Typography faces the music

Typo Berlin aimed to examine the relationship between type and music. But the celebratory nature of the event meant there was less room for any critical study of this intruiging pairing

The real surprise of Typo Berlin was that it had taken the organisers 11 previous outings before settling on this year’s theme – music. That aural and visual design are closely linked is somewhat of a cliché. Luckily for the delegates, programming was far from predictable. Typography and music were explored through 52 talks and workshops, live performances, installations, a film premiere and – being Berlin – numerous after-parties.

Design critic and author Steven Heller opened proceedings with a slickness and affability that only Americans can deliver. His biographical talk on Alex Steinweiss was subtitled “The Father of Record Cover Design” – a bold claim, but one backed up by Steinweiss’ twin achievements of designing the first ever LP sleeve and the LP logo that adorned it.

Of more interest than Steinweiss’ relatively dated work were the implications his career had for design-driven consumption. Columbia’s sales shot up 800 per cent thanks to his first sleeve, resulting in a complete rethink of point-of-sale visual marketing. Previously, records were often shown spine-out in stores, complemented by the occasional poster or pamphlet. After Steinweiss, the music had an expressive “face”, literally opening up a new dimension of communication. Perhaps not the “beginning of consumerism” as Heller rather hyperbolically put it, but an important development nonetheless.

In addition to setting a jovial tone for the rest of the conference, Heller’s oratory also introduced one of the conference’s key themes: graphic design as a second-tier art, subject to the movements of “purer” disciplines. Heller described Steinweiss’ work as the “critical mass of different influences”, citing Constructivism, Cubism and De Stijl as primary among those. Heller casually placed Steinweiss beneath these schools, and by implication felt uncomfortable placing graphic design on a par with art and music. Not only was Steinweiss accompanying someone else’s solo, he was playing a sampled tune – commercialising, repackaging, distorting.

The riff was picked up later that evening by House Industries, the US foundry responsible for an avalanche of Americana. Four of the collective had flown in to give a rock-concert-meets-typography-lecture – surely a first. “You’re only as good as your influences,” strained Rich Roat over the surprisingly talented drums, lead and bass guitars. The backdrop of House fonts and role-play illustrations were occasionally broken by slides of source material: dog-eared post-war magazines and catalogues. Given its overwhelmingly retro output, House could not have claimed aesthetic singularity, but the ease with which the group acknowledged its debt to previous decades was revealing.

Kim Hiorthøy placed himself directly at odds with this confession-of-sorts. The Norwegian graphic designer eschewed a display of influences and inspirations in favour of his own ruminations on the sonic-visual relationship. “I rarely listen to the tracks [when designing sleeves],” he said, “I don’t believe you can illustrate music.” His argument was delivered in an endearingly matter-of-fact tone, free from the potential narcissism it might have invited.
As if to immediately disprove his own point, Hiorthøy continued by showing sleeves he had designed and the accompanying songs. Each seemed a fitting counterpart to the music, but Hiorthøy suggested that this was illusory – or, at least, that the two pleasures were distinct and any formal or informal connections coincidental. The exceptions to this process were the sleeves for Hiorthøy’s own records; he disclosed an aversion to having anyone else design them.

Sleeves are often lauded as one of graphic design’s few creative bolt-holes, free from inappropriate briefs and meddling account managers. While Hiorthøy’s fortuitous predicament is largely unrepresentative of his trade, his philosophy begged the question of whether graphic designers who are directly responding to the music should be considered lesser artists than those who play the auteur. If it is legitimate for a band to choose a design for its track, is it legitimate for a designer to choose a track for their sleeve? Moreover, should a band that writes a track in response to a sleeve be considered less (or perhaps more) creative than one that begat its designs?
Psyop, too, was comfortable revealing its fine art-inspired MTV ident for the broadcaster’s new HD channel. The work of Andreas Gursky and Gerhard Richter felt like highbrow fodder (Bill Oddie less so), but Psyop’s delicate product avoided plagiaristic homage. The openness of all the designers (Psyop included) was welcome, as no work in any medium is free from conscious or unconscious influences. Yet in each case it was simultaneously disappointing, as it underlined the literalism with which many companies had approached their briefs and understood their own work. While pleasurably abstract, Psyop’s MTV work felt too much like visual trickery – a shallow formal experiment in a new medium, like much early cinema.

Any discussion of creative legitimacy in design and music must inevitably touch upon sampling. It is a postmodern phenomenon that has both blessed and cursed music, resulting in innumerable promising genres and lazy re-edits (for every hip-hop a speed garage). Psyop’s logo itself had been rather crudely “sampled” by the designers of Typo Berlin’s identity – ironically emblematic of the organisers’ enthusiasm for its speakers and a refusal to provide a meaningful contribution of their own.

Typo Berlin was an apt setting for graphic design to stand alongside music (and art) as an equal – especially given the conference’s theme and the glorious GDR congress centre (designed by the architect responsible for Berlin’s television tower). Instead, typography was presented as craft rather than artform. While tightly kerned in curatorial terms, few of Typo Berlin’s speakers were critically engaged: communal celebration prevailed over provocation and self-analysis. For the twelfth year of Europe’s supposed largest design conference this was a notable oversight.

Daniel West is a Berlin-based writer and curator. For more information on Typo Berlin, go to www.typoberlin.de

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