EXPERIMENTS IN TYPE
Julia Sagar talks to top type professionals about why creating experimental type can be key to improving your design ability
The ubiquitous sans serif turned 60 years old last year – but what if time hadn’t been so kind to Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann’s modernist font, and the years were etched onto its withered letterforms? That’s exactly what London-based design studio SPIN wondered when the team were asked to create a poster celebrating six decades of Helvetica in 2017.
“We celebrated by crinkling it up and making it look really old – like it was 60,” recalls SPIN co-founder and creative director Tony Brook. “Then we took it a bit further, into the idea of it being like [Oscar Wilde’s] Dorian Gray. What if Helvetica has been stashed away in a type drawer in Zurich somewhere, becoming increasingly exhausted by every designer’s thoughtless and careless abuse? Every time Helvetica was misused it would get a little more crinkled, a little older and a little more distressed.”
SPIN imagined what Helvetica would look like after such a life, crafting a series of playfully crumpled, distorted numerals. And the team didn’t stop there. “We decided maybe it was closer to collapse, and actually that we ought to perform an operation on Helvetica to see if we could prolong its life and give it extra creative juice,” continues Brook. “But sadly we killed it,” he deadpans. “It died under the knife. So we then had to cremate it.”
The projects, Helvetica Alt and Dr Frankenstein’s
Helvetica, are showcased in the latest version of the studio’s journal, Adventures in Typography 2 – a 52-page publication that enables the team to record “itches that needed to be scratched,” and creative experiments that might normally go unseen. Whereas issue one was all about form, issue two introduces even more concepts to further push the boundaries of typographic expression.
So what is it about these boundaries – about that space where typography meets art – that endlessly fascinates designers? What role do letterforms play in conveying emotion and meaning, when traditional type rules such as legibility are stretched and pushed to breaking point? And how can experimenting with typography make you a better designer?
ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
“What really fascinates me,” reflects Jonathan Quainton, one half of London-based creative partnership Sawdust, “is the absurdity – pushing the limits to find new, exciting ways to communicate a concept with an added element of surprise. I think that’s the drug that keeps driving us forward; a constant search for originality within our artwork.”
For Sawdust co-founder Rob Gonzalez, there’s an abstract element too. “It stimulates something in my brain that makes me feel good. There’s a beauty about it that’s hard to explain, and there’s a rebelliousness that excites me. You can break all the rules and push all the boundaries, and that’s something that resonates.”
The pair specialise in bespoke and innovative typography, and have attracted a rich roster of clients – including Nike, Apple and The New York Times – with their stunning portfolio of explorative type work. Here, the boundaries between type and illustration are gloriously blurred, with letterforms exuding emotion and meaning far beyond those of the words they construct, and the logic of legibility taking second seat to something else entirely.
Take their work for Wired UK. Over the years Quainton and Gonzalez have often collaborated with the magazine, creating everything from typographic illustrations through to cover images and beyond. One of their most experimental projects saw the pair crafting a series of typographic headers for the magazine’s 2014 redesign. Wired is about progression, future thinking and innovation. So, Sawdust sought to capture these qualities in the type, both through the letterforms themselves, and through the treatment.
“The letterforms needed to be unique, surprising, versatile, influenced by technology and culture, and above all functional,” explains Gonzalez. “We wanted to evoke surprise, delight and excitement. We threw out a lot of designs because they simply didn’t feel
Right Helvetica aged 60: SPIN imagined how the typeface might look if it aged in this 2017 tribute poster.
Above Adventures in Typography 1. “We’ve had a couple of commissions from people seeing this work and thinking it’s fresh and interesting,” says Tony Brook. “Our experiments have turned into projects and that’s really satisfying.”