Looking Back On TYPO London 2011 “Places”
Just over a week ago TYPO London took place in Logan Hall and Jeffery Hall at the Institute of Education, University of London, UK. Now that the dust has settled and most reports have been published, maybe it is time to assess the sister conference of the popular TYPO Berlin. If you want to read more detailed overviews of the talks at the conference, here are my posts of Day One and Day Two on the TYPO London blog. Day Three is in the making.
Let’s start off straight away by saying that – judging from the reactions on Twitter and the reviews in blogs – the inaugural edition of TYPO London was a huge success. I couldn’t keep track of the number of times I saw “I wish I was there” or “If only I had bought a ticket” or something to that effect on Twitter, and attendees kept saying how inspired they were by the three days of presentations. As I have regularly attended TYPO Berlin both as a speaker and as a visitor I have a frame of reference to help me assess the London leg of TYPO. I want to break down this review in two parts: the organisation and the speakers.
To be completely honest I do believe that TYPO London being organised by the Berlin crew was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because the TYPO Berlin organisation is an incredibly well-oiled machine. Everybody agreed that the conference ran very smoothly, and time and again the facilitators marvelled at how punctual the program ran, each presentation following the previous one without skipping a beat. Benno and his team ensured the three days were very enjoyable for the attendees and the speakers, who were efficiently supported both on and off stage. This made for some surreal situations though, because backstage I heard as much German being spoken as English. The only tiny criticism I have, and which applies to TYPO Berlin as well, is that ending the last presentation at nine is a tad late if you then still need to go find a place for dinner.
A curse, because to me it seemed that – due to its popularity in Berlin – the organisation may have forgotten a little how much work it is to start up a new conference. The Berlin edition can fall back on the success it was built over sixteen years and gets by with comparatively less promotion (it’s still a lot). TYPO London however should truly have been considered an inaugural edition and advertised accordingly in as many print and online publications as well as art schools and trade organisations as possible. Unfortunately it was less well attended than it should have been, and I had the impression there were not enough “locals” in the attendance. I hope the rave reviews and unanimously positive comments generate the word-of-mouth necessary to help it gain enough momentum, making TYPO London every bit as successful as its Berlin sister. It definitely deserves to be.
A minor detail was that TYPO London seemed to be plagued by an identity crisis. If even some of the speakers start their presentation apologising that they don’t know that much about typography and are not going to be talking about fonts, you have a problem of perception. Of course it all has to do with the name. Although the main focus of TYPO originally was type and typography, over its sixteen years’ history it evolved into this sprawling conference which touches upon a variety of design-related subjects. People attending TYPO Berlin know that, yet apparently many visitors of the London conference didn’t, and this occasionally created some confusion.
As usual TYPO managed to bring together an impressive and eclectic line-up, ranging from conceptual artists like Lawrence Weiner and Jonathan Ellery to UX and tech wizards like Dale Herigstad and Jeff Faulkner. The range of topics was accordingly diverse, from portfolio presentations to concept-rich talks. This made for a very informative and inspiring three days. The strength of TYPO conferences is that you are not only exposed to new or previously unknown topics, but also to entirely new disciplines which can laterally influence how you work and think. With only two tracks to choose from on the second and third day the dilemmas were limited to a manageable amount. Neat detail – on Saturday facilitator Erik Spiekermann was proud to announce that the main stage in Logan Hall had an equal representation of men and women. Talking about the facilitators – I was already familiar with Simone Wolf’s style from TYPO Berlin, but found Lynda Relph-Knight and Adrian Shaughnessy who were new to me absolutely terrific.
I mainly stuck to the main track in Logan Hall throughout the three days, with only two escapades to the Type Day track in Jeffery Hall on Saturday. The overall quality of the talks was very high, and the presentation style pleasantly varied. A couple of topics and concepts kept bubbling up in the various presentations – the importance of the narrative in design and beyond; the distinction between data and information; how advancements in user experience and interface shape our relationship with technology; and how the next generations of designers and users will deal with these concepts.
There were some stand-out speakers, and the die-hard feminist in me was quite happy that most of them were women. In Telling the Right Story Nat Hunter presented high-concept, witty and socially-conscious work that surprised and enchanted. Marina Willer’s refreshing approach to branding as a platform in Branding and Spaces showed whole new avenues and possibilities. But it was Morag Myerscough’s Belonging, a fast-paced, exhilarating journey through her colourful and typographically adventurous work that completely blew me away.
Alas the two least interesting talks were also by women, so I guess that balances it out. Susana Rodríguez de Tembleque’s frustrating (and very short) Design: The Art of Creating an Experience was all style, little substance, as she barely shared any information on the concepts and process involved in the development of the Think – An Exploration into Making the World Work Better exhibition. And if Pamela Mead would have had the courage to weed out all the promo talk and marketing speak for her employer Telefonica, instead expanding on the general ideas and underlying concepts, it may have turned her presentation The Magic Number into something of more interest for the audience.
Good programming is amongst others how you bookend your days of presentations. TYPO kicked off in style with Dale Herigstad immersing the audience in the wondrous world of Media Space: Where is what? What is where? The first day ended on a high note with Michael Bierut. With the comedic timing of a seasoned stand-up comedian he made The Only Important Decision both entertaining and relevant, with a nice focus on typography.
Scheduling Michael B. Johnson, PhD to go first on the second day guaranteed everyone would get out of bed in time to attend Making Movies is Hard Fun: Building Tools for Telling Stories. Seeing the R&D lead of the Moving Pictures Group at Pixar Animation Studios speak at a graphic design conference is a rare opportunity. Closing off the second day with Neville Brody – whose fame can be measured by the fact that even cab drivers know who he is – in his native London was a no-brainer. The maverick British designer delivered, mixing provocative ideas, sharp political commentary and arresting visuals in his talk.
The apotheosis on Saturday evening was “What are you doing here?” by Chip Kidd. Using his customary flamboyant style and flawless comic timing – the American speakers seemed to have a way with that – the “Queen of Book Design” (dixit Erik Spiekermann) pulled out all the stops, captivating the audience with outrageous stories, sharing his experiences in book cover design and giving an advance peek at his upcoming Batman: Death By Design graphic novel.
It is always interesting when speakers touch upon similar subjects but from different viewpoints. For example Jonathan Ellery’s The Here and The Now and key conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner examined the distinction between art and graphic design. To be honest – about halfway Ellery’s presentation I started to wonder if his work is genuine art or art bollocks. But even if it is the latter, it sure is interesting bollocks.
Similarly Tony Brook’s personable and heartfelt Bred in the bone, and Jonathan Barnbrook’s fascinating presentation of Virus both explained how their geographical and genetic provenance informed their work. Jonathan Barnbrook intelligently incorporated socio-political, historic, linguistic and personal references, and ended on a moving note with thoughtful proposals for new murals in Belfast.
Equally political was Nadine Chahine who made an impassionate and convincing case for getting rid of prejudices against the Arab identity in Engaging with the Middle East. The second part of her presentation focused on her Arabic type designs, just like the second part of BBC’s Global Experience Language in 27 languages and 9 scripts on Titus Nemeth’s Nassim. In the first part of this eye-opening talk Kutlu Çanlıoğlu revealed strategies for finding the right balance between remaining authentic to who you are and being locally relevant.
A number of presentations managed to both show beautiful work and shed light on the concepts and processes behind them. The mind-blowing Art+Com projects showcased by Joachim Sauter in Renaissance of Space were perfect marriages of design and art in space. Tim Fendley’s wayfinding solutions for Legible London were so logical and wonderfully conceived they seemed self-evident. For We Built This City… Gary Hustwit highlighted some delightful examples of DIY urbanism taken from his feature-length documentary Urbanized. Dan Rhatigan proved with How I learned to stop worrying and love bad type that “bad type” also has its value and can teach us things. Although Tom Uglow showed a ton of entertaining content, The Art of Post-Digital could have benefited from a little more depth.
Definitely the most moving, and one of the most inspiring presentations was The King is Customer. It recounted the personal history of Togbui Ngoryifia Kosi Olatidoye Céphas Bansah, King of Hohoe Ghana, and how graphic designer Julian Zimmerman met him and developed a graphic identity worthy of his royal status as part of his work on a bachelor’s of communication design at Mannheim College. The presentation garnered rapturous applause, and many visitors shed an emotional tear.
TYPO London 2011 “Places” may have been the first edition of a new conference series, but with regards to content and speakers it was outright impressive, up there with the best of the Berlin editions. See you all in 2012.
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