Computer ArtsFeature

The new art of type

The artists and designers producing fascinating work at the creative frontier where illustration meets typography

When it comes to conveying ideas, concepts and even descriptions of the world around us, words are extremely limiting. Meanings just cannot be definitively tied to them. That's where design has a part to play: ensuring words carry their intended meaning into the minds of the waiting public.

According to one school of thought, the larger and bolder a message is written, the more likely it is to be heard. That might be true in laboratory conditions, but we're surrounded by so much legible information that, unable to assimilate it all, we shut it out. Getting the message across now requires more work and more imagination. It calls for wit, for flair. It calls for illustrated type.

The ultimate goal of legibility is achieved when the concrete letters become transparent, removing type from the transaction between author and reader. This remains the ideal. Even if, as Jon Forss of London- and Minneapolis-based design firm Non- Format points out, "Studies have shown that there really isn't one typeface, or family of typefaces, that's more legible than another."

There is another approach, one that runs through the history of design and typography; from Herb Lubalin, the creator of ITC Avant Garde, right back to the art of calligraphy and the illustrated manuscripts of the pre-print era, and perhaps beyond. Its purpose is to build meaning through the aesthetic of the word itself. Display fonts, headlines, logos - their job isn't necessarily to make things clearer, but to direct meaning in a particular way.

What's new about the work of designers like Marian Bantjes, Craig Ward and Job Wouters is their willingness to discover meaning rather than force it. By combining type with their artistic, illustrative practices they lever apart meaning and word, and examine what's been exposed until something catches their eye. Then they draw, paint, cut out, vectorise, photograph and create dioramas until they can say, 'Look! This has this been there all along and you haven't noticed. How about that?'

Canada's Bantjes, whose clients include the magazines Wired and Vibe, is interested not just in communication per se but in levels of communication: "How we can get something out of things that we can read, or even only almost read." She has faith that the audience for her designs will make something for themselves out of whatever she presents them - they can't help it.

Romania's Andrei Robu, another designer interested in the possibilities of type, believes this variability exists in any creative work. "You can never know the value of what you've just done," he says. The designer produces a communication that could be read in the way intended by the client, and the designer's skill determines how likely the desired outcome is. But the mechanism - creativity - is something of a black box. How you make people smile and nod and remember an otherwise dull piece of information is 'art'. Unsurprisingly, graffiti has played a part in this typographic approach, becoming common currency for some designers. "A writer may paint his tag 100 times," explains Robu. "But each one will be different." For the graffiti artist, the act of writing transcends what's written: "It's not the name you have or the words you choose that hold such an important role. It's the form itself." This is the technique that enables meaning to become sufficiently separated from form for the designer, artist or typographer to get in there and see exactly what's going on.

But why is this illustrative brand of typography happening now? Computers gave designers the tools to do amazing things with type, and they gratefully dived into typography head-first. According to artist Tobias Warwick Jones, "It's an area of production that's been totally demystified." The current flourishing of illustrative type is about reintroducing the hand-drawn.

Exploring new territory
Messing around with letter forms and turning them into pictures is as old as the hills, but this latest crop of practitioners are following an upheaval in the field of typography. "The choice of whether to work by hand or choose a font is new," notes Amsterdam's Wouters, whose work burrows deep into our relationship with writing. "Half a century ago all shop windows where still painted by hand, and most type in advertising too." Fifty years later and there's lots of new stuff to be explored in old ways. It's fertile ground.

"I just think people have remembered how fun it is to use the very basic building blocks of design again," says London-based Ward, who is doing just that under the banner Words Are Pictures. Anyone can set pleasing type - there are rules you can learn, books you can read. "But when you decide to interpret an idea or sentiment contained within the text and add to the type - or take away - then it becomes an illustration."

Designers are happy to acknowledge their forbears, and virtually everyone namechecks Lubalin. He attempted to inject the same kind of personality into his type that this new wave of illustrators is working on. It's about taking type in the opposite direction from legibility but towards a purer kind of communication - the pictorial kind.

If you're drawn to type then run with it, but in doing so you also act like a filter for the world around you. "I love the work of people like Lubalin," says Ward. "But I'm equally inspired by new technologies." To that end Ward is working on a couple of interactive pieces at the moment with a programmer friend. He also goes out of his way to acknowledge the importance of a creatively committed student body. "They're the ones coming up behind you with no idea about timings, deadlines and budgets, and just doing really creative work for the sake of it," he explains. "It's an important mindset and ought not to be totally forgotten."

"Of course, the craze for handmade type in the advertising world for example isn't going to last forever," cautions Wouters. But this is all part of a larger picture. "This kind of work will definitely have a new heyday but it will eventually settle down again and become another style that future creatives will call upon, alter and add to," argues Jones.

There is no final destination for design, no goal it's going to reach at some point. It's a process without end, just like our attempts to tie meaning to letter-forms and sounds. A good designer is happy to exploit these shifting sands to his or her advantage, and to just have fun with it. We are meaning-obsessives as a species. Offering those around you a chance to smile at this aspect of human nature while at the same time conveying a more basic, probably commercial, message just might have a bit of nobility about it.

Noble or not, a typographic treatment is not a universal solution. As Ward observes with a little irony, 'Golf Sales' and 'No Parking' signs probably don't need the additional flair that illustration would bring to the job. So when should the two be mixed?

"It's suited to anything that is non-essential and atmospheric," says Bantjes. However, 'non-essential' is always a matter of opinion. "Magazine editors think the title of an article is essential; I think it is not." For Bantjes, an emergency exit sign is essential, but everything below that line is fair game.

Design works by solving problems - communication problems. If illustrative type is perfect for the role, then it should play that role. The headlines Non-Format created for The Wire are a terrific example.

If you need a rule of thumb, Robu can help: "Illustrative type fits well anywhere concept is needed. It's more profound." If the message is deep and the target audience capable of appreciating the effort, then get to it. And if it doesn't work out he has an alternative: "Good typography will always be appreciated."

Fun with type
Decoding the resulting illustrations should be fun. "I truly believe that people enjoy figuring things out," says Bantjes. This naturally assumes the hidden message is worth decrypting, but since it is usually related to the purpose of the piece, it's likely to hit home with the reader. While art-directing The Wire, Non-Format's Forss came to the same conclusion: "We've always been keen on typography that demands a little work from the viewer."

Sound a bit too subtle? Well, an illustrative piece of type can be powerful in its effect - Non-Format's work for Orange proves that point, as does a proposal for paper manufacturer Arctic Paper by Shaz Madani, who recently graduated from the London College of Communication. "It seems that this kind of work has been embraced by advertising agency clients because it's possible to express a very simple message quickly and clearly," says Non-Format's Kjell Ekhorn. Bantjes explains: "The aesthetic of the letter forms can convey a lot about the message itself; it can add layers of implied meaning without further words." What you imply, and how layered, is up to you. Determining whether image lends weight to word or vice versa is the job of the designer: "Everything depends on the target audience and on the message you want to convey," says Ukrainian designer Andrey SHCH.

Though he makes a professional point, one look at the very personal style displayed in his work tells you this is not the whole story. He adds, "Type attracts and still surprises me because of the possibility of expressing feelings, emotions and thoughts with the help of simple lines and curves."

That's the pull of type. Its apparent simplicity is extremely misleading. "Working with type means I can have as many styles as there are typefaces, and as many treatments of each of them as I can think of," says Ward. "I find it very exciting."

If you put that on a sliding scale between pure illustration and pure information then you have a tool capable of conveying complex emotions succinctly. "A new generation of designers are trusting their own two hands again," says Wouters. Right now, illustrated type conveys that feel-good sensation. "The other day I read on a blog that I am from a generation of designers that made type sexy again," he adds. "I liked that remark."

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