Eye Reputations Interview

Writer Rick Poynor This is an article excerpt. See Eye International Review of Graphic Design Issue 46 (Winter 2002). 

Helvetica has become the generic default, a safe formula under the guise of Modernism. It’s all smoke and mirrors’. In the early 1990s, Stephen Banham succeeded in giving new meaning to the old idea of the ‘little magazine’. The six issues of his spiral-bound, self-published project, Qwerty, each one titled after one of the word’s letters, really were tiny – not much bigger than the palm of your hand. They immediately won over recipients as tactile objects worth keeping and suggested the arrival of an intriguing new voice. Banham was born in 1968 in Melbourne, Victoria. From 1986 to 1988 he studied graphic design at RMIT University in the city. After a spell working freelance in various studios and time in Berlin, he launched the first issue of Qwerty in 1991. Banham is a sometimes outspoken critic of fellow Australian designers, wittily targeting the narrowness of fashionable typographic taste.

Rick Poynor: You appear to live and breathe typography. When were you bitten by the bug?

Stephen Banham: It’s funny because when I first considered graphic design as a possible career I knew nothing about type at all. I was only taught perspective drawing in high school and I looked through the course guide and thought that I would be studying drawing, packaging and topography. So I was expecting to learn about the position of rivers, roads and such. Even during the design course I was not taught much at all about this aspect of design. It was only after university, when I started my own experiments and research into type, that I began to appreciate the scope of type. So, even though I did go to design school, I can almost say that I am self-taught. I would read books on type, collect it, photograph it, even spend my weekends kerning photocopied type so that I could appreciate its form and tactility. That’s why I have always been quietly thankful for going through design school before the Mac really had an impact. We had more time to consider the details then.

RP: Why did you decide to start Qwerty?

SB: It’s hard to believe now, but there was very little happening in Australia in terms of typography in 1990. I began teaching typography at about this time and I would constantly see my students copy entire designs straight from Emigre or other international publications. I knew that we could create our own typographic language here so I began Qwerty. It was a series of six publications – q, w, e, r, t and y – each one a7 in size [74 x 105 mm]. This size wasn’t because I wanted to create a precious art book. It was simply the only way I could afford to have 24 pages up on a single sheet. Things were quite tough then – one week I had only $300 in my bank account and I had the choice of paying the rent or sending the first issue to press. Over the next five years, I released the other issues. It received a lot of interest in the international design press and showed my students by example that one can create typographic work that reflects aspects of one’s own culture, though now I don’t agree with that early rather nationalistic notion of identity.

RP: Why the passionate interest in the vernacular?

SB: Possibly because of its immediacy, its accessibility. With Qwerty, it was important that I created a dialogue that my students could engage with. It was primarily about observations and the possibility of there being a culture of people who are passionate about typography. Referencing the vernacular was certainly a big part of the Qwerty project, but the price of its success has been having to overcome that label ever since.

RP: What are the unique characteristics of the Australian typographic vernacular?

SB: It wasn’t even that the content of Qwerty was quintessentially Australian but that it happened to come from our streets, which were of course Australian streets. We didn’t want to overlook the diversity of Australian society but rather to show things that may or may not be specific to our culture. Some things were, such as the betting slips from the racetrack in Qwerty no. 1, and others weren’t.

RP: What impact has the ambience of Melbourne itself had on your approach to design?

SB: Melbourne is certainly the most European of all the cities in Australia. The cooler climate lends itself to more introspection and research. It was also cheaper to live here so you had more time to gradually develop projects that didn’t have to stand on their legs economically. I wanted the design to be centred on the things that were going on here in Melbourne, such as the economic recession in Qwerty no. 1, or the growth of stencilling in the street in no. 3. We use only our typefaces on our publications, so that context tends to be a strong influence on their form…