Character references

The role of type in design is once more in the ascendancy. Fay Sweet talks to three of the key faces in contemporary typography about their work

Type has always made an impression. Literally and figuratively. Leaping from the page, it brands itself on to the subconscious where our cultural processor decodes the signals. We recognise instantly when a type design wants to be friendly or authoritative, youthful or arty. It’s no coincidence that we talk of type “faces”, and know letters as “characters” – distinguishing features are read as easily as we can pick out a friend in a crowd. No surprise then that, as a communication tool, it has always enjoyed a unassailably high profile – wherever there’s a message to be conveyed, type will be found.

And yet, while we have come to understand and manipulate type designs to complement the use and user, there is now a significant move, particularly in corporate work, towards deploying type as a fully integrated part of the whole image. We’re not just talking face, this is more than skin deep, we’re talking personality. The medium is fused with the message and becomes an inseparable part of it.

Andrew Robinson

A firm subscriber to the belief that type is increasingly considered by business to be an inseparable part of identity, Andrew Robinson offers a one-stop-shop of corporate consultancy, graphics and type design. He set up business three years ago as The Family and clients include IBM, Yardley, Royal Mail and Donside Paper Mill. ‘Our aim is to get under the skin of the client. When we take a brief we rewrite it. We talk to their customers and competitors and draw a profile of how the client is perceived,’ explains Robinson. ‘We then look at the existing identity and assess what equity to retain. With this knowledge, the face is designed – we may produce a choice of up to half a dozen versions – then it’s presented to the client. The face is built as something that’s specific and unique and its message becomes integral to the company’s graphic identity.’

In addition to the bespoke work, Robinson is continually developing his own collection of faces. ‘One of the most recent has an odd story – I was on a train and hadn’t bought a paper or anything to read, so I found myself drawing patterns of dots. Then I joined some of them up and gradually a whole alphabet emerged. When I got back to work I tried different variations, all based on the dot grid and now that quirky face is being developed.’ He offers a word of warning, however, for any designer who thinks that type design is the route to making a fortune. ‘If you think you’ll get rich pop-star famous, you’re very much mistaken. The faces that achieve universal acceptance and turn into classics are very few and far between. In fact, in recent memory, only Meta has managed that – it’s the ultimate accolade.’ But despite the words of caution, he does have one particular design that may make the mark. It’s called Beak. ‘It’s a derivative of Gill, which I really love. It’s organic and rounded and might just be right for now – there’s a clear move in corporate imagery away from hard edges, approachability is vital,’ he says.

Peter Boyd Joines Anderson

It wriggles and squirms, stretches and curls, crunches and creeps round corners. For former St Martin’s student Peter Anderson, type is an active part of telling a story. (The ‘Boyd Joines’ is optional.) ‘When we speak there’s something happening, there’s a rise and fall in our voice and expression, to represent this in flat, straight lines of type is to miss a lot of the excitement. I was born and brought up in Belfast and, because I’m aware of my accent, I’m sensitive to how people use words in different ways. I can “see” my words and that’s what I aim to portray in type.’

Anderson’s charged-up type really does burst into action across the page – his high-profile work for Moschino, for example, uses type as part of the illustration, it’s integral to the stylish product message. Another project for the award-winning Northern Irish restaurant Roscoff’s weaves type into dainty food poems – and, on the menu front, an illustration of a fork made with type actually describes the restaurant’s location… at a road fork.

This work is rich, literate, visually intriguing and great fun. It is also occasionally annoying for someone like me who likes to zip-read, I don’t really want to stop in my tracks and wind my eyes round a corkscrew of curly type – but then, as Anderson points out, my lack of perseverance may be due to the fact that the message is not aimed at me. ‘I want to make stories come to life visually, to use type that’s organic and alive. My philosophy is to capture attention with an icon and then draw in readers. If they can’t be bothered to read on then they wouldn’t be bothered, no matter what type was used. Legibility is an issue, but I believe that we are incredibly visually sophisticated and can cope with more challenging images than are usually served up. After all, when the typewriter was invented, there were plenty of people who considered it illegible.’ With his personal work he pushes type to its limits – he has used photographs as type and recently completed an information art project for the St Lucia Museum of Modern Art which involved staking out the island with dozens of tall, painted wooden poles bearing numbers. ‘The numbers all meant something to me – such as old telephone numbers that I wanted to get rid of and binary code.’

Back in Britain and the London-based partnership Interfield – formed with designer Ray Leek and multimedia artist John Bichard – work continues on individual projects as well as a 3D typographical film due out later this year.

Jason Smith

In the same way that some people develop compulsive habits like adding up the numbers in car registration plates, Jason Smith can hardly help himself mentally redrawing the less-than-perfect typefaces that surround us. ‘It’s an incredibly annoying habit, but I just can’t ignore them. If I’m on the street or in shops, anywhere, and I see letters where the weight and spacing is all wrong, I correct them in my head,’ he says.

Looking through his portfolio, it’s clear that Smith has a gift for all things typographic. He designs type faces from scratch and customises existing faces by adding new letters and produces hand-drawn logotypes and lettering. Clients have included Delta Air Lines, Cardiff University (a bilingual face), the Financial Services Agency, Suchard and Red Eye beer. A stream of work has flowed from other designers and groups such as Lloyd Northover Citigate, David Quay Design, Eden and Dalton Maag. It is unusual to find a designer under the age of 30 – Smith is 26 – with such skill and experience.

His interest in type was lit at the Reigate School of Art and Design where the traditional skills of sign-writing and heraldry were taught alongside calligraphy and graphic design. In the middle of the course he even secured a job with Monotype, digitising typefaces and drawing up different weights for existing designs, which served as the perfect apprenticeship. Meanwhile, back at college, drawing skills were encouraged and honed. Smith still starts every project armed with pencil – in fact, he usually tapes two together to replicate a pen nib effect.

One of his largest recent projects was through Lloyd Northover Citigate for the Belgian utility company Tractabel. ‘This really was a fantastic branding exercise, the company wanted to express its qualities of being modern, professional, forward-looking and environmentally sound. So my response was to produce a face that expresses all these facets, it’s very round and open and approachable,’ explains Smith.

‘It’s been interesting to see just how many companies are now commissioning their own faces. Businesses have always understood the need for an appropriate face, but design buyers are now recognising the power of type when it becomes an integral part of the brand image – that’s a significant advance,’ he adds.

It’s also the case that digital technology has reduced the cost of designing and implementing new faces across a whole organisation. ‘It’s now a very real option to license faces from the big type houses. Even a moderate-sized company could spend a small fortune on license agreements, and there’s no guarantee of exclusivity,’ says Smith. ‘Whereas, a company’s own face can be used without restrictions and in the knowledge that it is a one-off. This solves two problems at once – cost and identity.’

Plans for the future include assembling a bunch of faces developed as personal work, including the clean and elegant Iasonas, which Smith plans to release as a collection.

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