Exploiting Context Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon Lettering–as understood by calligraphers or stone carvers–is not part of most undergraduate graphic design or typography programmes. This and the ability of computers and contemporary production methods to generate type at any size on virtually any substrate tends to blind us to the subtle but important differences between lettering and type and to the needs of permanent or semipermanent display in an environmental context as distinct from the needs of print on paper or screen. A deﬁnition of typography we use in our teaching is that ‘typography is the mechanical notation and arrangement of language’. 1 Implicit in this deﬁnition is the idea of duplication and automation. In order to work efﬁciently, the design of typefaces has always been concerned with far more than just the shape of the forms. It must include the inbuilt spacing requirements for each character (which includes the provision of kerned pairs as appropriate), and must address the production aspects which today implies some form of rendering engine. 1 & 2 Another particular characteristic of typefaces is that they are commodities licensed to other users. Type designers are therefore designing for a wide range of circumstances about which they may know little, still less, exercise control. If type is regarded as an industrial product capable of widespread use, lettering
1 (top) Typefaces, with a few notable exceptions, are identically duplicated units with an in-built spacing system (albeit one capable of reﬁnements and modiﬁcation), their ﬂexibility lies in their capacity for unlimited use.
2 (bottom) FF Beowolf by LettError (1990) challenges notions of typefaces being identically duplicated units by including a randomizing factor into its outline printer data.
Exploiting Context ~ Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon 1
can be regarded as its parent discipline. It encompasses all the various hand techniques used to render the alphabetic symbols mankind has used for thousands of years to identify, to instruct and to present or promote.2 Lettering as a discipline is concerned with both the creation and utilisation of letterforms. The letterforms created demonstrate a capacity for formal ﬂexibility which differs from the ﬂexibility inherent in most types: within a single example of lettering, individual letterforms may be repeated or distinct, and their spatial relationships to other characters may vary according to context. It is this essential awareness of the context and the methods of production of a given piece of lettering which are exploited by the lettering artist. The degree to which this is exploited varies: at one extreme may be a concern for utility while at the other is expression.3 Variations in the relative balance of these essential elements of utility and creativity are here explored using examples from two particular aspects of architectural/environmental lettering practice: lettering which relies upon a manufacturing process and in which the medium and surface generate the visual interest 3–9, and lettering which is hand-produced and in which both the medium and the letterforms themselves generate the visual interest 10–15.
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Modularity & manufacture
3, 4 & 5 While typeforms remain constant, lettering allows for a conformity of spirit but variation in detailing. These glazed platform names are from the 1905-7 Leslie Green stations for the ‘Underground Group’. The names on the exterior of the stations used lettering in a similar vein.
6 The Victorians made frequent use of cast terracotta to create architectural details and used the same manufacturing process to create relief letterforms– here the dividing line between lettering and type is very thin. If the terracotta was glazed as here, the Great Western Railway’s Exeter station, the result could be particularly rich.
7 Glazed letter tiles, either ﬂat or cast in relief, are often used to create street names. These from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, have a warmth and humanity to them which more than makes up for the limitations of standard tile widths and the resultant spacing problems.
8 Stencil on skip. Stencilling is another grey area between lettering and type: there is a standard form but no inbuilt spacing mechanism or rendering engine in mind. The visual interest results from the form itself and in their application. The design of French stencil letters has a grace which transcends mere utility, even when used on a builders’ skip.
9 Detail of the St Matthew door by the sculptor Subirachs at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. The letters here, some 8,500 of them, began life as standard plaster casts which were then assembled like metal type and worked on to create texture and depth before being cast in bronze (part of this process is illustrated in Eye 37/00, p.44).
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Exploration of form
10 Geometry has long provided a springboard for type and letterform experiments. Ed Wright’s 1968 lettering for the Metropolitan Police New Scotland Yard building in London shows considerably greater verve than most. The letters on this three-sided spinning sign are made from polished stainless steel and sit proud of the background. This simple movement adds life and (literally) sparkle to an otherwise dull building. Since this photo was taken (April 1999) the lettering has been removed from one face and replaced with a Metropolitan Police crest: not an improvement.
11 Looked at individually several of these ‘letters’ are not letters at all, but context is everything and, taken as a whole, Faraday House (Old Gloucester Street, London WC1) is clearly legible. The letters are carved in relief, they are part of the building, but four years ago they were painted grey which greatly lessens the effect. 12 A different approach to geometry is shown here, Subirachs cast concrete sign at Sants Railway Station, Barcelona. The word ‘barcelona’ is constructed from circles and vertical bars only, set against a background of impressions of railway carriage wheels. These
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elemental letterforms occur in several other of his sculptures in the city (see Eye 37/00, p.44-9). 13 The three previous examples have all used geometry in a relatively straightforward manner, the approach here, a boulangerie in the Marais district of Paris, can only be described as ‘bonkers’. 14 This shopfront in Kensal Rise, London was obviously
painted by someone who didn’t consider consistency of form important; or plan the whole before starting, but the result is somehow still masterly, and must have been more so before the shadow faded. It was painted by a friend of the tailor 15 An inventive, if untutored, example of images used to create letterforms in Wood Green, London N22.
Form dictated by material 16 & 17 Mosaic has been a popular material for decorative purposes since Roman times. While it is possible to use broken or specially cut pieces in order to create any desired pattern, perhaps it is more interesting when used ‘as bought’. In both of these examples from California, the inﬂexibility of the material creates unexpected letterforms. The ‘E’ is at the entrance to a shopping mall. The name, ‘Valencia Town Center’, is spaced around a
What becomes clear when looking at these architectural/environmental examples is that the criteria for assessing lettering cannot be limited to a consideration of the letterforms alone. It is a relationship of four main factors–letterform, placement or situation, scale and material–with the dominant inﬂuence varying from one example to the next. Situation, scale and material can all dictate the forms of the letters themselves 16 & 17 giving them an unexpected beauty. Conversely, if ill-considered, these factors will diminish any value the letterforms may have in isolation 18 & 19. What is also true, is that there is certainly no single style of letter which works for all occasions 20. Poor–or simply quite ordinary–letterforms can also be transformed by scale or colour or situation 21-23.
large circle with no single character square to the grid. Although starting life as characters from a standard typeface, the colour, material, and effect of the grid on each letter’s form makes them far more interesting. In the shop doorway ‘Olive’ from Los Angeles, the mosaic is constructed from more unusual hexagonal tiles. Their shape has made a succession of upright letterforms difﬁcult and this has been fully exploited.
Integration of form, material and position. I 18 & 19 The quality of letterform alone is no guarantee of success if factors such as scale and colour are not taken into account. On Gloucester House (London EC: Little Britain) ﬁne letters following the Trajan Roman
model are incised into Portland stone and painted blue. They cannot compete however with the monumental blandness of the wall and are barely visible, left and above the bike.
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20 Local vernacular traditions of lettering exist in many countries. In Britain, a form which can be called ‘the English letter’ was used from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries before being ousted by the ofﬁcially sanctioned revival of the Trajan Roman in the early twentieth century. The middle line of this example (St Martin’s Schools, London WC2) shows the form at
its best: even letter widths, strong contrast of thick and thin and muscular serifs. Perfect. It is as though the lines above and below exist only to show how good it is.
Form redeemed by material
22 For all intents and purposes the lettering on Parsons’ Library (London WC1: Guilford Street) follows the forms of the typeface Gill Sans but is carved in relief from the same brick as the rest of the building. The straightforward letterforms suit the material well and provide a fully-integrated and decorative, if subtle, architectural frieze.
21 The sheer scale of these steel letters spelling ‘Badalona’ on a radio mast alongside a dual carriageway on the outskirts of Barcelona more than compensates for their standard form. They were based on a visual poem by Juan Brossa (see Eye 37/00, p.44-9).
(For a fuller description of the English letter see James Mosley, ‘English vernacular’ in Motif 11, 1963/4, pp.3-55 and Alan Bartram, Lettering in architecture, Lund Humphries 1975, p.5.)
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23 Reproducing standard typefaces in another medium can often give them an unexpected interest such as those used on this German packing crate. (Vorsicht = with care.)
The considerable and hugely under-valued skill of the lettering artist lies in this ability to balance the impact of each of these factors in relation to the whole for each individual commission. Ironically, it is often the success of commissions sensibly and sensitively managed that renders such skill invisible 24-30. Unaware of the need for informed application and adjustment, the uninitiated wrongly assume that typeforms, as letters, can simply be transferred from one ďŹ eld into another 31 & 32.
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Integration of form, material and position. II
24 The play of light, material (glass, brass and marble), letterform and architecture at Florence Railway Station are exemplars of a holistic approach from an age before signing and corporate identity became shorthand for ‘a dog marking its territory’. 25 Although this bookshop door in Old Elvet, Durham is not helpfully painted, the idea is admirable. The need for a security grill has been used as an opportunity to advertise and the shaped steel strip has contributed to the form of the letters.
26 While German sans serif types such as Futura were informed by a rigid geometry a looser and distinctive–sexy perhaps?–style is apparent in many examples throughout France, Spain and Portugal. With a typical ‘siesta S’ this example is from Barcelona.
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27 This shop fascia in Paris uses letterforms which make the most of pattern and are enlivened by the use of polished stainless steel and the simple use of depth. 28 Running vertically down each side of the main entrance to the old Daily Express headquarters on Fleet Street (London EC4) these geometric sans serif letterforms constructed in relief metal serve to name the building at entry level and are fully integrated features of its Art Deco façade. 29 Another example of the simple and effective use of steel strip to construct
letterforms on the municipal baths in Barcelona. 30 The Waterloo Bridge at Betws-y-Coed in North Wales demonstrates one of the most famous and certainly dramatic uses of the clarendon letterform. The essential robustness of the form is entirely appropriate for reproduction in cast iron especially since the lettering, which proclaims, ‘this arch was constructed in the same year as the battle of Waterloo was fought’, is not so much applied to the bridge, as physically part of the structure.
There is so much that is uninspiring and unsuccessful in lettering terms that it is all to easy to become used to bad practice and simply accept it. And yet, recent examples which serve to visually enrich our experience of letterforms and the environment in which they are located 33 & 34, also serve to remind us that there is signiﬁcant value in recognising–and teaching–the difference between lettering and type.
Type enlarged 31 Here, the forms of the typeface Platelet (Conor Mangat, 1992) have simply been reproduced as carved letters in stone for the purposes of naming a hotel in Glasgow, Scotland. As much as anything it shows a lack of knowledge and respect on the part of the designers for the skills of the craftsman employed. 32 Size alone cannot always redeem a lack of imagination. Unlike Badalona (see 21) where the letters exploit a central three dimensional object and the steel allows for reﬂections and surface interest, at Cité
Europe–the shopping city on the outskirts of Calais–the huge concrete letters (approximately 2m high) which greet visitors are bland and ill-considered. Although slightly let down by being seen against a plethora of lampstands, standard road signing and planting, the biggest disappointment is with the design of the letters themselves. Or rather, the lack of design: instead of responding to the site, the material, or the distinctive French style of sans serif often used for shop fascias and the like, the typeface Futura is used.
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Integration of form, material and position. III, recent good examples 33 While the neighbouring railway stations of Euston, St Pancras and Kings Cross use their architecture to announce themselves, the British Library (Euston Road, London NW1) sits back from the road to be approached through a dramatic set of gates and across an enclosed garden. The gates themselves, from David Kindersley’s workshop, do not contain lettering, they are lettering. British Library is repeated and progresses from ‘light’ to ‘ultra black’. It is only a pity that the success of the gates is diluted by the ineffectual lettering above (not shown) where the relief carved forms on red sandstone are both ill-composed and entirely superﬂuous.
Notes 1 Phil Baines & Andrew Haslam, Type & typography, Laurence King 2002, pp.7-9. 2 See Richard Hollis’s discussion about the functions of graphic design in Graphic design: a concise history, Thames & Hudson 1994, p.10. 3 These two poles are identiﬁed and extensively explored within the writings of Nicolete Gray who pioneered the study of the ‘art’ of lettering: see especially Lettering on buildings, Architectural Press 1960 and A history of lettering, Phaidon 1986. Acknowledgments All images by the authors except: 1, Jeremy Tankard; 11, Central Lettering Record at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design; and 31, Graven Images.
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34 Lettering does not have to fulﬁl a utilitarian rôle. It can also exist as art and contribute to the quality of a space. In the recently refurbished Edward Square in North London, a specially comissioned poem by Andrew Motion has been ‘carved’ by Gary Breeze on two low concrete walls alongside a grassed play area. The exposed aggregate of the no-nonsense letterforms contrasts with the smooth surround, they vary in size with the height of the wall and the rythmn of the words themselves.
The authors In addition to being freelance designers, Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon teach typography on the BA(Hons) Graphic Design course at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London. Part of their teaching responsibility is to curate the Central Lettering Record, an archive set up in 1963 by Nicholas Biddulph, joined later by Nicolete Gray. Among their writings on the subject matter described here are the website publiclettering.org.uk and the book Signs, lettering in the environment (Laurence King 2008).