Everyone reading this article will own at least one of Alan Fletcher’s family of Phaidon Art Books. Starting with The Art Book, an international bestseller in super-heavyweight and bantam sizes, it has expanded with new relatives such as The Fashion Book, The American Art Book, The Photo Book and The 20th Century Art Book. The distinctive poster-like covers, type meticulously fitted on to the big oblong, can be identified in bookshop windows from a hundred yards away.
It is sly to use type for the wrapper – any single piece of art would slant the book. But the lettering has to have a strong impact to stand up against Michelangelo and Paul Klee in the bookshop. There’s a unique treatment for every new title. For the first book, Fletcher used the techniques of the artists inside. He scissored, doodled, scratched, and fretted the title so every letter was like a little Piet Zwart collage. But for subsequent books he has used conventional typefaces as a starting point. For The 20th Century Art Book, he used the Swiss typeface Graphique as his model, fattening its shadows and lengthening it until it fitted the cover, then making a mad quilt of paper scraps to judge the colours. (Bits cut off cereal packets and out of magazines, proofs, and other people’s jobs.)
Fletcher is also famed for his logos. One that is consistently picked out as an all-time favourite is the monogram he drew for the Victoria and Albert Museum. He wanted a typeface that had an “ultimate” or “imperial” character, befitting a national museum and eventually settled on Bodoni. On very close inspection, and at large sizes, the versions of Monotype and Bauer seemed mechanical and soulless, so he went back to the finest cuts made by Giovanni Battista Bodoni himself in his Manuale Tipografico, compiled in the late 18th century.
From these, he extracted the letters he liked best, the ones that gave him the best angles for the A to do its disappearing trick, and then more or less completely redrew them, shaving slivers off the thick strokes, extending and then reducing the serifs and the arms of the ampersand, redrawing curves. (I know, because, in service at the time, I had to do it.)
When I ask Fletcher why he goes to such lengths to create, or recreate, his type the answer is not the one I expect. I expect him to wax sensitively about the irreplaceable character of letters drawn from scratch, about fine control and exact detail, but his primary concern is coming from somewhere else. “It’s so other buggers can’t copy it.” I look disappointed. “The client has something to register, to protect,” he says.
Copyright is surely only half the story, it seems such a mundane reason for all the effort. It is surely the uniqueness, the delicacy of drawn letters that is the other half. Fletcher has a huge collection of rare type books, and a big white wooden box full of photographic copies of fonts gleened from recondite sources that he has been compiling since the 1950s. When he has to execute a fresh piece of work, a logo or a book cover, he selects an existing font as a starting place. He sifts and gauges possible candidates looking for features that can be emphasised, and chooses finally letters that will help make the design work – the long, elegant stem of a Reynolds Stone alphabet for the Institute of Directors logo, or the machine-like regularity of Graphique for 20th Century Art.
Now who actually does the hard work once the type is sketched and the layout ready to be drawn up? Who does the slog, not Fletcher surely? No, its a loyal factotum, Roger Taylor, who beavers away in the converted outhouse of his cottage, attached to Fletcher’s studio by an ISDN line. He has been drawing Fletcher’s type, and that of the other Pentagram partners, as well as jobs from groups such as Springett Associates, Lippa Pearce, Vince Frost, and recently Wolff Olins, plus just about everyone else, for the past quarter of a century.
Taylor has a very direct line of attack. He scans his clients’ sketch, or fax, or (in Fletcher’s case) photocopied paste-up, until he has the rough form he needs; a sketch of bytes. His actual working method is not like it describes in the program manuals. He uses the computer as a kind of electronic sculptor’s workshop, flipping between programs, using a mouse, a stylus, scanning letters back in after refashioning by hand, auto-tracing, until “it’s, well, just right”. His common unit of measurement is “just a hair”. His spurs were earned before Fontographer and Illustrator. (For those of you that are too young, a short history lesson: the Apple Macintosh only appeared in the latter years of the 20th century, and before that type had to be drawn by hand and with a notoriously capricious German pen called a Rotring, that sometimes scraped and scratched like a thorn and sometimes weeped lakes of black ink on the merest contact.)
Jonathan Davis of Flat Five, on the other hand, chooses to draw all his type by hand. And not just his type. He runs a small London studio that focuses on one very specialised and exclusive area of packaging: spirits. Compared to the way most designers work, his working method is highly unusual and painstaking. He draws, with a pencil, absolutely everything – the logo, the supporting type, the illustration, the scrolls, swirls, rules, escrutcheons, label shape, even the bottle, the screwcap, capsule and neck label. All this concept work is done without touching an Apple Macintosh; it is 4B rather than 4.2.
Each project begins with rough sketches (he calls them rough, they look very exact to me) of all the elements, with special attention given to the focus – the actual name of the product. The sketches are gradually refined, overlapped and combined, until finally the client is presented with a roughly full-sized bottle that has been beautifully and completely realised in graphite on delicate, crinkly detail paper.
Davis says, “I started doing calligraphy and hand-lettering when I was young”. His fastidiousness does seem to have kept an adolescent obsessive quality all the way through art college and up until now; his style could be described as determined, careful and solitary. I ask him if anyone else works with him on these first drawings. “No, its just me,” he says. “I draw precisely what I want to see.” It’s later, when the route has been approved by the client, that a lettering artist is brought in to render the drawing in ink, “adding 10 or 20 per cent to the precision of the form,” says Davis.
This sharp, black version is then scanned and becomes part of a process we are all more familiar with; numerous minutely differing colour mock-ups. But it is the initial decisions and inventions that are important. Do Davis’ clients appreciate this craft? I’ve always imagined product brand managers to be fickle – they’re tastes not exactly discerning. From the meeting room, every inch of shelf and floor space jostling with different bottles, the answer is yes, they do value him. They come, he says, because after exhaustive meetings he “can draw the talk”.
What must really impress clients is Davis’ devotion to the brands themselves, with relationships of such length they outlast many marketing managers – 12 years guiding Famous Grouse, seven with Bombay Sapphire. Davis uses words that you don’t hear often from a designer’s lips. He calls his work for a brand “custodianship”, he “nurtures” a new design, seeing it through growth (hopefully) and the inevitable changes in marketing strategy and positioning and customer profile.
Again, I ask the question, why go to such lengths? He answers: “Ownership. The real purpose of the work is so that other people can’t copy it. So the client has something they own,” he says. Again, this frustrating answer, all this effort for a commercial asset. I look at his label for Bombay Sapphire, the lettering gently arching over a medallion of Queen Victoria. The M has been cleverly drawn to be very narrow, not much wider than the other letters, and it therefore wraps around the curve with smoothness and consistency. That care has nothing to do with legal registration, that is love.
Design has always been about precision, achieving exactly the finish you want. The dual illusions of pressure and the ease convince most designers to accept the typefaces the Mac gives them, form and kerning touched. The more we rely on the computer, a machine, to make all our work, the greater the danger that everything will become more uniform. The values the machine cannot give us (without very skillful handling) will stand out ever more starkly: inconsistency, idiosyncracy, invention. And the best examples of this are invigorating – Fletcher shaving and massaging typefaces until they do what he wants them to, Davis drawing in pencil miniature full points with tiny drop shadows, and Roger Taylor redrawing a tangent 20 times.
I was asked to comment on whether crafting type was a worthwhile pursuit, given the difficulty and effort. Does it have a future? My answer is: does beauty?
Quentin Newark is part of Atelier Works