The Daily Heller: Is There an Art of Letters?

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Kris Sowersby: The Art of Letters (Formist Editions) is an 800-page book that examines the type designer's letter drawing practice while considering the characters as independent works of art. "It champions the absurd beauty involved in creating multiple expressions of predetermined alphabets through nuance and theory," says publisher Mark Gowing, who adds, "While a typeface is a well-considered set of many elements, if one removes the context of language systems and alphabets, each character may be viewed as a singular abstract drawing, as art in its own right. As presented in this book, it allows us to re-see, or to see for the first time, their individual form and function."

There is a simple unconventional beauty to this unique way of showing individual letters on a grand scale. For New Zealand native Sowersby, the proprietor of Klim Type Foundry, letters are made for commerce but conceived for a swell of motives. I asked Sowersby and Gowing to talk more about the role of type and the place of the book in contemporary typographic arts.

What inspired you to create what I view as a type-art book?

Gowing: I think a type-art book is the perfect description. I am personally very interested in the blurry line between art and design and how these practices can be compared. Despite the obvious technical requirements, I find type design to be an incredibly artistic pursuit and I think it is very interesting to discuss it in this context. This book came about because Dave Foster and I theorised Kris Sowersby’s vast output to be a perfect example of the design/art comparison.

Would you agree that your result is the beauty of art or precision of craft?

Gowing: I guess it’s both. Some of the characters in the book are simply beautiful letters, while others read as more abstract forms that require careful consideration without their usual typographic context.

Mark, you ask in the first sentence of your beautifully typeset introduction: "When is a typeface not a typeface?" Is that a riddle? Or a direction that type is headed?

Gowing: I like to think it’s where type is headed, although in the context of this book it is intended as a riddle. The book presents characters such as commas, apostrophes and full-stops at large scale and out of context with their usual mechanics. Sometimes these glyphs seem to lose their original meanings and instead look like simple shapes or abstract forms. The same thing happens with many common letterforms as well. This was a large part of my ambition when conceiving of the book—these forms we know so well get recontextualized so they might be reinterpreted by the reader.

Should I as a type consumer be more interested in the meaning of the text or the look of the text? Or is it one and the same?

Gowing: That’s the big question, isn’t it! I believe that we can have both. As a designer I am a big believer in the tone of a work. I think tone can carry a message or a meaning. So with this in mind, the best outcome is when the look of the text is the meaning.

Each of the letterforms stand on their own as sculptural forms. Should type be considered the new sculpture?

Sowersby: No, I don’t think so. Lots of things are ‘sculpted’ in the process of their making, but they’re not necessarily ‘sculpture.’ I’m wary of terminology-drift from one thing to another, like people all of a sudden ‘curating’ their ‘archives’—aka taking photos of their stuff. Type isn’t the new anything, I’m afraid, it’s just the same old type!

Gowing: No. Much like Kris, I think type is just good old type—nothing has changed. But I think we need to alter the cultural lens that both designers and readers use to view type.

Can something look like type and not be considered a letterform?

Sowersby: This seems like an excellent seed question for rigorous philosophical analysis. What’s the opposite—can something be a letterform and not look like type? I think perhaps that letterforms and type are too tightly interwoven that they cannot be separated; you can’t have one without the other.

Gowing: Philosophical analysis, indeed! I personally make a lot of type that most people wouldn’t consider to be letterforms. So, yes, in a way. I don’t think we should limit ourselves with any hard and fast rules. I often prefer to be conceptual about type design and let the results be led by the process. There is no growth without experimentation.

Why do each of you suspect that there is such a prodigious quantity of books on type today?

Sowersby: I’m not sure that there is any more than 10 or 20 years ago? If there is, it would be in line with the increase of publishing across all genres. I assume it’s because the traditional closed routes to publishing are opening up, access to funding and production are easier to access. Mark is a new publisher, I’m sure he has more insights!

Gowing: Type is at the core of what most designers do, and at the core of human interaction. So if a designer is going to make a book, type is often up at the top of their list. On a more cynical note, designers buy books about type, so publishers know there is an interested audience.

Your book and Kris' faces have an experiential quality. Has functional type become more experiential?Gowing: Personally, I think functional type needs to be understood as more experiential than most contemporary design allows. I’m all for a neutral typesetting, but I belie
ve type often needs to express its content and provide the reader with tone and context. I think type designers are slowly becoming more invested in conceptual outcomes. This is nothing new of course, but I think it is becoming more prevalent, and hopefully we will see more and more typefaces that express values around social and cultural issues.

Are there new ways of perceiving the Roman letter or Western alphabet that challenge conventional approaches? Or, simpler: Are readers becoming more accustomed to reading and/or deciphering alternative "styles"?

Sowersby: I don't think modern readers are more accustomed to reading new styles than any other time in history. The human perceptual/visual processing is as sophisticated as it's ever been. Just look at the wide variety of scripts across the world and through time. There's some pretty wild and diverse shapes!

I am truly interested in how unconventional type designers, of which Kris is one, address the notions of what is convention in the digital era?

Gowing: I am only interested in convention as something I might choose to ignore.