Man of Letters

Interviewer Brendan McKnight Published Desktop Issue 263 in 2010.

He’s been called a ‘typographic evangelist’ by Eye, founded the typographic studio Letterbox and had his design work covered in just about every type annual that you can think of. He holds a masters in Design Research and has been a lecturer since 1991. Desktop is also proud to have Stephen Banham on the jury for the 2010 Qantum Desktop CREATE: Awards. But enough gushing from us, now it’s over to the man of letters himself…

Custom typography has always been quite popular; however, in the past few years it seems to have boomed with a bit of a font revival. Why do you think this is and where is it headed?

There’s a certain swinging motion in all the creative fields – a movement followed by counter-movement. Typography is no different. We’ve just had a decade of uptight Swiss-ness, then the pendulum swings, and we have the Herb Lubalin-esque customising revival. The hope is that through each ‘reinterpretation’ the field progresses (that’s the theory anyway). It’s a movement signalling a finer appreciation of typographic craft – personalising typographic expression. It’s very much in the spirit of the times (as Paul Renner would say).

Where is the Australian typography scene at? Are we a big player in the game?

I’m hoping the days of asking how we compare are over. There’s no doubt that we are contributing to the international typographic scene. The number of type designers is still small in Australia, but the typographic design work is far more plentiful, and much better in quality.

What can Australian designers and educators do to improve things?

Now you’ve hit the nail on the head – typographic education is the one element missing in Australia. Because design course structures are subject to fickle academic change and politics, typography gets shoved to the side, and sometimes forgotten altogether. I cannot believe that we have undergraduate courses in graphic/communication design without having typography running right through all years like a spine supporting all other aspects of design teaching. It’s completely fundamental.

Other than the usual suspects (the US, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan), what other countries are pumping out amazing typographic work at the moment?

An incredible amount of high quality work is emerging from the South American regions (Brazil, Argentina etc). This is a wonderful thing to witness. But again, education has a lot to do with this. Fonts obviously go in and out of fashion, and the love/hate Helvetica debate is one that has well worn its course over the past few years. How did that recent-ish boom/ obsession happen and has the typographic world moved on from the dirty ‘H’ word? It most certainly has. Ten years ago it was an important debate to have, but not now. The film Helvetica pretty much summed the whole thing up in a nice neat package. So now it’s onto other things.

You seem to be inspired by the stories behind letters and the things in our visual environment that we may pass every day and not think twice about. Could you talk some more about this?

Looking at a letter as just ‘form’ strips it of its purpose, context and public appeal. Type designers and typographers know that the real (and enduring beauty) comes from the meaning that the type gives to the viewer, reader and passer-by. That’s what interests me. Beyond the essential craft of typography we have to zoom out and ask ourselves, ‘What story does this type have? How does it relate to people?’ It brings meaning to the form, to our work and indeed to our lives. The social and cultural aspects of typography are a territory yet to be truly mapped and explored (which is why I’m writing a book on it).

How does copyright work for fonts and how can typographers (and Letterbox) ensure that their fonts are properly credited/paid for?

The short answer to that is that you can’t. There is a lot of human trust in releasing a digital file. Although the protective coding will get better, that’s only fixing the symptom. It’s best to address the root cause – misunderstanding and ignorance. We have to develop a culture where type is seen as a thing you happily purchase – but first it has to have perceivable value. And this relates to what I was saying before: it’s the public profile of typography that needs to be addressed. A respect for the work of the type designer within the wider community can only come out of this understanding. Plus a lot of time.

What is the most important lesson you would teach an emerging and impressionable graphic design student in relation to their approach to typography?

Sit and actually read what you’re designing.

You once said that Comic Sans should ‘never to be let out again’. Can you see a time when it will come back in an ironic modern- retro-hipster-cool way? Think the revival of moustaches, Helvetica, Casio watches, old Nokias etc…

Like I say, everything has its time in the sun (and that goes for all of us). Every typeface has a purpose, no matter how seemingly pointless. Typography is about appropriateness not fashion, and sometimes it’s appropriate to be fashionable.

What is one tip you would give to the average office worker who has no idea about type, but uses it daily in presentations, office posters, mail-outs and so on?

Put on a voice that suits the typeface you’re using and read out the text aloud. If it’s how you want it to sound, then you’re doing OK.

You have been a lecturer in typography since 1991, and a past student of yours recently said that he was ‘blessed’ to have you at RMIT. Could you please talk some more about your commitment to and passion for lecturing/teaching?

I’ve been practising and teaching for the same number of years, and that is no coincidence. Teaching, research and inquiry have always been an essential part of how the studio operates. Being a hybrid in this way has a lot of benefits. It’s great to see more design research in the graphic design field, closing the split between the ‘industry’ and the ‘academy’. Having said that, we have two current threats to this – an academic shift towards over-qualified design lecturers with very little exposure to practice, and some private design colleges running short-term software courses marketing themselves as graphic design schools.

Earlier this year a rescue fund organised by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded in saving the iconic Hollywood sign from developers.What typographic icons in your hometown of Melbourne (or Australia), do you think must never be taken down, and why?

There are many – in fact too many to name. For the book I am currently writing we have been researching hundreds of typographic sites – the more you look the more you find. Not that I want to sound too Melbourne-centric, but we do have a lot of them here. It was so sad that Sydney lost Sharpies a few years ago. I’d stand there for ages transfixed by that neon loop. I’m hoping that with the ‘mainstreaming’ of public interest in letters, we can have such sites protected under a new category – typographic significance. You’ve always got to have a dream.