The point of the pencil

Post #21: Mark muses on the hidden craftsmanship that underpins contemporary design

How many thousands of words are in a typical annual report today? Far too many – I can see your thought bubble now…

As designers, we are often thought of as the pictures people, while our copywriting colleagues are considered to be the words people. But, just like copywriters have to think about how a graphic or photo can help convey the meaning of their words, designers have to think about typography – not just the layout of words, but the style and design of the letters themselves.

You’ll of course be familiar with the variety of fonts available from the drop-down menu on Microsoft Word, but you may be surprised to know that even today most typeface design starts with a drawing. Yes, with pencil on paper! The designs are refined over many stages and then digitised to create the fonts we use.

Type design is an integral part of the long tradition of lettering arts that began with letter-cutting in stone, and has arrived at setting fonts on screen via calligraphy and printing from wood blocks. But it’s not a matter of one replacing another – all these forms of lettering are still practised today, and for each, the letterforms are carefully crafted to work for the specific medium. While type designers of today may be working to produce type used in the digital realm, their knowledge and skills are founded on an in-depth understanding of the history of all the lettering arts.

Cutting letters into stone is particularly on my mind right now – it’s very much alive today; in fact Claire is a trustee of the Lettering Arts Trust, a UK charity dedicated to the promotion and vitality of lettering in all its art forms, including through their apprentice scheme for would-be professional letter carvers.

I recently finished a piece interpreting the word Weasel with carver Michelle de Bruin for the forthcoming Lost Words exhibition organised by the Lettering Arts Trust. The exhibition is based on the excellent book, Lost Words, written by Robert MacFarlane and illustrated by the wonderful Jackie Morris, who produced one of my favourite children’s books, How the Whale Became and Other Stories by Ted Hughes.

The catalyst for Lost Words was a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which words describing the natural world like acorn, buttercup and conker had been replaced by attachment, blog and chatroom. This was defended as simply reflecting contemporary usage but, as philosopher AJ Ayer pointed out, unless we have a word for something, we are unable to conceive of it.

In the Lost Words exhibition, the need to preserve the richness of our verbal environment is allied to the desire to celebrate and preserve the richness of our visual environment. Artists were invited to interpret the words in the book by cutting them in stone.

One of the foremost practitioners of the art of cutting letters into stone in the 21st century is Nick Benson, current proprietor of the John Stevens Shop* in Newport, Rhode Island, and known for great works like the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC. Nick is the third generation of his family to run what is probably the oldest continuously-operating business in the US. His skills, learned from his father, are steeped in tradition but the work he is currently doing – thanks in part to a MacArthur Fellowship – is some of the most original and technically-proficient lettering ever produced. This innovation and originality influences the other lettering arts and leads to new typefaces that you’ll then find in use by graphic designers.

But here’s the question: why bother preserving these traditional skills? Do we really need to still draw things by hand in the era of vector files; does it matter if letters on memorials are cut by hand or sandblasted; and, if kids today can’t identify a weasel, who really cares?

Let me answer that by referring to the Lost Words exhibition. Drawing and cutting letters into stone by hand takes time and dedication to master; patience and skill to execute. Yes, sandblasting is easier, and the job gets done much faster, but the audience’s engagement with the outcome is very different.

Of course, we’re not advocating carving your next annual report on stone tablets (although it would solve the length problem!), but the principle is the same. Do you want the job done, or do you want it done well, with proper care and attention to the message and the experience of the reader?

As our Lost Words piece says: “without poetry and craftsmanship, meaning is lost.”

*Featured in Established, Lessons from the World’s Oldest Companies, published in 2018 by Unbound, and co-written by Claire, although its inclusion is a total coincidence!
This blog is dedicated to the memory of type designer Freda Sack 1951-2019, a colleague and friend.

Click here to leave a comment

2 comments on “The point of the pencil

  1. Michelle de Bruin on

    There was once a time when the presentation of the world and the information within it, was almost completely in the hands of artists, calligraphers and architectural craftsmen. There was a fundamental connection between the message and the medium which has been fragmented over time by a gradual degradation of the notion of craftsmanship. The visual environment – both in terms of public signage, and in terms of what we negotiate within our own homes on the internet, has been degraded over the years by the loss of craftsmanship. The breakdown of the connection between hand, eye and thinking, which was previously so transparent, has been facilitated by easy access to computer aided design.
    Who would wish to denigrate this brilliantly egalitarian tool for design, with all the technological advances made? No one surely. However, craftsmanship exists on many levels. The intelligent eye is as vital now as it has ever been and craftsmanship and meaning are as closely aligned as they have ever been.

  2. John Simmons on

    Lovely piece by Mark. Must be time for a new 26 project that spins out from this. Which brings me to the sad news at the end of Freda Sack’s death. I enjoyed working with Freda on a couple of projects involving 26 and lettering artis – including the 27th piece on which we collaborated for the 26 Words exhibition at Free Word Centre. She’s a great loss to writers and artists.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *