instant signifier of style, the ways in which audiences are thought to negotiate typographic meaning are assumed to have become increasingly sophisticated over the last two decades.
Punk and post-punk: the emergence of a post-modern sensibility in British graphic design
In the late 1970s, England was shaken by emergence of punk, a particularly confrontational form of youth culture. The punk outburst of 1976 is thought to have been the product of a synthesis of a number of different factors, amongst the more significant being the culture nurtured within the British art school. In England’s Dreaming, the seminal account of punk by Jon Savage, the author describes the art school backgrounds of Malcolm McLaren, punk’s orchestrator, and Jamie Reid, the movement’s most significant graphic designer. Classmates at Croydon Art College during 1960s, both Reid and McLaren were profoundly effected by “the libertarian currents of the late 1960s.” Particularly influential upon the pair were the attempts by groups such as King Mob to reconcile the revolutionary theory of the Situationists, which had been instrumental in creating the ferment in Paris in 1968, with the forces of the Anglo-American pop revolt. King Mob’s situationist interventions had made little impact upon British culture in the late 1960s, but their brand of radicalism struck a chord with the disaffected youth of 1976. Over an eighteen month period between early 1976 and mid 1977, a systematic assault was mounted upon the prevailing British sensibility from which the country has never recovered. Punk attacked much that was assumed to be dear to the nation’s culture.
The most profound legacy of punk is widely judged to have been the spawning in Britain of the notion of a DIY youth culture. In the wake of the first wave of the punk movement in early 1976, there emerged a network of independent record shops and fanzines in cities all over Britain. The border between the activities of the producers of punk and its consumers was not clear cut. While designers such as Jamie Reid and Malcolm Garrett worked at the more commercial end of punk (Reid creating promotional material for the Sex Pistols and Malcolm Garrett involved in crafting a “total look” for the Manchester based band the Buzzcocks) the fans of these bands were also making a contribution to punk’s visual language through the design and distribution of a host of fanzines, such as Ripped and Torn and Sniffin' Glue.
The aesthetic adopted by both the professional and amateur designers of punk was a rough-edged, collaged look that had been derived from the graffiti and posters of the 1968 Parisian uprising. In turn, those creating the graphic language of the French protest had employed the techniques of the Situationist Internationale. Effectively, punk took up and developed a visual language of urban protest that had been defined over a decade earlier. Co-opted by the mainstream fashion and music industries as early as 1977, the revolutionary impact of the punk aesthetic was soon diluted. Seeping into the mainstream, the concentrated nihilistic energy of mid-1970s punk is thought by many to run out of steam as early as 1978. Notwithstanding the brevity of punk, its effect upon the pop/youth cultures of Britain can still be felt. Involved from the outset, Peter Saville has argued that punk created a window of opportunity for independent creative activity which has remained open. Post-punk, the making of meaning through graphic form no longer was assumed to be the province of a tightly defined set of professionals.
From the ashes of punk emerged the early 1980s phenomenon of New Pop. Often characterised as a betrayal of punk, the practitioners of New Pop were engaged in reworking a hoard of apparently jostling cultural signs and symbols into a commercially successful pop package. Whereas punk had framed its pursuit of commercial success as a form of rebellion, (beating the system at its own game) early 1980s pop artists, such as Boy George or Adam Ant, unashamedly styled themselves for the attention of the mainstream media. Many of those involved in New Pop had been art students and the cultural historian Simon Frith has argued that for them “creativity, commentary and commerce” had “become indistinguishable.” Frith has suggested that the transformation of avant-garde cultism into pop stardom that was founded within the art school was “uniquely British.”
The underlying assumption of those involved in New Pop was that their audience were capable of negotiating and contributing to the complex webs of meaning that were being established. Extremely significant among the inventors of the graphic language of New Pop was Peter Saville, a Manchester-based designer and one of the founders of the independent label Factory Records. Discovering the work of Jan Tschichold within Herbert Spencer’s Pioneers of Modern Typography, Saville developed a graphic mode which relied upon often unlikely reworkings of historical type and imagery. With his designs for bands including Joy Division and New Order, Saville created an ambiguous graphic language that was without precedent. Also very important at this time was the emergence of the style press. Like Saville, Neville Brody who became the designer of The Face in 1981 borrowed freely from art and design history in order to forge the distinctive visual identity of the magazine. Nothing appeared beyond these magpies of visual culture, an approach which some felt would inevitably result in loss of meaning. Punk’s shockingly oppositional stance had given way to a much more equivocal set of poses.
The range of options open to the designers of the post-punk period had widened dramatically. This is demonstrated in the work of the designer Vaughan Oliver. Always idiosyncratic, Oliver avoided the visual and professional conventions of graphic design. Negotiating a singular relationship with the record company 4.A.D, he employed strategies and imagery which corresponded more closely to those of the Surrealists than to any graphic tradition in the production of a series of album covers. Calling Oliver’s method “intuitive rather than analytical”, Rick Poynor has described his innovative typographic technique: “He piled up capitals and italics, serif and sanserif, brushscripts and box rules into panels of type ..... Bold, condensed letterforms became a virtual trademark”. Dispensing with typographic laws in the pursuit of emotive effect Oliver cruised freely through type history to compile his own visual vocabulary. Oliver’s work demands that letterforms be reassessed as imagery, and it is this approach that has had profound effect upon subsequent generations of graphic designers from Britain and beyond.
Launched in the first few months of the 1980s, in early years of its existence The Face magazine was viewed as the mouthpiece of New Pop. Discussing the magazine, Dick Hebdige has implied that the publication represented the triumph of style over content. In his article ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring Up to The Face’, Hebdige argued that the pages of The Face offered no more than “a ceaseless procession of simulacra” and that any attempt at analysis had been abandoned by the magazine’s editorial team. Such accusations of vapidity aimed at the proponents of New Pop and the style press tended to be allied to the suggestion that they were covert agents of the cruel, unthinking commercialism that was being promoted by the Thatcherites. While it might be true that the British pop movement of the early 1980s was not overtly political, a look at some of the commentary of the time offers evidence that it was not the case that its proponents were without any notion of cultural or moral worth.
For example, sketching out the value system of post-punk age in his article “The Age of Plunder” (published in The Face in 1983), the author Jon Savage decried market-led trivialisation:
“Punk’s quite careful, instinctive constructions were unravelled stitch by stitch in a series of revivals, renewals and plain fads as every youth style since the war was paraded for emulation and consumption.”
While Savage did recognise that a great deal of historical revival was related to political conservatism or pure commerce, he insisted that not all plunder was right-wing or meaningless. Savage particularly recommended the work of designers such as Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville, who he believed to have created something of genuine value. The brand of analysis within Savage’s article, in which elements of a culture were picked out for praise or censure, suggests that it was not the case that all critical judgement had been suspended within the pages of style press. Many of those involved in New Pop, believed themselves to be engaged in the creation, not the suspension, of significant cultural meaning.
An explicit statement of the intentions behind New Pop’s unlikely constructions emerged from Peter Saville’s Factory Records. Writing about the label in 1980, Alan Joyce argued that:
“Each Factory product is in some way attempting to shake the consumers’ passive relationship with the object of consumption by creating a situation within the actual moment of consumption in which the consumer comes to question the nature of the product itself; and through this initial ‘awakening’ to eventually question his place within the cycles of consumption/production work/leisure, that form his everyday life in the spectacular world.”
In his book Art Into Pop, Simon Frith offered this quote as the most “lucid statement of pop situationism.” The post-punk generation had come to accept the dominance of the commercial process: radicals were required to collude with that process, the moment of consumption became the intended site of intervention.
It has been argued that New Pop expired in 1984, its exhaustion marked by the Band Aid concert where the youthful stars of the movement shared the Wembley stage with Rock’s dinosaurs. Since then, Britain has experienced a number of pop cultural waves, both homegrown and imported. Many of these have involved some kind of reworking of the cultures of the increasingly recent past: the punk revival that was touted in 1992 was followed only a couple of years later by the attempt to promote a revival of the 1980s. By the mid-1990s popular culture within Britain had become highly diverse, no one strand being dominant. In spite of this variety, common amongst these jostling, co-existent cultures was a belief in a sophisticated collusion on the part of audiences and consumers. Given a visually literate public assumed to be fully conversant with graphic codes and conventions, typographic style had never been more highly charged.
Returning to Alex Seago’s arguments concerning a national postmodern sensibility, it might be possible to locate the emergence of such a sensibility not in the early 1960s as Seago suggested, but rather in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Describing negatively the cultural shift between the 1960s and the 1980s in his article on The Face, Dick Hebdige brought to mind the 1974 television version of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. In that programme Berger flicked through an issue of the Sunday Times colour supplement, noting with alarm the fissure between images of starving refugees and advertisements for bath salts. Arguing that since then things had deteriorated even further, Hebdige suggested that The Face did not merely present such disjunction, it was actually “composed precisely on this fissure.” It is possible to accept Hebdige’s point while not adopting his moral stance. As Hebdige pointed out, Britain had become thoroughly exposed to popular culture in the early 1960s, but it was not until the early 1980s that the language of pop acquired the power to blur boundaries and efface traditional cultural categories.
Entering his teens at the end of the 1970s, the designer Jonathan Barnbrook (born 1966) is of the post-punk generation. Earning a B.A. and an M.A. in graphic design (from Central St Martin’s College of Art and the Royal College of Art respectively), he has drawn both from popular culture as well as from his academic training. Barnbrook’s interest in letterforms was awakened in his mid-teens at the time when the typographic work of designers such as Peter Saville, Neville Brody and Malcolm Garrett was beginning to attract attention. Drawn to the associations that these designers were making between graphic and musical form, Barnbrook has argued that it was the “the romance of the relationship between the music and the typography and the images” to which he was first attracted. Playing games with graphic and typographic meaning, the generation of designers that became well known in the early 1980s paid particular attention to the graphic idioms associated with authority. The “romance” of which Barnbrook has spoken was very much played out in their acknowledgement of the glamour of the idioms of power. Through their work, Saville, Garrett and Brody each risked the accusation of having idealised various forms of fascistic government. At their peril, they probed the political and moral codes adopted by young people in the wake of punk.
Particularly potent was the graphic language developed by Peter Saville around the Manchester-based band New Order. In line with the band’s name, this visual idiom was resonant yet ambiguous. New Order have attempted to deny the more unpleasant connotations of their name, but whatever the conscious associations of the title for members of the band, there can be no doubt of the fascistic implications of the phrase. Adopting a classical visual language that might be associated with mid-century dictatorships, Saville’s disturbingly cool work for the band also flirted with the boundary of political acceptability by toying with the notion of an absolute authority. A version of the visual language developed for New Order was adopted by the High Street only a few years later as the language of mid to late 1980s consumerism. In light of its appearance on a number of middle of the range clothes shops, it can be hard to remember that it ever seemed dangerous. However rapidly tamed, for Barnbrook in the formative years of his design consciousness, it was apparent that graphic designers were engaging with their history in a manner which had no precedent.
Barnbrook’s design project was born in London at a moment when the chaotic winding down of punk seemed to have rendered its howls of rebellion ineffective. Moving on from that moment required the invention of a new critical language in design and it is this task that is at the foundation of Barnbrook’s work. Like the generation of designers that became visible in the early 1980s, Barnbrook’s aim has been to explore the political and social implications of graphic idioms. Rather than directly broadcasting a social or political message, he has used graphic codes ambiguously in order to offer his audience the chance to question the manner in which visual meaning is formed. Barnbrook has presented a set of statements that are slippery rather than fixed. In resisting the straightforward, he risks the same accusation of having drained visual symbols of meaning that was levelled at the designers associated with New Pop and the style press.
As a teenager Barnbrook copied and expanded on the logos and typographic i
- Eric Gill got it wrong; a re-evaluation of Gill Sans
- New Faces (abstract): type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)
- New Faces (Bibliography)
- New Faces (Chapter Five: The Netherlands)
- New Faces (Chapter Four: London)
- New Faces (Chapter Three: The East Coast)
- New Faces (Chapter Two: The West Coast)
- New Faces (Conclusion)
- New Faces (Historiography)
- New Faces (Introduction)
- New Faces (List of Interviews)
- New Faces (Mapping Contemporary Type Design)
- New Faces (Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models)
Other Articles By Emily King
- Spot the difference
- The Last Supper
- Thirty-six point Gorilla
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 1 Contents
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / Acknowledgements
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 4 Abstracting the Essence
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 2 Introduction
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 3 Visions in Motion
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 5 Spiralling Aspirations: Vertigo, 1958
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 6: Musical Statues: Spartacus, 1960
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 7: Sex and Typography: From Russia With Love, 1963
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 8 Popcorn and Pop graphics, What’s New Pussycat?, 1965
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 9 Conclusion
- Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 10 Bibliography
- New Faces (abstract): type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)
- New Faces (Introduction)
- New Faces (Historiography)
- New Faces (Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models)
- New Faces (Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene)
- New Faces (Mapping Contemporary Type Design)
- New Faces (Chapter Two: The West Coast)
- New Faces (Chapter Three: The East Coast)
- New Faces (Chapter Five: The Netherlands)
- New Faces (Conclusion)
- New Faces (Bibliography)
- New Faces (List of Interviews)