Paul McNeil and Hamish Muir founded the London-based MuirMcNeil to explore the application of systematic and algorithmic methods in type design, graphic design and moving image. You may know them for the unprecedented run of 8,000 unique covers they designed for Eye magazine in 2017. They have just produced a book of typographic wizardry, System Process Form (Unit Editions/Volume Editions), a robust survey of their Two Type System, “an extensive collection of geometric alphabets in which every stroke, shape, letterform and word is designed to correspond and collaborate in close harmony.”
Not a catalogue of type specimens, McNeil says this book “is a powerful demonstration of the beauty of analytical approaches to form-giving for visual communication, one that embraces both micro and macro views, and one whose end results can be as spectacular as they are unexpected.” To prove his point there are hundreds of images printed in three neon inks and metallic black throughout. System Process Form is published by Unit Editions and available on the Volume Editions website. I asked McNeil explain the technology and aesthetics of this truly seductive typographic system.
MuirMcNeil is recognized as on the cutting edge of 21st-century typographic design variation and transformation. Static or status quo does not appear to be in your vocabulary. How did System Process Form develop?
Our collaboration as MuirMcNeil began over 10 years ago with no intention of operating at any cutting edge, but to develop a shared position on making. Having both had long experience as designers, with very different backgrounds, Hamish Muir and I realized that we were both interested in the central function of form-giving to the role of the designer. That may sound obvious, but to us this seemed more pivotal and less conditional than other issues such as its social and commercial functions or consequences.
A couple of years ago, we started to develop a retrospective publication about our work together that would be unified by an overview of our approach (I hesitate to call it a philosophy). We soon realized that we far prefer looking forward rather than backward, so instead decided to focus solely on new work with a single point of focus built from the Two Type System, a collection of fonts that has been expanding consistently since we first designed it for various brand identity projects in 2015–2016. This is intended to allow us to say what we want to say, or at least to show what we want to show.
There appears to be a movement in variable type systems. Would you agree?
Type families have become progressively more systematized since the advent of digital fonts in the late ’80s, and variable font technology is very much of the moment. However, it’s notable that although variable fonts have been hugely hyped by type makers and merchants and are undoubtedly compact and economical in application, the technology is not something that end users are ever going to be desperate for. Many variable font technologies offer an almost infinite choice of styles and weights, when what’s needed by most end users are straightforward solutions that they know they can rely upon.
That said, iteration, variation and permutation have always been crucial features of design processes. These are among the tools we work with.
Not that this concept is brand new, but it is arguably becoming identified with the 21st-century digital age. How, if at all, do you avoid the time-bound quality result of the system?
Certainly, systems thinking and design thinking became significant concepts a few years ago as a way of integrating design methods into wider commercial, social, political and economic activities. We aren’t particularly compelled by those ideas and are not even sure whether they survive in our straitened times. What interests us is to explore design processes and actions in systemic, systematic ways.
In essence this takes on an analytical/propositional direction—something akin to a scientific method. By trying to focus accurately on our decisions, methods, intentions, judgements and so on, the aim is to transcend the local, short-term limits of attempting one-off solutions to one-off problems. Instead we try to dig down to the root or point of origin and to allow outputs to grow spontaneously and autonomously from there. Using both algorithms, choices and chances, we build expansive design spaces and then try to map them by leaving a visual trace of everything we find there—or of all the good things. This liberates us from the heavy burden of having to be “creative” or having to constantly invent new things, and leaves us open to new, unpredicted, exciting discoveries.
This tendency is nothing new, cutting edge, or time-bound to today—it’s visible in a large proportion of graphic design work, both historic and contemporary. Take brand identity design, for example: Karl Gerstner’s work is seminal, and in more recent times, projects by Martin Lorenz or Mike Abbink at IBM, although very different, are entirely systematic.
What do you feel is the most innovative quality (or more) of your typographic system?
While we aren’t deliberately seeking innovation so much as questions and answers, for us the qualities that we’d like people to experience firsthand are best summed up by three quotes:
First, Dimitri Bruni and Manuel Krebs of Norm:
“We are not concerned with what is not visible.”
Second, Georges Perec:
“There are two ways of getting water. You can go to the spring and bring it back in buckets or you can lay down pipework and pumps to make it play before your eyes. It’s the same water either way.”
“… whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
The abstract qualities of these variations are pleasing to the eye, and at the same time trigger some pleasant reaction in the brain. What is it? And what are you wanting to achieve?
What we love about type and typography is that words are things (to reluctantly paraphrase Eric Gill). Letters are, at exactly the same time and in exactly the same space, vehicles for language, images with a plethora of associations, and purely abstract marks. In almost all of our projects, we have sought to stretch or blur the boundaries of these distinctive features, particularly in the Two System. At its basic level, it’s a very simple, raw, monospaced font, but when partially dismantled and superimposed in multiple layers, it straddles a knife edge between word, image and shape. The addition of color, naturally, enhances everything, a beautiful bonus.
Am I seeing spots, or is there a predominance of colorful dots emerging from this system? What is that appeal? It certainly appeals to me.
We use a lot of dots, but lines and planes are there in equal measure. Dots are expressions of grids and networks. In a digital environment everything can be said to be formed of millions dots organized into mass clusters in order to simulate other things.
Abstraction was subtle in type design, but as you’ve shown in System Process Form, it is an active ingredient. What has triggered this embrace of abstraction and geometry?
We are fascinated by the tipping point between language and form, reading and seeing, legibility and abstraction, semantics and asemics. The Two Project is rooted in that ground.
Do you have an aesthetic or practical goal with this book? If so, can you explain whether or not it is formal or technological or … ?
We work programmatically but we put ourselves physically at the mercy of the algorithm, working consciously with a combination of mathematical processes, random opportunities and collisions, and old-fashioned intuition, skill or prescience. Our code is organic and visceral.
Do you believe this approach has a shelf life or is open-ended?
We’d like to think that it’s constantly evolving, and we hope that our methods will resonate with other designers.