The Typographic Exposition, held at the Design Exchange in Toronto on April 26 and 27, 1996, featured a coterie of typographers and graphic designers who could be classed in the radical/avant-garde/profane/postmodern category. That faction of the graphic arts is the recipient of most of the attention these days, not to mention all manner of condemnation from practitioners of “conventional” design.
In at least one case, such censure was warranted. British graphic designer Siobhan Keaney’s lecture, “Working on the Edge: Women in Design,” was doomed from the start. Graphic design, at least in North America and Europe, is demographically unlike other spheres of the visual arts. Its practitioners are overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, and male; the majority of the few people of colour in the profession are of Asian descent, and disabled designers are effectively nonexistent. (You could look for designers in yet other minority groups and be disappointed.) Setting up the only female speaker at the Expo as a standard-bearer for all women designers amounted to a pre-emptive political strike: Keaney could say or do whatever she wanted with impunity, since to criticize her could be dismissed as misogynistic and retrograde by hypercorrect guardians of the Female Experience in Graphic Design.
However, criticism is all this marginally talented but inexplicably successful designer deserves. Her overlong presentation demonstrated just how far you can go with scissors, a glue pot, and a willingness to collage bits and pieces of type, photography, and illustration together into chaotic, irksome, alienating overlapped “designs” that she terms “photograms – really kind of pure abstract imagery.” (Keaney only recently bought a computer and told the audience that she barely knows how to use it. She really ought to learn; there’s nowhere to go but up.) Glibly sidestepping the ethical issues involved, Keaney described her efforts to defy her clients’ wishes, as in the case of a Middle Eastern conglomerate that asked her to tone down the use of religiously-charged colours like black and red in her layouts. Keaney – who initially set out to include videos and slideshows of three of her female designer friends, which did not come together in time for the conference – subjected the audience to a tediously microdetailed slideshow of seemingly every piece she ever created.
If the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, which put on the Expo, wishes to meaningfully represent female type designers, they should opt for speakers with clear competence in the type field. Names like Zuzana Licko (Emigre), Carol Twombly (Adobe Systems, an alleged “sponsor” of the Expo whose booth remained deserted of Adobe staff through the show), and Canada’s own whimsical type designers Val Fullard and Barbara Klunder come to mind. Selecting Keaney is typical of the Toronto design cabal’s ability to follow a bad idea through to its most appalling conclusion.
Mixed reactions were the order of the day for Minneapolis designer P. Scott Makela, who came perilously close to making 265 instant enemies and ruining his reputation by forcing conference delegates to sit through an execrable video consisting of totally defocused images accompanied by earsplitting, interminable Tibetan chants and recordings of voicemail greetings. Even this reporter, highly predisposed to like Makela’s work, thought all delegates should immediately demand a refund of their registration fee (up to $425).
However, Makela later recovered goodwill by showing slides and videos of his own design work, which uses contemporary software to turn letters into “architectural” constructs that seems three-dimensional – type made out of jelly beans, you might say. In Makela’s jargon, he works in three “surfaces” – print, “digital” (i.e., multimedia), and film – and indeed his best work is in the field of video. Makela contributed type designs to the $8 million Michael Jackson video “Scream” (which he unwisely ran in its entirety for the audience), but a better-integrated example of his work is the overlooked Urge Overkill video “Positive Bleeding,” of which Makela showed only snippets.
He’s also a type designer – his Dead History font is an avowed amalgam of two existing but strongly dissimilar fonts – but Makela’s real claim to fame is being one of the two designers who can consistently design pleasing, intelligent, and more-or-less-readable layouts in the new postmodern “chaotic, overlapping” style. (Rudy Vanderlans of Emigre is the other reliable source.)
A mixture of unassailable type-design skills and deadpan wit came from Dutch design duo Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland, two beanpoles designing computer fonts that are programs rather than being the result of programs. Even with modern technology, they told the audience, designers inadvertently confine their imaginations to what the technology can do. In defiance of this trend, the two showed off their malleable fonts: The Beowulf typeface looks different every single time you print it. Kosmik Flipper embeds three versions of each character into a font, with each set of characters used one after the other, so a word like kisses contains three slightly-different S characters. Like Matthew Carter’s font for the Walker Art Center with its “snap-on serifs,” the Dutch pair’s BitPull font (“BitPull is to typography what a pit bull is to a small child”) comes with a set of dots you can overlay on characters in any combination like throwing confetti on a birthday cake. (Instead of having, say, the same boring-looking letter K all the time, you can sprinkle on some of these dots to customize each individual K.)
The name of the pair’s new company, LettError, aptly embodies the wacky, good-natured smarts of these designers, who pretty much summed up computer typography in the ’90s with van Blokland’s remark that “millions of dollars every year are wasted with people just playing around with their fonts. That’s not a problem, it’s a market.”
[Originally published 1996 ¶ Updated here 1999.07.19, 2007.03.19]