Style, persuasiveness and a sense of humour can have a bigger impact than competence alone.” The second sentence from Typo Berlin’s 2008 manifesto will double as this year’s political epitaph. From Boris’s buffooning of Ken, to Obama’s soaring oratory, to the dry rot of Gordon Brown’s premiership, charisma is king. Taking ‘image’ as its theme, Typo Berlin suggested graphic design should follow politics and shift from predictable ritual into performance art.
Admittedly, the context of Europe’s largest typography conference precipitated this assessment. The speeches, screenings and workshops that made up the three-day affair dragged fonts from page to stage. This live exploration of type favoured subjective mavericks like Stefan Sagmeister, who headed the bill. Workhorse Grotesks and tasteful serifs may have been the crowd’s bread and butter, but they bought €645 tickets on the promise of inspiration. As the rest of Berlin bathed in 30-degree sunshine, their continued presence implied satisfaction with their purchase.
Implications can mislead, however, as the (planned) first speaker showed. Alison Jackson is the alchemical photographer who transforms base metals into fool’s gold. A delayed flight prevented Jackson from opening proceedings, but her visuals showed no sign of jet lag: Posh & Becks, Dodi & Di and Sven Goran Eriksson were blown up and torn apart. Jackson’s technique, as showcased in her Sch … You Know Who Schweppes campaign and Doubletake bbc tv series, is to fake reality. By engineering celebrity look-a-likes into scandalous exposé scenarios, Jackson shoots the unscoopable: the Queen and corgies rolling into William Hill, Tom Cruise caught in flagrante and Elton John with a pipe up his arse. Their one-liner immediacy left Jackson at pains to point out a deeper moral purpose. “It’s an anti-image approach,” she said, “I am … deconstructing the lies.” A curious argument given her quasi-libellous contact sheets, but Jackson claimed these fabrications reveal the untruthful nature of photography, and our own susceptibility to deception.
The latent power of visuals to distort, distract and seduce was Jackson, and Typo Berlin’s, preponderant theme. Curator Stephanie Grebe expounded with a slideshow of police snapshots and social reportage. From speed cameras to csi Polaroids, photographs were hard facts for Grebe. “Photography evolved as a method of scientific reproduction … people trust [it] more than their own perception of reality,” she said. Even known forgeries retained an aura of truth for the viewers. Grebe showed portraits of innocent people convicted of crimes because they looked like the suspect photofits. This tautological redux seemed an attempt by the artist, Taryn Simon, to redeem photography itself as much as her subjects.
Grebe’s examples echoed Jackson’s footage from a Tokyo shopping mall, where a gaggle of schoolgirls engulfed David Beckham-lite, though they knew he was a walking waxwork. In Madrid, the same doppelganger brought a busy street to standstill, and was forced to do keep-ups by the mob.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the real person or not,” Jackson explained, “Look-a-likes are actually more accessible to the public.” According to these two speakers, late capitalism has bred a public that idolises images so fiercely and complicitly that myth becomes hyperreal.
This observation is worth remembering, if only for the reason it is repeatedly forgotten. Far from a new fad, obsessive image worship is older than Ayers Rock. Take the last century, for example. In his Typo keynote, Steven Heller compared four archetypal image cults: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy and Communist China. Uniforms, logos, bold colour schemes and a patriarch – each a creative director’s dream brief. The black pearl of Heller’s finds was a Nazi branding book, complete with repro guidelines and an ethnic classification system that was all too legible. Such totalitarian creativity was demonically compelling, but the regimes’ destructive iconoclasm created a vacuum of dissent to seal the fantasy. With one hand Stalin collaged a fictitious proximity to Lenin, with the other he scrubbed Trotsky from the collective retina. “The airbrush became an ideological tool,” observed Heller.
In this light, the most resonant speakers at Typo Berlin were defiant resistors of graphic orthodoxy. The flamboyant letterforms of Marian Bantjes’, for example, championed diversity. Aside from their ornamental beauty, Bantjes revealed the underlying logic behind her custom patterns. From the pages of Eye to Wired, their power stemmed from a balance of repetition and individuality. Bantjes’ purest example was her font Restraint, the clarity of which was undimmed by dendritic extensions. Restraint has greater space requirements than most typefaces but its modularity elevated Bantjes’ work from the bespoke cul-de-sacs of Stefan Sagmeister. She had created a new system, not merely a one-off.
In her work’s expressive functionality, Bantjes made a ligature with Non-Format, whose Dadaist remix of a New York Times T magazine typeface also received a brief outing. Christian Schwartz, the co-designer of The Guardian’s new fonts, eclipsed himself by showing Non-Format’s edit of his Giorgio original. Its comically oversized ‘O’s and filled-in counters were simply more memorable than Schwarz’s elegant solution.
The density and originality of Bantjes and Non-Format’s visual languages reminded me of a past discussion with M/M Paris. The French pair had impressed upon me the essentialism of an original graphic voice in the attention economy. Typographic neutrality was counterproductive, they argued: the white noise of mass culture would drown out your message.
M/M’s theses were echoed again at Typo Berlin in the presentation of Roman Wilhelm. The German designer and academic presented an engrossing comparison of Western and Chinese typography. Its relevance was bolstered by the illumination of departures from the Occidental ‘norm’, like the fact that Chinese characters are aligned by midpoint not baseline, and spaces between words are more important than stroke weight. m/m’s glyphs, like those of Bantjes and Non-Format, sought the complexity of Chinese characters, deriving mnemonic power from a combination of symbol and image.
If this year’s Typo Berlin had a legacy, it was that charisma is competence in contemporary design. Humans respond to theatrical patterns, not modernistic hegemony alone. It is complexity, not simplicity, that should be cherished.
Daniel West is a Berlin-based journalist