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12 November 2012

Were you a socialising bunch?

It’s been a few weeks now, so you may have forgotten that many of you filled in a brief survey when I joined GraphicDesign& founders Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright at TYPO London in October. I, on the other hand, have been sifting through your responses – 181 of them, to be exact – with great interest, and some surprise.

Who could have predicted, for instance, that fully two-thirds of respondents – 67% – would be women? While this may well reflect the overall gender breakdown of the conference, it is equally likely to reflect self-selection on the part of female conference attendees, or a greater tendency on our parts – as women – to distribute the survey to women rather than men! We are less likely to have influenced whether UK citizens or people from other parts of the world got the survey so here, the split was nearly equal, with Brits accounting for 49% of the 181 respondents and the international crowd for 51%.



Of the 89 British respondents, an overwhelming majority were left-leaning in their political affiliations. One-third reported having voted Labour in the last general election, 17% Lib Dem and 14% Green, compared to just 6% who reported voting Conservative. Likely reflecting the high proportion of students – students accounted for over half of those surveyed – 28% of British respondents reported that they hadn’t voted in the last election. This data begs the question: are designers generally a liberal bunch, or did the theme ‘Social’ appeal particularly to liberal designers? But this in itself is a simplistic, and misleading, set of propositions. Statistically speaking, people who choose, and are able, to attend a conference in London – whether British or international – are more likely to be from urban areas, which tend to vote liberally. Thus, we’d predict similar results with regard to political affiliation at both the TYPO Berlin and TYPO San Francisco conferences too.



Likewise, it’s impossible to say for certain why a staggering majority of respondents – 90% – affirmed that design bears a social responsibility and that designers should be concerned about the messages they shape. Did the conference theme draw exclusively socially-conscious designers to TYPO London? Did we happen upon the 181 designers who are fervently committed to the social impact of design? Did the survey, in asking so directly about social consciousness in design, prime respondents to answer in the affirmative? Only one brave individual admitted to thinking that designers shouldn’t be concerned about the messages they shape. Interestingly, though, of the respondents who answered ‘yes’ to both questions, 32% had nevertheless worked for clients whose business practices or political aims they disagreed with.



On success, the results were more decisive. Personal satisfaction was overwhelmingly reported as the most important factor in success, with 60% of respondents ranking it first or second. Social value and client satisfaction were a close second and third – 44% and 43% ranked these first or second, respectively. Appropriately for such a socially concerned sample of designers, the least important factor in success was career advancement.

Many thanks to those of you who agreed to be contacted and/or interviewed in the future – I look forward to involving you in my extended research on designers, which will be published by GraphicDesign& as a GraphicDesign& Social Science title next year.

– Nikandre Kopcke

24 October 2012

Paul Barnes: Commercial Type

photo © Jason Wen

Paul Barnes is a seasoned typographer. He runs a modern day type foundry called Commercial Type with Christian Schwarz. Together they have produced a vast array of successful typefaces, each unique and tailored to do a certain job, and always to much acclaim. Paul is typographic consultant at Wallpaper magazine. He is also very much involved with the St Brides printing library, currently digitising all the historical materials there.

Paul and Christian first worked together when asked to improved the typography for The Guardian. They originally suggested an improvement on what was already there as opposed to a redesign. This entailed a study of Helvetica and implementing the original Neue Haas Grotesk of 1957, instead of the Neue Helvetica crafted by the Stempel foundry in 1980’s. When the paper decided to change from a broadsheet to the Berliner format, a new direction was needed, which resulted in the development of a new serif typeface. The outcome of this process was an Egyptian, which contained the elegance and sophistication of a serif, yet had the impact and versatility of a sans like Helvetica.

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24 October 2012

Hjalti Karlssson: 135 Months and Counting

photo © Gerhard Kasnner

Hjalti showed a picture of their small design studio, not unlike any other small design studio, a small white room, with people staring at Mac screens, clicking mouses. “This is what I like, the less I’m disturbed the happier I am.” (slightly paraphrased).

He wasn’t here to talk about that, instead he wanted to talk about what happens when you go out, leave the Mac and studio, what happens then? With karlssonwilker, A LOT.

It started with a call from a new client in Serbia, asking them to produce a calendar for their country. After realising it would be ‘lame’ to sit at their computers and google a country they knew absolutely nothing about, they put forward an idea. They asked if they could visit Serbia for twelve days, and design everything while they were there. Budget approved, they flew over ready to start work. However, their hope of being left alone to gently soak up the culture, was rudely shattered following their arrival at Belgrade airport.

They had billboards with their faces on, a media frenzy of interviews each day, and a whirlwind tour of every aspect of Serbian culture that could be crammed into those days. Ultimately of course, this would be Serbian culture percolated through the minds of an Icelander and German living in New York. I liked the concept behind February’s page: in reaction to  being told that asking a typical Serbian “How are you?” will get the pessimistic response of “Better than tomorrow”, they flipped it to a more optimistic tone of “Better than yesterday”. They hoped with the continual exposure over the month would encourage a little more positive feeling amongst the Serbian people (the results aren’t in yet).

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24 October 2012

Grant McCracken: Breathe in, breathe out – Design as a respiratory event

Photo: © Gerhard Kassner

Grant McCracken is many things: consultant, author, teacher, anthropologist and scholar of consumer patterns. He digs deep to find the roots of culture, identifying shifting forms and investigating their origins.

At TYPO Lndon 2012, McCracken declared that contemporary culture as we know it has seen the rise of a new order, one that is far from orderly but filled with chaos, confusion and commotion.

He cites a meeting at furniture company Herman Miller as an epiphanic moment in which he saw the manifestations of this new order at large. During the meeting he spotted a take-away coffee cup, it’s surface filled with feverish notes and sketches. Herman Miller employee Greg Parsons had used this medium to record his ideas and thoughts. McCracken quickly deduced that this is what the world looks like now. In the old order of culture, a designers process would be confined to a note book, considered and clarified before unleashing it to the world. But now this has changed. Order is slowly becoming a repellent to consumers. Culture demands the anti-industrial, the hand-made and unbranded. Order systems are no longer hierarchical with labour roles clearly defined under a clear mission statement. They have become more dynamic with complex adaptive systems. He likens it to a quote by technologist David Wynberger’s where he defines the Internet as ‘small pieces loosely joined’. McCracken believes that consumers now favour items that are bespoke, almost nook and crannyish to industrial perfection. This can be seen in the reincarnation of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons that have once again become popular and influential to contemporary culture. His depictions of complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways are echoed in the infamous Honda advert and the viral video ‘The Page Turner’ by Joseph Herscher.

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22 October 2012

Joshua Davis: The Social Grid

Joshua Davis, photos @ Gerhard Kassner

7pm on day 2 of the conference, a few people might be flagging. The caffeine is wearing off, and eyes on the clock for the last speaker – which is exactly why it was the perfect time for Joshua Davis to make an appearance. An energetic, loud, sweary, tattooed ball of energy crashed onto the stage like a train tearing through a wall. Behind the bluster (and energetic wedding dancing) it was apparent this was someone who clearly worked incredibly hard at everything he does. Even with his talk on the day (which some speakers may seem as a distraction from their day jobs) he treated like any other project – tweaking, playing around with ideas and refining over a year, trying to get the right balance.

Davis sees work and play as synonyms, in contrast to his peers who see them as direct opposites. He’s managed to maintain that child-like enthusiasm for just creating, without those hangups we acquire with jobs and deadlines. You could pick up his visible excitement at the things that inspire him, from old stain glass windows to a friend’s mismatched floors in his basement. Each of these sparked off into a whole cluster of new ideas.

Davis uses programming as a tool to create rich, graphic, complicated patterns, that he admits would take forever to draw by hand, by tweaking the programming he could produce countless variations in patterns, colours and density. However, this isn’t a mindless pressing of buttons, he clearly has strong ideas before he even sits in front of the computer inspired by real life. He encouraged us to just try things, without a client in mind, just to go with an idea and see where it goes.

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22 October 2012

Erik Kessels: Strong Ideas Allow You To Blur

Erik Kessels, photo © Gerhard Kassner

Seeing such a visibly public name such as KesselsKramer at a conference, there is the worry that the work is already over-exposed, and you’ve seen everything. Thankfully, with this talk there was the right balance of plenty of context added to the familiar, and showing some of their more obscure projects.

Erik talked about how a strong idea could carry across both a high and low budget, allowing that freedom to ‘blur’ at the top. And starting with the lowest of the low was the Hans Brinker Hotel in Amsterdam. This was one of KK’s first clients and Erik described it as “the biggest shithole … I’ve ever seen in my life”. The owner of the hotel was not interesting in improving the conditions for the guest, he just wanted less complaints. So, with that cue they began their campaign of bold, unflinching honesty – promoting all the downsides as if they were desirable features: “Now More Rooms Without a Window!” and “Now Even More Dog Shit in the Entrance!”. All were illustrated by fellow Typo speaker Anthony Burrill with his recognisably stark and witty style. The dog shit, apparently a common sight in Amsterdam, allowed another marketing idea – carefully planting small flags in each pile, to entice new guests. This not only worked, but was quickly copied by other budget hotels in the area. Over each year, the campaign developed along different themes, still with that strong concept at it’s heart: from Eco design to boutique design to pathetic improvements and my favourite – ‘everything not included’. Perhaps, what is most startling about this whole story is, not that complaints stopped (the assumption is that visitor’s expectations were lowered so much), but visitor numbers rocketed and continue to rise. It is now something of a tourist attraction amongst the younger visitors to Amsterdam.

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21 October 2012

Ken Garland: Word and Image

Ken Garland, photo © Gerhard Kassner

With the conference halfway through one could easily predict that his talk on Word and Image would remain to be one of the memorable TYPO London moments. »This speaker needs no introduction« was a phrase often heard from the facilitators about this year’s experts on stage and it completely applies to Ken Garland. However, it needs to be pointed out that through his social and political engagement in the realm of graphic design and typography throughout his career, Garland naturally seemed to suggest himself as an ideal speaker for this year’s theme.

The speaker did not immediately take on his prepared presentation slides and instead decided to share some of his memories and thoughts of various design conferences he had attended in his long career (a complete list can be found here). Completely laid-back he took off his jacket and threw it behind him. He then sat down at the edge of the stage and began to tell some of his favorite anecdotes.

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21 October 2012

Hjalti Karlsson: 135 Months and Counting

Hjalti Karlsson, photo © Gerhard Kassner


Hjalti Karlsson showed with bright maps how he, an Icelander, met German Jan Wilker in New York and started a company. Zoomed in on NY, on their office, inside their office. This is where 95% of their work happens. But now he talks about the other 5%.

Once they were called by a Serbian who asked them to make a calendar. His idea was that karlssonwilker would google Serbia and design the calendar with what they found. Hmmm. They thought it better to come to visit. Twelve days for the twelve months. With some extra budget agreed on, they arrived at the airport where they got into a madhouse: they were greeted by a group of singing children and a folk dance group. Their portraits hung along the streets! ‘This is when we understood we had been underestimating this project.’ They had to give one tv, radio and print interview after another. A one and a half hour documentary was made of their visit! The first three days there, they got a veritable crash course on Serbia. And then they started designing. Nice stuff, but needless to say the event was the hero in this project.

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21 October 2012

Henrik Kubel: A2/SW/HK + A2-TYPE

TYPO London 2012: Henrik Kubel

Henrik Kubel at TYPO 2012, photo by Jason Wen

Henrik Kubel from A2/SW/HK keeps himself and the audience excited by not scripting his talks. We caught that excitement even more since the schedule had run late so that Henrik had to rush through his slides in ten minutes less than planned with little words but with even more sympathy of everyone that was listening.

Together with Scott Williams, who he met at his studies at the Royal College of Art, he formed design studio A2/SW/HK as well as the type foundry A2-TYPE. Henrik describes their studio as a a fantastic collaboration, business and friendship.

Henrik draws type for 98% of their work. He describes his type work as “the glue that binds everything together”. Drawing custom type for all of their projects is an integral part to distinguish their studio’s design work from other practices in the industry as well as giving the clients a unique voice. Looking back, Henrik admits drawing type is quite hard, time intensive labour. “It doesn’t just happen over night” he says, at the same time encourages us, “over time you get better”.

Showing his amazing sketches, he underlines, that to him drawing type means drawing type by hand. It is quite impressive when Henrik presents us one of his projects for Toronto Life magazine where he customised the title in graffiti style. Graffiti is also his first contact with type design. He used to spray letters from the early age of 11. ‘You don’t do graffiti in Photoshop’, so he conceived the real thing three meters in height.

A long time close collaborator and source of inspiration is Margaret Calvert who is well known for her type design of the British transport signage. Additionally she was Henrik’s former tutor at the Royal College. Henrik worked closely with Margaret on digitising Rail Alphabet, now; New Rail Alphabet – A2-TYPE’s first commercial typeface. The team have just delivered a new version of the Transport typeface, especially designed for screen (GDS Transport) to the UK Government – for use in all official government web sites.

Henrik finishes his presentation with a short clip where he draws the words as he speaks: “Drawing type by hand is in my nature, I am doing it all the time. This is my contribution to the next generation of designers.”

Every project Henrik showed us was outstanding, beautiful and extraordinary. Thank you Henrik Kubel for sharing your deep passion for type with us, we feel very inspired.

20 October 2012

Freda Sack: Types of Expression

Photo © Jason Wen

Freda Sack from Foundry types started her career designing typefaces for Letraset. Today she is the director of ISTD and well known for her outstanding skill to cut curves.

For her everything in design is SOCIAL. As designers we are communicating all the time and we are trying to draw people in. A good designer is a good typographer. Collaborating with other creatives opens up new ways of working which also enables different point of views. 

To Freda typography is a passion. Typefaces become alive when one is using it. You can use it in various ways, expressing different things with one and the same typeface. Type is a visual expression. 

It is interesting that for her as a type designer one can be more creative the stricter the parameters are. It is more difficult to answer a very open brief where possibilities are endless. Her inspiration comes mainly from architecture. The use of structure and space is similar in both disciplines. That is why she is passionate about walking through the streets finding lettering on buildings and signage, structures and grids.

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