Found forms

For type designers, a long-standing source of inspiration is fast disappearing. The stultifying, commercialised homogeneity of the Western European high street, with a Starbucks on every corner, has not only sounded the death knell for quirky independent retailers, but also for quirky ‘found’ typefaces.

These days, you have to look much further afield for interesting vernacular typefaces – original, idiosyncratic letterforms that might just provide the germ of an idea for a new font. To travel abroad to less-developed countries, where skilled hand-lettering is still prevalent, retro is still on its first time around, and non-Roman alphabets or scripts can feed the imagination. Over here, you could perhaps venture down neglected backstreets and alleyways, where time has moved more slowly and the ancient vestiges of a pre- digital typographic heritage still remain.

Because these anonymous gems are so much harder to find, they’ve become all the more precious. And, rather like love, you don’t tend to find them when you’re looking. You simply happen upon them by chance when you least expect it. That’s partly what makes them so refreshing, unexpected and charming. Plus there’s a mysterious, unwritten romance surrounding their provenance – who designed them and when? What’s their story? Where are they now?

We asked five leading typographic designers to photograph a piece of found type they’d come across recently and tell us what they thought was particularly appealing about them. The results fully demonstrate the way the city’s typographic landscape is evolving, and how happenstance can create curious connections and juxtapositions. They also reveal plenty about the designers’ personal styles and preoccupations. Jonathan Barnbrook, Virus Fonts

I chose this piece of type because it is something I have passed with pleasure for the past six years. It’s a constant reminder of the beauty of the Johnston typeface and the pure atmosphere of London in the older Tube stations – something I have often tried to capture in my own work. Unfortunately, London Transport has decided to ‘improve’ Bethnal Green station, starting by pulling down the beautiful tiling and old signage. I wish, instead, it would value what it already has, and understand that new is not necessarily better. In some Tube stations modernisation works, but in others, surely, it’s better to do some gentle updating so that the existing individuality and beauty can shine through.

Freda Sack, Foundry Types

Vertical type rarely works and shouldn’t be encouraged. Strangely more legible in reverse, this typically uninspired signage example – an afterthought stuck on the side of London’s St Giles Hotel – in reflection gains a different dynamic. Perfectly superimposed, and offset with ‘Phones 4u’, even the two Hs conjoin. Fascinating structural reflections form a ‘typo-grid’ combining these two strange companions. You couldn’t create the alignment of the S at the end of phones with the G of Giles more perfectly; the offbeat number four framing St; and the semi 3D effect of the x-height angle. A wonderful typographic coincidence.

Julian Morey, abc-xyz

I came across this striking piece of letter carving during a recent trip to Bath. In keeping with its World Heritage status, the city is littered with the remains of period signage. With Marks & Spencer’s share price on a high they are getting something right, but I’m not so sure about their current identity. This elegant, hand-crafted type reminded me there was a time before corporate identities. Perhaps the stonemason was asked to cut something in keeping with the locality that acknowledged its past. I trust it’s been listed.

Rian Hughes, Device Fonts

This is a photograph taken in Limogues, France. I took five or six shots of hairdressers there, each of which had some outré custom text on the facia. This is the best of the bunch. I love the wide, flat-bottomed C, the interlinked ligature of the letters ‘iff’, the moving baseline and the extended line on the E. It might just be possible to use this as a basis for a font, but with only one capital letter to go on, it would not be easy. I wonder if you could trace the original designer – there must have been several groups that produced the bulk of this kind of work, and it would be great to see their archives. Just think of the forgotten gems waiting to be uncovered.

Erik Spiekermann, United Designers Network

This beaten up metal letter looks very old and well-worn, but it’s made from a new typeface, FF Meta, which I designed and first published in 1991. While 15 years is not enough for a typeface to become a classic, a few years of weather and construction work makes this one look as if it’s been around since World War II. It looks like the blue-collar version of its elegant cousin in print. To become part of the vernacular is quite an achievement for a type designer – I cannot believe that I have started collecting my own discarded letters.

Latest articles