Computer Arts

Everyday inspiration

Typography is used everywhere, to inform and entertain, to engage and sell. Draw inspiration from what's around you...

Next time you're in your local corner shop, take a good look around you. Scan the shelves of products and look at the variety of magazines on the racks - in particular the logos and cover typography used on your favourite design magazines. If you're searching for inspiration for a particular product, check out the packaging of similar goods. Look at the crisps on the shelves, the drinks in the fridges and the rows of confectionary. Just by being aware of all these great sources of inspiration - the bright colours, high-impact designs and different uses of typography - these products will start to jump out at you. You'll find hundreds of different type treatments and designs in one shop alone.

As far as David Hubner of design bureau and type foundry formlos is concerned, the inspiration that comes from product design often seems to feed back into the same market. "Especially for packaging - it may be important to use rather big, bold, strong, colourful type. Bigger, better, sold," he says. But maybe that isn't always the best way to keep design fluid and engaging? "At least that's what most 'creative' advertising agencies think. I'm not too sure about bigger being better. I'm almost always impressed by thoughtful and thought-provoking classic typography on packaging and signage."

Dead type living on

So many examples of typography and lettering make up part of our everyday world, and as a result are subject to the ravages of time, weather, vandalism and general wear. This is no more apparent than in public signs, but rather than losing their quality or aesthetic appeal, they are often reborn and re-interpreted in new ways.

Shop and street signs, whether handwritten with a marker pen or moulded from plastic and backlit in a window display, are often the most powerful typographic displays we encounter in our lives, whether we realise it at the time or not. "I love aged, weathered text so commonly seen on old shop signage," says Multimedia Designer James Mellers of www.thismanslife.co.uk. And as we find inspiration in these unlikely sources, there are also ways to recreate them. "When working on 'grungy' design projects and wanting to recreate this damaged look for your type," explains James, "there's no better way, no combination of filters or effects I've seen, better than physically damaging it yourself. Print out your type, then screw it up, tear it, wet it, dry it, sit on it all day in your hot studio... then scan it back in."

Clearly, big typography is the first thing we notice out and about. But look closer at the world around you and the written form is everywhere. In any one room, there's bound to be some printed form of lettering within your field of view. Posters, books, CDs, company names printed onto products, receipts, lettering on coins - each one of these has been treated in a different way, but how? Why does one example use serifed or italicised type while the other doesn't?

Kemie Guaida, self-diagnosed fontaholic and designer at www.pixilate.com is the kind of person to notice these things. "I love hand-lettered signage and unusual handwriting samples, and use it as inspiration for most of my typography," he explains. "A store sign, a handwritten note, the menu in a cafe. I usually have in my wallet little scraps of paper with letters sketched and scribbled from what I see. I've made fonts from architectural plans I saw at a museum exhibition and from several friends' handwriting. And there's still all those little papers waiting in a drawer for their turn."

Custom-built typography

Many of the typefaces we see in everyday use are custom built. Someone (most of the time another designer) has realised that the broad range of typefaces already available to the world just won't cover their needs, or may even appreciate the extra kudos and freshness that a company typeface will add to a brand - so they design their own. Think about what the Coca Cola logo would look like in Arial, or the Ford logotype simply knocked out in the nearest font the brand designer could find. It's just not the same.

So if we look at these new ways of treating typographical design, what can we learn. And how is that type used to convey information? Designer Eric Carl at www. amtrea.com is working on a CD package design inspired by a most unlikely source. "The style of it is based completely on the typography you see on the side of trains, in the codes and logotype," says Eric. "The idea is to take the ultra-information/code look of the typography into the look of the artwork. It's a complete lack of aesthetics, it's only designed to relay important information, and therefore creates its own aesthetic without even trying. It ends up ambiguous and intriguing, I think, to people who aren't familiar with the way the code works, and leaves a sense of technical mystery which comes through in the music, in the sense of something unfamiliar travelling by."

Using inspiration

Keeping an eye on the world of typography needn't mean carrying a camera or sketchbook around with you everywhere you go. Of course, that's one option, meaning you'll always be able to exactly record whatever you want - with the more recent technological developments in smaller camera and phone cameras, this is becoming a lot easier. And if you can pick up your 'inspiration' to scan it later, all the better.

But you don't need to take it so literally. The more you look, the more ideas seep in. Sometimes just a short note reminding you of what you saw is enough. Consider why typography has been treated in one particular way, and carry back their ideas into your own work. Discover what the original designer was trying to do - even if that 'designer' was just a butcher chalking up his special prime cuts for the day.

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