Winter 2006

Is type my religion? Food for thought

Typographical Journeys

50th AtypI Congress, Lisbon <br>27 September –1 October 2006 <br><br>

Typographique International) conference was not perfect, though the summer weather and the location, the University Art Faculty, once a monastery in Lisbon’s cultural centre, were – almost. The solid walls and plain geometry, a fine model no doubt for Trappists, have not been adapted so successfully for more talkative monks, or even conference attendees. As everyone agrees, it is not in the formal sessions where most learning is done or knowledge exchanged, but when people meet.

However, there were not enough smaller spaces allotted for this. There was good attendance, over 350 (as at Helsinki) from 34 countries, with 35 per cent being students; sufficient critical mass to generate discussion or debate. Except that the mass was acritical. The panels’ discussions were not totally predictable – the future of newspapers (Gerard Unger’s fonts effortlessly making his case for), or how to run a digital foundry – were not chaired actively by someone who knew the score, and how to draw and orchestrate debate from the audience. Hence there wasn’t any debate from the floor, but nor was time allowed for it.

This shortcoming appears to be structural. The mental map of typography and type design in the bony heads of the organisers, local and global, is full of empty quarters and ‘here be dragons’. So there were no ‘typographical journeys’ (the riveting conference theme) into the act of reading, its aural-visual nature and neuro-physiological basis, though Lisbon has an ace researcher in this field. Nobody would have thought from the programme that typography is also a linguistic discipline, and nothing was reprised from the Prague conference of two years ago, no close readings of work old or new, to demonstrate how criticism is done.

Unfortunately, Portuguese design schools in higher education are under great pressure to ensure that 51 per cent of their staff have PhDs by 2009, in order to satisfy the requirements of Bologna. This means an exponential increase of productivity for the handful of university departments with doctoral programmes, so many teachers go to Spain, where departments are still short on experience and experienced supervisors. The result was too many papers from the Iberian peninsular that were embarrassingly lightweight, at best well meaning, were also under-informed. The besetting sin with schools continues to be the uncritical adoption of Gestalt theory: uncritical in the sense of ignoring von Ehrenfels’ coupling Gehalt / Gestalt, the dynamic unity of Form and Content, structurally exemplified in the trademark image of faces / wineglass.

Sadly, the local organisers, Experimenta, with plenty of practical experience in running a design biennial, wrong-footed on the climate (sitting after lunch in a darkened room is good for a siesta but not much else), and the food showed neither design sense,
nor awareness of cultural difference – factory pork could have been substituted by factory turkey, or better, deep-frozen fish, to avoid grating Jewish and Muslim sensibilities.

There were, of course, memorable moments. At the welcoming talk, Erik Spiekermann (standing in at short notice for Ellen Lupton, who was stuck in Baltimore), joked about approaching a new job and the outcomes: putting it off, looking through magazines and annuals, thinking, or looking at the problem from a different person’s point of view. This last produced original solutions, inspired possibly from the north German origin of the name Spiekermann, a lookout man on mast or watchtower.
Lupton presented her idealist (and why not?) Free Font Manifesto as a gentle kick in the groin of main sponsor, Adobe (promoting its OpenType font format), but did not really seem to ignite passions.

Mário Feliciano – the only full-time type designer in Portugal, with solid experience to show in his catalogue / portfolio – valiantly worked overtime at the conference. Yet he could not quite get the less obvious part of his message across to local journalists – or some clients (like a national bank that doesn’t seem to want its accounts to be too legible).

Massimo Vignelli, wearing his conference card at the neck of his habitual clerical black, declared (rather than confessed) that he used only six typefaces, a minimalist inversion of his forename, reminding some of us of our Jansenist intellectual forebears. (See Encounter, Eye no. 60 vol. 15.)
I was provoked to imagine suitable texts for some of the many novelties on display. For example Mark Jamra’s Cyrillic-influenced Alphatier suggested the joke that in Russian, acknowledged bastards use abbreviated forms of their father’s name, such as Putin for Rasputin: but would it work as well for the awful news coming out of Russia now? Reading biographies in the programme, it seems that there is a growing number of typo-semioticians ready to help.

The exhibitions were not very interesting, default solutions. The best exhibition for me was the ambulant, mutable one provided by Lella Vignelli, immaculately turned out as ever, displaying her modernist jewellery from, I think, 40 years ago or so. Extremely well made and wearable, a statement that God is in the detail, inescapably appropriate to typeface design and typography, and intransigently rejecting barbarism.

Looking over my account, I fear that it may be overly full of religious overtones. The last two events I witnessed, in part from personal obligation, were the talk by Eric Kindel and Fred Smeijers talk on stencilled liturgical codices, and the presentation by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon on ‘Nicolete Gray’s Lisbon’, followed by a typographic walk that retraced her steps. (See Eye no. 54 vol. 14.)

My fond, final image of the conference is of Catherine standing on the parapet of ‑the Baixa-Chiado metro station in a red ATypI t-shirt, like a Salvationist, preparing to point out the street lettering and preaching its preservation. But of course, typography is a religion. Sort of.

Robin Fior, designer, Lisbon

First published in Eye no. 62 vol. 16 2006

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