Winter 2002

Reputations: Stephen Banham

‘Helvetica has become the generic default, a safe formula under the guise of Modernism. It’s all smoke and mirrors.’

In the early 1990s, Stephen Banham succeeded in giving new meaning to the old idea of the ‘little magazine’. The six issues of his spiral-bound, self-published project, Qwerty, each one titled after one of the word’s letters, really were tiny – not much bigger than the palm of your hand. They immediately won over recipients as tactile objects worth keeping and suggested the arrival of an intriguing new voice.

Banham was born in 1968 in Melbourne, Victoria. From 1986 to 1988 he studied graphic design at RMIT University in the city. After a spell working freelance in various studios and time in Berlin, he launched the first issue of Qwerty in 1991. His aim from the outset was to find a way of reconciling his self-initiated projects with commercial commissions to ensure the long-term viability of his one-man Melbourne studio. New issues followed at yearly intervals until 1995. In 1996, Banham introduced a second, slightly bigger publication, Ampersand, also devoted to typographic matters, and further issues appeared in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001; he produced video versions of issues 4 and 5. Banham’s clients, most of them based locally, include Craft Victoria, Pan Macmillan, Allen & Unwin, City of Melbourne, 2Fish Management, University of Western Sydney and RMIT.

Banham is a sometimes outspoken critic of fellow Australian designers, wittily targeting the narrowness of fashionable typographic taste. He lectures widely at Australian universities and design schools, and he has written for World Art, Monument, Baseline and Australian monthly Desktop, to which he contributed a column about typography from 1996 to 1999. His work has been exhibited in Melbourne, Adelaide, Barcelona, Paris and the Czech Republic, and in the touring Art Directors Club of New York show. He has been recognised by awards from the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Beckett Paper Awards in the US, National Print Awards in Australia and the New York Type Directors Club.

Rick Poynor: You appear to live and breathe typography. When were you bitten by the bug?

Stephen Banham: It’s funny because when I first considered graphic design as a possible career I knew nothing about type at all. I was only taught perspective drawing in high school and I looked through the course guide and thought that I would be studying drawing, packaging and topography. So I was expecting to learn about the position of rivers, roads and such. Even during the design course I was not taught much at all about this aspect of design.

It was only after university, when I started my own experiments and research into type, that I began to appreciate the scope of type. So, even though I did go to design school, I can almost say that I am self-taught. I would read books on type, collect it, photograph it, even spend my weekends kerning photocopied type so that I could appreciate its form and tactility. That’s why I have always been quietly thankful for going through design school before the Mac really had an impact. We had more time to consider the details then.

RP: You spent time in Germany with Erik Spiekermann in the late 1980s. What effect did this have on your subsequent direction?

SB: I was learning German at the time and made a deal with my teacher to swap the use of my car here in Australia if I could live in her empty flat in Berlin. Because I was so interested in type, I contacted ten German designers before I went over and only one returned my call. It was Erik Spiekermann. So I spent a few months in Berlin and visited his studio many times.

SB: Did you work at Meta?

RP: I didn’t – legally, one had to be a citizen of a NATO country – but just seeing the early Meta studio had a huge impact on me. I realised you could have type as a major part of your practice. On my return to Australia in 1990, I started my own practice, Letterbox.

SB: Why did you decide to start Qwerty?

RP: It’s hard to believe now, but there was very little happening in Australia in terms of typography in 1990. I began teaching typography at about this time and I would constantly see my students copy entire designs straight from Emigre or other international publications. I knew that we could create our own typographic language here so I began Qwerty. It was a series of six publications – Q, W, E, R, T and Y – each one A7 in size [74 x 105 mm]. This size wasn’t because I wanted to create a precious art book. It was simply the only way I could afford to have 24 pages up on a single sheet. Things were quite tough then – one week I had only $A300 in my bank account and I had the choice of paying the rent or sending the first issue to press. Over the next five years, I released the other issues. It received a lot of interest in the international design press and showed my students by example that one can create typographic work that reflects aspects of one’s own culture, though now I don’t agree with that early rather nationalistic notion of identity.

RP: Why the passionate interest in the vernacular?

SB: Possibly because of its immediacy, its accessibility. With Qwerty, it was important that I created a dialogue that my students could engage with. It was primarily about observations and the possibility of there being a culture of people who are passionate about typography. Referencing the vernacular was certainly a big part of the Qwerty project, but the price of its success has been having to overcome that label ever since.

RP: What are the unique characteristics of the Australian typographic vernacular?

SB: It wasn’t even that the content of Qwerty was quintessentially Australian but that it happened to come from our streets, which were of course Australian streets. We didn’t want to overlook the diversity of Australian society but rather to show things that may or may not be specific to our culture. Some things were, such as the betting slips from the racetrack in Qwerty no. 1, and others weren’t.

RP: What impact has the ambience of Melbourne itself had on your approach to design?

SB: Melbourne is certainly the most European of all the cities in Australia. The cooler climate lends itself to more introspection and research. It was also cheaper to live here so you had more time to gradually develop projects that didn’t have to stand on their legs economically. I wanted the design to be centred on the things that were going on here in Melbourne, such as the economic recession in Qwerty no. 1, or the growth of stencilling in the street in no. 3. We use only our typefaces on our publications, so that context tends to be a strong influence on their form.

RP: Looking at your typefaces such as Gaberdine and Gingham, I think of shopfronts on big city buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. It actually feels quite East Coast American, in some ways.

SB: I tend to prefer a subtly idiosyncratic, imperfect character: I try to ensure that these influences are not too direct but are an idealised mix of the best virtues of many people – the wit of Robert Brownjohn, the structural discipline of Ladislav Sutnar, the detail of Chris Ware.

RP: So are you, too, something of a nostalgist in your tastes for type and illustration?

SB: Whether you call it nostalgic or not, I have always been attracted to objects that are well considered, executed with passion and not afraid of being imbued with a certain character. Because those virtues tend to be associated with an earlier time, then sometimes it’s called nostalgic. Besides, within the world of typography there is always this element of reinterpreting existing forms (the symbols that we read as the alphabet). By placing these familiar forms into the capsule of a new idea, in a publication like ‘Grand’ [Ampersand no. 5] they take on a character of their own.

RP: There were just 200 copies of the early issues of Qwerty, rising to 250 for issues five and six. Who did you send it to?

SB: We sent them to people who we thought might be receptive, including design practitioners and educators all over the world. It was only when it had received some sort of acclaim overseas that the Australian media recognised it – exactly the sort of ‘cultural cringe’ that Qwerty was addressing in the first place. The number of copies produced was just a result of economics.

RP: How important was it to you to make wider connections to international design culture?

SB: Those connections were very important. Not so much for a form of external verification but to be able to communicate to Australian designers that they could make a contribution to a wider community. For what Qwerty was – a small-run publication based on an Australian experience – it was successful in that it somehow appeared unique, maybe even more so to people outside of the Australian cultural experience.

RP: Qwerty always concluded with a call for interested parties to contribute. What did your Australian audience make of Qwerty and did you get many constructive contributions or much of a dialogue?

SB: Qwerty did allow for the input of contributors but as with many publications, one has to kick-start the process so it was only in the fifth issue [‘The Big is Beautiful Issue’] that the amount of research truly demanded the contribution of others. As the publication went on, it became more personalised, reflecting more aspects of how I viewed type and its relationship to culture.

RP: For me, the ‘Big’ issue, with its oversized typographic A to Z, has the most satisfying idea. How did you go about putting it together?

SB: For that particular issue, the idea was that we would try to find a good example of every letter – from the biggest A right through to the biggest Z. Strangely enough, when I now think about it, it was probably very Australian in that it reflected the Australian sense of scale which is hard for Europeans to appreciate.

Just before I embarked upon that issue, the studio was featured in a major newspaper here in Melbourne. I used the coverage to make a call for entries for the coming issue about big type. So I was flooded with people’s input.

RP: Did you go and look at all the signs yourself, even that enormous Readymix logo in the desert, which you suggest could become a Stonehenge-like mecca for typographers. Or is that one a hoax?

SB: No, it actually does exist – it’s a two mile-long logo on the Nullabor Plain. I had the Australian Satellite Mapping Agency scan the area for it.

I explained that it was a non-profit research project and they did it for free. They thought I was mad and were just as surprised as me when they found it. It’s so big that it’s used as a navigational device for pilots going over to Perth. I intend to go there one day, as a sort of pilgrimage. Apparently you can only get to it by helicopter.

RP: What proportion of your time goes on these personal projects?

SB: When I started the studio, I divided my time into three distinct sections. The first was typographic publishing and research. The second was teaching and the third part was the commercial application of typography. These proportions have fluctuated throughout the years but I still do all of those things, though not in such a compartmentalised way. That’s why I am doing my postgraduate project [an MA at RMIT, Melbourne] on designers who have been able to integrate their principles or values into their practice and not see them as separate as I did. It is the idea of finding kindred spirits. I have always operated on my own. If one is not careful, it can become a bit ingrown, a bit self-referential. It’s all a steady learning process.

RP: Are you making the kind of discoveries that you hoped to make?

SB: I was interested in how other practitioners have made the experience of design more fulfilling. When I started up my studio under those principles, I thought nothing of it. I thought it was normal. You know, just structure the practice around what you want to do, what you were interested in. Colleagues would always say that I was so lucky to be able to do all this research but it was a natural decision. It took me a while to realise that conventional practice, at least in Australia, didn’t work this way.

The research is focused on a series of practitioners and how they have brought their own values into their mode of working. I visited and interviewed Siân Cook, Tony Credland, Jonathan Barnbrook, Labomatic, Thérèse Troika, Peter Bilak, Jan van Toorn and Paul Elliman, as well as two Australian practices: Studio Anybody, and Inkahoots. The concerns ranged from political activism, public education, research and close engagement with projects, to formalist beauty. They integrated these in a wide range of ways, but most managed to bring the two together in varying degrees of success. I hope that the research will be published by RMIT in 2003.

RP: Who are your commercial clients? To what extent are you able to apply some of the thinking and design approaches of your own publications?

SB: My commercial clients range from government agencies, galleries, fashion designers, arts organisations and universities right through to big corporate groups. The kind of work is primarily type-based, such as logotypes and signage systems. It was a challenge to specialise in a country where clients are less aware of the importance of typography than in Holland for example. But I have been able to get better work as time has gone on. Only in the past few years have I been able to integrate the critical and research aspects of the books into the commercial work. It’s important to be able to show by example that you can think in these ways, otherwise all you’re doing is making promises.

RP: You have become well known among colleagues for your rants and pranks against Helvetica. You even issued a T-shirt saying ‘Helvetica Thin. Just say no’. Surely legions of satisfied designers can’t be wrong? What have you got against the face?

SB: Well, this is a point that is often misinterpreted. Max Miedinger’s contribution to typography is not being questioned here. It’s all the associations that go with the typeface that are of concern to me. It’s funny to think that Helvetica is younger than my parents and yet it is the closest thing we have to a typographic household name. In recent times, Helvetica, particularly in the lighter weights, has once again become the generic default of those designers who believe in this myth of neutrality. Its over-use is more symptomatic of a lazily safe formula for designers under the guise of the early modernist principles. It’s all smoke and mirrors. You can be generic but you can’t be neutral. And Helvetica thin, the language of such designers, was the target of those T-shirts. It’s funny how people react to them. They smile and understand the sentiment without anything having to be said. So it’s not the typeface but rather its use, or over-use and all that goes with it, that is the target.

RP: How would you contrast the aims of Qwerty and Ampersand, your more recent publication series?

SB: Qwerty was an instant reaction to a specific condition in the early years, whereas Ampersand is a more considered research into particular topics. I like to think of each Ampersand as a little question. Something pops into my head, so I go and look into it. I always wanted to write more in Qwerty but because the pages were so small, this was frustrating. So now we have jumped up to a bigger format [145 x 145 mm]. Each Ampersand is different from the next, except in format. In fact, I’ve never even had a consistent masthead for either Qwerty or Ampersand.

RP: What conclusions did you draw from that remarkable experiment in the fourth issue of Ampersand where you asked school children to draw logos from memory?

SB: I was curious as to the effect of graphic design on the developing mind and visual memory. And how the accuracy of this visual literacy, good or bad, has developed to the point that it is possibly ingrained in the subconscious. It may even suggest a certain responsibility for us as the designers of such signs.

The visual memory of a child these days is extraordinary. I visited schools and surveyed over 600 children, getting them to draw the first logo in their head, with no visual reference. I wasn’t interested in which logo they drew but in how they drew them. The accuracy of the drawings was stunning. I would have liked to have done a Seven-up sort of investigation to contrast this study with kids from an earlier generation. After the project was published in The Face, we were besieged by marketing groups wanting to get the information. They could only see it in terms of it being an exercise in market research.

RP: In the most recent issue, ‘Grand’, you analyse the percentages of different typefaces to be found in a kilometre of Melbourne. What’s the aim of this kind of research?

SB: I’ve seen spaces mapped in all different ways but I wondered what it would be like to map a kilometre just in terms of typography. So I noted down every instance of typography for 1000 metres in a line. It took me all winter. The area covered both public and private spaces and it was interesting to see that the range of typographic experience becomes more limited in a style-guided environment, such as a department store, for instance. Sounds like what one may expect perhaps, but it was more about the process of using this as a case study to show the effects and the responsibilities of the graphic designer over a broader area – that if we are not careful, we can restrict the scope of the visual environment.

RP: Will Ampersand continue? I sense there is a danger of repeating yourself, especially in making the point about the need for typo-diversity.

SB: I’m conscious of its limitations, but the points have been made; maybe some people have been made more aware of these issues. I hope that it has sparked debate. Now it’s time to do something else, ask questions about other things. I’ve never intended any of my projects to go on for ever, but I can't imagine practising without research and independent publishing being part of it.

RP: You have had a number of exhibitions which you present in shopfronts and other places around the city. What are they about?

SB: The exhibitions present typography in a more public context. They have ranged from a shopfront in Collins Street (1993) to a billboard with the word ‘Contentment’ entirely composed of trademark and copyright symbols (1995) – I was concerned about the corporate ownership of language. The most successful show was ‘Futures’ in 1998 at the artist-run Citylights, where we launched Ampersand no. 2. It was based on my font Futures, a re-interpretation of Renner’s Futura. The effort and energy required to exhibit is enormous so I have concentrated more on published output in the past few years.

RP: In recent months, you have been working on a project with Ed Fella about the vernacular in Melbourne. How did this come about and what form did it take?

SB: Ed was artist-in-residence at Monash University here in Melbourne for a few months and was really inspired by the visual environment here, particularly the vernacular aspect – maybe he picked up on some peculiarities that made Qwerty so popular. So we worked together on a typographic calendar with some of his students, taking photographs in that Ed kind of way, like doing a ‘Letters on Australia’, I guess.

RP: What kind of response do you get from younger Australian designers? You ought to be quite an inspiration by now in terms of going it alone and carving out your own space.

SB: I do have students who try to emulate what I do but what has often happened in the past is that they haven’t been able to set up the structure by which you can keep it going. I intend to continue with my projects and maintain their relationship to Letterbox as an entire system.

Rick Poynor, writer, Eye founder, research fellow, Royal College of Art London

First published in Eye no. 46 vol. 12, 2002

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.