A Bold Type of Guy

Writer Thornton McCamish Published The Age newspaper on 19 May 2004.

Stephen Banham was in a city cafe the other day when a man in a suit sidled up, looking at him strangely. “Hey,” the man exclaimed. “You’re that guy who hates Helvetica!” “I’d never seen him in my life,” Banham says, understandably bemused. The Melbourne-based graphic designer might well be the first person in history to have been recognised in the street as a campaigner against a typeface. Most graphic designers are interested in type; they work with it every day. But Banham is obsessed. For him, type is more than just the shape of letters. It’s a crucial part of the urban experience.

Last year Banham caused a furore – or what passes for a furore in typographic circles – with his book, Grand, a denunciation of the sans serif typeface, Helvetica. He argued that Helvetica was a kind of plague, a bland, ubiquitous typeface that had become the crown-of- thorns starfish of type, strangling Melbourne’s rich variety of lettering and disfiguring the streetscape.

That hatred for Helvetica still burns within, but Banham is reluctant to discuss it now. “You get pigeon-holed by people,” he says. “I think it’s the price you pay for taking a stance. I’ve had strangers on trams tell me how much they hate Helvetica. I’ll even get people guiltily confessing to me that they use Helvetica. It’s a bit unnerving, really.” He still accepts mail orders for his “Death to Helvetica” T-shirts, but Banham has moved on. His latest book, Fancy, is a collection of stories and snippets of esoterica relating to typefaces. There’s Roman Kingsley, a South Australian man who trained a flock of geese to do skywriting – or “birdtyping” – by flying in formations which spelt out corporate logos. “There were a few teething problems,” Kingsley told Banham. “Trying to get the birds to spell properly was a bit difficult.” Banham might well be the first person in history to have been recognised in the street as a campaigner against a typeface.

There’s the story of Arthur Stace, the man who famously devoted his life to writing the word “Eternity” in elegant copperplate on Sydney pavements; there’s the story of The Guardian newspaper’s special liftout on the little-known Indian Ocean island republic of Sans Seriffe, an elaborate typographic hoax that gulled thousands of readers in 1977. On one level, Fancy is itself a hoax: some of the stories are truer than others. Some, in fact, are not true at all. But the idea isn’t to trick people, Banham says. “Graphic designers are conditioned to lie, exaggerate or embellish. The book is playing with that notion that designers are often asked to lie. Whether these stories are true or not isn’t that important.”

So believe, if you wish, that late last year, a group of night cleaners in Melbourne’s Rialto towers illuminated the windows in such a way that, to a spectator standing in King Street, the words U.S. + THEM were spelt out down the sides of the office buildings. According to Fancy, it wasn’t the cleaners’ first typographic experiment with window lighting. The first message produced with lit windows was a waggish joke: WASH ME, it said. Or tried to say – the message was blurred somewhat by light leaking from adjoining windows.

True or not, the fact is that if anyone in Melbourne was going to witness or invent such a spectacle, it would be Banham. Now 36, Banham has lived and worked in Melbourne all his life. He caught the type bug when he was working in the ad department at The Herald and Weekly Times, trying to cram “stupid amounts of ridiculously small type” into little boxes. He began reading about type and collecting samples. In 1991, Banham opened his one-man graphic design studio, Letterbox, in Flinders Lane. Since then, he hasn’t had a dull moment with type. He works on corporate designs and creates his own typefaces. He lectures in typography at RMIT. He can’t imagine doing anything else, or anywhere else he’d rather do it. “Melbourne has a wonderful complexity to its structure, and I think that complexity is a metaphor for the city itself,” Banham says, gazing out of the studio’s windows across the rooftops of Elizabeth Street. “It’s a very creative place, I think.” He is particularly devoted to the city’s streets and laneways. He wanders them constantly, savouring the layers of lore, type and architectural detail like a latter-day flaneur.

If you imagined that typography would be a lonely passion, you’d be wrong. Banham says he thrives on the enthusiasm of his students and is in constant contact with fellow designers and type nuts around the world. He sells more books overseas than he does here. And Letterbox does a lively trade in international mail-order items, such as T-shirts (Helvetica Thin: Just Say No) and stickers featuring typographic humour.

Until now, most of the books Banham has self-published since 1991 have been pitched at that black-skivvy crowd. Several have won awards in Europe and America, but they’re all small in scale – Type and the Recession (1994), for instance, is barely the size of a book of stamps – and have print runs of only 500 copies. But his ambition is growing. With its true-or-false stories, Fancy is a deliberate step out of the studio and into the reality that letters describe. It’s an attempt to restore storytelling to the world of design.

“Designers need to embrace content rather than just form,” Banham says. “Otherwise we end up sounding like a bunch of hairdressers.” But why does type really matter? Because, Banham believes, the variety and richness of type reflects the vitality of our imagination.

In Fancy, letters are tangible and protean; they’re the climbing frames of our dreams. Or nightmares, as in the case of failed Hollywood starlet Peg Entwistle. On the night of September 18, 1932, the 24-year-old actress struggled up the Griffith Park slope to the iconic Hollywood sign. She folded her coat and placed it on the ground with her purse. Then she climbed the giant letter H and threw herself to her death from its crossbar. A sad story, Banham says. “And especially fascinating from a typographical point of view. Extraordinary. If you look at all the letters, the H is clearly the best letter to jump off because of the height from the middle stroke. We’ll never know whether it was a fortunate circumstance that Peg approached it from the H end of the sign, or whether she deliberately chose the H.” Banham shakes his head in wonder. “She’s the only person we know of who has killed herself using type.” And she’s proof of what Banham has always known: type can be a matter of life and death.