TYPO London via Bermondsey, Halifax and New York City

At London’s first TYPO conference yesterday, the three afternoon speakers highlighted the benefits of having a good theme in place to anchor the talks. Designers Jonathan Ellery, Tony Brook and Michael Bierut tackled the wide-ranging term “places” in very different ways and it made for an encouraging start to TYPO’s London run

Pentagram’s signage graphics for The New York Times’ headquarters

At London’s first TYPO conference yesterday, the three afternoon speakers highlighted the benefits of having a good theme in place to anchor the talks. Designers Jonathan Ellery, Tony Brook and Michael Bierut tackled the wide-ranging term “places” in very different ways and it made for an encouraging start to TYPO’s London run…

Ellery conceded that his talk was, if anything, un-themed, but as he spoke it became apparent that perhaps the approach he’d taken was to look at how he places himself and his work in the world.

This is pertinent as Ellery now works successfully in both design and art: his agency, Browns, was founded in 1998 and since 2005 he has exhibited his own work in five gallery shows. How he handles this double life – and indeed how the two spheres of work are handled by different audiences – was in the background of each of the projects he showed.

Counter to the prevailing trend of many design conferences (a run through of classic and/or recent commissioned work) Ellery showed just his art, aside from one project with the Mulberry brand which moved it into a commerical setting.

From Unrest by Jonathan Ellery

Ellery’s art is highly autobiographical and often involves a process of ‘fixing’ things into permanence i.e. words, phrases or memories machined-in to brass plate; and numbers, influences, even relationships turned into book form. His reasoning is personal, too, but it was interesting to look only at his output as an artist, freed from the requirements of a brief.

From The Human Condition by Jonathan Ellery

Like Ellery, Tony Brook of design studio Spin also dispensed with the familiar for his talk and took TYPO’s “places” theme on to explore the notion of ‘northerness’. Like his hero, Wim Crouwel – from Groningen, in the north of his own country – Brook’s connection to his birth place of Halifax in West Yorkshire was explored through an analysis of language and identity – how where we’re from shapes what we do.

For designers, this can mean how a particular aesthetic take on the world, aspects of taste, or style, are developing well before one is even aware of them.

Haunch of Venison identity by Spin

Again the idea of fixity, the sense of getting to the kernel of something seems vital to Brook’s work and was made evident in one of the few pieces of work by Spin that he showed; the clever, minimalist identity for the Haunch of Venison gallery, which whittles the name (the ‘haunch’ of a deer) into three thick lines.

As with Brooks’ own influences, from Peter Saville album sleeves to the cricket chants of his home county – “Yooorkshire / Yooorkshire / Yooorkshire (repeat)” – he suggested how being immersed in a culture of minimalism and economy had transferred into his design sensibility. Hence the title of his talk, Bred in the Bone.

Typeface design for Celebration, Florida by Pentagram

For Michael Bierut, the notion of “places” meant looking at what designers can do to create a sense of place for different clients; often within the same city, New York. He strode through a series of typographic projects, each of which hung on a particular decisive moment, or what he referred to as The Only Important Decision.

Bierut is something of a seasoned conference speaker but to say that doesn’t do justice to how stimulating his quick-fire presentations can be. His design pedigree aside (ten years at Vignelli Associates; 21 at Pentagram), Bierut simply has great stories and great timing.

He spoke of his formative years, creating posters for school plays that were seen with more frequency than the productions, and of the influence of three library books by S Neil Fujita, Armin Hoffman and Milton Glaser, that gradually cemented his desire to become a graphic designer.

Bierut then went through his typographic and identity work on ten very different projects. There was upbeat type created for the Disney town of Celebration in Florida; and the not-so-friendly wayfinding system for Manhattan that shies away from bright, potentially helpful colourways. (“This is New York… we’re not that glad you’re here, just move along!” he joked.)

Brochure for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival by Pentagram

Bierut also showed how on an ad for the BAM Next Wave Festival, cutting into text set in News Gothic would ‘hint’ at the fuller size of the letterforms, just as when a square of King Kong’s face, pressed up against a high-rise window in the classic movie, ‘conveyed’ his enormity to the terrified people inside. (Brochure for BAM shown, above.)

Lever House typography by Pentagram

Then there were the projects for the Lever Brothers’ Lever House building; General Dynamics’s offices; Harley Davidson; the New York Jets; the Musuem of Arts and Design; the New World Symphony Orchestra and, finally, The New York Times’s new Renzo Piano-designed headquarters.

Like Bierut said at the beginning of his talk, it was largely New York work he was showing. But it was great New York work – bold, confident and, ultimately, borne from a real sense of place.

TYPO London continues today and tomorrow (Saturday). A full schedule for the remaining TYPO London talks is here.

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