DIY Design

Last week I went to ‘DIY Design’, the St Bride Library conference 2010. It was two days of talks about design, printing and typography, “celebrating the work of all those who have chosen to do things differently.” Here’s more or less what I scribbled down…

Michael Johnson — Wait. Or do it yourself?

An overview of all the design practices that used to have high barriers to entry but, these days, you can do for yourself. Also, how you used to have to restrict your work/career to a single “silo”; these days you can change from one field of design to another more easily.

Also mentioned… Phonetikana, his typeface that tries to make Japanese Katakana more readable by foreigners. (He had another couple of similar efforts, but I don’t think they’re online yet.) Print Club London, a “members’ water-based screenprinting club” in Dalston, London.

Tom Boulton & Theo Wang, The Society of Revisionist Typographers

Based in Holborn, they talked about their business and how it’s gradually grown: they make books, stationery, etc. using old hand-powered presses which they strip down and restore. Some lovely looking machines and products. (When I was looking for the venue I followed these two because I thought they looked like the kind of people who would be going.)

Martin Andrews — She did it herself: the books of Rena Gardiner

An interesting and well-delivered talk about the life and work of this lithographer who was based in Dorset (and died in 1999). She illustrated commercial books, printing everything herself at home. I’m sure I’d seen a few of the book covers before but had never given the lengthy process a second thought. More at the University of Reading website.

Dave Farey & Colin Brignall — Letraset, the liberated Letter

This was both insanely nerdy and completely wonderful, at least, to someone who has fond memories of using Letraset before Macs took over all our typography needs. The two speakers were ex-studio managers and talked through the history of the company. The first half was more interesting, partly because Letraset was on the rise during that time. During the 1980s it seemed like the product’s decline in popularity was mirrored by a rise in over-the-top, gimmicky and tacky fonts that was less than inspiring. Overall though, a lovely story and perspective.

Some specific notes… Someone (whose name I forget) once described Letraset as lowering typographic standards by democratising lettering (just like criticisms of DTP software later).

Although Letraset calculated letter frequency in order to provide appropriate quantities of each letter per sheet of type, they reduced the number of popular letters slightly so that they sold more sheets. It was “tilted in Letraset’s favour, like one-armed bandits.”

The sheet of straight lines and corners was, in the 1960s(?), the best-selling sheet, more so than any particular sheet of letters.

Nick Morley & Victoria Browne — ELP yourself

They spoke about setting up and running East London Printmakers “a group of contemporary artist-printmakers based in Hackney, East London” (on Mare Street, to be precise). It looks great — lots of classes and, once you’ve done the introductory ones, you can go in and use the space and equipment to do your own thing.

Jon Melton — Let history do it for you

He talked about his typeface ‘Sir John Soane’, still in development. I must admit, I wasn’t inspired. The typeface looked a bit ugly — a little disjointed, but not enough to be purposely unsettling, like Fudoni. And the lengthy justifications for some of the tiny design features often seemed tenuous. It didn’t help that Melton read his entire talk out word for word, which always causes me to fight sleep.

Rob Banham

Standing in for a temporarily missing Petr van Blokland, Banham gave a talk he apparently gave a few years ago about the numbers people paint on to their wheelie bins to identify them. Although it occasionally felt slightly mean — mocking people for their ideas — it was fascinating and funny.

Wolfgang Weingart — My way to typography

Weingart was one of those people whose names I’d heard but knew nothing about; my typography knowledge is sketchy. He was interesting, opinionated, grumpy, slow, repetitive (to be fair, English isn’t his first language). A lot of the talk was him flipping through his very thick book about his life’s work, trying to find the page he was talking about. Notes:

“Don’t speak too much. Don’t write too much. Do it.”

“It is not necessary to design new letters. We have enough.” (A lot of his work is about arranging and working with existing letterforms, rather than creating new ones.)

Don’t copy from magazines. Use music, dreams, landscapes etc as inspiration instead.

He ended with saying it was stupid/pointless to teach letterpress, etc. these days, as students won’t spend long enough learning and practising the skills, the machines don’t have the technicians to keep them running properly, and there are no skilled instructors left (except him).

Teal Triggs — Fanzines: the DIY revolution

This felt very academic, in a bad way, and although she emphasised the passion and fun and enthusiasm that the fanzine world was and is full of, this talk didn’t get any of that across. Although there were slides of many fanzine covers, there were none of the contents, which was a shame.

Of all the zines, Stolen Sharpie Revolution, a guide to how to make zines, sounded most interesting.

Mette D. Ambeck — Cutting, sewing, scanning, printing

Talking about creating her hand-made artists’ books. They were nice objects, although, given the number of people making books in similar ways, why was she the one talking? What was special about her work? (More a question for the organisers than Ambeck.)

Petr van Blokland — DIY type tools –- the missing link

Like Weingart, I’d heard the name, but couldn’t have told you anything about him. The first half of the talk was pretty good, discussing, among other things, programming as a useful tool in design. The second half of the talk, in which he discussed and demonstrated some of his own typography software, was more aimless unfortunately.

Xierpa, “a versatile web environment”, looks like an interesting tool for generating websites and print documents from a lot of content.

He suggested that ideaspace — the number of ideas you have — grows only as far as the toolspace — the number of tools available. For example, if you only have Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc. then you will only have ideas that can be created using those. So, instead, make your own tools that follow your ideas: toolspace follows ideaspace. The tools will be unique to you and your problems. You occupy your own island and no one can bother you.

Programming is design. You can automate the 99% of the design process that is tedious work, leaving you more time for design.

Lscript, Lingo, Javascript, Python — the only languages that are useful/right/ideal for design. Blokland does Python.

Ann Pillar — Edward Wright: ‘The written volume’

Wright (1912-1988) designed a building on the South Bank in London, after the Festival of Britain, for the International Union of Architects’ conference. Lots of the talk was read out, word-for-word, which, again, made it feel slow and uninspiring. I’m not quite sure why we were hearing about this building, other than that it had letters on the side. There was also a bunch of stuff about how things were different in the old days, photographs were in black and white… Amazing, who knew!

Alex Bec & Will Hudson (It’s Nice That) — Natural progression

They talked about their careers so far, setting up their weblog and then growing a small company. It was fairly interesting, although it also seemed a bit early for them to be sharing wisdom about the world given they’ve only been going three years. Maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy.

Kevin Braddock — Men and magazines in the après-lad era

From Manzine. Didn’t do a lot for me. I only wrote down “things that seem like insights to him seem quite mundane and obvious. Over-justified. Whims, rather than substantial though.” Ouch. I must have been tired by the end of the second day.

So, that’s it. Although the second day (from Weingart on) seemed a bit slower than the first, it was still a good couple of days. I kind of expected a bit more typography and less general printing, but maybe that was simply due to the particular theme (DIY Design) this year. If I’m around I expect I’ll go again next year, as it was great to hear about things slightly outside my usual areas of expertise.


3 Jun 2010 at Twitter

  • 07:14am: Unsure which John Humphrys I dislike more: the hectoring, annoying interviewer, or the sombre one full of moral questions. Choices choices.

3 Jun 2010 in Links

On this day I was reading