Urban impact

When creating typography for crowded urban environments, is it better to be loud, or quiet? Our experts debate how design can best stand out from the crowd

‘Loud’, says Simon Loxley

The story of Peg Entwistle is not a happy one. Unable to find work in Depression-era Hollywood, the actress jumped to her death from one of the giant letters of the Hollywood sign above Tinseltown. Opinion differs as to which letter it was. Callous, I know, but the incident made me think how great it was to have letters so big that you could, if you wished, use them to sign off from this world.

The old dictum of invisible typography casts a long shadow. From that first student letterhead design, when we are advised to reduce our type from a brash 16pt to a more acceptable 9pt or 10pt, the impetus is always towards making letters smaller, with an implied greater sophistication – big type being for primary school readers. This sensibility has been reinforced by the Internet, hardly a playground for banner headlines.

Far from outdoor type being an invasive environmental blight, most is too discreet and self-effacing. Rarely is the attention engaged by the sheer power of lettering. The realisation of large letter forms often comes from the leftfield, painted on expanses of wall by anonymous hands, or in the case of street artist Eine, the blank canvas of security shutters, an uninhibited expression of desire for the beauty and strength of a huge letter, which professional designers often lack.

But not all. Looking to give the signage for the Royal College of Art’s summer show The Great Exhibition texture as well as impact, Studio Myerscough used Luke Morgan to create a huge 3D pixillation of the word ‘great’. Johnson Banks, in implementing its ‘lens flare’ identity for the British Film Institute, took advantage of a 30m glass wall at the new Southbank site. ‘We wanted to use the new identity as large as possible,’ says Michael Johnson.

Say it big, say it loud; the signage style in North Carolina’s Pleasure Beach, despite the crudeness of the typography, made me smile. Visual pollutant? Maybe, but the individuality and quirkiness of the personally created messages conveyed far more of the human spirit than can be found on most British high streets.

A similar no-frills approach, courtesy of Pentagram, has been pursued by Cass Art; the message is amusing and inspiring. Perhaps here is the answer to the increasing homogeneity of the high street, an opportunity to put a unique, constantly changing stamp on shop fronts. Why not say it loud? Just do it with wit and originality.

Simon Loxley is a graphic designer and editor of Ultrabold, the journal of St Bride Library’Quiet’, says Susanna Edwards

‘Quiet’, says Susanna Edwards

We are surrounded by visual noise. Typography and signage in the urban environment are emblems of identity and display, often competing and shouting for attention. Design has had to become clever to get noticed within this polluted environment, and it is now often the quieter tone of visual voice that stands out in the crowd.

On entry to the Art Workers Guild in London’s Bloomsbury, a beautiful logotype greets you on the floor, so easy to pass by without noticing. The design is grand, yet understated in position; it is a far cry from the sordid typefaces of nearby Soho and Oxford Street. The guild has been home to eminent artists, architects, designers and craftsmen from William Morris to Brian Webb, and has had numerous logos over time; this particular one is thought to have been designed by FW Troup, about 1914.

Another exemplar in the whispering category of typography, Prick Your Finger, is a contemporary haberdashery in Bethnal Green, London, opened by Rachael Matthews and Louise Harries in 2007. Its signage is innovative, yet quiet in its content, process and display. Hand-spun typography has been made from the wool of rough fell sheep, the sturdiest mountain breed in Britain. Too rough a material to wear, it has been spun unwashed to produce typography that is full of lanolin that makes it waterproof. It is homemade: only a spinning wheel was required, and no signwriter or manufacturer was involved. Even the name, Prick Your Finger, pertains to Sleeping Beauty falling asleep.

Bardens Boudoir is so quiet, it is only for those in the know. On street level, Bardens is a disused furniture store in east London, but the original signage remains intact. Below, in the basement, is Bardens Boudoir: a well-known venue in the local contemporary arts and music scene. Appropriating the name of the former shop, it makes implicit use of the worn, old signage. This is typographic design that has reinvented itself, taken on new meaning, and is so understated that it is invisible to the uninitiated.

A few years ago, a student at Central St Martins College of Art and Design walked down London’s Oxford Street and recited into a dictaphone all the signage that passed him by. This was performed by a group of students, chanting progressively louder until the cacophony became unbearable. I, for one, am siding with quieter, less obvious typographic design within the urban environment. The real world is for exploring, and it’s a joy to stumble across individual voices such as these. l

Susanna Edwards is an artist and senior lecturer in graphic design at Central St Martins College of Art and Design

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