Interview with James Etherington for the Baseline blog.
International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD)
I first heard of the ISTD during my first year, where I actually began working on one of the briefs, ‘Everything About One Thing’. Sadly I never completed the work but wanted to have another go in my third year.
The brief ‘A Life’s Work’ requests a celebration of the work of Adrian Frutiger.
Approaching the topic
I began by building as complete a picture of the work he produced across his lifetime as possible, this was gathered from the internet, books, and magazines. After this, I became more interested in his life and specifically what may have influenced him during his childhood to pursue the career he did. I ended up having several phone conversations with a college in the small Swiss town Unterseen he grew up in to get a feel for the area.
There is little life in this town today and even less to occupy a young mind in the early 1930s. There were, however, several churches – specifically protestant churches, I managed to get a copy of his birth certificate to prove which he attended. We know that Frutiger certainly identified himself as Calvinist, so he must have spent many hours at church with his family during his formative years. Why is this important? John Calvin in 1536 wrote a book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in this, he set out the principles that would shape Protestantism across Europe. He condemned the use of finery, gold, and glamour to celebrate God that was the accepted Catholic mindset, instead he emphasised that only the word itself was important. The weight of the word of God was placed above all.
Protestant churches, particularly Calvinist branches such as the Swiss Reformed Church, which Frutiger would have attended, are free from stained glass, colourful murals on the wall, and golden finery. There is no colour, simply form to their beauty. There are pared back cement mouldings around the windows that bare strong resemblance to typographic form, the clerical dress is black and white. Before a young Frutiger’s eyes was a world of form, curves, edges and bezels. This must have been some part of his influence whether conscious or subconscious, he went from being in this world of only black, white, and shape to creating type.
Frutiger has said multiple times in interviews and written statements that the best celebration of a typeface is for it to simply be used well. So the book before you is John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion typeset in Univers. The first thing you likely notice are the concrete covers, they relate to the bare stone and moulded concrete formwork of the protestant churches, especially the more modern ones. Also, they conceptually reinforce the Calvinist idea of the weight of the word, simply by adding a lot of weight to the words of the book. The content is split into three sections, each with multiple chapters which are themselves split into smaller sections. All of the text sits in a single column, creating a certain feeling of unrelenting speech which epitomises the protestant ideology.
This book is celebrating Frutiger’s work, by communicating the words that without which the typeface Univers might never have existed in the first place.
Each chapter of each book has up to 30 numbered sections, numbers which are hung neatly outside the margins. This was originally done with styles but looked rather odd in places due to the varying widths of numbers and the capital letters to the right of them. So as a solution every number was placed by eye in a position that is comfortable with the surrounding numbers and the section titles they correspond to. Over the whole book that comes to over four thousand numbers individually positioned.
The project had immense educational value, I was not only encouraged to take on a large-scale project, but also finish it to such a high standard. There was a rigour required to its approach beyond anything I’d attempted in terms of both research and execution.
Passing the assessment means a lot, it’s a tick next to my name and important for me in that sense, but perhaps more personally significant is the boost to my confidence. Having the ISTD pass my work has helped alleviate some of the natural anxiety I tend to have, I’ve found my practice becoming more organic in its evolution, leading to stronger outcomes I’m happy to stand behind.
University for the Creative Arts, Epsom
BA Graphic Design
International Society of Typographic Designers, ISTD, the professional body for typographers, graphic designers and educators.
The ISTD student assessment scheme, started in 1975, is cited as a model of academic thoroughness and professionalism. Unlike many others, the scheme is not a competition as it considers the holistic achievement – not just the final outcome. The overall design process of research, reflection, strategy, design development, technical and production specification is assessed by teams of practising designers and educators. Students who are successful in the scheme are offered membership of the Society.