DESIGNING THE ALPHABET
AS A TOOL OF BRAND EXPRESSION
IMAGE: GIRVIN for Bloomingdale’s | digitally-incised dimensional ornamental star alphabets in 12 languages
What about typography—
what it looks like, the form of language, visualized?
What about this lettered language—the threading of characters that makes the alphabet?
A word, well-drawn, or not—
how it looks, it influences the viewer?
Or do observers really care
Calligraphy is really “beautiful writing,” and we might suggest that beauty is designed in tandem with a beautifully-realized brand and its design strategies.
Of course, much of branding is reading—grasping the nature of the content, brand storytelling, mark and letterform rendering of the name as an interlacement of experience. The treatment of the alphabet could be the core way that a person sees the brand—type, color, supporting typographic systems, messaging—its voice—and imagery. Think of it—where is there a campaign, a brand system that has a recognizable brand language in typographic forms, distinctive and memorable?
What’s a well-managed system?
Perhaps merely in this phrasing below you can imagine what campaign this was—and, to your recollection: “how did it look?”
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones,
we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.
Part of that potency lies in message.
Part in holistic expression. And part of that integrative strategy is typography: visual message management.
But there is a spiritual absorption, there’s designed passion in the notion to “share the word,” in the place of their beginnings—that core principle of attitude—Ridley Scott’s “1984” for ChiatDay, to “Apple Apocalypse”. Ultimately the entire brand fell into the development of a terrifically disciplined—and chronologically sequenced brand typographic system—Apple Garamond, Gill Sans, and finally, San Francisco.
T H E N
in its beginnings, customized Garamond—typographical depth of applications, systemic and holistic integrations. And now—one font, everything San Francisco.
Interestingly, Apple Garamond is a bespoke, custom-designed font—first as a core font for ITC, designed by Tony Stans, then customized by Bitstream.
T H E M I D D L E Y E A R S
as a typographic system used in the PDA era, the Newtons and other emerging hardware systems, was designed by a master calligrapher, engraver, sculptor, fine printer, illustrator
and sign-maker: Eric Gill.
From another era—the 1930s.
HE too, a “think different” kind of guy.
Apple’s San Francisco—
a bespoke typographical system:
Perhaps there is another typographical system of brand distinctivity that you’d suggest. BMW, for example? A global, bespoke typographical system:
There’s a rhythm to the alphabet, drawing it, the forms can flow from one character to another, their structure is a writhing and lively DNA, it flows through. The story of their evolvement is a legacy of thousands of years, and the movement of the hand’s rhythm and the touch of the strokes on
stone, metal, vellums
The rhythm of the alphabet?
Comes to that: a “series of movements involving touch, rhythm, vitality and a knowledge of geometric planes of movement. Curves of the wisely drawn—whether crafted free-hand, or arced with stamped-traced radii and laser-cut spirals:
D R A W I N G O U T T H E L E T T E R S
It starts with the spirit of the drawing of the O.
Any alphabet will find its basis of scripting and form in the beginnings of the O—how that letter is drawn speaks to the vocabulary of its architecture—which, in itself, began like all scripts, first, a stone onwards to the building.
The next defining character will be the I.
It is the combination of these two letterforms—the O + I—that hold in their strokes the nature of how the alphabet is formed. The letters hold the strength of the curve, the detailing of the straight stroke and the structure of its “finish” will define more. Straight letterforms either hold the radiused closure—at head and foot of the stroke, the quality of the serif—softened, hardened, ruled, bracketed, incised or bulbous—these combinant details reflect that idea, for how the alphabet is made.
S T A R T U P S T O R Y
When I began, in the 70s, I really didn’t have any work—fresh from college—I wasn’t trained as a designer, or in graphic design, per se. So I began to fabricate a set of tools to build that opening effort: handmade books, hanging treatments, cards and papers, placards and hand-bound books of poetry.
It worked—but even back then, people had a hard time actually understanding what I “did.” It was specialized. And the idea of making things by hand wasn’t common among the graphic design community. I didn’t actually know a great deal about graphic design — I wasn’t formally trained.
In college, more of my studies were about the idea of history and art: the book, the building, the writing, civilization, literature. I was curious about the concept of how these intertwined. To this day, that notion is still something of continuing fascination.
In fact, the opening work was very simple, but luxuriously focused on luxury— which ranged from custom printed booklets and brochures, letterpress work, small packaging assignments, book design and book jackets, signing and installed lettering, and sign painting and wall treatments and framed calligraphy. I drew logos by hand, had them shot, film-copied and built into business communication plans, stationery, headline and lettering treatments, magazine work, shopping bags. That was the beginning.
This book—these images below—is one of those books that still exists from that time, my beginnings. Over time, many of the other books of calligraphy and drawings were sold. This was one of my selling tools, that I used, talking letterforms, for shopfronts, tattoos, motorcycles, trucks and boats.
A hand-drawn cover, and the specimen pages within, rendered on hand-made paper and hand bound.
1976. My beginning.
It was in this year that I took my Alphabet Odyssey—which went like this: London, Cambridge, Oxford, South Kensington, Paris, Frankfurt, Bad Goisern, Darmstadt, Moscow, Tallinn—it was a string of months, traveling, meeting up, staying-with, studying, talking to masters of the craft. Thoroughly-planned, researched, documented in advance, to each and every one of my encounters, notes, samples, dates, timing. But it was more to the craft of bespoke work—fonts and letterforms built by hand, cut to film, to steel, to glass and stone. It was a journey of design, for the alphabet in use for manuscripts, books, broadsides, stone and wooden signing, metalwork, glass work, floors and mosaics, walls and interiors—London>Tallinn.
I’ll skip some years—from the late seventies, to the early 80s—the idea of the alphabet, the very mystery of it, caught me in a continued and captivating spell. Far beyond the norm of real relevancy to project expectations, I’d create fonts simply for added applications. Working, early on, as a designer for Nordstrom advertising, I’d conceived the idea of building fonts into the design of multiple programs, that idea sent across the country to the attention of creative director John Jay, then the CD for Bloomingdale’s. The notion of wholly integrated campaigns was an innovation at that point – beginning with Nordstrom, then Bloomingdale’s, then Neiman’s, Bullocks, Dayton, Jordan Marsh, John Wanamaker’s and a string of others. This idea was about building fonts that could be used as headlines, advertising page initials, print applications and video for television.
That idea continued onwards and onwards — as art, to this day, the magic of the alphabet is a mysterious series of markings and symbols that continues to enchant and bewilder. I couldn’t hope to master it in a lifetime. I just keep at it—even to this day, building fonts for identity, like Viathon Bicycles: custom typographic systems and alphabet. And too: Omeros bespoke logo, bespoke font.
A G A L L E R Y
AND SOME STORIES
This is where this conversation recently resurfaced, in communicating with my client on this precise typographic system, as well as trying to explain the “use of film and typositor” as a headline-setting hardware.
This is a font that was created for the identity for Travel & Leisure, an American Express publication, working with acclaimed art director Bob Ciano
Above, the drawings; below, the typositor film:
Sometimes fonts are experimental, in building identity: this is a typeface study for a salon, which included signing and collateral, and to that end: an entire font was created.
For the design of a special retro font for the PanAmerican airline maiden travel experience aboard the PANAM “Clipper”
Below, a scripted font created for a light-projected floor signing treatment at Bloomingdale’s, under the direction of John C. Jay
A rough-drawn calligraphic alphabet for Nordstrom—catalogue headers for a catalogue we’d designed.
Disneyfont, designed for Disney Stores, for packaging,
signing and indoor merchandising.
A trial font built for Wall Data, a software emulation group, based in Seattle, working worldwide (then)
A script font for Nordstrom, based on an identity and packaging treatment for a national store-wide campaign
A steel pen script font, designed with rubrics and color knock out, for initials for Meredith Publications, magazine design group.
An alphabet for Douglas Trumbull, for the film Brainstorm
A series of font treatments for Tiffany & Co. — drawn first with a brushed tool, then redrawn, digitally re-built (the early days.)
A font created for Pennzoil, an annual report application:
A font drawn with a steel pen, cut and ribbed; this was for a Jamaican Travel promotion; we simply started with some letters, needed more and built out the font.
A font designed for the Oregon School of Arts & Crafts, drawn on Japanese washi with a radiator brush, then baked in porcelain enamel and applied to installed building signing (for each of the schools) and business materials.
The signing was ultimately all stolen.
The Nordstrom Brand font, customized after we created the design system for the Nordstrom family. We designed this systemically for all store use: print, signing and packaging.
An alphabet originally designed for Sharon Stone, for her company, Chaos; and applied to her film: Sliver.
A font drawn for the Horvitz family, a series of Trusts and Foundations, in the name of the estate.
Another celebrative font designed for Bloomingdale’s, for
Fête De France, a fortnight event originated by Marvin Traub, former CEO of the store group, art-directed by John C. Jay.
A typeface designed for Massimo Vignelli and Michael Bierut, for a building property in NYC—monoline bespoke:
There are more.
Most of these fonts are pre-digital, though some—like Tiffany & Co., there were early experiments in carrying it across the line from analog stroke to pixelated visualization.
Here are some examples of our
collaborations for clients around the world:
We now have a string of keystrokable fonts that we’ve built—nearly all of them are for private GIRVIN projects.
The character of the alphabet, the strokes and geometry of the language of the mind—now touched in the stroking of the finger tip, then to the other visuals: the weft and heft of form which builds out that curving and linear language of design.
Stroke on stroke, there’s still nothing to the power of a handwritten note in the warmth of the palm, the fingertips, the turning wrist.
Beauty emerges in touch—drawn with the digital pen, or drafted with an ebony stick of ink.
tim | girvin, inc. | oseanstudios
Tim on beautiful type design