Obama saves type conference

Daniel West finds that a lacklustre line-up at this year’s TYPO Berlin conference is rescued by the big O

Space: depending on your perspec­­tive, it is either all or nothing; pregnant or the ultimate void. In a graphic design context ‘space’ leans towards the infinite, affecting every­thing from cramped kerning to spare, zen-like layouts. So fundamental is this relationship between the concept and the trade, that graphic design can arguably be reduced to just two components: information and space.

Who best, then, to open a typography conference themed on space? Should one opt for a heavy­weight like Matthew Carter, or a studio du jour like Multistorey?

Might an architect add suitable depth to proceedings? Somewhat bizarrely, given the glut of options available, TYPO Berlin’s organisers opted for a venture capitalist. The spin was that Esther Dyson, tech start-up investor and self-confessed “free market American”, had been closer than most to outer space. The small print was that she hadn’t actually been there, so delegates were treated to a slideshow of Russia’s Star City, where Dyson had trained as a reserve space tourist for a few months.

None of this would have mattered had Dyson’s presentation been inter­esting, or her manner less transpar­ently elitist. Every action and sentence was delivered with a gold-plated sneer. From an ill-judged quip about the $3 million fee for her training (“I thought I had that [pre credit-crunch].”), to her breathless decla­ration of independence (“I haven’t worked for anyone since 1983.”), Dyson comprehensively alienated the audience. Even a vaguely self-deprecating aside about her own physical weakness – illustrated with an area diagram familiar to any Pro Evolution Soccer fan – was eclipsed by tiresome bitching about uncomfortable spacesuits and Russian inefficiency. When Dyson’s microphone failed, her contempt for the AV underlings spoke volumes. It was like watching Gordon Gekko in a skirt.

Dyson’s neoliberal cheerleading was followed by the juvenile, whooping intro of interactive designer Joshua Davis. As he bounced around the stage professing a love for skate­boarding, skydiving and tattoos, it seemed as though TYPO Berlin had been hijacked by the worst kinds of American. Davis’s zeal and gags quickly won over the crowd, though the work reminded me why his Praystation website is no longer one of my bookmarks. Created by software algorithms, the stills betrayed their stale, technocratic origins. This generative ‘art’ seemed better suited to screensavers or abstract desktops than canvases – a fact confirmed by Davis’s own Reflect app for the iPhone.

TYPO Berlin’s anaemic opening was compounded by the rest of the programme. German urban artist Nomad stuttered through a tiresome preamble that tried to contextualise graffiti. Tragi-comically witless – phenomenology was described as a ‘new term’ coined by Shepard Fairey – it dragged on for 30 minutes without images or insights. Nomad’s work, when it finally appeared, was accompanied by nihilistic dismissals that situated his work amongst the vandalism he was so keen to escape. The few notable slides shown, like a cuboid Spanish seawall repainted as presents, managed to free themselves from his amateur salesmanship.

More worryingly still, this year’s conference schedule was packed to the gills with second-string speakers. Various students gave pseudo-lectures alongside sponsor plugs from Adobe, FontShop and a trade fair. Even Chip Kidd, one of the few A-listers, had spoken at two previous iterations. Others such as Philippe Apeloig – a doppelgänger for snooker’s Peter Ebdon – reeled off a by-the-numbers presentation of rather samey posters. As the conference wore on, TYPO Berlin’s ‘Always of the highest calibre’ tag-­line seemed delusional.

Thankfully, three German speakers were a little more enter­taining. Art director Mario Lombardo showed off his modish fashion broadsheet Liebling, an ethereal campaign for Toyota and a pensive cover for Dummy magazine, with a dejected Israeli girl and her assault rifle. Designer-activist troupe Anchlaege, which works out of a disused nursery, constructed its portfolio as a card­board city that was toured onstage using a hand-held camera. This worked brilliantly when describing its transformation of a dreary modernist tower block into a creative kibbutz, where ever­y­one on the ninth floor had refashioned their doors into seats for a makeshift cinema.

At a more corporate end of the scale, architecture practice realities: united wowed with a series of media facades from Singapore to Cordoba. The screens displayed economical aesthetics, squeezing conceptual innovation from a handful of crystal­line pixels. A shopping centre remem­bered the images shown on its video billboard, ‘dreaming’ colourful echoes at night, for example; and a giant, ceiling-mounted lcd clock doubled as office lighting. Realities:united was just as impressive with its non-Bladerunner projects: the redesign of a condemned art museum in German town Mönchengladbach attracted more visitors than the museum had when it was open.

Perhaps fittingly, given Dyson and Davis’s poor showing, the two climaxes from TYPO Berlin were fellow Americans. Chip Kidd filled his hour with tirades that made little attempt to address the conference theme. No one cared, as the anecdotes about kfc staff, five-fingered women and exhibitionist Father Christmases were hilarious. I felt lukewarm about most of Kidd’s slides, save the book jacket for Augusten Burroughs’ alcoholism memoir Dry, created by throwing water at a page and letting the ink run. Kidd’s comic timing rescued the visuals by turning them into punchlines. Though unimag­inative, the decision to rebook him had paid off.

The choice to close the conference with Sol Sender seemed perplexing, too – until you read his biography. In 2007 the designer was plucked from relative obscurity to design Obama’s election logo. Just four months after establishing his own studio, Sender got the job through a former college friend working on the campaign. So much for Obama’s drive to clean up cronyism. Sender’s appointment was fortuitous, but he certainly rose to the task. The now iconic ‘rising sun’ was just one among five or six plausible alternatives – each of which was far more memorable than the laughably conventional logos for Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and John Edwards. Interestingly however, Obama came close to choosing speech bubbles instead of the ‘O’; attracted by their arresting functionality as car stickers and bus stop adverts. What was truly remarkable, and entertaining, was the diversity of Obama fan logos that emerged. There were ‘O’ cookies, ‘O’ rainbow flags customised by gay activists and even a ‘Republicans for Obama’ version. There were official mishaps, too, such as the premature presidential seal, and the ‘dark star rising’ podium used at Obama’s candidacy announcement.

As Sender scrolled through Obama’s improbable story, it became clear not just how important design had been to his campaign, but how important Obama’s campaign has been for design. Take a look at Whitehouse.gov, for instance. I used to gag at that website, but it’s now a tasteful, contemporary portal to US governmental activity. Sender ended his talk with a few anodyne slides of German political websites, and suddenly America had never looked more progressive. Here was design that really mattered, alongside a momentous narrative that translated perfectly to an hour-long presentation. I hope TYPO Berlin’s other speakers were watching.

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