A night of type (April Font Night @the Design Museum)

Posted 4 April, 2011 Anthony Tan (staring at yet another render. But still loving it for some reason..)

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Friday night. London. What does one get up to? Pub? Pint? Nah.. I'd rather be at the Design Museum for Design Overtime - April Font Night

While I can claim some long-standing interest in type - I have memories of my eyes bleeding as I pixel-nibbled my way to a bitmap font back in the day - I can't say I've done any study in the area, or had errm.. well, a clue. Recently though, I've been introduced to how interesting and also how involved it is as a direct consequence of trying to build up this site and work out how best to present wads of data. It's something I wish I realised earlier, given how much of my work involves rendering information in text form.

Consider me an interested neophyte...

The structure of the night

The night sort of roughly fell into three bits. On the ground floor, you could decamp at a table and alternatively draw (giving you a chance to see the impact of each pencil stroke, and the subtle variations in curve, shape, width, angle, etc, of a particular letter), paint (giving you a different experience where the method of construction and the angle of your strokes, the ordering, and the way in which you drew became important), or wig with Fontlab and do something computer based (which was sort of a combination of all the previous, but with that rather handy addition of being able to tweak your bézier curves to infinity...).

Upstairs, there was a space which supported an ongoing demo of some gorgeous freehand signwriting on the indoor walls by Ray Howell while Kirsty Lyall & Helen Jones were plying a projector on the exterior wall and displaying some rather interesting typewriter art (reminds me a lot of the old ASCII art days).

If talks were your interest, then you could wander through the freshly minted Wim Crouwel exhibition and hear Margaret Cubbage talk about his work; sit and listen to Morag Myerscough describe some recent projects; hear Mike Burgin on his work with fonts and greeting cards; and absorb Vincent Connart speaking on Comic Sans.

A well put together night, there was something in it for anyone, and for the low entry price of a mere £7.50 (presale), you'd be hard pressed to find a reason not to go if you've any interest in type - I shall be back for more in the future. In case you missed out on this one, I'll see if I can give you a rough feel for the evening...

Highlights:Drawing letters (oooo!)

This is where we began the night (by virtue of the table being empty actually) and where we were greeted by the lovely, enthusiastic, Bruno Maag. The brief was simple - grab a red book, pick a letter, and draw it. Just be bold, draw, have fun, and see what pops out. Don't be shy (as I was initially) - bigger is better! (the big letters are Mr Maag's freehand work)

Having never actually done anything like this before, I took a little bit of time to get into the overall spirit of things. I get nervous, and well, there were some rather good artists there.. but yes, as I started to get a bit more observational time in, things started to gel a bit more and make sense. I started to get a teensy taste of what was right and not quite right about things - I've spliced a few of the images in here for you to see some of my attempts of the letter 'a'..

Apparently, new bodies (or just interns?) at Mr Maag's studio get a fairly extended period of a month or so doing nothing more than drawing letters in gouache. It actually makes a heap of sense now I've done the same for even just 30-40 odd mins. Remembering that I've never done this before, and haven't much (okay, any) artistic training, you can still begin to get a sense of things being sort of right, and sort of wrong. It doesn't take much - one degree of curvature or half a line - for things to feel unbalanced. That letter 'a' isn't as simple as it looks initially. Just like I've developed a feel for technology which I can't quite explain (but I'm pretty sure it comes from playing with enough things over a long enough period of time), you can tell the difference between someone who's done this for a while, and a newbie - but it's pretty hard to explain exactly why.

Highlights:Watching Ray at work

After being pulled away from the table (you get sucked in and don't realise that there's a queue of people wanting to have a shot too... ooops) the next place I ended up hanging out was upstairs watching Ray paint freehand on the walls. It's amazing what he manages to assemble with but one brush, a tin of paint, a very judicious eye, and one presumes, a heap of experience.

Of particular note to my eyes was the construction method. For example, in the case of the capital 'N' : He began with the two vertical strokes, and in doing so began the outer edge of the serifs. These were then filled out, and only then did he begin the diagonal stroke, which was perfectly straight but did not connect the two verticals, it floated in the middle of the character space like a short, stubby plank. I presume that this was the skeleton of the piece, and once this was established, only then would the relevant joins make sense. Not how I'd imagined construction of an N but it does make sense to do it in this way.

(Moral of the story: watch someone do something you've always done - odds on, there's another way of approaching the same problem)

Highlights-Free posters!

On the top floor, there was a display of the category winners Brit Insurance Design Awards 2011 along with a variety of other uber-neat design items (I quite liked the quick-fab concrete shelter). Amongst all the neat things, special mention goes to the Johnny Cash Project which is an amazing music video built up by giving people individual frames, a vector drawing tool, and letting them run riot (within some basic parameters).

Oh, free posters, that's right. The Design Museum was offloading stocks of their old posters ('take them all' they said - 'sure' was the response) - alas as I have very few places to put posters up, I took the opportunity to hang back and take some happysnaps of Makalya and Gwendolyn snaffling them.

Anthony: stop tweaking, start publishing.
Deconstructing Waitrose (well, their store layout)

Further Info

  1. The Design Museum can be found over at designmuseum.org, or over in SE1 2YD
  2. Bruno Maag is Director of Dalton Maag, and a really, really nice guy. Did I mention he's rather passionate about what he does?
  3. More detail on the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year 2011
  4. The Johnny Cash Project is exactly where you'd expect it: www.thejohnnycashproject.com
  5. Morag Myesrcough can be found over at his studio. I didn't get a chance to listen to his talk, alas. Too busy doodling with letters..
  6. That font of mine that I talked about in the first paragraph? It was a pixelated set of 36 bitmaps measuring 7x11 which got later transformed 8-bit integers and smashed through a very primitive Turbo Pascal render engine which I later abandoned in favour of... well, something that worked a lot better. Good learning experience.