Spring 2008

LEGIBLE IN PUBLIC SPACE

John D. Berry
PUBLIC LETTERING

Whether as labelling, wayfinding or mere decoration, letters bring function and form to the built environment.

The wooden floor of the Seattle Public Library’s Learning Center is carved with phrases in different languages and writing systems, a decorative touch that demonstrates one of the ways that lettering can be incorporated into the surfaces of a building. But while architectural lettering may often be decorative, it almost always starts from the intention of imparting information. As Nicolete Gray wrote in Lettering on Buildings, ‘both architecture and lettering have a primarily utilitarian function’, and architectural lettering, which covers everything from branding to signage, almost always starts with the purpose of giving information. The most obvious informational functions are labelling and wayfinding – ‘here’s what this is’ and ‘here’s where you are’ – though sometimes the true function is to proclaim credibility or power, or to affirm a belief . . .

. . . As a practical matter, architects and graphic designers should be teaming up to create new environments; after all, we have to live with the results on a day-to-day basis, so we might as well use our best intelligence and skills in designing them. We need both a historical understanding of lettering in architecture and a forward-looking technical understanding of how we interact with words in the modern world. The increasing use of electronic lettering on and in buildings, as embedded yet constantly changing visual information, adds a new dimension to the question; so do new forms of portable information, both visual and aural. Yet the fundamental problems remain the same, along with the fundamental nature of the human beings who use whatever architects build. Only the solutions change.

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