A Brand for London

A perspective on London’s type from Bruno Maag

Posted in Thoughts by Moving Brands on September 21, 2009

We asked friend of Moving Brands, Bruno Maag to give us his opinion about type in London. Bruno is the founder of London-based type foundry Dalton Maag, and has worked with Moving Brands on a number of projects over the years.

Moving Brands: Should we carry on using Johnston / Gill Sans, or have they had their day?

Bruno Maag: I think we need to be clear what Johnston stands for – London Transport. It’s interesting to see how much London as a place identifies itself with the ubiquitous London Transport logo. Or maybe it just evolved that way. However, they are two different things and it’s time for London (place) to move forward and create its own identity. Using Johnston is clearly not going to do that, and neither is Gill being a relative, albeit distant.

Of course Gill Sans is a classic and will stick around for the time being. It has a strong personality that can be very imposing and hence has to be carefully employed.

I think neither typeface will answer the call for a strong independent London identity.

MB: Can a new typeface, developed for use on screen, in print and on signage, be developed referencing Johnston, but also looking to the future? Or should we start from scratch for the 21st century?

BM: Why reference Johnston at all. That is not necessary, for the reasons given above. Also, a new typeface needs to be designed to cater for the different types of media, and a much more diverse audience than was the case in 1917 when Johnston was introduced.

A new London identity needs to look into the future. This is not some consumer brand that will refresh in five to ten year’s time but an identity of people that will grow and establish itself. By the time it has really settled into place I am going to be retired! Hence, this identity needs to be developed with today’s teenagers in mind, or even with their teenage kids in mind. That instantly focusses us on researching and predicting how future generations will read, and what letterforms they will read.

MB: As a type designer living and working in London, how does the city affect your work?

BM: There is so much visual input it is quite difficult to absorb it all. I am keeping my eyes open and I am trying to absorb it all. Interestingly enough, it is the poor quality typography that sticks in my mind the longest. But it is often from this that we draw inspiration. We are also privileged to live in London for our non-Latin work. There are communities whose primary script is not Latin. This I find hugely fascinating.

MB: Are there any typefaces you’ve developed which are inherently ‘London’?

BM: I guess the closest we come to that are our King’s Caslon and Effra, both based on designs by the Caslon foundry. But I wouldn’t call them inherently ‘London’. They were designed with a broad user base in mind, and are of course of their time – King’s Calson a transitional serif, with Effra being a 19th Cent. sans. But yes, there is something English about them, I guess. They could never be Swiss, never.

MB: Does London need a bespoke typeface, or can an existing typeface do the job?

BM: Of course, an existing typeface would do the job, probably quite well, too, for the immediate future, anyway. But that’s not the point, is it? London is the creative center of the world and as such we have an opportunity, maybe even a responsibility, to push forward, to evolve new visual and typographical languages. As designers our ideas always move along the same established design practises, largely because clients are too afraid of change, and are too afraid of sicking their necks out. Mabye designers need to collaborate with artists who are less influenced by commercial concerns than we are as designers. Such collaborations potentially yield synergies that we would not have explored if we were on our own.

These are exciting times we are in. The way people communicate is changing dramatically. Paper and print based media, although still prominent, is becoming less important. Technology is becoming more adept at having the spontaneous functionality of paper and pen; increasingly the legal system is catching up with technology and societal changes. Eventually, the vast majority of communication will be done via technical devices and reading habits will have changed.

Not only ought we work with artists but I would also like to involve behavioural scientists, neurologists, technologists etc. I would love to see London brave enough to open this new identity up to a new way of thinking rather than just making it pretty. That will inform what London looks like, how it reads, how it feels. I can’t guarantee, however, that it will be better than what we have now. I would rather regret something I have done than something I haven’t done.

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2 Responses

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  1. Jon said, on September 22, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    Are you talking about a typeface for body text or for display/ornamental/headline type? Could, or should, one typeface be chosen, or designed, for all contexts and all media?

    I’m working on a typeface design for the London branding which could only really be used for headlines of 1, 2, 3 or 4 words at most. But it’s shaping up to look like it could work with almost any style of body text.

    • Bruno said, on September 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

      London requires a typeface family that works in all contexts and media. That may entail to have essentially two different designs for display and text. I think, however, that they need to be related to carry the London identity.

      You mention your work on a typeface. I would suggest that a London type needs to be able to communicate more than three or four words or else London becomes a product like a chocolate bar, and the typeface is outdated within a couple of years.

      Again, London needs an identity, not a brand, that unifies the facets of this great metropolitan. For this reason we need to look at longevity in a typeface. Yes, I appreciate that London and its people change daily. That can be visualised with other graphic material. The typeface, however, should provide a constant, the foundation on which everything is built.

      Again, I want to re-iterate that I am in favour of creating something conceptually new. But it has to be conceptually new, not just a different type style or else it’s simply cosmetic.


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