It is no secret I am a loud and proud speculatype fan. Those of you who subscribe to the TypoMusings email will have seen me promote Barry Spencer and his work frequently over the last three years. So it might come as a surprise to you that I haven't posted about his doctoral research previously...
I read Barry's thesis shortly after it was submitted. And my mind was instantly blown. I have been enthusiastically encouraging Barry to publish the document ever since, as I believe his insight and research into the potential of letterforms and the possibilities of typographic systems is a game changer for our industry and creative practice.
The thesis focuses on a number of visual experiments conducted over a decade to examine four research questions;
Q1: What is a letterform when removed from context?
Q2: What am I able to create when all my prior expectations of form are stripped away?
Q3: How do I relate to and interact with letterforms that break from the mould of tradition?
Q4: How do the outcomes of this openness towards approaching and creating letterforms then influence the work and ideas that follow them?
These are big intentions that take a lot of bravery to pursue... So writing about it - wanting to share the thinking, his methodology, (and his exemplary experimental and speculative typefaces) with you - is a monumentally difficult task - primarily because I am afraid I won't/can't do Barry's Brilliant piece of work justice!
Fortunately, I caught up with Barry and we discussed some of the process and mechanics behind this very important work - for me to share with you here...
I began with asking how he defined his four research questions - as I was curious about where the questions came from and if they evolved over time or if he set out on this journey with such an adventurous outlook!
"The starting point was being sick of interacting with 'you shouldn't do that' – and 'why would you mess with the alphabet when it is perfect and works the way it is' - approach to letterforms – and my answer was 'Simply, because I can!'"
Barry asserts his speculative approach to creating typefaces, wasn't about suggesting new alphabets to replace the conventional one we use now - but rather he just wanted to reject the traditional constraints and to ask 'what if?'
Each question lead to another... Each question became a jumping off point to learn, to transform his understanding and to advance. I noted that working outside of 'the norm' and what is readable, legible and easily understood in typography was incredibly brave as we have a long history of thinking this is the way a letter should look, or this is how we read and visually interpret a particular sign or sound.
Barry pointed out that at the beginning of his research he had thought about the collective conventional understanding. And 'us' - but through the process his research became more personal - he was transforming his point of view and understanding with each experiment
"my research became introspective – personally, my creativity grew to enable me to do the things I felt comfortable with. I became the client. I moved away from external parties and their views – instead, I focused on how could I use it – how do I see it as a letter – it became personal."
"Cody was the first typeface that I designed that made no attempt to ‘please’ my existing letterform understandings. Born out of an idea that was sparked while playing an otherwise unimpressive video game".
British graphic designer Roger Fawcett-Tang is quoted as saying "major experimental break throughs often come from outside the discipline because experts within tend to approach the discipline from a common ‘obedient’ point of view."
Barry's research was far from obedient - he set new boundaries and new theoretical positions of what a letterform could be. He took a novel approach to his investigation which is precisely why his work contributes new knowledge to our field.
"My typographic journey started ‘normal’ and went through a process of re-organising elements – and reassessing the structure of letters."
This shifted the perception of what a 'letter' had the potential to be, this 'what if' thinking was rebellious and radical - he slowly retrained himself - starting safe and gradually taking bigger and bigger risks with the archetypal form and legibility.
"I started recognisable, and the familiarity of letters in my early work is still apparent. I was self-censoring (and doing myself and the work an injustice). But a breakthrough happened with one of those early typefaces... my girlfriends' dad found it easier to read without his glasses on – it gave me the confidence to keep playing - keep exploring.”
In 2005 while Barry was still in a relatively safe visual arena with the type he was producing, he showed his work to David Pidgeon who was most interested in the more obscure (and more experimental) of Barry's typefaces.
"The things he gravitated towards were the things that weren't perfect but he felt had been pushed further. Looking back those faces were still really safe, but it opened my mind to the possibilities of doing what wasn't expected. It gave me the courage to start playing with legibility – readability which lead to my questioning of how far can a letterform be taken forward and stripped back before they are no longer letters?"
Each experiment leads to more creativity, more courage, more abstract and exciting outcomes. When people look at Barry’s work without understanding his process and research framework they may well struggle to see his letters as letters. But when you follow the evolution of his thinking, and the development of his typefaces over the course of the ten years of practice, you'll understand why and how Barry made the leaps he did.
"What am I going to do otherwise? Continually create A’s that look like A’s? B’s that look like B’s? Other people are doing that - and if those other people are doing that well, let them do it! What can I do that's new? Not design text faces! I don't want to add to the massive proliferation of typefaces out there... So I considered what can I bring to the field that was interesting to look at and interact with? (although it wasn't interesting to others for a long time!)”
So much of what we do as designers is defined by our published visual outcomes. But the value of our work is in our private design process... Each time Barry guides us (or holds our hands!) through his creative leaps we gain a better understanding of the rigour and processes behind his speculative faces, despite them becoming more abstract and less familiar. Barry’s ability to articulate his process and thinking became critical to making the work accessible to others.
"it wasn't until I could rationalise it, that people became more interested, even if they couldn't see a purpose for it! You still might think Sandy is bullshit as letters, but hopefully, you'll now see how I got there!”
I ask how it feels when people don't relate to the work as typography or type design - when they are unable to make that leap?
"I don't expect people to be ok with it - and I am accepting of critique and failure. It guides me forward. I am not really worried that people won't be able to read it - who gives a shit (well, me) – but it doesn't matter if people couldn't read it. Even then, hopefully, there is something in the process, the question, the outcome, the interaction or the audacity to explore, that creates energy or inspiration.”
What is a letterform when divorced from content? What makes it a letterform, vs. a symbol, or mark? Barry defines the boundaries between letter and symbol. As he believes, the perception of a letter is wholly subjective.
"It's a graphic mark until you assign some sort of meaning. We can put anything (within reason and without existing meaning) on paper, and it remains abstract until we apply the meaning. Make a mark tell someone it is an A, and that's my A, I don't need it to look like an A to anyone else. It becomes a learning process”
So I ask what comes first the mark or the meaning?
"Both the chicken and the egg – sometimes I am making a mark and then assign meaning – other times I have a letter in mind and construct a symbol to represent that. Sometimes I want an A to have diagonals, so it does reference the letters. Or sometimes I would rather the visual was totally divorced from anything recognisable.”
Barry is well known for his beautiful use of grids (both geometric and non-orthogonal) as well as systemic modulation in his type design work. I was curious if his visual research and concept design always began with a grid?
"No, not always - I didn't make custom grids for a long time – I see the flexibility in a square using a standard Moleskin journal. But while the grid is a tool I use (and enjoy) it is not integral in all my work. These are my rules, my game – I am making it up and giving myself permission to play as I go along!”
Barry points out his design methodology is almost always different. Creating Owen, Barry drew a set of glyphs on a grid and then once he had marks he assigned letters for each.
He goes on to say -- "I challenge myself to use grids in different ways – so my methodology changes to what is suitable for the grid, the outcome and how I want to learn and play. My letters are usually monospaced so often my M won’t be 1.5 characters wide. When legibility is less important so is gravity! So I rotate the letters to fit within the system and proportion I am working too. My M's are often cranked 90 degrees... I draw the A systematically and iteratively until I have an A that I like – working in sequence A – Z. “
I asked Barry about what happens to his precise work when applying the human condition... He tells me he was influenced and encouraged by some calligrapher friends to get analogue.
"Many of my friends are letterers and they don't often use grids - I wanted to encourage people to interact with my work and was getting people to learn how to draw Sandy - those people became a filter to translate my design – drawing/producing it by hand – having other people transform my work was exciting. And I am increasingly interested in taking my typefaces from perfect vectors on the computer toward the gestural qualities of the hand.”
I was curious about what other instances Barry would like to see the work used in?
"Video Games and Sci-fi films for sure! As Alien languages of course – it blurs that boundary that I am interested in – it is an Alien language so people will assume (and be comfortable) that they can't read it, but they will have already assigned meaning, by determining it's a language. However, I’m also just as interested in the other side of the coin and applying it to more scientific aspects like cognition through further research”
Barry doesn't breaks the rules of visual language and typographic convention to challenge you, he does it to snap us out of our comfort zone and push his own creativity – he is not, however, aiming to replace or even redefine our current alphabet - and is not being different for difference sake. Barry is radically innovating with type design by using gradual jumping off points; each small leap advances the territory of typographic design and our perception of letters a little further. He is expanding our field and wants to share the process and thinking with others.
"I had something to say – just didn't have a structure to say it – the Ph.D. and putting it in the context of philosophy – helped me articulate the thinking and the value. I understand it was personal and obscure to start, but I now want to talk about it more. I want to get others to think differently. To think about what a letter could be? And to consider what if?”
I believe this is important and exciting research. Thinking that our entire design community could benefit from. This is not only relevant to type design, and you don't need to understand (or relate) to Barry’s design outcomes to learn from them. This thesis is a wonderful piece of work propels our design process and encourages us to be brave and better designers.
Barry's gradual leaps, using his 'what if' questioning as jumping off points for each project, his courage to take small risks - are all a fast track formula toward innovation. He demonstrates an approach for us all to pioneer new pathways in our design journey.