From the Archive; DIY Design from 2010

I wrote this review when the DIY phenomena was still new to mainstream design; as St Bride Library is quiet for the summer I thought I’d re-post it. Perhaps DIY was perceived as a trend at the time; the conference broadened and deepened the definition by focusing on diverse projects with a claim to DIY credentials. Now such notions as self-instigated briefs, ad-hoc distribution and hand-making have evolved into a productive modus operandi for designers and creatives working across disciplines and often in collaboration.

St Bride Library Conference 2010 DIY Design
St Bride Library, London
Attended 27-28 May 2010

Tucked away in a narrow alley off Fleet Street (which was once the epicentre of the UK’s newspaper industry but has now been invaded by banks and trading floors), St Bride Library inhabits a labyrinthine Victorian building, alongside a theatre, classrooms and at one time a swimming pool, installed by the philanthropic founders for the improvement of the local workers. The newspaper presses have left the neighbourhood, but its long association with the art and industry of printing and typography remains, as the library boasts an extensive collection of books, manuscripts and archives relating to graphic design, publishing, calligraphy, illustration, and of course, type.

It’s an atmospheric place; the tiled corridors, stone stairways and church-like halls buzz with the enthusiasm of self-improvement and learning. An extensive programme of lectures and conferences hosts the great and the good of design, enabling new generations to discover the work of heroes and peers alike. Essentially an outreach programme, these events aim to encourage new members to join the library. And they offer unique opportunities to meet and question “the greats” in a relaxed atmosphere, thanks to lots of tea breaks between talks (if you don’t feel like asking questions from the floor). The proceedings of past events are available online, and have built into an extensive archive of design projects and historical research.

The conferences are thematic, but always eclectic; the 9th Annual Conference investigated the idea of “DIY Design”. Keynote speaker, Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks, recounted how, back in the 1980s, at the start of his career, young designers were expected to choose between different “silos” of practice – print, packaging, corporate, etc. – and stick with it for their entire career. He found that, and the traditional client/consultancy hierarchy, which isolated the designer at the end of the decision-making process “deeply bugging”. So he set up his own company, factoring in time for self-initiated projects.

Up front he tackled “the elephant in the room”, asking; “…who are you working for?” The answer is, ultimately, yourself, to which ends he showed a myriad of inspirational projects by designers taking the ball and running with it, either inspired by commissioned work, or setting their own brief. From Harry Beck, who designed the London Underground Map on spec; to Fletcher Forbes Gill (AKA Pentagram) who more or less invented the graphic design monograph; to Tibor Kalman at M&Co who made funky products back in the 1980s; to Airside [now disbanded], who count a band and a T-shirt label among their activities; and right up to date with, It’s Nice That, who turned a college brief, and a compliment, into a new media phenomenon. Johnson also gave out handy hints and tips, naming Bob Books and the Newspaper Club as useful go-to resources.

Inspired, we moved on to the Society of Revisionist Typographers, AKA, SORT. Partners Tom Boulton and Theo Wang ably demonstrated how to turn an obsession into a thriving design business. Diversification is the key; they offer a letterpress service as well as an array of printed products. It helps that both these graduates from the London College of Communication have printers in the family, and that they welcome the challenge of reassembling piles of old machine parts back into working presses! They were full of good advice; “Perseverance, perspiration and patience” being one mantra, while their parting shot was; “Be stubborn, and you’ll end up with a better product”.

Martin Andrews, Senior Lecturer, Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading, presented a research paper on Rena Gardiner (1929-1999), “an unsung heroine”, who wrote, illustrated and designed guidebooks about her favourite buildings and places, many for the National Trust, in the 1960s and 1970s. But, what was so unusual about her practice was that she took a commercial process, auto-lithography, and subverted it. Working spontaneously and by eye, she drew directly onto the aluminium printing plate, as a printmaker would draw onto a litho stone, over-printing and manipulating the litho-press as if it were a hand press. She broke rules, fused the handmade and the mechanical, integrated text and image, all to bring her historical research to life for a general audience, and she printed every single copy herself!

Next, two long-time employees of Letraset, Dave Farey and Colin Brignall, presented a personal history of the team that launched the dry transfer lettering product back in 1961. They selected, designed and art-worked unique typefaces for Letraset, a product that revolutionised the practice of graphic design. Later, they helping Letraset cross over to digital type. The exuberance of many of the display faces they showed wowed everyone and reminded audience members of a certain age that hand-drawn type, destined for the dry transfer market, was as “instant” and aesthetically daring as the digital experiments of the 1990s.

Tempting us to get our hands dirty, Nick Morley and Victoria Browne of East London Printermakers, a co-operative print shop, explained how they run a busy, open access studio, offering workshops, residencies, talks and presses for hire. They also print and publish portfolios and artists’ books, many of which are joint ventures between fine artists and designers.

Reinterpreting the premise of the proceedings, Jon Melton, from Cambridge School of Art, suggested that DIY might translate as “Don’t Involve Yourself” and advocated taking inspiration from history; instead of being your own client why not imagine, for instance, that the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) is setting the brief. Melton talked through his process, of observing, drawing and researching Soane’s books, archives and buildings (including the Bank of England and 10 Downing Street) paying special attention to the inscriptions carved on stone facades. From these sources Melton complied a “visual vocabulary” and designed the typeface “Sir John Soane”.

Unforeseen circumstances held up the next speaker, so a surprise substitution brought us “Trash Type” from Rob Banham, also from University of Reading’s famed type department. He recalled how, as an antidote to his “very dry PhD” he began documenting Reading’s “wheelie bins”, noting how householders personalised this public/private property. He collected hundreds of photos of painted, scratched, stickered and scrawled marks, charting myriad versions of numbers and letters. From that, he suggested, we may extrapolate how “lay people” perceive and make letterforms. The whole escapade was thought provoking and fun.

Day Two began with an audience with a living legend. Wolfgang Weingart eschewed the usual laptop and presented with an overhead projector and a box of type, rules and blocks. He is, he explained, fascinated with the 26 letterforms, and this, he added, is how he teaches. Watching the projected elements moving around the illuminated screen over his head, and listening to him extol the virtues of unhindered experimentation, it was a short leap to imagine these simple elements translating into Weingart’s subtly sophisticated layouts. The effect was alchemical, and thanks to his unpretentious and unselfconscious delivery, felt as if such miracles were within everyone’s capability. He was implying, we can all make pictures, and that is the essence of DIY Design.

Michael Johnson identified the design monograph as fitting the DIY Design brief. Weingart, however, suggested that a designer needs a considerable amount of practice, about 40 years, before tackling one. When he did, in My Way to Typography (1999), he chose to make a book revealing process, rather than presenting results, by showing where ideas come from. Speaking of the label “Swiss New Wave”, he admitted; “I never set out to learn a style; if it became a style, other people made it that way”.

Weingart ended with a plea to “rethink education”, saying; “…students need to know the rules, otherwise it is all egotism”. He advocated providing access to letterpresses and trained technicians, teaching the basics, and then letting students loose to play.

Another empowering talk came from Professor Teal Triggs, [then of London College of Communication, now at the RCA] who drew back the veil on the fascinating world of fanzines. Initially a collector, she wrote a PhD on the phenomenon of fans producing their own, homemade communications; on myriad subjects, from sci-fi to football, charity shop fashions to feminism. Central to this grass-roots activity is mastering the means of production, however rudimentary that might be. Whether it’s a scalpel and Scotch-tape version of ransom-note type, hand scrawled lettering, or a hi-jacked office photocopier, the lo-fi aesthetic may result from necessity but it is also an identifier, “keeping it real”. Triggs recognised zines as key cultural documents; revealing the makers’ personality and building community, as well as being fun. Triggs’ continuing research has built into a just published book, Fanzines.

By contrast, Mette-Sofie D. Ambeck, wields her scalpel with expert precision. This Danish designer suggested that we; “know the rules to be able to break them”. She displays an extraordinary level of skill and patience in the production of her intricate, three-dimensional paper structures, which are both book and sculpture.

Rescheduled from the previous day, Petr van Blokland advocated that designers create tools to customise type for their own use, by means of programming, which he describes as “like writing a poem”.

From the future to the past, Ann Pillar presented an historical account of an extraordinary project; Edward Wright’s 1961 letter-form mural for the International Union of Architects’ conference, constructed on a temporary building, designed by Theo Crosby, on London’s South Bank. Through archival research and reconstructed models, Pillar explained Wright’s use of materials, techniques and technology, used to “write in the environment”. To banish austerity he borrowed his colour scheme from contemporary advertising, while his letterforms described the volume and shape of the building. The whole, giant mural was hand-painted!

Collaboration is key for much DIY Design, as most self-instigate projects need many hands. Friends since college (meeting at the University of Brighton), Will Hudson and Alex Bec, described how they’ve built It’s Nice That from a student brief, with “no plan”, to become a much-visited blog, a magazine, an exhibition and events programme and a design studio. Their mantra is “DNY – Do Nothing Yourself, get others to do stuff better”.

Another variation more accurately sums up their output; “DID – Do It Differently”. So, how did they achieve all this in just a few years? “Do-able goals, small steps, attention to detail”. They pack and post every magazine direct from the studio, which cuts down on damaged and lost copies, and adds a personal touch to each sale. Now renowned as talent spotters, they deliver their taste and network to major brands, while continuing to reinvent design publishing.

By contrast the bunch that makes Manzine have been working in mainstream media for a number of years, as writers, editors and designers on men’s magazines. While the genre was successfully redefined in the 1990s, they weren’t too happy with the results. Then the crisis in print publications prompted them to look for a more “personal” solution. “How do you get ahead?” they asked. “Create your own media”, is the answer. Kevin Braddock, Peter Lyle and Woz, explained how they launched Manzine, a deliberately lo-fi publication, in reaction to the super-slick magazines that constitute their “day job”.

Realising that they were selling the dream/a lie, just like women’s magazines had been doing for decades, they decided that instead of producing aspirational stories to keep the advertisers happy, they would seek out contributions from writer-friends on whatever took their fancy. The results are humorous, satirical, self-deprecating, non-macho, and a bit naughty. Ultimately, the “tone of voice” wins you over, along with the deliberately amateurish visuals.

“The form and design had to reflect all of that”, explains Braddock, “…so it’s cheap, friendly, not intimidating, we don’t want to compete with other men’s magazines”. So they borrowed the look and feel of the zine, circa the “desk-top-publishing revolution”, complete with pastel-coloured cover stock and a drop-shadow masthead. The package is convincing, the content original, and the whole thing is utterly compelling.

As the last word of this DIY Design conference, the Manzine crew struck just the right note. Yes, they’re media professionals; but their non-hierarchical, collaborative approach and “start from scratch” attitude is a creative rejection of status quo standards and outmoded working methods. They didn’t launch their magazine by pitching to an established publishing house; instead they all “pitched in” they just did it. With many inspirational examples on show, the underlying message of this two-day event was don’t wait around for something to happen, if you hatch an idea, then, DO IT YOURSELF.

P.S. Sadly, there has been no issue of Manzine for a while; please, lads, get on with it…