The Daily Heller: Mystical Monograms & Alphabetical Magic

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Over the years The Daily Heller has pleasurably showcased many designers, artists, writers, makers and thinkers who are talented, skilled, exotic, quixotic, eccentric and thoughtful. However, I have never relinquished this authorial space to anyone else … until now. Tim Girvin is a maestro of calligraphy and lettering design, an expert with the brush and pen, a master of the elegant word. This essay was sent to me for my enjoyment and edification, and at the risk of being pedantic (my spiritual enlightenment quotient is on the low end, in any case), I learned more from Girvin’s marriage of text and image about expression and symbolism—what he calls “Alphabetic Magic”—here than, perhaps, in any other source. So I’ve decided to share it with you—his lyrical language intact, unexpurgated, barely edited.


A guest column by Tim Girvin

In the journey of brand design and identity, there is the high road, the first summit, the easier vista—the outreach of an accessible view and foundational story: “It’s beautiful, so this must be a beautiful brand.”

And then there are the deeper intentions, and robust layerings of story, which speak to the meaning of the curves, the symbolism of their movements—the characterizations of their crossing gestures and interlacements

As in this work for our luxury lingerie client OhBaby, a compelling retail and online dive into remarkable garment craft, extraordinary materials and lovingly constructed underclothing—hidden, but fabulously luxurious to wear and feel.

Our monogram was an evocation of statement—an exclamation, joyful and sensual—and the monogrammatic character distinctly registers a statement: lush curvaceousness, interplay and intermingling of forms as a lustration, a shining of the precepts of the brand, an epiphanic surprise and salutation to community.

Which, in this instance, speaks to a brand—only of luxury lingerie—where interlacement, precisely delicate garment construction, the celebration of curvaceous physicality and luxurious allure, both for the wearer and any of the other participants.

You could consider that in the nature of a compression of the identity into the form of a monogrammed device, it becomes an illustration of the principles of the brand, intermingling beauty, delicacy—which, too, could have added details and layering in other contexts. So, for this brand, we chose an added customized illustrative detail to be used in a layered construct, a single letter from the folio of Georg Schwandner, a mid–18th century calligrapher, as in this distressed rendering:

In the history of design and mark-making, there is a legacy of magic. Most alphabets come from mysterious origins. Surely, they might be early representations of understood objects, as they were prefigurative intimations of a house, an ox, an arrow, or …

But, too, they were marks of meaning, and in that, marks are transformative. As alphabets evolved, they came to represent coded, phonic elements. That is, a collective evolution of inbound symbology, layering of meaning, and tiers of evolution as the letters form to become words that then have even further concatenations of meaning and context.

As anyone in the brand space knows, a mark suggests a movement from one known point of visual recognizance to another: Make a mark and a plane of visual understanding is transformed; it was no thing and then it was something.

Tom Ford | Madison Avenue | NYC

Think of it this way: You have a blank piece of paper. As you look at it, it’s a white, formless plane. Then, you make a mark on it. And abruptly, that is changed—now there is, literally, a point, or a line, of reference—it now has a planar definition.

As a designer with a long history in the use of the alphabet as an illustrative tool, I think about the alphabet as a kind of singular representational expression. People read first.

They see a word, or the mark of a letter, as a mnemonic reference to a brand. I see them as sigils, marks that tell a story. Sigil presumes a magical character—given its history and use. As etymologist Phil Harper notes, the sigil is “a sign, mark, or seal,” mid–15th century, from Late Latin sigillum, from Latin sigilla (neuter plural), “statuettes, little images, seal,” diminutive of signum, “identifying mark, sign.”

In a way, the intermixture of the letters and their intertwining forms an amalgam of meaning, interplaying the initial character of words as a holistic construct—which, by initials, becomes a point of reference as to their meaning.

Alphabet as a mysterious entity—there is compressive power in anything that old.

From Wikipedia’s reference on the Greek alphabet, see “Black figure vessel with double alphabet inscription, showing new letters ΥΧ[Φ]Ψ, and ΥΧΦΨΩ.”

And bearing in mind that the origin of the Greek alphabet is seeded in the structure of the Phoenician letterform foundations, 9th–8th centuries BCE. With the Hellenization of the Romans, there was a crossover of Greek characters to the Imperial civilization of Italy, coupled with their Etruscan originations. The Greeks regarded their alphabet as a mystical and occult entity, laden with hidden meanings—and as a divinatory device.

That written magical extends globally and as an intercultural expression: Japanese character magic, and the Japanese kanji for “divination.”

That would be the same with Chinese, [四柱八字]

GIRVIN’s Sanskrit magical mantras for client HUM …

As well as Tibetan magical letter designs …

Thai mystical alphabetic formulae …

And the Arabic abjad, as well as the …


And even ancient Aramaic alphabetic demon traps …

As well as Mesopotamian incantation texts.

Everyone knows that “occult” really means “hidden.” The simple examination suggests that, as designers, there is that which is on the surface, and there is that which lies beneath.

In that, one might surmise that any alphabetic and cultic [as in the aforementioned various writing-based divination or talismanic-related acts with writing] interpretation of the occult would be nothing more than the quest for the hidden.

I probably live there, in more ways than one.

In one manner, the journey of GIRVIN, and Tim Girvin, has been about the quest for those further points of meaning and insight, and as yet unexplored territory as a realm of mystery, yet as much a realm of a place of newness; it is the land of curiosity—and the wowness of the newly seen scene in spectacle. As motion-picture titling designers, that is what we look for: journey, story, wowness.

And in the second, since I was a child, the nature of mystery and the mystical has sparked my mind—and to that, my team—toward the deeper mystery that the work we all do is part of that journey of discovering.

Which is an uncovering—as in finding what’s hidden.

Brand work is inherently about finding the truth, the statement of authentes,
the heart of the brand, its narrative and the team that built it, their visioning of their enterprise premise, the stance of posture, and positioning of a market strategy.

Find the truth, bring forth that which is hidden.

And, as we all know, to discover is literally to take the lid off, to remove the cover. In the quest for the soul of the brand, the reaching-in—the deep—shall reveal what will happen as an uncovering; and what lies there is the truth.

Truth lives in the dark, as well as the light.

In contemplating the making of marks, the design of monograms and devices, in that badge vibrates with the psyche of a brand, it becomes something more than just design thinking.

More difficult—as a challenge, it’s an emotional capture—it’s a shining, a set of strokes
that come from mind and human hand, that run deep in the psychical place of emotional context.

Feeling is movement—e-motion isn’t constructed of engineered stillness; it’s alive to align the humanness the ability to illustrate, which is—in itself—a kind of light-bearing, a shining, a lustration.

As a designer, as a brand strategist, that’s where you go—leaning in closely, looking deeper toward a better listening, to contemplate, and to study scenarios broadly.

You investigate, ponder systemic meaning, into brandcode® and brand genetics diversified in the link from mind to hand. And you draw it out.

But what does that drawing mean? The art of drawing?

Literally, to draw it out—to capture that electricity of imagining. That’s what you draw upon.

And that, in the interpretation of others that have come and gone before, is M A G I C.

It’s portal-making; it’s transformational; and it’s trans-sensate.

That is the sign, the sigil, the signal, the signature.

We’ve talked long about the meaning of this string of words.

Each makes one, but what do they know of it, the language of the signature?
Your sign[ing], your own signature is your sigil, a marking with meaning—
from the gripped ferrule on the sign-writer’s brush, to the cut runic sorcerer’s icons,

to the strategically empowered corporate identity, thoughtfully rendered customer-pleasing packaging, compelling retail journeys and unforgettable brand-related experiences—it all comes back to that one thing.

The mark, the letter, the words arrayed—meaning is inherent, constructed in the sign and those who sign it.

Who they are, what they stand for, what they are. And in that transitioning state: what they shall be.

The Vegvisir, Icelandic guidance sigil

Tim | Founder + Chief Creative Officer | GIRVIN + Osean

The Strategy of Holism | Retail Experience Design
TouchPoints, Storytelling and Guest Engagement

Posted inThe Daily Heller