Hero Worship

Letterform Live returned last week with an evening devoted to David Bowie. It was was a night of reminiscence, nostalgia and a fitting typographic tribute to the great man himself. Theo Inglis reports…

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Last Wednesday night saw the first in the next series of Grafik Letterform Live events in partnership with Monotype and the ISTD, hosted by Protein Studios in Shoreditch. Each of our four speakers spoke for roughly ten minutes to a sold-out audience, each using a different letterform as their starting point. The theme for the night, and the link between the four different letters, was musical superstar and all-round creative genius David Bowie, who sadly died earlier this year. The Bowie theme gave the opportunity for some personal reminiscing, nostalgia and celebration of the great man’s life and work, as well as insight into working with Bowie from two of our speakers who were lucky enough to collaborate with him on creative projects.

Kicking off the night was Julian Morey, who joined Peter Saville Associates straight after graduating from Central Saint Martins. He now works as a freelance designer for clients across a wide range of disciplines, juggling this with running his own digital typeface foundry Club-21. Julian’s chosen letterform was an ‘S’ from Hermann Zapf’s 1952 typeface Melior, by far the most obscure Bowie link of the night, yet an extremely interesting one none the less…

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Melior 'S'

In 1976 David Bowie starred in Nicolas Roeg’s cult sci-fi film The Man Who Fell to Earth. His character is a humanoid alien who has travelled here in search of water to take back to his own dehydrated and dying planet. But Julian’s choice comes from a scene in which Bowie’s character doesn’t actually appear; it does. however feature the cover of an album that his character has recorded called The Visitor. Julian also pointed out that interestingly in the background of the record store setting there is a display for Bowie’s Young Americans album, so the real David Bowie features in a film where Bowie is in fact not Bowie, but an alien from outer space. A self-referentially meta touch rather than a chance accident.

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Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976

Back to the fictional record cover in question, Julian appreciates its design for being much better than it needed to be. Although he was quick to point out that from personal experience record execs would never go for something with the title not in the top third of the sleeve. Following a bit of design detective work Morey identified the font as Melior, and even figured out that the ambiguous image was of a specific locomotive train – the Santa Fe 2926. Julian also pointed out that the character looking at the record was wearing the world’s first digital watch – the Hamilton Pulsar P2, also seen in the Bond film Live and Let Die. Both the watch and design of the record sleeve are exactly the sort of ‘considered choice’ that the films designer Brian Eatwell deserves credit for.

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'X' from Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), 2016

Up next was Tom Hingston, the founder of Hingston Studio whose work spans print, moving image and digital, primarily for clients in fashion, music and film. Tom’s choice of letterform was an intriguing, and slightly mysterious, black and white ‘X’ from one of the projects he worked on for David Bowie

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In late 2014 Tom received an email from David Bowie asking if he would like to work on promo videos for two of his upcoming songs. The first of these turned out to be Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), which was the lead single from his compilation album Nothing Has Changed and later featured on his final album Blackstar (or should that be ★ ? More on that later…). Tom of course said yes, and then received footage of Bowie recording the track with an orchestra in a New York studio. The finished version of the song came to him three days later. The style and mood of the music lead to Hingston immediately thinking of the shadowy monotone cinematography of Film Noir and the distinctive typography of their opening credits. So he set about creating an “opening title sequence style video” using the footage from the recording studio and the songs lyrics, in which typographic compositions of specific lines of the song follow the soundtrack, moving in harmony with it. 

However this video was only the first step of a much more ambitious plan, the next was to find the perfect noir-esque location. This turned out to be a disused waste-disposal plant South of London, which would provide the right backdrops to project the typographic videos onto. Hingston Studio worked with Director of Photography George Steel to capture these on-location projections using a non-static camera that swings and pans, adding an extra layer of “dynamic movement” that works in time with the song. The results are stunningly atmospheric, creating a unique and very memorable music video. Tom reflected that Bowie was a fantastic client, highly generous and complimentary but also very honest if things weren’t perfect. Working with him was a truly collaborative process of “open exchange”. Hingston also added that David was happy to challenge conventions in both his music and the videos that went with it.

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Zipper 'K'

Our third speaker of the night was the fantastic Morag Myerscough, graphic designer and founder of Studio Myerscough. Her eclectic work is characterised by an engaging boldness and an ability to make spaces into places. Last year she was part of a team that won a RIBA Sterling Prize for their work on Burntwood School and this September a monograph of her work, titled Belonging, will be published by Unit Editions. Morag’s choice was a highly quirky capital ‘K’ found on the sleeve of Bowie’s 1971 album  Hunky Dory. The font in use is Zipper designed by Philip Kelly for Letraset in 1970, Kelly also designed other distinctive display fonts like Croissant and Pump.

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Hunky Dory, 1971

Myerscough sadly didn’t buy a copy of Hunky Dory since she was only eight at the time. But she did grow up surrounded by musicians, and was allowed to use her mum's record player to listen to the seven vinyls that they were permitted to play with, which included the Beatles, Sinatra and the West Side Story soundtrack. Her father, a successful musician credited on the Beatles’ White Album, strictly policed the use of his own record player and vinyls. But eventually Morag and her sister were old enough for pocket money and could go to the local Woolworths to get new records. Morag’s older sister had a copy of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, but her own tastes at the time were a little less mature… She was really into teen idol Donny Osmond (of Puppy Love fame), whose albums also used an eccentric ‘bell bottom’ style display font. Albeit in a less cool and knowing way than Bowie’s Hunky Dory had.

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Scary Monsters, 1980

Eventually Morag moved on, and bought her first David Bowie album aged 17. This was his 1980 release Scary Monsters, although she didn’t like the sleeve art then, or now. By the time she was studying graphic design at CSM she thought that all the crazy Letraset display fonts were ‘all shit’, something tinged by memories of young Donny Osmond’s naff album covers. So instead Myerscough embraced sans-serifs, and only used Franklin Gothic for the “next fifteen years”. However in 2002 came a change of heart, while working on the Design Museum’s Web Wizards exhibition she used fonts like Cooper Black and Data 70. This proved to be a “major liberation” and lead to her reconsidering the eccentric display fonts she had previously shunned. Morag even used many of these typefaces from a 1989 Letraset catalogue on stalls she designed for LCC’s TYPO cafe in 2011, although they were picked for their names rather than style.

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Unicode star symbol (U+2605)

The last speaker of the night, and a worthy headliner given his long association with David Bowie, was Jonathan Barnbrook, who worked with Bowie from 2000 onwards, notably on the sleeve for The Next Day and the V&A exhibition David Bowie is. Barnbrook is also known for his provocative typefaces and work collaborating with activists and artists, such as Occupy, Adbusters and Banksy’s recent Dismaland show. But when it came to Jonathan picking a Bowie-related letterform there could only really be one choice…

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Bowie blackstar logotype

Barnbrook was keen to point out that when designing Blackstar, otherwise known as ★, he did not know that it was to be David’s final album. His illness was never discussed, the albums theme of mortality was of course but Jonathan didn’t guess it was about Bowie’s own impending mortality. The added pressure this would have put on the design was definitely unwanted. The main idea for the albums design obviously came from its title, Barnbrook decided to use the Unicode star symbol (U+2605), he drolly explained that because it was called Blackstar he decided ‘put a black star on it’. This literalness was inspired by contemporary emojis, and the experience of having met William Burroughs while a student at the RCA, who told him that in the future all type would be replaces by pictograms, symbols and hieroglyphs (Jonathan nailed a pretty good Burroughs impression explaining this). Not that this project was as simple as it sounds, Barnbrook developed was he was hesitant to describe as ‘a brand’ for the album, focusing on the different applications needed for a modern album release. Some people thought that the BOWIE spelt out through typographic stars was cryptic, Sony wanted an animation and voice-over to explain it, but it was supposed to be very self-explanatory. The vinyl needed to be special as a ‘physical object’ so its design made use of black on black printing, which in hindsight looks funereal but Barnbrook stressed that the colours reflect the “emotional landscape of the music” rather than Bowie’s private illness. 

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Vinyl edition

Next Barnbrook showed us the four additional, and more philosophically symbolic stars that were also supposed to be used on the album cover, but were pulled when Sony didn’t want to spend the money doing five different covers. He also talked through the billboard and poster designs, which tended to be minimal and mysterious, using the graphic ‘kit of parts’ until Bowie fans asked for more pictures of David. After Bowie died and it became clear that ★ was to be his final goodbye, Barnbrook was surprised that Sony didn’t say anything, so he took it upon himself to do something about it. He decided to make the Blackstar symbols and typeface open-source and freely downloadable so that the fans could use it as they wanted, to “commemorate their collective grief for Bowie”. The number of tattoos using Barnbrook’s design proves that many did just this…

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Unicode star symbol (U+2605)

There were of course many fascinating reflections on what it was like to know and work with David Bowie, an “extremely charming person” who “didn’t take himself too seriously”. Barnbrook shared personal memories of how David phoned him up to talk collaboration in 2000, and how he thought it was somebody playing a prank on him (Barnbrook’s Bowie impression was also pretty spot on). How Bowie sent his mum flowers and phoned her up to wish her happy birthday when Jonathan took her to New York. Also how he had been in the studio with Bowie who asked what songs he wanted to hear, and Liv Tyler unexpectedly asked “are you the typographer?”. In terms of their working relationship Barnbrook said that it was a “positive and enjoyable process,” he was “clear but never nasty” and that they had lots of private in-jokes. He also revealed that Bowie was nervous when he first played Blackstar to him, and explained the meaning of the song Lazarus but told him not to tell anyone and was annoyed that the V&A exhibition included rejected album covers because it “ruined the magic”.

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Barnbrook throughout was keen not to put words into Bowie’s mouth, and commented that there have been “so many people popping up with Bowie stories” and that he had done a little but didn’t want to do anymore. But his talk was a really touching tribute to the man who taught him that “not everything is a grand plan” a “great person who it was great to know”.

The evening wrapped up with questions from the audience, which revealed that among many things that Morag listens to Radio 4 while designing, Hingston Studio favour NTS, Barnbook’s studio has an appointed DJ and Julian Morey’s musical tastes are so bad that he wouldn’t even “own up to them”. 

Special thanks to all of our speakers and to Monotype and the ISTD for their ongoing support. The next Letterform Live event ‘BRUTAL’ will take place on 25 May 2016, buy your tickets here.

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Julian Morey, Tom Hingston, Morag Myerscough and Jonathan Barnbrook