Please give us a brief history of Letterbox.
The studio was begun in 1990 with two main points of distinction. Firstly it was based on working on typographic projects. Secondly, the studio time was divided into publishing, education, exhibition and commercial projects.
Over the years these initial criteria have developed with the proportions shifting from year to year. From 1991-95 we produced Qwerty and from 1996-2003 came the Ampersand series. In 2004 Fancy (a collection of stories about typography) was produced. Since 2004 the studio has been organising an event called Character which is a series of forums and events around the cultural and social aspects of typography.
Letterbox prefers to create a culture around what we do so also produce our own typefaces, t-shirts as well as books. The live forums are also part of this sense of self. It’s all linked to each other and great fun to do.
In the book Designing Pornotopia, Rick Poynor states that few Australian designers promote themselves abroad, with the ‘striking exception’ of Stephen Banham (Letterbox). Why do you think your work has more international reach’ Do you think other designers should be doing more to raise the profile of Australian graphic design abroad’
Having seen the extraordinary difference from the late 80′s to now, there almost seems no reason to be worried about isolation or the profile of Australian graphic design abroad. A greater exposure and respect has already happened and has been for quite a while. Design students and practitioners can now have instant access to just about anything and anyone (the Australians might just be the more jetlagged ones at North Hemisphere design conferences that’s all). Despite this greater exposure, Australian graphic designers have however been hesitant to show our true selves at times. Simply mimicking a retro modernism doesn’t really add anything to being genuine to ourselves (or anybody else for that matter). The lack of heritage as an Australian designer sits light on our shoulders. It’s very liberating and something we happily take for granted.
In your opinion, what is the state of typography design in Australia’
Very good. A lot better than it has ever been. There are some great type-orientated designers here. Australian Typography 1995-2005
The D*Hub graphic identity aims to represent 50 of the most influential typefaces in history. What would you choose to reflect the ‘noughties’ so far’
As you may expect, we’re right in the thick of the ‘noughties’ so it’s hard to gain that clarity but I would say there are some patterns emerging. The ultra thin weights of the Sans Serifs will be remembered well. Helvetica and its many cousins are also represented strongly as we continue to wade through politically conservative times (yes, it’s all linked). Thankfully a gentler (and often humorous) humanism is also there as well in such faces as Bello and Sauna. But this question is perhaps best answered in a few years I imagine.
You intend to auction the exclusive rights to your newest font Bisque on eBay this April, on World Graphic Design Day. What inspired you to take this tact, and what kind of response are you expecting’
Before making that claim, we looked into whether it has been done and put the word out. Nobody has found anything as yet so the claim still stands. The idea is based on generating an alternative method of selling fonts. As you may know the two main ways a type designer earns a living is by selling the fonts direct to customers en masse or is commissioned by brief to create a customised typeface. With the international exclusive rights to our new typeface Bisque going up for auction on ebay (from April 13 – 27) we have hopefully created a third a hybrid of the two whereby you have an exclusive right to a typeface but it’s bought in a public fashion.
Bisque has been specifically designed for editorial and branding purposes. It’s a beautiful typeface full of opentype contextual alternates, ligatures and kerning pairs. It’s our best face yet. The winner of the auction is able to use Bisque for a minimum of 12 months. The unpredictable nature of an auction is exciting. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. It all finishes on April 27 which is both World Graphic Design Day and my birthday.
What else will you do to celebrate World Graphic Design Day’ Do you have any suggestions for other designers to help inspire a festive feeling on 27 April’
It’s amazing how few people even know about World Graphic Design Day. But then again I guess we don’t know when World Plumbing Day is either. To celebrate April 27, best to do fun things that have a graphic design theme. Fill up a balloon with (uncooked) alphagetti and kick it around. Go for a drive inside the letterforms at the two mile logo on the abor Plain. Open up a bottle of wine and watch a few old episodes of Sesame Street. Whatever you find festive.
Who and/or what inspires you’
Perseverance and a sense of slow, steady development is something I am naturally drawn to. Maybe that’s a typographic bent. What we do as graphic designers is so often about the ‘now’ rather than any longer vision. And that’s frustrating if we want to engage with the community on any meaningful level. Architects and film-makers seem to accept this longer vision as part of their methodology. I admire that.
Clever ways of intersecting graphic design with a wider society inspire me. A book like RIP Logo (where the history and demise of logotypes are described and depicted as cemetery tombstones) is on of those projects that I think ‘I wish I had thought of that but I am glad someone did’. It can be read by anybody at all because it views these identities as what they truly are social phenomenon.