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Dispatches from Typography Summer School 2019

So, I know I said I was going to be more vigilant in terms of updating, since I have all the material anyway, and although this feels like how I start everything I post on here now, I’ll soldier on. Ahem. I figured that rather than going chronologically, I might as well write according to what comes easiest. And this, my friends, is The One.

Typography Summer School is a somewhat intensive week-long course set up by Fraser Muggeridge Studio (who, of course, made the hotly-debated Hot Chip album cover — yes, this one — and who I first learned about, I think, through the Visual Editions run of Don Quixote — which is lovely, and fucking massive, and still available for purchase here) on typography. As in letters, and the space between letters, and how these things converge on a page or a screen or somewhere else.

I applied last year and didn’t get in¹, so even though this year’s dates coincided with my graduation — an activity I am told that no one really goes to, lol — I was determined to go to. Partly because I got in this time, and mostly because I wasn’t sure I’d get to do this anytime soon, since my leave to remain in London remains undecided (potentially more on that later, since I have a lot of feelings on it, but also talking about it feels like jinxing it).

So, 30 or so of us, from literally all over the world², converged at Old Manor Park Library, which is incidentally where I’ve gone to a couple of times for riso-related activities c/o Rabbits Road Press. TSS was back in July. It was scorching, and I am heat-averse, but even so, I had the most fun.

A tiny background: I started “properly” playing with graphic design when I was in high school, having learned of Photoshop, but not really sure how to use it when I worked for the school paper in the seventh grade. (I knew how to use Pagemaker, though, lol.) After that, I was steeped in a weird internet culture that I love(d) and cherish(ed) and also am distantly terrified by. I made weird banners and 100 pixel-by-100 pixel images for people to use on LiveJournal and ship manips and a bit of web design, beginning with a website that was, of course, inspired by The Princess Diaries’ Michael Moscovitz’. Michael’s site was called Crackhead, so that’s obviously what I thought to call mine, a name that I can say did not age very well. I printed zines and little books off of our home printer. I had a DeviantArt account.

Funnily enough, a career bloomed out of that, and I am still astounded sometimes when I think about how this little hobby led to a future working with some of the best people I’ve come to know. Even funnier still is that it’s still what I like to do.

Before all of that good career stuff though, I went to school for graphic design, although technically, it was called Information Design (and housed under the Fine Arts department?). Since 2006, which was my freshman year, I’ve expressed the dissatisfaction of having pursued that program. I felt it lacking, and although typography is meant to make up a large, large part of the design that I do, we only had one class on it. And it was, if I’m completely honest, on the whole, awful. Word on the street is that it’s way better now, so that is a good bit of news I am volunteering here, because I didn’t mean to whine again.

So, anyway, here we are now. I graduated from my BFA in 2010. I got my masters in something completely unrelated in 2019³. The same year, at 30, I decided to take a bunch of classes that, in theory, because of my background and experience, I shouldn’t have had to. And yet, it has been quite fulfilling and rewarding and rekindled my love for design and letters in a way that has only been tapped at as of late.

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that many of the people that Fraser had invited to do talks and workshops with us were people and studios whose work I had been following for a long while. Perhaps it’s because, for a little bit, I was reminded of how fun it is to just play and figure things out. For a funny little warm week in East London, a space was made for that possibility.

Anyway, a rambling mess, I know. But if you’re ever free (financially or in terms of scheduling or whatever) for a week to do this or something like it, I’d urge you to do so. Apart from all the insight, it was amazing to be surrounded by people who felt very strongly and positively about letters in vaguely the same way that I did. In other words, complete dorks.

And because I am in a sharing mood, here’s a rundown of what happened. Mostly for me, but also for you, in case you were thinking of doing something similar.

Day 1 — Fraser Muggeridge + Mia Frostner and Robert Sollis of Europa + assignment

Fraser started the first day off with a talk — VERY INVOLVED WITH FOOTNOTES, WHICH I OBVIOUSLY WAS ALL FOR — and we started on an assignment to make design systems for… Wikipedia! It was really fucking fun. I was deep in my obsession with BTS, so obviously I picked them, and also Jacques Derrida’s Différance, because of course I did.

We did a few other exercises, which were all quite useful in thinking about letters. (Prior to the week, also, we were given a reading assignment and some homework, which was exciting for me, because I’d been missing academic shit like that… like a dork.)

Europa was perhaps the first studio whose work I was introduced to through this programme. I think it’s probably because a lot of their work is situational, as in environmental, as in applied to spaces. It was great to see these applications away from my favoured mediums of print and screen. I particularly liked the pictured project, which was clever and modular and helpful at actually delivering information—rather apt for the Wikipedia project, in terms of developing a system that would work across the board.

Day 2 — Kirsty Carter of A Practice for Everyday Life + David Pearson

Day two started with a talk by Kirsty Carter of A Practice for Everyday Life, and reader, I died. Again, initial introduction to their work was from Visual Editions: they made their first book: the Tristram Shandy one. Truly starstruck. I loved this talk so much. This is the kind of work I want to do, and their approach is exactly the sort of considered thinking that I’d like to be, at some point, capable of. I was able to ask for tips~ on my design system, lol, and Kirsty was very quick and straightforward in the comments, which was incredibly helpful. (I got to speak with Kirsty Carter, can you imagine my brain trying not to explode.)

In the afternoon, we had David Pearson! Which again, I tried to keep myself together… See, when I was a wee design student, I first came across Pearson’s amazing Penguin series, Great Ideas, and because of this series, I thought, “Hey, maybe I’d like to design books?” It was a moment. Such a treat to see the process of these amazing designers, and how they work through visual puzzles and kind of tiptoe that weird threshold between commercial needs and beautiful fucking work.

Got a sneak peek of the new John Le Carré series David worked on, too. And they are sublime:

And then we had a showcase of Wikipedia work, which was so fun so see such a big variety? I certainly had some favourites. Then, there was also a cute little session to kind of consolidate what we had learned so far, in the last two days, and there were a lot! But we stopped at 10. :)

Day 3 — Catherine Dixon

Catherine Dixon is amazing and so is her love for letters; when she gets particularly excited, she carries on talking, marking each end of phrase with her standing on her tip-toes, the gained height matching her enthusiasm for letterforms.

This day was interesting in that we more or less ended up thinking about letters and type as though they were people, as though a certain kind of life resides within a tail or a curve or how much each letter stood apart from the other. We talked about what we liked or didn’t like about particular typefaces. We picked one letterform and had to draw it in three different ways, large-scale with charcoal, as an exercise in learning how to look and see. Catherine would come over and tell us where the weight should fall more or where the thickest and thinnest parts of the letter should be. Because a letter isn’t just one drawn line; it’s an occupation of a space. It signifies what is there, instead of what isn’t.

Then, we each got a letter “M” in different typefaces, mounted on foamboard and cut out. We had to travel with these letters and see how being around them made us feel. Mine was innocuous enough — a monotype that turned out to be the one I used for both my portfolio and my dissertation website: Nitti. As such, it felt quite at home in my shirt pocket.

Day 4 — Paul Barnes / Commercial Type + Ben Prescott of Studio Frith

I missed basically all of Paul Barnes’ talk in the morning, which was a shame, but also, I graduated! So, that’s okay. Haha. I rushed straight to fucken Newham from Southbank, but did OK on time, I think. They’d began working on some fonts based on some type specimens that Fraser found, and as I was late, I ended up joining a group of two (the rest already had three). I worked with Alicia and Moa and we got a reaaaaallly fun one that had a VARIETY of possible variations, to be gleaned from only four letterforms: F I L M.

In the afternoon, Ben Prescott of Studio Frith gave us a little talk — and some of their work is gorgeous; again, I was introduced to this studio through Visual Editions, as they worked on a really, really clever book by Adam Thirlwell called Kapow! More recently, they worked on the Hayward Gallery’s branding for that show, Kiss My Genders.

Honestly, it made me want to play with making crazy letter systems. Is that another unreachable dream? Possibly. Although, it could just be another thing to do for fun.

Day 5 — Rory McGrath of OK-RM

Much of the last day was spent working on our letter systems, which… I’m not very good at. I think I’m good at ideas and art direction, but this was really revealing of how much of Illustrator I actually don’t know how to use, lol. Thankfully, Moa and Alicia were much better at that than I was.

At some point, Rory McGrath of OK-RM gave a talk, which was, obviously, inspiring. I love their work; it’s so unapologetic, but still holds an internal logic, which makes some of the (apparent) bonkers decisions make sense. They did the Virgil Abloh book, but really, I was enamoured by everything they made.

We had graduation. And drinks. And it was a lot of good fun. I have a little bit of separation anxiety, since a lot of the people I really got to speak with don’t live close to me. It’s a lovely thing to be able to keep in touch with their lives and their work on Instagram, though.

Sometimes I second guess myself because I do end up spending a bit of money on these classes and workshops, but when it works out as well as TSS did, there is absolutely no question that I’d do it again.

P.S. I have a shit ton of other pictures and maybe if I’m in the mood, I’ll actually post the lot of them (a lot…), but here we it is for now. Amazing time, the start of a lovely summer for me.

¹ Looking back at the portfolio I submitted then, it was no wonder I was offered only a place on the waitlist.

² If I remember correctly, aside from the U.K., places that people were from include Thailand, Sweden, Australia, the U.S. (Portland, New York), India, Russia, Korea, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and Berlin… and perhaps another place I missed. I’m pretty sure I’m the first one from the Philippines!

³ In case you were wondering, I took an MRes in Art: Theory & Philosophy… so, yanno, a thing that feels a bit like a wild card, sometimes.