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Signs of the times

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A new book by graphic designer Anna Saccani, attempting a global survey of large-scale typographic installations through 37 case studies, is a welcome addition to the lexicon, writes Brad Yendle

‘A treacherous art, lying in a no-man’s-land between architecture and graphic design, apparently simple yet of bewildering possibilities,’ said Jock Kinneir in Words and Buildings: the art and practice of public lettering. Kinneir knew a thing or two about lettering, as anyone who drives a car from A to B in this country will know. Anna Saccani’s book LetterScapes: A Global Survey of Typographic Installations is an ambitious attempt, born of her PhD studies, to document comprehensively typographic installations around the globe.

Saccani’s introduction skirts historical technicalities such as the difference between ‘type’ and ‘lettering’, as set out by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon in their excellent Signs: Lettering in the Environment (2003): ‘The ability of contemporary production methods to generate types at any size on virtually any substrate tends to blind us to the subtle but important differences between lettering and type. Put very simply, type is an industrial product capable of duplication and automation, whilst lettering is a one-off, created for a specific purpose and capable of responding to the demands of scale, material and surroundings in quite a different way.’

So you can’t just scale type up and get the paint brush out, despite what many clients think.

Saccani’s book is simply laid out, but a bit of a lump. You’d perhaps not want to carry it around and use it as a guide, as she suggests. Her 37 case studies are uneven in quality and some were probably included to give the book the global reach hoped for in the title. What to feature and what to leave out was always going to be a bone of contention (typographers have train-spotters’ habits, feverishly scribbling away, muttering of 19th century French cuts and RAL colours). For example, there’s a big uppercase ‘M’ in downtown Miami that makes the cut but not the big ‘M’ at Munich airport … what’s the criterion that excludes Otl Aicher’s airport signage? It’s not public art? Some of Venturi Scott Brown Associates’ early work – such as Philadelphia’s Basco showroom – uses large-scale lettering that could have been included by Saccani.

What’s the criterion that excludes Otl Aicher’s airport signage? It’s not public art?

There are some great double-page spreads of remarkable projects, both old and new: Josep María Subirach’s Town Hall fascia in Barcelona; Joan Brossa’s Visual Walkable Poem in the same city; Michael Bierut’s application of the New York Times masthead on Renzo Piano’s 8th Avenue building. These reflect the scale of the works, but I found the opening page of each project a bit underwhelming – and a date of completion for each wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. Nevertheless, Saccani’s book is a welcome addition to a part of design history that is pretty undercooked.

There’s an interesting moment in the appendix which shows clear blue water between the architect’s and the graphic designer’s approaches: Peter St John, of Caruso St John, says his practice often uses Akzidenz Grotesk (the typeface you are now reading) because it is ‘banal’. Total Design founder Ben Bos has stated elsewhere that the same typeface has ‘fine proportions and restrained elegance’. Perhaps it’s a good job that graphic designers don’t try their hand at curtain walling.

  • Brad Yendle is the AJ’s art editor and studied under Phil Baines in the 1990s

LetterScapes, by Anna Saccani, Thames & Hudson, 352pp, £29.95


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