A Giant Leap

Interviewer Liz Concetta Published The Age on 19 April 2008.

Almost a year ago to the day, Melbourne graphic designer, founder of type studio Letterbox and general lover of typeface Stephen Banham placed a newly minted typeface called Bisque on eBay. It was a world first, the international rights for a new font were up for grabs. The starting bid was $5000 and although Bisque never sold, Banham received a staggering response to the auction.

Tomorrow, a year on, Bisque will be featured publicly in an exhibition titled Orbit Oblique — a typographic tribute to animals lost in space research. The exhibition comprises a series of illuminated typographic billboards and a hand-bound, limited-edition book (Banham’s 14th book on typography). The book is one of only a few type samplers produced in Australia during the past several decades.

Between 1949 and 1990, the United States and the former Soviet Union sent dozens of animals into space – monkeys, dogs, cats, rats, frogs, worms, fish, spiders, even fruit flies — and most were never seen again. “We’re using typography to show a theme and that theme is all of the animals that were lost in space research,” says Banham. “We researched this about a year ago and we looked into all of the curious circumstances through which these animals were all shot up into space and lots of them never came back. I thought that was quite an intriguing phenomenon and so we chose to express that from a typographical point of view.”

Banham likens the exhibition to lost pet notices. “The idea with this and with the catalogue is to in some way show the ‘lost notices’ for these animals. You know when you’re walking down the street and stuck to a pole you’ll see a notice for poor little Fido the poodle who has been lost? In effect they are somewhat melancholy calls for the animals who have never come back,” he says.

During the past 12 months Bisque, the font, has been refined and is now for sale, along with other typefaces, at Banham’s type studio. Designing a font can take between nine and 12 months. Banham finds it challenging trying to inform the general community that fonts should be bought and sold. “They are things by which many people make their entire living. It’s really important that people recognise that,” he says.

Though typography is a slightly unconventional form of media — and is one usually associated with the corporate world — Banham believes fonts are perfectly valid forms of cultural expression. “Designing typeface is seen as a fairly esoteric pastime, but it’s an important one because as far as we’re concerned, we contribute to the visual landscape in exactly the same way that, say, a fashion designer would. It’s all part of the cultural mix.”