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Commentary

Live from Thessaloniki

Joshua Lurie-Terrell on June 29, 2004

The adventurous and very complete Toby Thain, our reporter-at-large in Greece, had the good fortune to visit the Second International Typography and Visual Communication Conference at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki this week. This is his report; pour yourself a bit of ouzo, sit back, and imagine that you are there.


Klimis Mastoridis opened the conference with a short speech in which he recalled the previous conference in 2002. According to Mastoridis, it felt as if the last conference had only ended when preparations for this one were begun. A six day conference is a large event especially in the arguably confined world of typography, although with 150 speakers and 1500 delegates there is clearly plenty to see over the week. Mastoridis envisions a “fiesta” every four years, celebrating the history, theory, practice and education of typography and visual communication — a schedule easier for the institution to handle and allowing more significant collections of new research. There is considerable local energy and commitment to organising an internationally credible conference, as this year’s roster of speakers attests.

The first day displayed an apparently characteristically Greek polite friction, between organisers and certain recalcitrant luminaries who declined to attend. Mastoridis explained that after considerable expense, David Carson is unable to attend as scheduled. He joked that the price of Carson’s ticket would have paid for 40 Greek lecturers.

John Maeda’s response when invited, “I am not interested in typography any more,” bemused Mastoridis, who asserted that it is impossible to ignore visual messages.

Richard Southall made the very first presentation in the programme, and appropriately enough, this was a history of typographic technology, recapping the important generations of production methods since Gutenberg. Southall began by observing that each new writing technology emulates the old (an idea fully understood and explored by H. M. McLuhan). The first example of this, of course, was Gutenberg’s faithful duplication of the textura manuscript in his printed books. Southall’s talk covered the main turning points in industrialised type production: the punchcutting and casting of handset type; the introduction of slug casting machines which made type matrices a commodity owned by printers themselves; photosetting that removed mechanical restrictions on type layout and the fonts themselves; digital photocomposition; screen based typography such as Teletext (1984) which predated the web; “desktop publishing” and the standardisation of Postscript (also 1984).

Southall discussed the compromises inherent in adapting type to displays, observing that each specific combination of typeface and hardware demands its own optimisation. He presented examples of Air Traffic Control screens on which he was consulted on typographical issues. Southall observed that the web is much more like these ATC systems than DTP.

Closing his presentation, Southall noted that today, the only real constraint on typography is financial — and with unrestricted choices in letterforms, including the ability to create new and arbitrary devices – “it is hard to know whether to be delighted or terrified!” However, Southall’s choice of closing image, a rather beautiful piece of graffiti from the abandoned Arles railway workshops, definitely conveyed a sense of delight, optimism and energy.

Alan Marshall’s talk, “Reinventing typography,” covered some of the same material but from a different angle. Marshall discussed a 2nd generation photosetting machine, the Lumitype Photon, in some detail, using it to illustrate both the “dematerialising” of type over the 20th century, as well as to show that many trumpeted “innovations” in type technologies are nothing new at all.

Marshall had several interesting points to make. Firstly, that many typographic revolutions were brought about by engineers, and in particular engineers from non-printing backgrounds. The Lumitype is a good example. Secondly, Marshall wished us to understand that until photosetting, typesetting was a highly material process: consider the matrices themselves, and the enormous size and weight of “standing type” (formes ready to print, or stored for reprinting). The Lumitype brought a dramatic change with its Film Matrix Disc of 16 alphabets combined with a turret of 12 lenses, giving 192 combinations of alphabet and size. This single disc would equate to the entire metal type stock of a medium sized printing works!

The Lumitype was a very large industrial development exercise, and of many similar proposals, the only machine of its type to enter production. It cost $5 million (1950 dollars) and 10 years to develop, in Cambridge Mass, by the original two French inventors with the close cooperation of MIT engineers and encouraged by Vannevar Bush. It was first installed in 1954 at an American newspaper.

Marshall explained that phototypesetting was welcomed by large typesetting companies as a means to “de-skill” the workplace: to finally make typesetting no more skilled than typing, a very long held objective that is essentially a false goal. As Marshall put it, “typesetting is typing until someone is paying for the result” – in reality, quality and excellence are still expected.

Despite this profit-motivated “holy grail” of its customers, the Lumitype did manage to satisfy the disparate needs of newspapers, book publishers and the advertising industry: it was a “workshop in a box.” Adrian Frutiger’s Univers family (interestingly, also cited by Richard Southall) was the first type family designed to fully exploit the 2nd generation phototypesetter with its expanded range of weights and set widths, instantly available from the typesetter’s single film disc. In this way the Lumitype symbolised the completion of the move to “dematerialised” type, compared to the lead-based or Gutenberg methods.

Manolis Savidis was third to speak, with a very timely and pointed dissertation on “Yesterday’s content for today’s user.” Savidis’ attitude was neatly expressed as he began by announcing that he has no laptop, no images, and no footnotes. Taking a rather clear-eyed and sceptical view of technology driven marketing, he mentioned the “small, dubious advances” in hardware and software that are being sold today. He reminded us that the only important advance has been the electronic display, and touched upon its unique features: instantly updatable, and ideal for databases and searching.

“But what about everything else?” asks Mr. Savidis: the history, literature, essays and opinion that form our fixed heritage, published in a volume that utterly dwarfs the “new” content. He regards it as an exciting challenge to communicate this legacy effectively and concedes that the modern reader has been “corrupted by short bursts of content” (it is almost superfluous to name TV) – to be considered if content is to appeal to a modern audience.

Savidis gave some revealing examples of how not to approach re-presenting old media, and cited the “digital book” or “e-book” as a conspicuous failure, through not manifesting compelling improvement over the paper book (which has a near optimal “user interface”). He described unthinking imposition of technology as “the mortal sin of technological arrogance.” (The other sins defined by Savidis included “conceptual arrogance” – the media does not respect the content; and “editorial arrogance,” the imposition of an interpretation.)

From his wide experience of electronic publishing projects Savidis mentioned the necessity for a multi-disciplinary approach combined with rational financing, to successfully publish in “new” media. He stressed that the electronic media are complementary, not alternative. His closing remarks are worth quoting: “I have no crystal ball and I am weary of those who have seen the future. I can only see the past and there are lessons there for all of those who can read or write.”

Jason Lewis followed Savidis with a presentation of research at obx Laboratory for Experimental Media, Concordia University, Montreal. Partly inspired by the work of Johanna Drucker, these projects embody the principle that “visual form is intrinsic and inseparable from the words.”

First Jason demonstrated “It’s Alive”, a text editing environment based on the ActiveText software toolkit. “It’s Alive” is a fully interactive, kinetic editing system for attaching and combining behaviours on a hierarchy of levels from glyph, word through passage.

SoftType is a software module which distorts individual glyphs, further generalising and abstracting typographic elements. Combined with the “TextOrgan,” a fully interactive MIDI keyboard and mouse interface set up as a controller for a spectrum of ActiveText parameters, Jason showed that the system is capable of a spectrum of dynamic effects from cacophony to symphony.

The NextText initiative is intended to evolve these elements beyond experiments into a “production” system.

Maria Nicholas’ discussion of “The Web vs Print” was a recapitulation of lessons learned by the graphic design industry as the web has grown from primitive seed into a global utility. Her talk centred on questions such as, can a designer expect to perform in both print and web based areas – switching back and forth as necessary – or is specialisation desirable? Maria’s answer is yes and no, and she referred to web experts such as Jakob Nielsen and Jeffrey Zeldman to underline her own experience as a hands-on manager and practitioner in a design studio.

One question posed by Maria was, “do print art directors make the best web designers?” – yes, they know layout, typography, branding and understand the mandate to communicate. Yet the web is about speed and clarity, according to Maria, and not beauty and perfection. “Too many web sites strive for the wrong standards of excellence.”

Maria gave a useful checklist of differences between the two media:

  1. Function – the web is a conduit for information, not a pretty picture frame;

  2. The appearance of colours is not controllable as it is in print;
  3. The appearance of text on screen is highly mutable according to environment and user preferences;
  4. Graphic usage constraints that do not apply to print (bandwidth);
  5. Layout relatively fluid rather than fixed;
  6. Web is non-linear rather than sequential;
  7. Content and size not immediately apparent (unlike a printed document);
  8. Equipment deficiencies (plugins etc);
  9. Web content is never finished!

These points may be obvious to a designer who has been working in the field but presented in Maria’s lecture they were a useful and common sense reminder of how much we have learned yet how young a field online design is.

Her personal anecdotes mentioned the deep anxiety felt by print designers first confronted by HTML in the late 1990s – an anxiety I recall from my own experience. She also made the interesting observation that while print designers were curious about experimenting with HTML and creating sites, online designers are relatively uninterested in tackling print design – perhaps, paradoxically, because of the perception of technical difficulty! Maria’s conclusion was that designers should “know what you are good at” and be free to specialise.

Many open questions remain, including: “Do web designers need traditional training?”; “Is usability a graphic design discipline – or something else?”; and “Do print designers graduate without understanding the web?”

The two disciplines do share some common ground, according to Maria: The necessity for talent and drive; clarity and simplicity; ideas; solving problems; and effective branding. However Maria concludes that generally different design approaches are needed.

Peter Cho has extensively experimented with “Typography in Dimensional (digital) Environments” under John Maeda. His discussion began with a nod to the 20th century’s rich tradition of non-digital typographic experimentation, from the earliest optical imagery through modern sculpture, installations and monuments (Indiana, Oldenburg, Igarashi, Mueller).

Cho showed several early digital experiments in “higher-dimensional” typography including Univers Revolved (Lee) and Cho’s own Alphabet Zoo, an endearing exploration or riff on letterforms allowing expression in 3D space.

Moving on to “information spaces,” Cho described many examples of built spaces involving typography: Times Square; Hong Kong; Bureau Miksenaar’s airport projects; Shaw’s Legible City animation; H5’s “The Child” music video; and Euromap 2004, a data visualisation experiment.

Cho described screen media as “low cognitive” reading, “more like watching than reading,” in which issues of scale and perception become more complex. He summarised his work as exploring “how the two spaces – physical and virtual – can inform one another.”

For many, the highlight of the conference was expected to be Neville Brody’s opening day lecture – or, as humorously described by Mark Barratt, Brody’s “performance.” In Thessaloniki, Brody spoke to a packed, enthralled audience and certainly leavened his sombre message with some bright points of humour. He announced himself with “I’m David Carson,” which had the audience in the aisles.

The first part of Brody’s presentation covered the past few years’ work at Research Studios, his international firm. This firm is structured as several offices of 3-4 people working as an organic, reconfigurable group, rather than a larger centralised office, which Brody now finds less manageable.

Brody discussed work for “speak” magazine; Macromedia; Issey Miyake; Tribeca (“in this industry you either fire your client in the end or get fired by them”); cut+splice for ICA London; Kenzo (packaging that “questions conventions”); express (graphics inspired by anti-war ideas and “we put subversive messages into a spot varnish … the client approved digital files that don’t show varnish”); FUSE; and Zumtobel (“subversion is all-important”). [Most or all of this work can be seen on the Research Studios web site.]

Brody then moved into the second, more personal part of his lecture, entitled “Context,” a deeply felt essay clearly the result of much soul searching on the designer’s role. He felt it was appropriate, on the first day of the conference, to challenge designers to consider “why are we here?” – the effect we have on the world, and the world on us.

Attending in 2003 the Publication Designers Conference in New York, only a few hundred metres from “Ground Zero,” Brody noted that the traumatised condition of the world makes it difficult for designers to be constructive and positive, and “it is difficult to discuss design at this critical time.” Despite the difficulty, Brody insists that media professionals in particular “must look around us.”

McLuhan’s “global village” has now been realised and Western culture is spreading to all corners of the globe – as Brody has observed first hand through deliberately choosing to speak at a diverse range of locations. Everywhere he goes he sees “the same echoes, aspirations, graphic language,” and paraphrasing Laurie Anderson, “language is a virus.”

Brody feels that as media professionals, “middle men” between the public and ideas, we choose how information is presented. We turn concepts into real things. We become part of the message. “We manipulate, even unconsciously … what we do colours the way things are seen.”

In recent times Brody described feeling a personal disconnection from work. Partly this is due to perceived redundancy of the designer’s role: “I have Microsoft Office. Why do I need an identity?” Brody answers that “we still need great photographers and great writers” – packaged solutions are not a complete answer. We all feel exhausted at the end of the day, and Brody is not alone in wondering, “yet, what has been done?…there are 100 wires and pipes plugged into me … we are hubs, conduits, like an airport … we are expected to receive one million messages a day and to publish one million messages a day.”

“We think we live in a world of choice – but the choices we are making are not real…all we are doing is editing or filtering.”
Brody’s consistent antidote to this deadening system is a dose of anarchy and subversion. Defeat data mining and the “data shadow” left by every transaction, by confusing the system: “Call yourself a vegetarian but buy pork.”

Right now he feels not alone in “forgetting how to be intuitive … to work instinctively … how to use my hands. Now, I calculate stuff, I don’t create it any more.” There is no allowance in our modern world, Brody feels, for risk or the unpredictable.

The painful irony behind this conclusion became clear as Brody’s generation of student designers believed design had the potential to improve society – not assist in building an unhuman system. During the 1980s, design and wider society became conformist under the Thatcher and Reagan regimes. Brody’s consistent rage against the conventional and expected is well remembered from this period. But 20 years later he finds designers uninterested in rocking the boat: “Young designers are interested in comfort, prestige, safety and security…’We just want to impress other designers’.” Asked “What is your idea?” they answer, “What do you mean, idea?” This superficiality reflects a wider preoccupation with short term profit in lieu of deeper culture.

“Revolution has become like a Gap ad campaign” – and Brody should know.

In the end, he can’t answer “what now?” – “I don’t know. But I know that if we don’t tear up the plans we will never find out.”

Toby also notes that our good friends Hrant Papazian and John Hudson, presenter and moderator respectively, put on an excellent roundtable on legibility; on Saturday, in place of David Carson, Neville Brody and Erik Spiekermann hosted a session ostensibly on legibility which often veered off into discussing issues of design celebrity – a session that Neville Brody closed with the comment that anyone who expects or desires to make an impact upon popular culture must be an obsessive – that is, obsessed with not just the big picture but with the details of their work – something that all Typographica readers can, I hope, appreciate.

7 Comments

  1. thank you very much for this generous review!

  2. geraint says:

    wow. almost as good as being there..

    which i sadly wasn’t

  3. Hrant says:

    What a great review! It does justice to what was a wonderful conference, in arguably the best spot in the world to hold a type conference. And it didn’t hurt that I caught the Euro2004 semi and the final “live” while I was there! :-)

    BTW, it would only be fair to add the names of Peter Enneson, Mary Dyson and certainly Kevin Larson to the people who made the Legibility Round Table successful… I hope. :-)

    PS: Toby, it was great meeting you in person too!

    hhp

  4. Toby Thain says:

    I should mention that the report above covers only the first day of the conference and is only a fraction of the material presented. The following six days were also full of interesting lectures, not all of which I attended.

    Highlights (for me) included: Spiekermann’s “Sex and Type and Rock & Roll” (which seemed designed to produce a level of “typographic arousal” :); Karel van der Waarde’s very effective and entertaining presentation on the serious topic of pharmaceutical packaging and instructions; Lucas de Groot’s “Homage to Pythagoras”, in which type design and mathematics fruitfully meet; Hrant’s comprehensive rehabilitation of ligatures of all kinds; the entertaining story of LettError’s Twin Cities type, presented by the inimitable twins of twisted type; and of course Alan Fletcher’s tour of recent work.

    But most memorable of all was the hospitality of my Greek hosts and friends, in particular Nikos Koutsmanis of Redfish, a progressive and talented design company in Thessaloniki. I hope to return for the next type “fiesta” at the University of Macedonia!

  5. Toby Thain says:

    I forgot to mention two other exciting presentations: Piero De Macchi recapped a career of beautiful lettering and type design, and presented Nomina, his type for Italian telephone directories.

    Jan Middendorp showed the fruits of his research into the history of Dutch type design, which has been published as a remarkable book. Jan introduced the audience to several relatively unknown Dutch typographers, whose legacy deserves much wider recognition. Jan has generously illustrated the book with these gems, along with work from better known Dutch practitioners.

  6. Toby says:

    My Flickr photo set from the 2004 conference.
    Also see LettError’s gallery.

    I hear from Nikos Koutsmanis that another Thessaloniki conference is planned for next year (2006). This is great news, I hope to be there.

  7. Hrant says:

    Not next year, but 2007.

    hhp

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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