A2Z+ Al­pha­bets and Signs


Computer Arts - - Experimental Type -

One fan­tas­tic re­source for type-based in­spi­ra­tion is A2Z+, a gor­geous archive of old let­ter­ing and type. The 320-page ref­er­ence book is packed with un­usual, in­ven­tive fonts, and con­tains a wealth of ty­po­graphic ephemera and graph­ics that cover ev­ery­thing from type spec­i­mens and sign­writ­ers’ al­pha­bets to op­ti­cian’s old eye-charts, lo­go­types, sign lan­guage and sem­a­phore al­pha­bets, mono­grams, old book and mag­a­zine cov­ers. Au­thors Ju­lian Rothen­stein and Mel Good­ing had no con­straints around era, genre or pur­pose when they cu­rated the projects – the re­sult is an aes­thet­i­cally ex­pres­sive and cul­ture-rich source of ty­po­graphic eye candy for de­sign­ers. A2Z+ is pub­lished by Lau­rence King in con­junc­tion with Red­stone Press. £25. www.thered­stoneshop.com/prod­ucts/a2z

dif­fer­ent enough. We were search­ing for some­thing new, and to get that you have to push, dis­cuss, re­flect, push again, chal­lenge each other, be highly self-crit­i­cal, push again and even­tu­ally you land some­where uniquely in­ter­est­ing.”

He con­tin­ues: “When we were re­search­ing the project, we found many type­faces and ty­po­graphic ex­pres­sions por­tray­ing tech­nol­ogy that failed to get be­yond the clichés – that was some­thing we were keen to break. Read­abil­ity was para­mount, but the client showed a huge amount of brav­ery to re­sist di­lut­ing the work for the masses.”


An­other stand­out project in­volved the pair heav­ily merg­ing type and il­lus­tra­tion for an ar­ti­cle in IBM Sys­tems mag­a­zine, which iden­ti­fied a shift from se­lec­tive en­cryp­tion to full per­va­sive en­cryp­tion. At the time, the de­sign­ers had started ex­plor­ing al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tives for their ty­pog­ra­phy us­ing the on­line mod­el­ling and an­i­ma­tion pro­gram Cinema 4D, even­tu­ally com­ing up with the idea to in­cor­po­rate the head­line onto a sin­gle plane and build it out from a com­plex frame­work of com­puter com­po­nents.

“The idea was to make the whole piece be­come as seam­less as pos­si­ble, bal­anc­ing the leg­i­bil­ity while nat­u­rally in­cor­po­rat­ing the ty­pog­ra­phy,” ex­plains Quain­ton. “Each el­e­ment of the let­ter­forms had to be in­di­vid­u­ally mod­elled with a rel­a­tively high level of de­tail within C4D to make them look like true in­di­vid­ual com­po­nents. We wanted the over­all aes­thetic to be dra­matic, so we opted for heavy back­light­ing, which gave it more depth and helped

draw you into the head­line.”

In this ex­per­i­men­tal let­ter­ing space, tra­di­tional type de­sign con­cerns like leg­i­bil­ity and read­abil­ity don’t play the same role as they do with con­ven­tional type. But as type ex­pert and au­thor Stephen Coles points out, there are many de­grees of read­abil­ity and leg­i­bil­ity, any­way. Coles is as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor and ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor at the Let­ter­form Archive, a non-profit col­lec­tion of over 40,000 items re­lated to let­ter­ing, ty­pog­ra­phy, cal­lig­ra­phy and graphic de­sign, span­ning thou­sands of years of his­tory. As he ex­plains, read­abil­ity mat­ters only if you want some­one to read the let­ters, and leg­i­bil­ity mat­ters only if you want some­one to recog­nise them.

He high­lights the psy­che­delic poster artists of the 1960s and 70s, which are well rep­re­sented in the Archive col­lec­tion. “They prided them­selves on mak­ing con­cert in­for­ma­tion dif­fi­cult to read, but it wasn’t im­pos­si­ble if you spent some time with the piece and learned to recog­nise the move­ment’s let­ter­ing styles,” he ex­plains. “The work em­braced ‘slow read­ing’ and re­warded those who were in the know. This proves – like in graf­fiti – that read­abil­ity is in the eye of the reader.”

So what about when ex­per­i­men­tal type is de­signed within a more rigid com­mer­cial or con­ven­tional set­ting? To what ex­tent can emo­tion, tone, per­son­al­ity and mean­ing be evoked through let­ter­forms in a space where tra­di­tional type rules have more power over form and shape?


FS Sally Tri­estina is the re­sult of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween graphic de­signer Astrid Stavro and Font­smith se­nior de­signer Fer­nando Mello. Com­mis­sioned to tai­lor an ex­ist­ing Font­smith type­face as part of It’s Nice That’s Lo­cal Char­ac­ters se­ries, Stavro de­cided to give ty­po­graphic ex­pres­sion to her Ital­ian home­town of Tri­este. She high­lighted the town’s “split per­son­al­ity” as a key in­spi­ra­tion – as well as the let­ter­press blocks from her fam­ily’s print­ing busi­ness – be­fore choos­ing to splice to­gether two weights of Font­smith type­face FS Sally, an el­e­gant, book­ish font with chunky ser­ifs rem­i­nis­cent of wooden block type­faces and an adapt­able rhythm.

“Tri­este is a city full of con­trasts,” she ex­plains. “By splic­ing two con­trast­ing fonts, I tried to evoke its mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and mul­ti­fac­eted na­ture. The merg­ing of the type­faces por­trays the aes­thet­ics of move­ment, of fron­tiers, of the old and new; a split per­son­al­ity that is slightly jarred and the merged

“You have to be highly self-crit­i­cal, push again and even­tu­ally you land some­where uniquely in­ter­est­ing.” ROB GON­ZA­LEZ SAW­DUST CO-FOUNDER

Above and an­ti­clock­wise Spreads from A2Z+: Jazz Age Al­pha­bet by Karel Tiege with Vítězslav Nevzal, chore­ographed by the dancer Milča Mayerová, Cze­choslo­vakia, 1926; Be­low Let­tres, Arts et Métiers Graphiques mag­a­zine spread, 1948, show­ing a se­ries of lo­go­types by French type foundry De­berny and Peignot.

Left A ty­po­graphic il­lus­tra­tion for IBM Sys­tems mag­a­zine by Saw­dust; Top ty­po­graphic de­sign for Wired UK by Saw­dust; Above Saw­dust’s work for Wired UK’s The Wired World in 2016 won a D&AD Wood Pen­cil

Above Two im­ages from Su­san Skars­gard’s 26 of 26: Twenty-Six Al­pha­bets project, in which the cal­lig­ra­pher took the fa­mil­iar shapes of the alaphet down to their ele­men­tal form, strip­ping them of their mean­ing. (Im­ages: Let­ter­form Archive)

Be­low Psy­che­delic poster by Wes Wil­son for Moby Grape at the Fill­more venue in San Fran­cisco, 1967.

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