In the final semester of study in the RMIT Master of Communication Design program, students undertake an independent research project, to investigate an area of communication design practice that is of personal interest, or which is of particular relevance to their future career direction. In his final project, Dennis Grauel asks: How do you design a typeface based on a place?
Below are his thoughts about the challenge…
It’s a tricky question, but I think it’s a worthwhile inquiry.
It has been done before. Tobias Frere-Jones designed Gotham in 2000, originally as a commission for GQ Magazine. He drew inspiration from letters adorning a bus depot in Manhattan, which featured a very ‘engineered’ kind of design. The typeface grew in popularity and now represents a broader sense of Americanness.
In 2012, a crowdfunded typeface was developed for Chatanooga, Tenessee. It referenced traditional Cherokee letterforms and was free for locals to use commercially. The uptake was widespread.
The same year, Gareth Hague’s typeface for the London 2012 Olympics was met with criticism and controversy. Rather than use historical typographic reference as the basis for the design, he made something fresh and a bit weird. The janky baseline served, however, to cement an iconic memory of the London games and its dynamic brand. The fast developing city of Eindhoven took a similar approach, rolling out a municipal typeface based on letters drawn with duct tape. The overall effect aimed to communicate the idea that the city was ‘under construction’.
Earlier, in 2002, Dutch designers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum won a typeface competition for the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul — without ever having visited! Treating the brief like a conceptual exercise, they developed a typeface that changed its form (live) to reflect local weather patterns. It might seem like winning on a technicality, but their work challenged the idea of what a conceptual typeface can be.
Type designer Peter Bil’ak explored the idea of conceptual type in a 2010 essay, in which he describes how one of his typefaces, orginally drawn for an insurance company, was later used in childrens books and by a terrorist organisation. Evidently, despite a type designer’s best intentions, the meaning of a typeface remains mostly at the mercy of its users.
Brunswick is an odd candidate for a typeface. Its streets are a typographic mixing pot, and like most of Australia, it lacks any real typographic tradition. Brunswick’s identity as a suburb is protean, being comprised of many diverse subcultures and communities. How do you distill an identity that is made up of many different and often contradictory ideas?
English designer Fraser Muggeridge provides an idea with his proposal of Megafont — a typeface with more than one face. Muggeridge’s typefaces collate numerous cuts of a typeface, or even completely unrelated typefaces, and use OpenType features to randomise the typed output. Perhaps a kind of megafont can communicate both Brunswick’s social diversity and its crude Australian ugliness.
After documenting the urban landscape of Brunswick, I decided to focus on informal inconsistencies in hertiage building signage. Many such signs feature crude inconsistencies in character width, with an accidental early grotesque logic. Drawing upon this, I am designing Brunswick Grotesque to incorporate different width variants for every character, and using OpenType features to mix the different widths together, creating an coarse texture emblematic of Brunswick’s social and visual diversity.
— You can see and read more about Brunswick Grotesque here: brunswickgrotesque.com.
Images © Dennis Grauel.