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modularity & manufacture 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 ter-

context Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon

racotta 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

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 semi-permanent 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 in-built 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.

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 in-built spacing mechanism or rendering engine in mind. The visual interest results from the form itself and in their 1. Typefaces, with a few notable exceptions, are identically duplicated units with an in-built spacing system

application. The design of French stencil letters has a grace which transcends mere utility, even when used on a builders’ skip.

(albeit one capable of refinements and modification), their flexibility lies in their capacity for unlimited use.

type design

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

2. FF Beowolf by LettError (1990)

worked on to create texture and depth before being cast

challenges notions of typefaces be-

in bronze (part of this process is illustrated in Eye 37/00,

ing identically duplicated units by


including a randomizing factor into its outline printer data.

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. 1  Phil Baines & Andrew Haslam, Type & typography, Laurence King 2002, pp.7-9.


exploration of form

If type is regarded as an industrial product capable of widespread use, lettering 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.

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 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.

10. Geometry has long provided a springboard for

11. Looked at individually several of these ‘letters’ are

type and letterform experiments. Ed Wright’s 1968

not letters at all, but context is everything and, taken

lettering for the Metropolitan Police New Scotland

as a whole, Faraday House (Old Gloucester Street,

Yard building in London shows considerably greater

London WC1) is clearly legible. The letters are carved

verve than most. The letters on this three-sided spin-

in relief, they are part of the building, but four years

ning sign are made from polished stainless steel and

ago they were painted grey which greatly lessens the

sit proud of the background. This simple movement


adds life and (literally) sparkle to an otherwise dull

15.An inventive, if untutored, example of images used to create letterforms in Wood Green, London N22.

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.


2  See Richard Hollis’s discussion about the functions of graphic design in Graphic design: a concise history, Thames & Hudson 1994, p.10.


form dictated by material

integration on 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.

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 16, 17. Mosaic has been a popular material for decorative purposes since Roman times. While it is possible to use

how good it is.

broken or specially cut pieces in order to create any desired pattern, perhaps it is more interesting when used ‘as

(For a fuller description of the English letter see James Mosley,

bought’. In both of these examples from California, the inflexibility of the material creates unexpected letterforms.

‘English vernacular’ in Motif 11, 1963/4, pp.3-55 and Alan Bartram,

The ‘E’ is at the entrance to a shopping mall. The name, ‘Valencia Town Center’, is spaced around a large circle

Lettering in architecture, Lund Humphries 1975, p.5.)

with no single character square to the grid. Although starting life as characters from a standard typeface, the col-

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).

our, 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.


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.


form redeemed by material


integration on form, material and position II

24. The play of light, material (glass, brass and marble),

26. While German sans serif types such as Futura were

letterform and architecture at florence Railway Station

informed by a rigid geometry a looser and distinctive

22. For all intents and purposes the lettering on

23. Reproducing standard typefaces in another me-

are exemplars of a holistic approach from an age be-

- sexy perhaps? - style is apparent in many examples

Parsons’ Library (London WC1: Guilford Street) follows

dium can often give them an unexpected interest such

fore signing and corporate identity became shorthand

throughout France, Spain and Portugal. With a typical

the forms of the typeface Gill Sans but is carved in

as those used on this German packing crate. (Vorsicht

for ‘a dog marking its territory’.

‘siesta S’ this example is from Barcelona.

relief from the same brick as the rest of the building.

= with care.).

The straightforward letterforms suit the material well

25.Although this book-

28. Running vertically

and provide a fully-integrated and decorative, if subtle,

shop door in Old Elvet,

down each side of the

architectural frieze.

Durham is not helpfully

main entrance to the

painted, the idea is ad-

old Daily Express head-

mirable. The need for a

quarters on Fleet Street

security grill has been

(London EC4) these

used as an opportu-

geometric sans serif

nity to advertise and the

letterforms constructed

shaped steel strip has

in relief metal serve to

contributed to the form

name the building at

of the letters.

entry level and are fully

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.

integrated features of its Art Deco façade.

27. This shop fascia in Paris uses letterforms which

29. The Waterloo Bridge at Betws-y-Coed in North

make the most of pattern and are enlivened by the

Wales demonstrates one of the most famous and cer-

21. The sheer scale of these steel letters

use of polished stainless steel and the simple use of

tainly dramatic uses of the clarendon letterform. The

spelling ‘Badalona’ on a radio mast along-


essential robustness of the form is entirely appropriate

side a dual carriageway on the outskirts

for reproduction in cast iron especially since the letter-

of Barcelona more than compensates for

ing, which proclaims, ‘this arch was constructed in the

their standard form. They were based on a

same year as the battle of Waterloo was fought’, is not

visual poem by Juan Brossa (see Eye 37/00,

so much applied to the bridge, as physically part of the




type enlarged

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.

31. Here, the forms of the typeface Platelet (Conor

32. Size alone cannot always redeem a lack of im-

Mangat, 1992) have simply been reproduced as

agination. Unlike Badalona (see 21) where the letters

carved letters in stone for the purposes of naming a

exploit a central three dimensional object and the

hotel in Glasgow, Scotland. As much as anything it

steel allows for reflections and surface interest, at

shows a lack of knowledge and respect on the part of

Cité Europe - the shopping city on the outskirts of

the designers for the skills of the craftsman employed.

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.

integration on form, material and position III 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

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). 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 field into another (31 & 32). 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.

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.

an enclosed garden. The gates themselves, from David Kindersley’s workshop, do not contain lettering, they

In addition to being freelance designers, Phil Baines & Catherine Dixon

are lettering. British Library is repeated and progresses

teach typography on the BA(Hons) Graphic Design course at Central Saint

from ‘light’ to ‘ultra black’. It is only a pity that the suc-

Martins College of Art & Design in London. Part of their teaching responsi-

cess of the gates is diluted by the ineffectual lettering

bility is to curate the Central Lettering Record, an archive set up in 1963 by

above (not shown) where the relief carved forms on

Nicholas Biddulph, joined later by Nicolete Gray. Among their writings on

red sandstone are both ill-composed and entirely superfluous.


the authors

the subject matter described here are the website and the book Signs, lettering in the environment (Laurence King 2008).


Exploiting Context  

Redesign of an article using a maximum of 10 pages and fitting in all the 34 images.

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