The future of typography – is communication reverting to type?
In any discussion of typography, font design and printing it’s probably a good idea to start by trying to pin down a few definitions.
Typography means the art of putting type onto a page in a way that’s legible and aesthetically pleasing. This can involve selecting a font (or typeface – there is, or was, a difference), deciding on point sizes, arranging the line-spacing or leading and letter-spacing or tracking and making judgments on the space between pairs of letters, known as kerning.
It’s a skill put into practice by illustrators and artists as well as graphic designers, art directors, typesetters and typographers.
Typography can also bleed into type or font design, though, strictly speaking, that’s a separate discipline. As mentioned above, originally a typeface was a type design that contained a set of fonts. So, for example, Arial is a typeface and Arial Bold, Arial Italic and Arial Narrow are different fonts of that typeface. Today, typeface and font are often used interchangeably, something supposedly the fault of Steve Jobs after he mis-named typefaces as ‘fonts’ on early Apple computers.
Historically, typography was a highly skilled job. In the letterpress age, individual letters in the form of wood and metal movable type were put together by hand for each page. This took a lot of time and eventually mechanised techniques, usually involving casting of the type, hence the term ‘hot metal’, took over.
In recent years, digital technology has democratised typography, so today anyone can use and abuse type onscreen without much thought about the impact using serifs, upper or lower case or a variety of typefaces may have on effective communication.
At the same time, the craft of typography has come back into its own, now as an artisanal skill. You can see it, and its influence, in handmade greetings cards, on placards at demonstrations, in graffiti and in the work of illustrators like Steven Wilson and esteemed letterpress artist Alan Kitching.
We talked individually to Steven and Alan to get their take on typography in the 21st Century.
Typography is very much part of Steve’s work, and he seems to enjoy working with varieties of typefaces whenever he gets the chance.
Do you have any formal typographical training?
No. I studied ‘illustration’ at University of Brighton. It was a very experimental course, but we shared a studio with the graphic design students and the two disciplines seemed worlds apart. I would go so far as to say at that point I was actually put off using typography through fear of failure, as the graphic designers talked about typography as some kind of science and words like kerning seemed very alien to me so I steered well clear of it. It wasn’t until much later in my career when I had more confidence that I began to treat typography like I would any other image and just trusted my eye as to whether it felt right or not and started using it as a major part of my work.
Do you think a knowledge of kerning, line and letter-spacing and other typographical skills is necessary for an illustrator?
It might help, but equally may be a hindrance. As I mentioned above, it really depends how you are trying to use typography. As far as using type as image, then there are no rights or wrongs in terms of rules and what you can and can’t do. As far as I’m concerned the only thing to ask yourself is ‘does it work or not?’. I watch my kids hand-write type sometimes and it’s all over the place, but visually there is something very appealing about it. So, based on that I would hate to declare some kind of formal training or knowledge is absolutely necessary.
What first attracted you to typography?
It was always there in the back of my mind that it was an area that I had yet to investigate. I’ve always tried to experiment with my work and typography was this huge area of design that was untouched in my work for the first five or six years of my practice. It was just lack of confidence that prevented me from attempting it, but once I started to treat the letterforms as I would any other image it felt more comfortable and in tune with the rest of my work. There was a big explosion in expressive and illustrative type across design about 10-15 years ago, with the likes of Seb Lester. And seeing some of the things people were doing around that time was so at odds with what my previous perception of typography was. It was seeing this new approach that made me rethink what type could be and how I might treat typography in a way that suits me.
What makes you decide to introduce typography into one of your pieces?
Depends. Sometimes need and sometimes choice. I think having illustrators handle type is pretty normal these days, so mainly it’s because it’s part of what is expected from a client. That wasn’t the case twenty years ago when I started.
Do you get asked to create typefaces for clients?
Yes, I often get asked to illustrate quotes or slogans for a campaign, so sometimes it’s easier just to create a bespoke typeface. In the last year I’ve created bespoke alphabets for Henri Bendel and also Equinox Gyms.
Do you only use your own typefaces?
No, not at all. I use type more often than not in my work now, but, again, I don’t adhere to any singular approach in any of my work. Sometimes I design my own typeface, sometimes I use a found typeface I like and other times I will use a typeface I like as a start point but then adapt it to suit what I am doing.
Do you prefer to create typefaces digitally or by hand?
I mainly work digitally so it’s digital for me.
Alan Kitching started out as an apprentice compositor in his native County Durham, gaining expertise in the art of hand and line type composition, before founding an experimental printing workshop, with Anthony Froshaug, at Watford College of Technology. Later, he started his own design practice, before starting letterpress printing at Omnific in 1985. He began letterpress workshops there, going on to found the Typography Workshop in Clerkenwell, and owns a large collection of theatrical wood types housed in Kennington.
How do you prefer to be described? As a typographer, a letterpress designer, or something else?
I’ve been many things in my typographic life. I started off as a straightforward graphic designer in the sixties and seventies and eighties, with Derek Birdsall at Omnific in Covent Garden in 1968, I think. And we worked together until 1988, 20 years. I became a partner in the Omnific design firm. When I left Omnific I set up a letterpress and called myself a typographic artist. So, I do prints which I generate myself in editions of about 20 copies. I don’t print like proper printing is done. I don’t make numerous copies. They’re signed prints. I work through a gallery called Advanced Graphics London, who are fine art print publishers. They’re well established and deal in fine art, all their people are fine artists, a lot of Royal Academicians are on their books.
So, I’ve got two strings. One is Advanced Graphics, which is fine art publishing, screen printing. And the other one is Andrew Coningsby at Début Art, which is the commercial aspect of it. I do commercial work through them, for clients who want book covers or posters – I did the poster for the Shakespeare Globe, things like that. For things like that I create one image, like an illustration, which gets used. And Advanced Graphics work is editioned work. It doesn’t get scanned, it just gets sold through the gallery as letterpress prints. Or what I now call block printing, because when you say letterpress people think of wedding invitations and business cards.
What was your earliest experience of typography?
Well, I started off as an apprentice compositor which is a typesetter, a metal typesetter in the fifties when I left school.
That was in Darlington, County Durham, north-east England.
My parents and my schoolteacher decided on that career for me, really. It was a very good trade because I loved doing it. It was the nearest I could get to being a poster artist. Darlington was a heavy industrial town, on the edge of the Durham coal-mining area, and artists weren’t really needed. Or typographers.
I knew pretty much straight away that there was more to it. I didn’t quite know what, but I saw very early work by people like Jan Tschichold, from Switzerland. And one or two English designers. In those days, designers weren’t around. I saw this work in magazines and I thought, this is very interesting stuff and it’s not like what I’m doing where I’m working. So, I knew there was something else to do.
I left my apprenticeship and found myself at Watford College of Technology. That’s where I met Anthony Froshaug. He was a very influential teacher in Britain and THE big man. A fantastic designer and character. He became senior lecturer at the college and I became his kind of assistant. He had a little printing outfit in the art school which I ran, and we called it The Experimental Printing Workshop. All letterpress stuff. This is 1964. I worked with Anthony until 1967 when he left. It was a very fruitful time, almost a second apprenticeship, only in the design aspect of things. That’s how I started out. Watford was the big print centre of England, really, which is why they had a good college there.
Anthony knew everybody in the design field in London. Through him I got to know all the designers in the capital. People like Derek Birdsall I met, and worked with later. And Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes, who were the founders of Pentagram. I met those guys long before the Pentagram days. They were called Fletcher Forbes Gill, with Bob Gill. Alan Fletcher’s now dead, unfortunately – he was one of the best designers the world’s ever seen. Bob Gill left the trio and went back to New York quite early in the seventies, leaving Alan and Colin in London, where they started Pentagram. Went on to be the biggest design agency in the world. Anthony died in 1984.
How would you describe letterpress to someone who’d never come across it before?
Well, letterpress printing is basically making an image from a raised block and you have the backgrounds cut away – like a lino cut. You leave the design standing and cut away what you don’t want. What’s still standing, you ink it and press from that. That’s basically the principle. Whereas silkscreen printing is done through a screen and is just one surface, and lithography is again one surface. Letterpress is what you call a relief process, the relief is the image, and the background is cut out.
Who or what has had the biggest influence on your approach to what you do?
Froshaug. And a Dutch typographer called Hendrik Werkman, who died in 1945. He was a poet and printmaker using wood block on a big Albion press, which are huge iron presses.
Do you create your own typefaces or work purely with existing ones?
No, I don’t create my own, I’ve got a vast collection of wood block fonts in my cabinets. Everything I do comes from them.
I have mainly one source for them, which is a place in Somerset called Wrington. A little village that had a big printmaker in it, who had all this type. My late wife Celia Stothard and I bought the whole collection. A friend told me about it. It was a vast collection, all sorts. This printer had printed theatrical posters and cinema posters for everybody in Britain. All done in this tiny village in Somerset. And he had a vast collection of type, which he wanted to get rid of when he retired. So, we had to buy it all. That’s why I’ve got it all. It’s all here.
What do you think typography adds to the printed word?
I like to think what I do is expressing something about the meaning of the words. That’s what I’m interested in. That poster there, which says Frida and Diego, that’s referring to Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. Mexican artists. I’ve got that font, which is an outline letter, and comes from the Wrington collection. I’ve used it in a way that tries to suggest the ziggurats in Mexico, and a Mexican influence through the colour and shape of the letters. That’s an example of what I try to do.
I did a piece which is a poem by Apollinaire – ‘Il Pleut’ about rain coming down the window. He wrote it in a book as if it was raindrops on the page. So I interpreted it as an illustrative typographic piece. I tried to evoke the spirit and the meaning of the words, and suggest to whoever’s looking at it that it looks like rain. And I used a colour that suggests water, too.
Do you consider letterpress a form of art or a practical craft?
Well, again, it can be both really, because people still use it to print books, invitations to weddings and so on. Some people do artwork with it, though not many. They make colourful arrangements with type and stuff. I don’t – I think it’s too much playing around. I’m coming from the angle of the meaning of the text and the word, not just making pretty patterns. It’s all very well, but so what, you know?
What kinds of clients did you work with?
I’ve done work for the Royal Mail, Penguin Books, the Guardian was a big client. Some come through Debut, some direct. Shakespeare’s Globe – they came through Debut. I did a thing for TfL, to celebrate 100 years of the Tube lettering – the font on the tube, Johnston capital letters. That was first used on the Tube in 1916. So, 2016 was 100 years and TfL did a celebration of that and they invited various people to do posters using the Johnston font.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in typography in the years you’ve been involved?
Well, the complete demise of letterpress printing as a traditional thing. And the advent of the digital world. And that’s come through more and more in the last 10 years, since the computer became more ubiquitous.
I’ve never taken up digital printing. I’ve got a computer there, but I don’t do much on it. All the work I do comes from the blocks and then gets scanned. We don’t design through a computer. It’s so slow.
How did you move into teaching?
Froshaug was a fantastic teacher. I came into it through him, really. Then I was teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, which was the forerunner of Central St Martins. In those days, there were two colleges – the Central School in Holborn, and St Martins in St Martin’s Lane. St Martin’s was a fine art/illustration school and the Central School was more design. Then they crossed over and moved up to Kings Cross. But they were separate when I was teaching. Then I left and didn’t want to teach any more.
Derek Birdsall, who was senior partner in Omnific, got the professorship of graphic design at the Royal College of Art, which is pretty much a full-time job and he asked me to join him in the college to teach. I didn’t want to do it. I thought, I’ve done all that. I finally succumbed – he said just give me a day, and I went. Two years later, he left. By this time, I’d left Omnific to do my printing, start my own workshop. And I also set up a workshop at the college, because they had all the equipment there. In the end I was there 16 years. Considering I didn’t want to go in the first place, I’m glad I did because I had a fantastic time. And I met some great people – some of the students are very well known now. And I did all my teaching through letterpress workshops, which developed into what I’m doing now.
Can you tell us about your workshops?
Well, I run the workshops with Kelvyn Smith, who used to be my apprentice assistant. He came out of college and worked for me for a while. He worked with me really, I don’t like people working for me. Kelvyn went off on his own and then, I think it was four years ago, we decided to combine again to run this design school, called the New Typography Workshop. We have students there and we run courses.
Is what you do today more about keeping alive a tradition or taking it somewhere new?
I’m not interested in keeping it alive. And I’m not interested in making it new. I just do what I do. I’m always kind of developing it in my own style, if you like. More ambitious things to do with it. There are always ambitious projects, long-term and very complicated, that I’ve got going on.
Do you think letterpress has a bright future or could it become an endangered art form?
I think it probably has, actually. I think it probably has. I mean someone here just bought a press – she got a little letterpress press to do things on. There’s still equipment about. Some of them are worth a lot of money. I paid nothing for mine. It’s an antique, but it still works. And now they’ve become very valuable, because they’re getting scarce. And people are realising the value of them.
The funny thing is that you can get an image on a letterpress quicker than you can on a computer. The ink and the paper and the impression come together on the surface of the block. You can ink it up and take a print just like that. It’s very, very quick. In some ways, it circumvents the need for digital technology. It would be an interesting area to look into. Not by me, though. I’ve got too many things to do.
Images provided by Steven Wilson and Alan Kitching.