To say it has been an unprecedented year is the greatest understatement. This last year was "our war". With as great a set of intrusions into, and obstacles in front of our lives, but with far fewer casualties than the last actual affecting-all-society war. (Although Imperial College's prediction in March of 2020 was for a death toll equal to WWII.)
We all have our memories of this remarkable moment, all of which once this time is history, we will not believe could have been possible. Deathly quiet streets. Clear skies without con trails. Raucous bird song. Unkempt hair. Days wearing only pyjamas. The hunt for food. The obsession with toilet paper. The worry we might never see friends and distant family ever again. The fear that police would search shopping bags, and discover your forbidden easter eggs. (Chocolate for children considered "inessential", just as schooling was.)
One memory I will have is the PPE. Not just the huge hassle of wearing it - the mask that slides about, the steaming-up glasses, trying to quickly don it whilst simultaneously fishing for Oyster card, the dismay realising you left it in another coat - but the amazing amount of it discarded in the street.
BC (Before Covid) I bought my daughter a collapsible metal straw, we were getting accustomed to carrying spoons for use in cafés, my pockets filled with several foldable bags, such was the growing condemnation of "one use" plastic. But AC (After Covid) the oceans were forgotten, and "one use" plastic can be seen everywhere. Most oddly gloves. The kind that you only ever used to wear when gutting or de-boning fish.
Now the science is showing us that Covid does not transmit by surfaces (technically called fomites) - the gloves and gel and all that hand washing turns out to have been pretty needless. The abandoned gloves are certainly growing rarer.
The gloves are often thin, and look like sloughed skin. Folded into pained shapes, trodden on. To me they look forlorn. But writer Vladimir Nabokov thought differently, he invented a silly proverb in his novel Pale Fire: "the lost glove is happy". If that is so, I present gloves gleefully waving, dancing in glove paradise.
Lecture delivered to the Sign Design Society, 2001
If you don't know where you are going, all roads lead to one place; according to the Roman proverb. Lacking any particular direction myself, I ended up working on a number of large sign projects during the 1990s. As a graphic designer more comfortable in attending to the spaces between letters, my mind was totally unprepared for the mental gymnastics required to comprehend three-dimensional spaces, read plans, and take imaginary tours around very complicated public buildings. I spent days in these places; ignoring the stares of passers-by while I peered around corners, over balconies, and paced purposefully up and down walkways. What slowly absorbed me was meeting the principal wayfinding challenge: how do you coax people into taking one route over another?
And so I became fascinated by the persuasive powers of type, colours and pictograms. The arrow, in particular, has always interested me, since it didn't seem to matter how wonderfully original and startling a sign design appeared to be, nor how readable and consistent the type was. The motivating factor in directing a visitor one way or another was the pictogram they saw first: the arrow.
The demise of the pointing finger. These old signs are now regarded as a 'heritage' item in our towns and countryside. The pointing finger never really worked at 45°, it looked a bit limp and indecisive. It would never work on a car fuel-gauge (Yukio Ota) so perhaps it should be put out of its misery, shot, and left for dead (Shigeo Fukuda).
Has it always been an arrow? As a young boy I seem to remember countryside signs with pointing fingers leading me across vast muddy fields and down high-hedged lanes. I had an great affinity for these signs; I trusted them simply because they had a human form — I'd go anywhere they directed me. However, the pointing finger is not so common today. And I find it strange that in the digital age of geo-positioning systems, we use instead a pictogram of one of our ancestors' earliest killing instruments.
Handed a bow and arrow, we may instinctively know what to do with it; arrow to bow, draw back, aim and release. Where does it go? The flight of an arrow is straight from archer to enemy, or direct from A to B. There is no concept of deviation from its intended target, and its flight is swift. This is an appealling and an evidently lasting analogy that has stayed with us for thousands of years.
Upended iron arrows on a countryside bridge. Archeological study of Stone Age arrowheads from Africa. Compare the outline of the Stone Age arrowheads with the profile of the capped railings outside this typical London town house.
The form of the 'killing' arrow goes back a long way. Archeological studies of Stone Age flints reveal ingenuity worthy of the modernist design maxim 'form follows function'. Some arrowheads were sleek, fashioned to pierce tough animal hide; others had barbs to embed themselves; and some were just simple broad-heads intended to stun. More than 10,000 years after the Stone Age, we continue to fashion new graphic arrowheads.
If you look carefully at the railings outside period town houses, you may notice arrowheads as decorative terminals to iron railings. Or are these railings arrows that have been planted upright to create a dangerous barrier? Harking back to our primitive past, upended arrow railings are actually a sign telling us 'don't come here'.
Arrows in religion (The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, 15th Century), alchemy (emanating from Greco-Roman astronomy symbols), art (Sky/Ground mural, Rigo 23, USA, 1998), and science (biology notation).
Despite this, the arrow as a graphic shape can morph to describe different types of movement, such as speed. Arrows have been used by graphic artists to explain complicated ideas. Conceptual artists use arrows to startle. Mystics see the arrow as representing inspiration, a directed energy for some uncertain purpose. Conversely, scientists use the arrow in formulae to describe a proven reaction.
Arrows in branding; British Rail (DRU), FedEx (Landor Associates), National Express, Royal Bank of Scotland, National Westminster Bank (HSAG), HSBC (Henry Steiner).
In the trademark arena, the arrow is ubiquitous and most prolific within the transport sector — for the reasons described above. The banking sector has progressively ditched its traditional symbolic representations of safety and security, and adopted the arrow in order to emphasise its dynamic global reach. Presumably, world-wide coverage is now more important than security to the average wage-earner needing a method for paying household bills.
It seems to me that the arrow is a loaded symbol, capable of delivering an infinite number of messages. Even the most rudimentary arrow-shaped sign has the power to save lives. Take, for instance, the two short lines of stones intersected with one long line of stones. Baden-Powell taught his Boy Scouts to use this method of laying down trails, so that rescuers could be led to lost souls.
Lost without the arrow? Imagine our cities without arrows (my local high-street is festooned with insistent arrows). America is so vast that arrow signs are everywhere. An original Brasilia city sign (from the film 'Vacancy', 1999). Temporary arrows create a mini-city for the London Docklands Corporation (Pentagram, c.1985).
We would all be lost souls without the arrow. Matthias Müller made Vacancy, a short documentary film about Oscar Niemeyer's futuristic and totally out-of-scale city, Brasilia. In the film he describes the city as 'an emptiness hidden beneath a thick coating of signs' and concludes that 'this city repeats its signs so that it can begin to exist'. What would our cities be like without the arrow? If all signs with arrows were removed, would we continue to have city centres and city suburbs? I think not. Furthermore, we need arrow signs to create cities; the London Docklands being one such example. Once the largest trading port in the world, it was heavily bombed during World War II and then left poverty-striken and desolate. Before reconstruction began, the developers installed giant sculptural arrows to direct fleets of tipper trucks across a roadless wasteland. Now that wasteland is a major financial and technology hub for the City and the population of the area has more than doubled. On an even grander scale, the United States exists as a country made by signs — staked out from the East Coast to the West. That love affair with the sign is at its most profligate in the gambling city of Las Vegas, and at its saddest in the fading, rusting structures outside the forgotten backwater motel. For all their exuberance, these arrows often promise far more than they can actually deliver.
Belief in the arrow. Accompanied by words, an arrow becomes convincing — even when the information is illogical. These examples from the 'The Times' newspaper prove the point. Thankfully, more sensible signs are provided on Britain's motorways. Designed for reading at high speed, these arrows forewarn, instruct us to manoeuvre, and guide us on to new roads (Kinneir & Calvert, 1958).
Can we still trust the sign of the arrow? It would appear that we continue to have an unquestionable devotion to the pictogram, although less so when accompanied by words. Readers of the The Times contributed many humorous examples in a long-running feature during the 1970s. While belief in the printed word has become somewhat diminished, words assigned to an arrow still have credence — so much so that we will hurtle along at 70mph (or faster) on the nation's motorways, veering one way or another, according to a line of type and an arrow on a blue-and-white sign. How trusting of us.
Yet the arrow is an over-used pictogram. It is flaunted wantonly on our streets, directing us to fast-food outlets, and it confuses us on multi-lane roundabouts. Is this death by arrows? What does the future hold for the arrow?
ISO 7001, the new arrow to be trusted worldwide.
Sttandardisation is one option according to the International Standards Organisation directive number 7001 and ratified by Member States in 1985. After five years of development and at a cost of ¥10m, ISO 7001 launched the international emergency exit sign on the world (that's the green-and-white sign with the man running out of the open door). Belgium's contribution to the project was the arrow, specified as having an arrow-head clipped in parallel to the main shaft, with the barbs set at a magical 86° angle, and an arrow shaft being longer than any other line, to signify direction. All logical stuff, but the problem now is that this arrow has assumed supremacy. It looks as if the thousands of years of continual evolutionary development is about to stop; any further creative development is impermissible; and that the ISO 7001 arrow is to be served up forever, as bland as a ready-made microwave meal.
New arrows. Arrow symbols developed by IBM in the 1970s for use on their products. Today's on-screen cursor. Some of the arrows we all use every day.
The arrow has adapted and developed according to the demands of its age — it was a killing tool that became a harmless metaphor and a pictogram to which we now regularly entrust our lives. Is the ISO 7001 arrow really the end to this story? No, the arrow continues to take on new forms, appearing on keypads and touch-screen displays. Products marketed globally will increasingly rely on clever pictograms to unlock the seemingly endless potential of new electronic devices. And as products get even smaller, the miniaturising of buttons will depend on the arrow to guide us from one instruction to the next.
The future for arrows. Examples from LoCoS (Lovers' Communication System), a new pictorial language: far, not far, pull, push, pass through (Yukio Ota, 1964).
Looking ahead, the arrow inherently points the way. Japanese designer Yukio Ota has been developing a simplified communication system using pictograms. As one would expect, his LoCoS word system exploits the arrow to describe activities. It underlines the seemingly inexhaustible tasks to which the humble arrow can be assigned. Ota's experiments are based on Chinese kanji systems of writing, and he sees his work as a 'new weapon' in the battle for 'mutual understanding' on a worldwide scale.
The arrow has been travelling along on its own evolutionary path for thousands of years. As new arrows appear on new products and in new languages, the idea that the humble arrow could guide us towards a future of closer understanding is quite uplifting, isn't it?
Presentation of a new Commander's Coin.
The tradition with the United States Army is that a Commanders Coin is presented to military personnel in recognition of excellence in competitions. It has evolved now with it's chief purpose promoting pride and to build cohesion and morale.
There are differing accounts of the origins of the Commander's Coin. Robust competition between the US Army, Navy and Air Force — to be the first for almost anything — means any definitive answer is long obscured behind a rivalrous smoke-screen. Legend has it that the antecedent 'challenge coins' began circulating in the drinking bars of Saigon during the Vietnam War (1955-75). There, local coins were over-stamped with a Unit's emblem and were used to prove membership of the relevant military company. Whoever could not produce one were challenged to buy in the drinks, hence the term 'challenge coin'. Of course, these coins were always kept to hand to avoid having to stand for a costly round, and so were much cherished. The impact upon the drinking districts of Vietnam was tangible; non-military drinkers stayed away for fear of having to buy a round of drinks, and so some bars became military-only haunts.
During the Gulf War (1990-1991), the British military worked side-by-side with US-led coalition forces. Close operational ties between the US and the British were further strengthened during the war in Afghanistan (2001 - present). It was during this conflict that British military personnel were awarded US Commander's Coins, which gave rise to the need to reciprocate in kind. British units including the Royal Engineers and the Royal Army Medical Corps developed their own Commander's Coins.
Today a Commander's Coin is often exchanged as a gift of friendship, presented to attached Units or individual soldiers, or to visiting Commanding Officers, Chiefs of Staff, Defence Secretaries and Heads of State. If you watch the President of the US in a televised address from the Oval Office, you will often see a fully stocked Commander's Coin rack on a table immediately behind him.
Captain Sexton, a Permanent Staff Administration Officer (PSAO), had been detailed to commission a Commander's Coin for Colonel Boreham, the Commanding Officer (CO) of 256 (City of London) Field Hospital. Captain Sexton knew that to deliver a Coin his CO would be proud to award, and one that a soldier in his Unit would cherish, he would need the services of a graphic designer. Captain Sexton contacted the only graphic designer he knew (an old school friend) at Atelier Works — and conveniently based just a seven minute walk from the Field Hospital HQ. Coincidently, Atelier were fully aware of the RAMC, having researched the Corps' history for thier Royal Mail Victoria Cross stamps, which features amongst others, Noel Chavasse, RAMC (VC and Bar).
Each of the Atelier partners had fathers in the Armed Services and grandfathers who fought in both World Wars. The partners therefore considered it an honour to be asked to design a Commander's Coin for 256 and agreed to do so, gratis.
After a meeting the CO was happy for Atelier partner Ian Chilvers to prepare some initial ideas. The first step was to look closely at the prevailing design of various existing Commander's Coins. Some examples were acquired, and online collections were surveyed. It was clear that most Coins had been commissioned by individuals who may have found themselves perhaps a little out of their depth. It was also clear that the Army 'doesn't do aesthetics'; just practical delivery, quick and on the double.
By default, it seemed that all Commander's Coins carried the relevant Unit's insignia and a motto. Many were a combination of coloured enameling and mixed metals. As an award, it was felt that the Coins should be one step below an official military medal. So the Commander's Coins that Atelier studied at times were not a true reflection of the heritage and the pride in the organisations they were designed to represent.
Ian asked Captain Sexton what a Field Hospital actually does. He briefly explained the tri-aging, treatment and evacuation processes, from the initial point of wounding, and that the specialist medical staff with the Unit are drawn mainly from the NHS. He explained they are deployed on operations either as part of a formed Unit, individual reinforcements, or as reliefs in place for an already purpose-built Field Hospital.
Highly impressed by the commitment made by these medics, Ian began to wonder whether this Commander's Coin could in some small way pay tribute to such dedication — and even assist in teaching battlefield medical procedure.
"What is the most important thing soldiers should do when they reach a casualty?" Ian asked Captain Sexton. "Follow the Master Drill!" he barked in response. Then, remembering that Ian was a 'civy', he went on patiently to outline the Master Drill; standard battlefield training for all military personnel."You have to drum this into a soldier time and time again", he said. "In a fire-fight, you stem the bleeding and then check airways. After the fire-fight you triage, and then communicate with others to arrange evacuation while maintaining the stability of the casualty. In! That! Order!"
Ian felt he'd stumbled upon a purpose for the 256 Commander's Coin.
The Coin features the 256 insignia; the rod of Asclepius (the staff and the snake) overlaid upon the City of London shield. Surrounding the shield is the legend 'Commanding Officer's Coin' and '256 (City of London) Field Hospital'. This is set in the typeface Albertus; significant because it was designed by the pre-eminent type designer Berthold Wolpe, who lived very close to the 256 Regimental Headquarters in Walworth. Many of the surrounding street signs (also designed by Atelier Works) are set in Albertus. The typeface is closely associated with the local community and so is the new Commander's Coin.
The design of a new Commander's Coin.
The design of this Coin's front face is (quite intentionally) similar to other Commander's Coins, but has been kept very simple and very legible. The reverse face is more unconventional, because it features a medic applying a tourniquet to a battlefield casualty.
The image was created by staging the scene in the unit's Drill Hall, using personnel from 256. Close attention was paid by Atelier to the correct battlefield clothing and equipment, and — most important of all — careful positioning of the soldiers, so that they created a strong outline, which could be easily recognised in miniature. Live viewing of photographs on a laptop helped Atelier direct the poses so that they worked in a circular format. It is noted that the Red Cross armband is on the right arm and not, as convention has it, on the left. This was done for narrative reasons.
Photo shoot for the new Commander's Coin.
Back in the studio, the final image was manipulated to edit out extraneous detail, to highlight other features so that they would be recognised in bas-relief and a foreground was added. Finally, the key points of the Master Drill — as emphasised by Captain Sexton — were added around the perimeter of the Coin.
The finished new Commander's Coin.
From stamped coins in Vietnam, to one-upmanship coins post-Afghanistan, the Commander's Coin has certainly evolved. Now the CO of 256 (City of London) Field Hospital has an appropriate Coin that links the local community with an extremely practical, instructive, and indeed potentially life-saving message embedded into its design.
One of a series of profiles of our neighbours, here in Pullens Yards. We love craft: the creative process that involves turning a vision into reality. We craft brands and sign systems. Our neighbours craft pots and buildings, chairs and lutes, paintings and beeswax candles, eaux de cologne and hats.
DAVID COWLEY & BARBARA WAKEFIELD
David looks up over his glasses, and hesitates, that pause that comes when you want to impart significance. "Sculpture in clay can be all about technique and process and painting on canvas can rely too heavily on expressive freedom. What is crucial to both my sculpture and my painting is structure". It is hard, at first, to see how his paintings show this idea of structure, how they can be seen as anything other than free, they first strike you as swirling and meshing globs and slabs of colour. But when you understand that they are paintings of space, cathedrals and concert halls, and people, and the music that they are playing, you can start to pick out what might be an arch, a pillar. You realise the paintings are depictions of space, time, activity, an attempt to capture the complexity of experience.
Barbara, David's co-inhabitor of the neatly divided ground floor studio, works with ceramics. Ranks of coloured discs, soft blue and raspberry, putty and cobalt, all to test the amount of colour the porcelain can support, are displayed in a case. Experiments in form and testing the capacities of materials are key parts of her work, this will to invent produces some genuine marvels. Little undulating bowls shaped around passion fruit. Liquid bone china poured into moulds to resemble tall paper bags, the china thin with crisp edges.
Music is essential to both of them. They go to recitals together, listening, looking harder and longer than anyone else there, sketching. And then they bring this fullness and lyricism back to their studio. It's not just the music that these two otherwise quite distinct artists have in common. An idea derived from music pervades their work, of things working together. Things judged and balanced and orchestrated. Sometimes in sympathy, sometimes as counterpoint. As I leave, I turn, and see them, David looking through a stack of watercolours, the stiff paper scuffling, Barbara scoring a pattern into something, scratching and shuffling. Quiet human music.
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To visit the studios, which open twice a year, see more here:
Rummaging around in the Atelier archives, I recently found my one college project that didn't get incinerated in the post-graduation-show bonfire. This hand-made blue buckram portfolio is one of an edition of 12, each of which held 12 letterpress posters. They were the centrepiece of my 1984 degree submission, and their rediscovery triggered a timely moment of reflection.
The project represents a significant moment of technological change, when I witnessed skip-loads of letterpress equipment dumped, and specialist technicians dismissed. It didn't seem right to me, and I was conscious that certain skills were being consigned to history. I went looking for the last journeyman compositors in the college. I found them standing around, without students, and so very willing to teach me. I learnt everything I could from them before they got their cards.
This project also represents a rich student experience; opportunities both practical and academic were central to the syllabus at the London College of Printing (LCP) during the early 1980s. My excellent complementary studies course inspired a fleeting interest in Concrete Poetry. In particular, the American poet ee cummings' conflicting mix of elation and cynicism matched my mood at the time.
Typographically, I was struck by the way cummings 'built' his narrative using type. I asked the compositors to teach me how to build my lines of type and I was then given enough instruction on a printing press to use it myself. The bookbinding department advised me on which papers to source, and taught me how to make my own portfolios. This self-initiated project was a complete design-and-production experience — and it was academically underpinned, with my final dissertation on the British private press movement.
It is obvious now (but not at the time) that it was only by following my instincts that I managed to produce a coherent, consolidated and fairly credible final degree submission.
My interest in ee cummings was initially typographic; he was a poet whose work relied on ignoring the rules of grammar and was enhanced by unconventional type-setting. As a wayward student, sometimes at odds with the regimented instruction of my tutors, cummings' stance had great appeal for me. With three deserted rooms packed with letterpress equipment and the whole production process open to me, I was free to go beyond the constraints that cummings had in the 1940s when his poetry was first printed. I could use type and print to explore my own interpretation of his work.
I have to admit that I struggle with today's mobile text abbreviations and chat acronyms. I don't think I'm on the same wavelength. But looking at this poster now, I realise that cummings was using a similar phonetic version many decades before the mobile had been invented. Oddly, I do not recall having any difficulty understanding his poems. Indeed, methodically piecing together these lines using a combination of Ludlow hot metal and wooden type seemed quite straightforward, even when I was setting everything in reverse. There is clearly some valuable research to be done, looking into the merits of slow-paced hand typesetting and reading skills.
This marked the point at which I realised just how sexy type could be...
And at this point I also discovered s l o w, fast, and suddenstop type.
Fast forward 34 years...
This year, tens of thousands of graphic design graduates will embark upon their new careers. My daughter will be one of them, having graduated this week from the London College of Communication (LCC). Apart from the change of name (LCP to LCC), this is the very same university and the very same course that both of her parents attended 35 years ago.
For the last three years, mother and father have had to restrain themselves from comparing and commenting on her course experiences, her final dissertation submission, and the preparations for her graduation show. The benefits of our hindsight have been freely offered but (quite rightly), considered unhelpful by the recipient.
Nevertheless, I remain a design graduate and am now an employer, so I am well placed to compare just how prepared today's graduates from LCC may be. On the one hand, the insane student numbers on the course, reduced student-tutor ratios, limited access to hands-on technologies, a reliance on isolated home working, and crippling student debt all conspire to provide a poor grounding for undergraduates and a troubling future for the design profession. On the other hand, hasn't it always been the case that it is the determined graduates (despite their university experience) who succeed in forging new directions in their chosen field?
My optimism remains with this generation of graduates who did not have access to all the resources I had — but should, I hope, leave our arts education system with scorn for how they have been short-changed, making them more alert to workplace deficiencies and more determined not to stand for it. They should not forget to bring their creativity too; perhaps a mix of cummings-like observation with a loud, challenging voice?
Above, left, my seven-year-old daughter at the Type Archive produces her very first proof.
Above, right, my graduate daughter in the much-diminished LCC letterpress department, setting a Gill Sans pangram (below).
Fresh out of university: Rebecca Chilvers
More letterpress: Aladdin's Cave