Type and a place

Many typographers are outraged when their work gets used in an inappropriate context, but this process can also produce effective results in the hands of a sensitive designer, argues Jim Davies

Smith points to his light, elegant FS Sophie typeface, which he’d envisaged primarily as a display font for advertising and magazines. And yet, a Norwegian design group used it effectively as a text font for a government paper about building stronger links between Norway and Poland.

Julian Morey, who designed the Club Twenty-One range of typefaces, maintains, ‘You can’t be precious about it. You just have to let them go. Luckily, I’m not aware any of my fonts have been used for anything that upsets me or I disapprove of.’ More than anything, he was amused to find his VRM font on the cover of Loaded magazine, splayed across Melinda Messenger’s torso and given a curious 3D go-faster treatment. And to demonstrate that typefaces take on a different resonance depending on their context, he points to one of his stencil fonts, Brassplate, which was used on both a flyer for a night at London’s Fabric club and a Make Trade Fair campaign promoted by Oxfam. The intent couldn’t be more different and yet, within their own graphic terms of reference, they both worked.

‘It’s part of human nature that we perceive things in different ways,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s colours or smells or typography. Using an appropriate typeface is all very well, but it’s also obvious. It’s more interesting to see things in places you don’t expect to see them.’ Morey’s faces are often based on found letterforms, which he then extrapolates into full fonts. Checkout is based on till receipts, Liquid-B on LED clocks, several others were inspired by cardboard box markings. Culled from the environment, he rationalises and digitises them, before, in an ingenious form of recycling, returning them to the public domain.

There is one way type designers can keep more control over where their faces appear, and that’s to create exclusive bespoke fonts for companies or specific marketing campaigns. Bruno Maag of typographic design group Dalton Maag, for example, couldn’t recall seeing his work in unexpected circumstances, because he collaborates so closely with corporate clients on specific briefs. He still does the occasional double take though – Telewest Voice, a font he created for the cable company together with North, appeared on a billboard in jumbo six-feet-high letters, a super scale he hadn’t anticipated.

More generally, as typefaces grow older, even extreme examples become assimilated into the mainstream. Once new and radical, they eventually start turning up on the high street, populist TV programmes, and middle-of-the-road CD covers – places you’d never expect to see them when they were first released. Our perception of them starts to become coloured by where they have appeared, rather than what they look like or what their designers ever intended. In other words, they have grown into themselves, found their own level.

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