MOVING THE STICKS AROUND: DESIGNING WESTERN LETTER FORMS

08 November 2006
Colin Banks, President, International Society of Typographic Designers
Colin Banks, President, International Society of Typographic Designers

Talk at TypoJanchi Conference

It is a humbling pilgrimage for me to make, for me to come here to Korea and speak to you in this the birthplace of moveable metal type. My thanks to all of you who have made it possible.

Korea where typography began; type, the material I have been lucky enough to work with and enjoy for over 50 years. Typography like all design, is design with a purpose, its purpose is communication... about passing on information, about entertainment, persuasion, history and custom, about commerce. I am a typographer.

But typographers are designers who have a problem unlike that in any other form of design unique to the form of the letters and typefaces that they use: although designers of any kind should not fall asleep in the dirty bath water of the past, typographic design does not make sense unless it makes an appropriate reference to the past. Type can only communicate if its readers share an understanding of the shapes it uses, those shapes that have built up slowly over centuries, centuries stretching back way beyond the recent past, beyond the invention and Western reinvention of printing.

In the English children's story 'Winnie the Pooh' about 'a bear of very small brain', his friend, Eeyore the donkey observes that the capital letter 'A is just three sticks put together'. If we people in the West do not agree though that it is an A, the whole complicated business of writing and printing collapses.

So I must repeat, typographers should not stray to far from the conventions of the past otherwise what we produce may have other purposes like Fine Art, but as communication it will just be rubbish.

Stravinsky said the composer of the music simply puts the notes together, nothing more. Equally one could say that the typographer puts the words together, nothing more. But I am not of that persuasion. Glen Gould, the great Canadian pianist, said most of what we hear comes from Johann Sebastian Bach, but the rest comes from Glen Gould.

That minority makes all the difference; and this is closer to the way I regard the responsibilities of typographers to words and letters.

What can we do with that percentage, what opportunities are there for development, for change, open to a typeface designer, because we already understand the cultural problems of limited recognition?

1. Change can come about because of changes in culture and fashion, we understand this as style;

2. Change can come about through developments in the technology of both making the letter forms and reproducing the words... for example we do not design digital letterforms for reproduction on a cathode ray tube in the same way as we would if we still made printing with steel punches, brass matrices and lead type.

3. The purpose for which we need the type often determines new shapes: I have designed typefaces for the United Kingdom telephone directories, that job had very specific and technical needs; I have designed other alphabets for signposting places that belong to the national heritage, here the character of the lettering had to be in sympathy with the buildings.

All this may sound very restrictive, until you try it, then you will find that within these limitations there is an infinity of possibilities, of subtlety of curve, of angle, of weight, of balance. But does not any true designer, whether he designs a automobile or bank, feed eagerly on the precise demands of the job he has to do? We may if we are lucky, in the course of our work achieve art, but that is not how we should start a job, a designer's task, is to resolve someone else problem, not seek self realisation. Fine Art is ultimately introspective, design is something else.

There are more than 25,000 typefaces in use in the West today, but no two of them are exactly the same. So there is plenty of room for the designers personal hand to show without type degenerating into abuse of the common heritage in alphabets.

That is the way into the future: I look on the past with affection, but look to the future with passion.



About the Author
Colin Banks founded with John Miles Banks&Miles (1958-1998), with offices in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Bruxelles. Their clients, included the British Council, English National Opera, the European Parliament Election campaigns, producing corporate identities for the Post Office, Royal Mail, British Telecom, and other identities for many UK Government agencies and universities.

These included the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Fondation Roi Baudouin, City and Guilds, Commission for Racial Equality, United Nations University, and major publications etc for UNHCR Geneva. He was consultant to London Transport for over thirty years, then Mott Macdonald engineers and Oxford University Press. Banks' work has been exhibited in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Bruxelles, Kyoto, Delhi, Madras, Bombay, Seoul, Hong Kong etc.

Vice President Chartered Society of Designers (1974-76) and twice President of the International Society of Typographic Designers (1988-93, 2000-2004), he has numerous awards, such as Buchkunst Ausstellung, 50 Best German Books, Gold Medal Brno, Royal Society of Arts Green Award, BBC Environmental Prize, Technology and Creation Paris Cite, ISTD International, AErespris Denmark. Colin Banks was involved with development programmes in India and family planning in Indonesia; and with design education in UK and Denmark and the US. He frequently lectures, and contributes to journals in many countries.