Letterform Live returned last week with an intoxicating evening of typography and beer, and as usual, it was a night filled with variety and a touch of the unexpected. Theo Inglis reports...

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Last Wednesday saw this year's final Grafik Letterform Live event, presented in partnership with our friends at Monotype and the ISTD, and hosted by Protein Studios. The audience witnessed five different speakers, each giving a varied and highly personal presentation, starting with a single typographic letterform of their choice and continuing onwards from there. Somewhat appropriately, given the festive time of year (and also the challenges of 2016…) our theme was “Beer”. Given the theme, things got weird, wobbly and a little bit raucous. As Angharad, editor of Grafik, pointed out in her introduction: “one thing I’ve learnt over the years of hosting events with Grafik, is that designers do love a beer.” Bottles in hand (kindly supplied by Monotype and the Five Points Brewing Company), the sold-out audience eagerly awaited our first speaker of the night.

Kicking us off was Stephen O’Neill, art director at London advertising agency AML, but also know as Typechap, the man behind a website showcasing “an ever growing collection of typography in beautiful disrepair, from the back streets of Andalucia to crumbly blue houses in Morocco, via murky olde London.” Stephen’s chosen letterform was a wobbly, angled slab serif capital A, hand painted in a washy green and red colour scheme. This letter, it was revealed, came from the word BAR, on the sign of a restaurant in Toledo, a medieval city in central Spain. With a Beer themed Letterform Live in mind, Stephen was paying extra attention to bar signs on his latest trip to Spain, and noticed that they all tended to go for “capitalised big chunky slab serifs.”

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This got Stephen thinking a little bit closer to home, of post-war British pub signs, with their “chunky and matter-of-fact slab serifs.” It turned out, following a bit of research, that he was mainly thinking of Watneys pubs. The brewer had been around since the 18th century, but after World War 2 they expanded rapidly and decided that their graphic identity needed an update. Cue Design Research Unit (DRU), the UK’s first multidisciplinary design agency working across architecture, product and graphic design, as Stephen pointed out “a rare thing today.” DRU retained the use of the barrel symbol which had existed since the 1930s, but they rationalised and modernised it. Milner Gray, head of graphics at DRU, introduced the “Egyptian” typeface English two-line antique to the brand, who used it extensively, especially on their pub signs as it was “big, beefy and shouty.”

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This style of slab serif letter had become popular during the 1951 Festival of Britain (DRU were also extensively involved in this). You can see it being used on the Royal Festival Hall’s external signage and in the work produced Abram Games for the festival. The graphic styling of the festival's logo, with its pointy two-colour star motifs, reappears in some of DRU’s work for Watneys, especially noticeable on the design of some colourful beermats which are “nice, clean and simple."

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Eventually, DRU stopped working with Watneys and the quality of their design deteriorated and stopped being so cutting-edge. The brewer gained a reputation for selling weak beer; eventually this culminated in Star Light, their “disco beer”, which was so light that it “could have been legally sold in the United States during Prohibition.” As the beer got worse, the Watneys pubs and their signage remained, during the post-war rebuilding boom many new housing estates and new towns required pubs built in a similar style. The “much maligned flat roof pub” was born, and although they do look nice in the original images, they have generally aged badly. The interiors looked pretty good too; Stephen reckoned that a London-based “late 60s Watneys-style pop up would go down a storm.”

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Sadly, many Watneys pubs ended up derelict, but often the signage survived. Partly as they had used a then-modern technique called “pressure formed plastic”. This big plastic slab serif style of sign “worked extremely well with geometric modern architecture”, they lasted well but tend to look pretty tatty these days; slightly broken or with missing letters, but Stephen is a big fan of this accidental typography. He even finds that cursive or script signage can look “good after a bit of wear 'n' tear” something which is much more common in Spain where “the bright sun and broken old signage and crumbly paint go great together.” A brief type safari in Finsbury Park lead Steven onto the subject of clip art, and the badly printed but beautiful paper serviettes you get in Southern Europe, which feature fun little bits of retro clip art. He ended his talk with the observation that we are “surrounded by these completely wonderful happy typographic accidents.”

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Up next was London based illustrator and designer Alec Doherty, best known as the label artist for Partizan Brewing and for adorning their beautiful beer bottles with his witty illustrations. Alec’s letterform of choice was a curious lowercase 'e', which it turned out was from the logo of the first beer he ever drank (aged 13 or 14, what a wild child!)—Heineken, which was procured by Alec and his friends from a crate in his dad's garage. This 'e' caught Alec’s eye when he revisited the logo, and he learnt that it is known as “the smiling e” because of the way it looks - its jaunty angle and openness. As Alec said: “it looks like it is having a laugh or a good time.” At this point, he produced a multipack of cans and gave them out to the audience before opening one for himself…

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In his research on the logo, Alec found that over time the smiling 'e' stays recognisable, but there are “subtle differences which really show the nuances of letterforms, and how they can be expressive and symbolic.” Although he had to admit that as a logo he didn’t really even like it that much. But thus began Alec’s hilarious exploration of the “smiling e through the ages”. One hundred years ago in the 1910’s, there was a revolution in Russia, the horrors of World War One happened and there was prohibition in America. As Alec put it, everyone was “a bit f***ing miserable”, he found the 'e' to be less smiley, sensing a bit of confusion in its expression.

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In the roaring Twenties things got better; “there were flappers, cocaine and everyone was obsessed with Egypt”, and likewise the smiling 'e' “got a lot happier and looks like it is saying phwoar.” Sadly, the 1930’s saw a global recession and the rise of fascism, which left the smiling e looking “a bit shocked.” Then in the Forties “everything was basically sh*t” and the 'e' looks scared, more open-mouthed than smiley. This might all seem a bit far-fetched, but Alec was pretty convincing and the pictures speak for themselves…

By the fifties there was the space race, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Rock & Roll, suddenly the smiling 'e' became more of a “smug git e.” In the Sixties things got weird with the Beatles, the Stones and dropping acid, the 'e' became jauntier again, with a Jimi Hendrix-esque big grin. Alec characterised the 1970’s as “sh*t but at least there was Star Wars” and the smiling 'e’s mouth became much wider, seemingly doing a Chewbacca-style roar. In the 1980’s things got weird once again, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the arrival of rave and ecstasy, but Alec didn’t have an 'e' for us from the eighties because Bez from the Happy Mondays had eaten it…He concluded by showing us a timeline of all the smiling e’s, pointing out that they are all “essentially the same but we notice different things in them.” Alec certainly noticed a lot of parallels!

Continuing the beer theme was our next speaker Miho Aishima. After more than a decade working for the likes of johnson banks, she founded her own studio, Aishima, to help entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes figure out their brands. Miho’s letterform of choice was a big sans serif capital B, in black. The B is from the Herb Lubalin and Tom Carnase designed font Avant Garde, which was originally designed around 1968 for a magazine masthead. But has since been used on a large range of global brands, including Adidas, Mobil and…Justin Beiber.

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Miho explained that she chose a bold sans serif after researching craft beer brands in London and discovering that “64 out of 83 London craft beer brands use sans serif type in their logos” so despite their independence they aren’t as “diverse as originally thought.” Miho finds these logos nice but “not intoxicating” as they don’t really represent anything about alcohol and its effects. One of which, Miho pointed out, is boosting creativity, but why don’t any fonts represent getting pissed? Thus the great beer experiment was born.

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This was Miho’s idea: discover the effects of beer by finding participants to trace the chosen letterform while sober, then have a drink and trace again, repeat this three times! Overall there were 30 participants and 84 drinks consumed, including six glasses of Prosecco and a bottle of mead, mainly because Miho was too pressed for time to be picky, “so any drink will do!” What were the results then, I hear you ask? Well…two people were disqualified, as they turned up to the experiment too drunk already! But apart from that, Miho found that a few drinks lead to looser lines, more funny ideas and more unrequested doodles around the edges. However, it was pointed out that to most Londoners “three half-pints of beer isn’t going to do much, maybe even three pints would have been too little.”

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Getting the next round in was Jim Sutherland. Jim co-founded Hat-trick Design, one of the most awarded design agencies in the UK, before leaving in 2014 to set up Studio Sutherl&. In 2014 he won a D&AD yellow pencil for the children’s book Hide&Eek. Jim began with the caveat that his talk now looked a “bit serious” in comparison to what had gone before. His choice of letterform was a big textured capital B which, he revealed, he had printed himself from wooden type at the workshop of his friend and colleague Kelvyn Smith, aka Mr. Smith—the letterpress printer.

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This B is for Beer, or Bar… or maybe even Barrel, which seems the most appropriate given they are both made of wood. Jim explained that the wood type B, which he had passed around the audience by this point, was probably made of box wood or cherry, and that he really liked to get away from the computer by going to see Mr Smith to make things by hand. Experiencing the joy of “finding beauty in the imperfections” and the tradition of printing on old machines. One of which has a rather nice foot pedal, which is appropriately in the shape of a capital G. Jim however is interested in the way that his friend Kelvyn uses traditional letterpress in a modern way, for instance in a print he did for the whisky brand Balvenie.

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One great use Jim found for letterpress was on a children’s book called Eormoo? which he designed with Kelvyn using only wood type. The book contains a series of rhymes about animals, all printed from woodblocks, who dream of being other animals. Jim’s chosen B was used for the word “BZzzzz!!!!”, said by a pig who wanted to be a bee. Something that Jim found while using letterpress was that he really needed to learn the finer details of typography to do it well. His education and work had previously been much more “ideas-y”, his tutors and bosses were of the generation who had no interest in the old-fashioned technology that they had just left behind. Luckily Mr Smith has a nice book collection where Jim could find lessons and inspiration.

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One thing that Jim noticed in these old type books was that “beer and drunkards” were common subject matter for theatre productions and posters. Often these were clearly the work of “printers rather than designers, you literally couldn’t get more fonts on them if you tried.” Some of these books from Mr Smith's collection even show beautiful letter-pressed price lists for pubs, far nicer than “the horrible laminated bits of card” we have today. But also so nice that they would “probably get nicked straight away nowadays.”

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Jim concluded his talk by being the second speaker of the night to talk about Egyptienne fonts, telling us the myth that they were called this because the serifs look a bit like pyramids. But Jim said “no they don’t”, and claimed this as a classic bit of post-rationalisation. But we were taken full circle back to our topic, as it was revealed that beer was actually first brewed in Egypt, and the slaves who built the pyramid were paid in beer.

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Ding-ding, last orders! Our final speaker of 2016 was David Law, who ten years ago co-founded SomeOne, recently voted the UK’s number one design agency. David began with a mysterious letterform, only recognised by one or two members of our audience. It turned out it appears on a beer label, and is the L or “las” from Mkhedruli, a modern secular Georgian alphabet which is caseless. Georgian scripts hold the national status of cultural heritage in Georgia, and are currently nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO's list of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Along with the Mediterranean Diet apparently.” This slide showing the letter by itself turned out to be the departure point for David’s talk, away from typography and off to somewhere else completely!

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David knows about Georgia and its scripts because of a trip he once went on there—“the weirdest weekend of my life.” Ten years ago he and Simon Manchipp were working for NoOne (their precursor to SomeOne), and one of their clients was Russia’s first low cost airline, which was owned by an Oligarch couple and had a young and inexperienced Marketing Team. They invited Simon and David to Russia for a special cultural weekend, and told them to bring sturdy boots. The first day involved lots of drinking, the second began early with large hangovers and a trip to the airport. They were being flown by an ex-military pilot, who took off at a steep 80 degrees, to Georgia. A country “surrounded by war torn Dagestan, Chechnya and South Ossetia”, David was nervous as well as hungover. It turned out that “the rumours about Russians and alcohol were true” many bottles of Stoli appeared on the plane despite the fact it was 8am. Luckily the pilot was the only person not drinking.

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They landed in the country's capital, Tbilisi, and from then onwards David’s story gets a little bit crazy… I’m not sure I can do it justice but I’ll just say it involved experimental theatre, Georgian wine, a restaurant with a river running through it, copious amounts of something called cheese pie, copious amounts of alcohol, a handgun on a toliet, a bulls horn full of wine, a tarragon flavoured fizzy drink and Simon Manchipp playing the lute…

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You would think, given the size of hangover this resulted in, that the the next day would be pretty chill? Think again! 8am sharp they were awoken, fed more cheese pie and taken in their sturdy walking boots to the mysterious Ghost Mountain, which it turned out they were going to climb. Half way up they had to hang off a giant ledge known as “Shouting Rock” and well, shout. Once they reached the top you would think they would have a rest. But at the top was the experimental theatre company from the previous night, except this time dressed in traditional battle gear and having an actual sword fight. Oh and this was being filmed by Georgian national TV. There was also a sheep, a pig and a cow roasting on spits, and more cheese pie of course!

After this…more theatre, this time a two-hour production of Hamlet in mime. Everyone got even more drunk, and some of the party got their handguns out and started throwing bottles in the air and shooting them. Then they eventually made their own way down the mountain again (no health and safety clearly). A pretty hectic night out all things considered, but it didn’t end there. Their 22-year old client Vasili wanted more, and let’s just say this involved something called Vodquila and being thrown out of the city's only strip club open at 4am. Despite all this, David and Simon managed to make the once-weekly flight back to Britain, which was full of gigantic oil-workers, and still had 4 mini vodkas each on the flight home. I’m surprised David managed to remember any of this, let alone mention any Georgian typography.

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As always we ended our night with a Q&A to our speakers with questions from the audience. It was a little rowdier than usual from both camps. A highlight being Alec shouting that “branding doesn’t exist anymore; it is bullsh*t.” It is fair to say not all the speakers agreed…One lucky question-asker won a big bag of Monotype goodies, then everyone retired to the bar to mingle over more drinks until Protein kicked us out.

Special thanks to all of our speakers and to Monotype and the ISTD for their ongoing support. The next Letterform Live event will be on the theme of ‘Vinyl’ on Wednesday 25th January.