Pick a letter. Any letter. Picture it in your mind. Don't tell me what letter it is. No, I'm not going to be performing the trick, because you're already doing it yourself : actually imagining a letter of an alphabet. How the mind somehow creates an image of a letter surely has to be one of its most baffling feats. To imagine a letter - a supposedly fixed abstract whose construct is paradoxically fluid - involves an uncanny realization of this very paradox. Yet at the same time, there doesn't appear to be any real difficulty in conjuring up a letter, whether one is precisely picturing a pre-existent typeface or vaguely remembering the concept (formal, visual, aural, whatever) of a particular letter. However one does it, one does it instantly, and in the most silent, dumb and inarticulate way.
Now, I'm not trying to posit this as a marvel or mystery. Quite the opposite : how we interpret, read, imagine, formulate, construct, project, design, idealize, display, produce, picture, create and articulate letters of the alphabet might be dense, convoluted and complex, but the supposedly infinite scope for such perception and invention does not mean that their meanings and effects are beyond either our rational or creative comprehension. Rather, this seeming infinity is the result of the continual (though not endless) flow of how we can perceive and invent letters of the alphabet. Furthermore, just because one might be able to imagine a particular letter of the alphabet with continual changes to its form and shape does not automatically mean that there is nothing to be got from following such an ad hoc flow of invention. I think it's marvelleous that I could sit down every day of my life and each day draw the letter 'a' differently. (Indeed, when I survey my daily doodles, I probably do.)
That's an attempt to quickly sum it up into some sort of philosophical/perceptual nutshell. Of course, nutshells are pretty empty - they've already been nutted out. Letters - their form and their expression - aren't likely to ever be nutted out completely, because they're there to be continually changed, transformed and replaced. To expand upon the fluidity with which one can both perceive and produce letters, I'll simply reflect on various ways in which I perceive letters, and detail some of the approaches I use for producing them. Concurrent to these details and explanations, you can also 'read' the letters of the alphabet (a selection from those I've designed between 1985 and 1988) as they hover above this text. They're not here as examples or demonstrations, but as instances, occurrences and occasions of what I would call 'letter-creations'.
Letter-creations are single entities and as such are only required to make singular design sense, to effectively communicate its own formal logic to itself. As one-off letters they have no need or reason to adhere to any of the logical parameters which govern the creation of typefaces - interlockable alphabet-sets - where every letterform in a single typeface reverberates with the potentially adjacent vibration of every other letterform in its alphabet. Perhaps this is what sometimes dismays me about typefaces : the design stipulation that they might actually be used in their totality at some stage (whether as book or display faces). Perhaps this is what conversely attracts me to monograms, trademark designs and type-logos: the acknowledgement that their letters never need interact with any other letters or typefaces, at least in any prescribed logical fashion.
A fascinating book on monograms is Kiyoshi Takahashi's Modern Monograms (Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1979, part of their invaluable Pictorial Archive Series). It's one of the few books I 'read' continually. You can pick it up at any time and turn to any page and start taking in any portion of that page any way you like - up, down, across, etc. The book is laid out in alphabetical order with its contents listed as "The Letter A", "The Letter B" and so on. It's like a book with chapters (26) but with sequenced words replaced by numbered monograms (a total of 1,310). (Admittedly its perverse 'contra-literary' form inspired this issue of STUFFED.)
What is perhaps most interesting about monograms is that they demonstrate their ties to the logics of typeface design parameters, as well as their attempts to confound such logics and realize potential cracks in typeface design and escape through them into some other tangential design plane. This is because monograms are formally the combination of two or more letters into a design construct or symbol. Only selected letters from the alphabet are made to relate each other, away from the totality of their alphabet - like two letters saying "how about you and me split this alphabet and work something out ourselves". (Perhaps they should be called biograms - after all, there is a certain biological/morphological blending connoted in their design principles.) But while there is an escape from the logic of a total typeface, most monograms don't involve letter-creations because they adapt an existing typeface, and clearly a typeface shared by both letters.
This is a reflection of the socio-cultural function of the monogram - to represent (symbolize, even) a figure from a family, the 'figure' being the first letter (the christian name) and the 'family' being the second letter (the surname). The symbolic function here is in entwining both letters so as to graphically portray the figure's integration into the family. Like a family crest, but a more blatantly capitalist version of heritage, and at the other extreme of the "Joe Smith & Sons" humble projection. This unity and these ties are suggested and effected by the monogram's self-recognition of the typeface it employs, which in turn reflects the role it must play in conceptualizing and projecting a self-image for the owner of the monogram.
In Dovers' Pictorial Archive Series is an equally fascinating book : Yusaku Kamekura's Trademark Designs Of The World (Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1981 ; reprinted from a 1975 edition published by George Wittenborn Inc.). Another book to re-read, un-read, etc. While dealing largely with pictorial symbols and graphic forms which are sometimes combined with lettering, letter-creations and typeface, trademark designs exhibit a very fluid approach to juggling the modes of abstraction and representation which give birth to any graphic design symbol. Trademark designs obviously are called upon to perform a number of symbolic functions : to represent the company identity, its stance and stature, its product and industry, etc. Plus it has to connote all the poetic suggestions and cultural nuances of the above, so as the corporate desires of a company's self-image multiply and spread outward, the design has to capture their essences and contract them all back into a single entity. This means that the trademark design has to be stylish without typifying a particular style, because that would be analogous to specializing too much in a single market. The trick the trademark symbol performs is to integrate all this into what effectively is an aesthetically (under graphic terms) intriguing design which overall implies some sort of economic stability.
You will note that one factor has tied monograms and trademark designs together : identity. Most design problems revolve around identity, because you have to figure out what it is you have to represent, plus you have to find out how to represent it. 'Identity' thus complexly refers to (a) the formulation of a design concept and the formalization of its execution, and (b) the 'existence' of something in a conceptual mode which is realized into a visual mode so as to communicate - if you will - the existence of that 'existence'. Communication then becomes the prime impulse in the design, mainly because a concept was at some stage formed, as opposed to playing with abstract doodles which then might convey something by themselves. Cultural communication is the domain of conveying 'identity' as outlined above. Symbols, icons and the whole 'graph & gram' family (logographs, pictographs, logograms, ideograms, etc.) are generally held to be in the province, region and territory of cultural communication - that is, modes and codes of visual communication which are developed for and by a culture for its own use. The logic of cultural communication via visual symbols and the like is based on that culture identifying the symbols, affording them familiarity and a common base, and allowing them to read and interpret those symbols.
This of course returns us to an overriding principle of symbolic design : the constitution and summation of identity, or what in advertising might simply be called 'image'. But even as I sum things up this way, there is something suspect about it - mainly because I am talking from the external perspective of reading the symbol, and not taking into account the internal perspective of creating the symbol. For in the realm of symbolic production in graphic design, that 'identity' (that concept, image, whatever of the 'thing' it is you have to make up a symbol for) often is something that really only takes shape as you give it form. This means that as you're playing around with some sketches, very often those 'abstract doodles' can create the 'identity' for you, or at least make it clearer to you before you had conceptually got a fix on it.
This might sound obvious, but the point is that the representational nature of any graphic symbol is largely energized by highly abstract forms. If anything, the notion of an identity or image or concept which is supposedly 'behind' a graphic symbol (which successfully communicates to its culture) is often an a posteriori factor of the symbol's own graphic form and presence. I'll put it another way : if a designer is asked to design a trademark for a roast chicken chain, rather than starting to play around with consciously designed images of chickens, he might just as well go to another extreme and play with abstract swirls out of which a chickenish form might arise. And in the end people might presume the designer had intended to render a chicken shape from the very beginning. The designing, redesigning and undesigning of letters work in similar ways.
Just as this notion of an 'identity' (which we could qualify as the individual existence of an entity) is reductively presumed to work at the microcosmic level of individual designs, so to is it presumed to work at the macrocosmic level of the collective designs of a particular culture. Design history is often posited as being a series of quests and conquests of symbolically defining identity through designed imagery, where formal attributes and traits (of calligraphy, visualization, architectonics, spacing, etc.) are related back to a sense of a culture's holistic identity. It's almost as if the word 'cultural' is a euphemism for 'national' : we talk of Greek sensibility, Japanese sense, African style, Egyptian legacy, Swiss line, and so on, framing cultural artifacts and designed objects within the confines of an already-constructed identity of/for that culture. Such generalizations are useful up to a certain extent (say, in making comparisons) but one must also be prepared to have their use value cave in on your usage of them - or at the very least, one should acknowledge that 'identity' is never fixed and is continually changing, thereby making it unsuitable to use as a solid framework for perceiving the effects of cultural artifacts and symbols.
Things are exacerbated when it comes to calligraphy, lettering and typefaces, especially when attempts are made to define style in terms of European tradition, Oriental perspective and Western bent. Such recourses to articulate the formal qualities of letters (in particular) are ultimately no more than generally synchronous abstractions of how letters exist. It's like inventing another language based on a fulcrum of sameness and difference which replicates the samenesses and differences between letters and their typefaces. I'm not saying, though, that it is impossible to talk about letters. I am questioning some of the approaches to discussing their attributes and effects. I'm also making a few proposals - namely, that concurrent with the cultural history of identity in calligraphy/lettering/typeface is a transcultural history of the same.
This transcultural history (admittedly one that would require much research beyond my proposal here) is based on cultures copying other cultures, and thereby inventing new styles, flavours, impressions, suggestions, distortions and semblances of pre-existing typefaces. Here, the sameness/difference dichotomy is inverted, as the copy is an attempt to be the same, but in the end only succeeds in being different - but this difference is only gained by striving to be the same. The important thing to note here in terms of letter design is that perception and invention are also inverted : the perception of one culture looking at another culture's inventions is ultimately what determines the first culture's new inventions in their attempts to assimilate the second culture's perception. And even more importantly, transcultural drives and flows in inventing, producing and designing symbols and signs acknowledge the acultural properties of formal, abstract squiggles and blotches, because in the act of copying there is an implicit awareness that one can take a culture's symbols as material emptied of its 'identity'. Yes - we're talking of 'ripping off' something, but we're also talking about the perspectives, perceptions and productions which arise from such a process. This process is analogous to the previously discussed notion of not knowing the identity of a design until the design itself starts to take on some graphic form and presence. Both processes of perception and invention ultimately treat the notion of 'identity' as an unknown quantity.
I'll make this more concrete and use a readily available example of transcultural design production in the graphic arts : Japan and America. At the start of the eighties, modern graphic design was besieged by what was generally referred to as Japanese style. Walk into any design school or ad agency and they were very likely to have Seibu or Wave department store posters up on a wall somewhere, almost as a sign of what they could strive for. The basic Western perspective on modern Japanese high-style design was that there was some inherent Eastern sensibility in their sense of space and place in terms of orienting forms within a frame, resulting in a sensibility quite alien to the established Western design sense based on symmetry, balance and equality. Fair enough, superficially. But most Westerners would remain ignorant to the fact that this particular Eastern sensibility was the result of postwar Japan mimicking, appropriating, styling and copying American graphic design from the fifties and the sixties. This 'sensibility' is in fact the result of a certain perception of designs which were created with a totally different perception. A cultural clash of sorts is thus sited, but it is also covered over in the finished design - just as all conflicts and harmonies are cancelled into one another in most finished design work, that being the very aim of 'finishing'.
If you like, there's almost a second degree 'alien principle' at work in modern Japanese high-style graphic design and layout. Picture it as the Japanese looking at the layout and ads in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Life and even National Geographic and thinking how weird and alien it all looks, and then incorporating such a 'strange' effect into their consequent design work. The Americans then see this work the Japanese are doing and think exactly the same thing - how weird and alien it looks - and then copy that. Before you know it, things are so messed up and confused you don't know who's copying who - which is wonderful. This is a state of affairs where transcultural flows and drives are the dominant principles in design creation and invention, and where the consequent design work cannot be attributed to or explained by holistic concepts of cultural identity, but is better qualified by cultures unrecognizing the role of identity and image in design and centering on effect and style as superficial material that can be misinterpreted, recopied and overworked so as to create new designs. (It's worth noting that the two Dover publications I mentioned above are compiled by Japanese designers.)
An even better example of this mode of transcultural design is to be found in Japanese action comics, where lettering plays a crucial role in the comics' narratives. Here lettering is an incredible fusion of calligraphic rhythms and dynamics (fluid, subtle, organic) with typeface conventions and renderings (formal, graphic, dimensional), giving their lettering a powerful feel of movement and solidity as it screams and stretches across the page, breaking into frames and spilling out into tonal zones and patterned voids. In Japanese action comics, the heroic spectacle of postwar and cold war Marvel and DC archetypal scenarios are put into overdrive and sent into a graphic hyperspace where the effects of force, power, pressure, fusion, explosion, disintegration, speed, direction and space are all intensified. The styling of the lettering (not to mention the use of frames, balloons and text) works along these lines as well, and is primarily responsible for energizing the comic narrative with such power. It's like the atomic age detonating the Haiku tone and form of classical Japanese storyboards. Once again, it is unlikely that these comics could do what they do without the (now) comparatively sober Marvel and DC comics having been available for them to rework in the first place.
Not surprisingly, this peculiar Japanese slant on Western typeface has indirectly generated the most recent European trend in contemporary graphic design where typeface and lettering and their spacing and placement are the primary formal and aesthetic focus. From Face magazine layouts to the Streetsounds' Electro series of record covers to the work of design companies like Assorted Images, this focus on lettering and typeface is largely the result of attempting to look at bold, plain, sober typefaces in a new and 'alien' light. Japanese typographic design (as well as current type stylings from the Eastern Block and historical versions to be found in WWII fascist propaganda graphics) have all been well plundered, mainly because they instantly offer an alien view : the words look English but in fact are incomprehensible. Instead of identifying the letter 'A' one feels the presence of 'A-ness'. Just as conflicts and harmonies are 'cancelled into another' in the finished design, the alien view of foreign words in familiar typographical forms, styles and configurations allows one to simultaneously recognize and unrecognize letters and lettering, leaving one's perception hovering on the shifting divisions between abstraction and representation.
So where does all this lead us? All this juggling of of abstraction and representation ; all this emptying of identity ; all these transcultural flows and alien perspectives? Well, among other places it leads us to the letter-creations hovering above this text. Their invention and production are the result of all the perspectives and perceptions I have detailed throughout this article. Each of them - as letter-creations - are an attempt to play with, for example, 'A-ness' 'B-ness' and so on. They are not really meant to be the letters they say they are, but then again, they can't help but be those very letters because there is no end to the way letters can be depicted and shaped. As such, there is nothing particularly 'definitive' or 'essential' about these letters. They are far from being pure, classical, or total in any sense. Rather, they are full embodiments of deviations, but handled so that they form their own internal letterform logic - a logic that could only state itself with the advent and execution of each letter. This is all very circular and cyclical, but that is in the nature of finished design work : closing off, rounding off, sorting out, clearing out a design concept. Fusing process, method, system and structure into the finished design. Thus - as mentioned before - these letter-creations aren't examples or demonstrations but more instances, occurrences and occasions of possible existences of the identities and entities which constitute the abstract of each letter.
Such letter-creations could only happen if I didn't care whether or not I might draw all possible 'A's, or whether or not I might in the end define the definitive 'A'. What interests me about alphabets and their letters (and typefaces and their characters) is how every letter is a version of every other possible letter in every other possible typeface, and that that 'possibility' is not a hypothetical given or proposal, but a crazy creative continuum which energizes all the creative impulses which generate letters. I am here partly responding to one of the most illuminating philosophical reflections on the 'nature' of typeface design and its role in our psychological perception of letters in Douglas Hofstadter's book Godel, Escher & Bach : An Eternal Golden Braid. In chapter 12 (Variations On A Theme As The Crux Of Creativity) and chapter 13 (Metafont, Metamathematics & Metaphysics) Hofstadter discusses the pros and cons of how an artificial intelligence system might replicate human psychological processes when it comes to recognizing and identifying letterforms. By expanding on that plane where perception and invention cave in on each other, he explores the potential problems faced by the typeface designer who wishes to be all-encompassing with typefaces that are in some way the distillation of a pre-existing set or body of typefaces.
What attracts Hofstadter is the philosophical implications of the metamathematical and metaphysical problematics in designing such all-encompassing or self-expanding typeface systems (what computer programmer and designer Donald Knuth called metafonts). Still, I couldn't help but think that a lot of what Hofstadter reflected upon were the wild, self-enveloping impulses, urges and accidents which we casually label 'artistic' 'inspirational' or 'creative'. Hofstadter of course clearly realizes this, and his main philosophical projection I think lies in pondering how a computer could be programmed with its own set of quirks, breaks, fractures and hiccups - to, in this case, unrecognize as much as it recognizes. This sounds paradoxical (especially as most computer programmers, according to Hofstadter, really can't predict every possible consequence and result that could come out of a programme they have designed) but I think I know what he's driving at : that to create and invent is based not only on conscious deviations of the norm, but also failures in trying to adhere to the norm - meaning that, for example, by trying to render a perfect chicken symbol for that roast chicken chain you come up with the perfect symbol for a used car yard.
Some of the letters hovering above this text have been designed that way, ie. I start working on what I think is going to be a certain letter, and in the end I realize that it actually is more interesting as another letter. Or, more consciously, I'll deliberately try to design a letter, but only so that in the end I can turn it on its side to leave it as another letter. Some of the letters, to take another approach, are created by combining two or more recognizable typefaces so that they have to fight with each another. And some are the result of randomly doodling a squiggle and then building up an outline and internal form to the doodle so it resembles a fluid yet solid shape. This is what I meant before when I said that each letter has the potential to become every other letter in every other typeface. The Hofstadter chapters interested me mostly because I read them after I had over the years worked out different perceptual games and tricks I could play upon myself in order to realize new letter-creations, and his chapters rhetorically ask how would one go about designing and perceiving typefaces under such possible conditions.
Typeface, lettering and letter-creations all become most interesting when they in one way or another fail in achieving their communicative intentions. This kind of 'failure' is the result not simply of not being able to read a particular letter, but also of reading that letterform as being another letter. Swaying between reading and misreading is inherent in the act of recognizing letters as both signs (linguistic conventions) and symbols (poetic conventions) in that the symbolic form of a particular letter-creation might lead one to read it as a sign of something it isn't. Or conversely one might correctly read a letter despite its symbolic form being totally derived from another letter. In the event of looking at letters there is always a play-off between your perceptual haziness and the letters' own formal fluidity.
At its best, this can all get very perverse. Picture a logo which features a clear image of a fat black cat, and wrapped around it in a special typeface are the words "TAT FLACK BAT". Two possibilities arise : (a) many people might - by association - misread the type correctly ; and (b) many people might realize its incorrectness, but nonetheless realize what it should be stating. In the end, a certain 'fat black cat-ness' would be connoted, but either at the expense or with the bonus (depending on your point of view) of misreading and misinterpreting the intention and function of the logo's design. Or to give a concrete example : consider the lettering for the words "TALKING HEADS" on their Remain In Light album which is written "TVLKING HEVDS". Letters can just as easily be read despite themselves.
Hofstadter remarks upon a sort of slipping between the recognizable conventional formations of letterforms, of how a 'h' can slip and slide only so far before it becomes a 'k' for example. Reading a chart he designed to demonstrate this, I was reminded of many similar charts : from Da vinci's anatomical studies, to the 18th century studies of physiognomy, phrenology and caricature, right up to the 'How-To-Draw-Like' books put out by Marvel and Disney. All such charts are based on training you to differentiate between states of recognition and unrecognition - that is, to be able to know consciously when you aren't seeing or reading something that somehow you know should be there. If that isn't perverse I don't know what is. Quite clearly, the more one questions how we perceive letters, the more one gets the impression that we largely read and interpret by default.
A good example of letter-creations which exploit this strange state of affairs are those of Rick Griffin. (See Rick Griffin Perigee Books, N. Y. 1980 for a comprehensive survey of Griffin's work.) Usually tied to his 'cultural identity' of being involved in the 60s' drug counterculture of San Francisco, his lettering style is much more than the supposed result of chemically altered perceptions. His logos and headings virtually dare you to read them, to try and reconcile their symbolic form with their logistic shape. As such, his letters demonstrate how a letter's form can destroy its contents, its intended communicative message. Even more interesting is the formal procedeure which informs Griffin's style. Basically, he takes a fairly conservative 'Wild West' style of typeface (thin stems with bold and thickened serifs) and then redraws and overdraws their forms so that the letters start to blend into one another, leaving the finished design to tell the story of its fluid journey from a fix to a flux ; from clearly blocked letterforms to a graphic continuum which cancels out the identity of the individual letterforms.
Of course, graphic and typographical design in this area of 'design-by-distortion' is today caught up in the heady attractiveness of computer generated designs (bursting onto the scene in around 1984/85, a few years after Hofstadter wrote his articles). In a sense, this subject pushes the meandering of this article onto a new plane, one too vast to traverse here and now. But in another sense I can't help thinking that digitally generated typefaces aren't doing much that can't already eventuate from 'human' interfaces between perception and execution. If, for example, we take the major mode of type alteration in computer graphics - that of mathematically changing ratio perspectives and dimensions of any letterform, stretching or condensing it into exacting requirements - surely this isn't much different from mathematically altering the shape of letterforms in much the same way that M.C.Esc her used grids to change solid space into fluid dimensions. (See Bruno Ernst's The Magic Mirror Of M.C.Esc her Tarquin Publications, UK 1985. This book also contains much writing by Escher himself on how perspective is ultimately a continuum of distortions.) Or, in a more random and manual way, drawing a letter, screwing up the sheet of paper, and then drawing a new version of that letter in its newly distorted perspective.
In the hypothetical realm of metamathematics, computer generation of typography tends toward the dimensional : either honouring the conventional codes of vanishing-point perspective with hyperreal effect (as in most hi-tech television station IDs) or stretching such conventions of form and shape into a new state of virtual illegibility (as in the latest work of Malcom Garret or The Designers' Republic). As yet, computer typography typifies the saturated state of restating and overstating the formal image of Western typefaces, where the alien effect has been replaced with a violently and overtly 'familiar' effect : knowing and recognizing the typeface too well, too closely, and in such extremely exacting detail that it starts to once again become alien. It isn't simply 'finished' artwork - it's artwork that wasn't even commenced in the first place, because while there is a certain fluidity in extending the formal parameters of letterform design and construction, the end result often seems somewhat drained of that very fluidity. While computer typeface generation and alteration is undoubtedly mind-boggling in its precision and suggestion of limitless control of dimensional parameters, it still (for now) falls short of the weird fusions and conglomerations which govern letter-creations, where the dimensional is only one possible constructional mode along with the rhythmic, the textural, the formal, the interactive, the gestural, the iconic, etc. But this is not to say that (a) computers won't eventually be capable of such quirky lateral collapses, or (b) humans couldn't find ways of turning the dimensional and digital habits of computer design into more open-ended applications and subversions. In the end, it doesn't really matter whether a letterform is invented by a 15th century visionary, a malfunctioning computer, or a Martian trying to figure out how to use a Letraset sheet : each and every letter sets its own definition not only of what it is, but also of what it could be.
O.K. - let's try that trick again. Pick a letter. Any letter .....
Text & images © Philip Brophy