‘type-writing’ Symposium

I’m sitting at the back of a very full and humid conference room at Birmingham City University blogging and tweeting about the symposium ‘type writing’. I am the penultimate speaker of the day at 4.30pm and I’m nervous. I had the shakes earlier on but maybe that was because I hadn’t had breakfast and my tummy was grumbling, feeling a little awkward. I couldn’t eat until the first three speakers had filled the air by creating a textual, typographic wonderland of verbal dialogues – the day was in a word captivating.

Opening the morning session was Steven McCarthy from the University of Minnesota, with his paper ‘Fearless Type Writing: self-actualisation through design authorship’. He examined the work of designers as authors; visual and concrete poetry; the diversions and inversions between genres, breaking down readability and legibility; the transgressionary compositions reconfiguring established domains of communication. He cites the work of Steve McCaffery, British artist Tom Phillips and Chip Kidd. McCaffery takes typewritten letters to paper like an artist applies paint to canvas…he takes the visual to the oral. I was already captivated by talk of this artist as we all know I heart typewriters thus, I am always interested to find out about other artists who use typewriters as the core of their practice. He creates a textual cartography, phonetic semantic allegory of post-concrete poet, using a meta approach as he uses the book and page…using the visual element as an integral part of textuality to create non-linear meaning.

Steven extrapolated the idea of “type’s tract”, and referenced “typestract” (typewriter and abstraction) in relation to McCaffery’s works Carnival I (1967-70) and Carnival II (1970-75) (shown here above and below) where the reader is at the centre of McCaffery’s language – “a visual performance of type akin to paintings or print”.

Tom Phillips…I will go off on a tangent here but it’s because we have some of his works at Wolverhampton Art Gallery where I work…he examines textuality as an integral version of visuality, and notions of concealing and revealing where words and phrases create syntax. Phillips carves out unexpected relationships between words and text showing the extreme intertextual nature of the editorial…he conceals much and reveals more creating eye candy for the subtext; referenced as digital hyperlinking and tag clouds; focussed on the “treatment, translation and revision” of text through performative aspects to his work. Shown below are pages from ‘A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel’ which was initially published in the 1970s as well as an image from a collaborative project ‘Tableaux, Whispers, Echoes’.

Chip Kidd, a book designer uses a “chatty” writing style in his works. Steven focusses specifically on a book called ‘The Cheese Monkeys’, which merges the visual and the textual in different ways – how to write, edit and design of the book through the use of other areas in the book such as endpages and the page edge; “the book itself is self exemplifying…somewhere between adolescent derision and a design manifesto”; it is an example of fearless design authorship, a novel holistically written, typeset and designed; referenced as an “interdisciplinary hybrid” – redefine types tracked?

Juliette Kristensen from the University of Kingston presented a paper on the post and pre-life and history or typewriters entitled ‘Talking Boards, Writing Machines’. She opened by referencing the literary work of typewriter legend Frank T. Masi alongside other typewriters of the 19th Century and early 20th Century period. She looked at the historiography of the typewriter and the market leaders at the time, the more complex and intricate that this moment of genius; the first typewriter by Sholes and Glidden typewriter in 1874 sold to Remington and Sons in 1882; mechanised styles of writing; typewriters pre-history – the approximate 100 attempts of inventing a “writing” machine; typewriters post-history – attempts to create other versions of the “writing” machine and the idea of external keyboards; index writers – Hall Typewriter, American Visible and Mignon – a two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional writing machine; “typewriter” as a term referring to the woman and the machine, the woman behind the machine; how inefficient index writers made the act of writing; the history of the Ouija board and the “writing” of the planchette, pre-cursors to the typewriter linking ideas of typewriting and spiritualism; writing seen as speaking through these “talking boards”, speaking with indexical relation – is this more real than writing? creating a place of confusion and contradiction; amanuenses – the same term used to describe typists of the time and spirit mediums – “servants of the hand”. She concluded by looking at a very strange device and speaking machine – the Euphonia (1845).

Next was John Neilson, a letter carver from Wales, who spoke about his practice. He opened with questions…What’s the point of it all? Of letter carving? What’s the difference between a literary text typeset, or one carved in stone? Do we spend more time looking at it rather than reading it? Do we examine the craft rather than the text? How does the text benefit from being represented this way? He states there is no such thing as plain or neutral typography; it is as if the poem or text is read to us by two different actors with two different voices; the words and the meaning are more powerful than the typography, though typography aids the meaning behind the message; what happens when the visual and verbal come together? He references contemporary examples including Fiona Banner and Ian Hamilton Finlay where these typographic word pictures and concrete poetry set an illustrative background or ironic counterpoint to the text. John then takes a brief detour into calligraphy highlighting three strands that inform his work, specifically German letter sculpting; other works informed by poets; he discusses “stoney integrity” and how to get away from being a letter designer and think more about the carving. He sees poetry as an intensified, condensed form of writing, comparable to the process of letter carving…sparking a mysterious alchemical reaction, the catalyst being “our aim should be the aim to make letters live”.

It was now time for the morning tea break…or for me breakfast break. Museli and natural yoghurt. Not surprisingly there was no herbal tea on offer and the hot water came out murky tasting of luke warm coffee. I’m used to this by now. Not good for the Marsden system, so no hot drink for me. I also realised on the break that index cards had been taken from one of my artworks put on display for the symposium…the book/boxed card piece ‘Read Me – Be Me (Boxed)’ from 2008…

It was my own fault really as I didn’t put out a sign so it now housed half the cards that it did before…part of my soul (as such), had been stolen! I like to document who and where the cards end up going…they’d disappeared and it made me a little sad inside. The cards did return in the end, thankfully.

So, onto the next three speakers. Mathieu Lommen from the University of Amsterdam followed next speaking about ‘Type follows Writing: the Dutch type tradition’…he walked and talked us through the development of different “types” in The Netherlands. Kathryn Moore and Alex Lazarou then discussed ‘Overlooking the Visual: philosophy and practice in book design’…speaking the thought process behind the planning and design of Kathryn’s book ‘Overlooking the Visual: demystifying the art of design’ from image selection to type formatting…how they clarified the role of the narrative thread to produce an elegant transformation of ideas when creating a book…layers of understanding create a depth of meaning…a visual expression of the authors message; selectivity is key; “A book doesn’t have to be standard.” The final speaker before lunch was incredibly witty – Henrik Birkvig from the School of Media and Journalism in Denmark who spoke of ‘Typographic/typogram: the word as pictures’ – this was back to my land. He was an author and designer at the same time who “conceives the pages as visual stuff and produces the copy afterwards”. He liked the intimate interplay between illustration and the words. Since 2005, he has collected 192 images of typography/typograms such as graffiti, shop signs, posters and flyers from real tangible places, and then copied intangible realm of the internet. He struggled with the final definitions of typography versus typograms…he wanted to know what he was specifically discussing. He also referenced typographic performances, coined as “typerformances” – I liked this term. Many questions were presented…are there patterns within the 192 images? What is good or bad design? What “types” have been used? Which letters have been changed? For some reason there’s frequency of the letter “o” – Why the letter “o”? What is and isn’t a typogram? This was more of a sounding board presentation.

Time for lunch! I have always said you can tell a conference or symposium by their lunch…but I know what I’m dealing with as I’m on familiar territory. Only sandwiches were offered and I had time for a ten minute breather from the hot and humid air to go for a wander and make a couple of reassuring phone calls.

And so the afternoon came around, and I wanted it to go quickly just so I could get mine done! It began with Jessica Glaser from the University of Wolverhampton – ‘The Syncronisation of Visual and Verbal Language’.

She spoke of the linking mechanisms used to connect familiar branded images and text, and how easy it is to create instant recognisable connections through familiarity with brands. She referenced how pre-existing experiences and preferences help to transmit messages including the Mars “Believe” chocolate bar, to inspire and direct typographic interpretations…careful conjuring of design implication with literal meaning. She then went on to reference the American graphic designer Herb Lubalin where this example illustrated her discussion very well…

'Go to Hell' by Herb Lubalin. Artwork © the artist. Image taken from mrvilt.com

“Typography can illustrate tone of voice, personality, gender and mood can easily be manipulated…it can determine and indicate different contexts” Jessica presents a model which places syntagm (where signs occur in sequence or parallel and operate together to create meaning) against paradigm (where an individual sign may be replaced by another) can aid typographic decision-making; she analyses type styles and branding for fashion labels including Juicy Couture; how sound, length or shape of a word effects typographic decisions; the collaborative effect of bringing together writer and designer where carefully selected visual language reinforces the message and brand.

“The visual message maker succeeds only when an attitude is intended to be conveyed and the reader recognises this attitude.” – Cal Swann

Next was Ben Waddington, a Local Historian from Birmingham who gave a brief introduction to the arts and typography of Alasdair Gray. Something which you really need to see as it is described…I liked the idea of Gray’s index of plagiarisms. The typography he uses encourages you to read precisely, it slows you down and gives you a better sense of the story. He references a book called ‘Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne, specifically showing a “black page” from the book there to represent a moment or something that cannot be described in words or language. I managed to find an image of it below…

And then Sarah Maxey, an artist from Wellington, New Zealand…she opened with shock value talking of the recent earthquake. in New Zealand and said she felt fortunate to be here in Birmingham. She started as a book designer and publisher…people began to notice her designs were used on slim poetry book and she was referenced as “consistently raising the bar for poetry book design”. She cares deeply for language and its double meaning. Coming away from book design, which felt emotionally like the end of a relationship…she moved towards drawings…doddles and inscriptions…with “typographic hiccups”…one of which is shown below used on the cover of her last will and testament. I really liked this idea…

She is fascinated by the human survival instincts…what legions we build up to protect ourselves. Self-taught, she is influenced by outsider artists and artists with intellectual disabilities…and American artist Edward Gorey.

She consciously never ventured into vector art as she loves the relationship between pencil and paper. Sarah also told us about a process and game she engages with every morning on the way to work. Involving number plates, it was a word-formation game…so DLQ437 = DELIQUENT, DHH579 = DISHCLOTH and CKJ331 = LOCKJAW…the last one she was incredibly proud of…she is interested here in how words are structured and how they look. It made me smile and realise other people do similar textual and language based things to me. She finally showed examples of her recent collaboration with designer Kris Sowersby…that are available as a limited edition series of postcards. he set the image slide show to very laid back jazz music. A nice interlude to the afternoon and fitting to the humidity of the lecture theatre!

Afternoon break time and I WAS NERVOUS…irrationalities started to kick in. I knew it was going to be ok, but it never feels like it at the time. I went out for five minutes of fresh air but it didn’t make me cool down…it was like a furnace in there!

The final trio of speakers, including myself, started at 4pm with Gregg Bernstein‘s paper ‘The Fine Print: redesigning legal contracts for the digital environment’. Gregg and I had chatted over sushi the night before at the pre-symposium reception and I discovered it was his first time presenting at this kind of event. He had nothing to worry about as he spoke with confidence and wit, incredibly intellectually tuned into his subject. He made us question why should be read a legal agreements that we get presented in a digital format, often the agreements that we gloss over or ignore. He wants to take the “agreement experience” and make it more understandable, readable, usable and intuitive by using better design and typography…”Complex information becomes more comprehensible through design.” He wants to “bring reading back into the reader agreement.” He referenced the redesign of American nutritional labels, Target pharmacy labels, and credit card bills…and how iconography, information design (including alignment), colour selection and typeface contributed to effective reading and understanding. Throughout the presentation Gregg references back to Apple’s iTunes agreement of over 4,000 words, which borders on unreadable…”we can do better”. Apple’s products reflect a specific design aesthetic, yet the user agreement doesn’t fit with this model. He also mentions the need to recognise colour blindness and colour deficiencies as part of any redesign.

Then it was my time…time to face one of those fears…and I was ok…I think I came across quite nervous and would hate to watch myself back on film…but apparently I came across calm. I only had two questions after my whimsical chatter…are typewriter ribbons hard to get hold of? Is there a company that makes new typewriters? Simple answers given as this track below played in the background. I thought it was a nice conclusion to the presentation, which I just had to play.

The final speaker for the whole day was Borja Goyarrola who spoke of his personal relationship with type – ‘Where Type Might Take You’. He showed a series of images of particular typographic moments that he had come across. It was a real personal insight into his mind…”you start trying to find typefaces that convey the meaning you want so you start designing them”…the physical aspects of what defines a typeface.  You must take and gain responsibility as to what you put out there in the way of design. “A designer helps deal with elements as to how we communicate and how we learn as a society.”

It was a really good diverse day of speakers looking into the broader realm of ‘type writing’. All of the papers from today will eventually be published on The Typographic Hub website, and there is hopefully a future opportunity to have it published in a journal/publication, which I look forward to hearing more about. A strange sense of relief passed over me this evening as I got a delayed train home from Birmingham. Tomorrow I go on holiday to Devon with no laptop…no work…nothing to think about for six whole days. I’m not really used to this “nothing” lark, and to be honest can’t remember the last time I did “nothing”, so let’s see how I deal with it. All I know is that I get to spend time with RJW, my walking feet and my cycling legs. I can’t wait to cycle the South coast and breathe in that fresh sea air…I’m ready…




  1. hello Rachel — I enjoyed your blog post about my presentation. One minor correction: McCaffery’s work was a ‘typestract’ (type writer + abstraction), and the term I extrapolated is ‘type’s tract’. When the paper get published it will make sense!

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