Summer 2005

Writing that lets down the letters

26 Letters: Illuminating the Alphabet

Exhibition: British Library, 30 September 2004-January 2005. Book: Edited by Freda Sack, John Simmons & Tim Rich. Cyan, £14.99

This project is a collaboration between 26 writers (from the professional writers’ association 26) and 26 graphic designers from the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD). Each pair was asked to ‘create a collaborative work that celebrated, explored, questioned, elucidated or subverted’ a particular letter of the alphabet. The result is a disappointing poster exhibition, spread over five floors of the British Library, and a book.

The project seeks to present graphic designers’ work self-consciously as ‘art’. But graphic design is about selling, being aloof and detached from the work, while art is about emotion, and often involves exposing oneself and society through the work. Contemporary art frequently provides a warts-and-all exploration of the psyche and worldview of the artist. Designers, on the other hand, display a cool, calculated eye without giving away any indication of the person behind the work. This project is not so much ‘art’ as ‘vanity’.

The designers involved in ‘26 Letters’ are selected from the upper echelons of the design world, including Lucienne Roberts, Eye’s Nick Bell, Derek Birdsall, Alan Fletcher, Erik Spiekermann and Alan Kitching. Perhaps they were let down by the writers, many of whose addresses begin with big business names such as Interbrand, DDB London and Unilever.

There’s certainly a problem with the brief itself. Letters on their own are meaningless – with the exception of ‘A’ and ‘I’. They are abstract symbols, which take on meaning when placed next to each other. It might have been better to have a brief with some purpose: to promote the British Library, say, or to create an educational tool.

However several posters are conceptually and physically beautiful, such as ‘Z’ by Alan Dye, ‘W’ by Alan Kitching, ‘P’ by Bryan Edmondson and ‘K’ by Marksteen Adamson. All the posters are exceptionally well produced, though this should be a given considering the design talent on show.

The book’s introduction suggests that writers and designers ‘fail to talk to each other’ and that the writer (whatever additional role he or she might play) is always integral. Do we really need a book to tell us this? The work is described as ‘groundbreaking’, but a quick flick through reveals little that hasn’t been seen before in the past 50 years. You can tick off the design styles: Modernist, default design, in’faux’mation design, postmodernist and so on.

It is as a book that 26 Letters becomes a real drag, but not through any fault of the graphic designers. The reasoning behind the concepts is weak and there is little analysis of the work. The book gives us some curious ‘insights’ into the letters of the alphabet: ‘A’ is a ‘positive letter’; ‘C’ is ‘95 per cent bad’; and ‘N’ is ‘negative’.

Most of the contributors’ attempts to engage with the works of literature housed in the British Library result in pompous, awkward and ill-conceived streams of consciousness that attempt to justify the works. Peter Dawson quotes Ernst Jünger to support his concept of ‘U’ as the universe, evoking ‘the dark force of being – the secrets of procreation and death.’

By far the best diary entry comes from Robert Williams (paired with Bryan Edmondson), which takes the form of a short, engaging story, making ‘P’ the most entertaining letter.

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