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Playful Type 2

October 2010 (p.129, 216-219) Gestalten

Ephemeral Lettering and Illustrative Fonts

Playful Type 2 examines how designers are using a variety of techniques to produce typography and lettering in a range of innovative styles. It not only features high-quality type design and diverse applications for original lettering, but also insightful texts and interviews with leading typographers that explore current developments. This book is a timely investigation of how designers are trying to find solutions to counter the fact that more and more messages are being communicated in plain text on digital platforms such as cell phones. It documents the innovative, more personal lettering techniques that today’s designers are developing by hand that not only simply present content, but also enrich it creatively.

Why ‘Strange Attractors’?

Strange Attractors is the name we came up with while working on our very first projects together. We met in the fall of 2000 in the 2D Design Department of Cranbrook Academy of Art where we both went to obtain our Master’s Degrees in Design. Instead of being constant competitors we decided to join our forces and combine our skill sets in order to overcome our egos and create better design. Strange Attractors was the right name for us. ‘Strange attractors’ is a term used in Chaos Theory describing the mathematic system behind dynamic processes which seem to be completely random. The interesting thing is that these mathematics result in unpredictable outcomes and endless variations of figures (such as fractals), not unlike the outcome of our typographic experiments. Besides the fact that the name suits us, it’s important to know that we came up with a third name to state that the work we make is more important than the maker: two heads = better than one!

Cranbrook is an art school that epitomized the postmodern and deconstructivist approach to graphic design in the 1990s. To what extent did the school’s philosophy (and ideology?) influence your style and way of working?

Cranbrook has a bit of a stigmatism associated with it, primarily due to the autonomous nature of the graduate school. Progression, quality of work, relevancy of investigation are all ultimately dependent on the student designer; their level of commitment, intelligence, technological prowess, historical insight, and so on. No classes, only critiques. Self-motivated investigations, and results fueled by a bit a social pressure. In the studio everyone was expected to absorb, interpret and produce. 
Style is another tool, or maybe a meta tool. Using color, type, composition, et cetera together in slightly different ways (i.e. by choosing a style) you can greatly alter your message and relationship to the audience. Creating communication that is more precise or contains more depth, engaging interpretation... For us, it was about gaining a more intimate relationship with communication, people, culture, through a number of channels. At Cranbrook, we were stimulated to focus on one-to-one making: type, photography, film, sound, spatial and environmental, interactive. We’ve carried that over into our current practice as designers.

You are both several things at once: typographers, illustrators, type designers, animators, cultural philosophers. Yet you have chosen lettering, and often ornamental lettering, as your primary medium.
Why is that?

We are designers and use words, images and sound. Because as cultural philosophers we strongly believe that every message we deliver has to be unique and specific to its meaning, we often find that plain type that is around won’t communicate what we want it to. In those cases we either design new type or customize something to the messages, to our needs. That’s when we become illustrators and type designers, organizing the message as typographers, enhancing its meaning as animators, spatial designers, programmers…

You’ve described your work as being ‘seriously playful.’ One is immediately struck by the exuberance, the love of detail, the gutsy approach to form. The surface is so seductive that one may forget to look beyond it. On a deeper level, which are the themes of your work?

Our goal is to draw closer to human communication. We think contemporary viewers are a sophisticated audience. While ultimate clarity and formally minimal communication are definitely required in specific situations, such as highway signs, there are many contexts which benefit from or even rely on more directed or layered communication.
Remember that people are human. You can have the most well resolved, highly crafted, technically proficient solution, but it’s the tiny bit of tension, awkwardness or personality tweaking the raw data, that makes it worthy of human communication. 
Other recurring themes in our work: Being distrustful of rehashing tired neo-modernist styles for ease, lack of skill, lack of intelligence, lack of balls… The vernacular. ‘High Culture’ versus ‘Low Culture.’ Visual clichés and conventions. The symbiosis of technology and craft.

Ten years ago, exuberant and ornamented type was an exception. Now it’s all over the place. Is that a good thing?

It is what it is. Ten years ago we were reacting to a specific neo-modernist revival. Now, especially with advances in technology, there’s more possibility for customization. Nearly all of the ornamentation seen today is nostalgic or purely decorative. In some contexts it isn’t too hard to understand where Adolf Loos was coming from.

You work with students a lot. What are you teaching them?

Be broad. Learn how to learn. Learn to program. For every hour of laziness and opportunity missed, there are hundreds of other designers working harder, doing more, being not lazy…so BE a designer. Design is making, seeing, talking, critiquing as much as it is listening, understanding, living, helping, giving. As a conduit of contemporary communication it is your responsibility to absorb any and all around you regardless of your personal taste, become a master of contemporary communication. Think big. Read. Read more. Integrate with culture. Be aware of history, the context in which you present your design. As a designer you carry a responsibility for what your audience will perceive.

What are your favorite tools to design with?

Minds, hands, space.

Which projects were the ones you enjoyed working on the most?

Our personal favorites are design projects where we are involved from the very beginning, so that we can carefully build a custom tool kit with solutions and get the opportunity to rephrase the original question in order to create the very best outcome.

A couple of examples:

Letterlab is an exhibition for children which we designed for the Graphic Design Museum in Breda, The Netherlands. It was a pretty ideal situation. In Letterlab we’ve combined everything from the second to the fourth dimension: Developed the content, created the spatial design, the programming, type design and even the traditional ‘graphic design.’ With Letterlab we are moving closer to our desire to create larger-than-life experiences, in which we control the design as well as the entire context.
BIG TYPE SAYS MORE, which we crafted for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, was an important step towards this direction. Our design became truly physical! Over the course of five weeks, using industrial handheld jigsaws and paint, we manually produced a five layer thick, 2.83 meters high, and over 17 meters wide typographic installation. The typographic structure was positioned as the front of a spatial (honeycomb) cardboard structure, enticing the viewer from the windows and the glass entrance and upon approach rewarding them with increasingly complex, yet graceful forms. Our objective was to merge contemporary technology with traditional craftsmanship while representing the diverse multi-cultural and architectural city of Rotterdam. In the end, custom programmed micro controllers sequenced LEDs which were mounted to add a ‘touch of Vegas’ to the type that we created specifically for this project.

How do your clients relate to your experimentation?

Most of the time we are approached by people who are aware of our approach to design and who are willing to trust us and give us the freedom we need to experiment and come up with custom crafted solutions for their projects. In order to do so we try to be involved in the project from the very beginning, so that content and accompanying form are created at the same time and can influence one another. It’s a naturally growing process in which we like to be in control. This results in very intense relationships with content, form and outcome, and yes, with the client as well. The key is to always visualize and document the actual experimentation. This way you can educate the client and the final outcome will be much more convincing and you may be able to eliminate the possibility that a client will simply say ‘I don’t like it.’

(Jan Middendorp)

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