Department of Library and Information Studies
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN


 

      "The End of the Word is Nigh"

                          or

       A Weekend of Sound-bites

 

                     Judith Wusteman

                       University College Dublin

  (Formerly of Computing Laboratory, University of Kent at Canterbury)

Published in Newsletter of the British Computer Society Electronic Publishing Specialist Group, March 1995, Vol 8, No 3. Reprinted in  "IDeAs", Newsletter of the Information Design Association and the Newsletter of AlphaBugs International.

Take courage, computer scientists, some typographers wear anoraks too.  There were some very fetching examples at FUSE94, The Forum for Experimental Typography, held at the Royal College of Art over the weekend of 26th and 27th November 1994.

The speakers at FUSE were drawn from both typographic and design backgrounds and included leading figures in the field from Europe and the USA.  The conference had been cut down to two days from an initially-planned three. The result was that twenty lectures had to be crammed into the two days; ten a day, 9.00 am to 6.00pm. This sort of schedule over a weekend near the end of a busy term could very easily have lead to frustration if it hadn't been such fun. By Sunday evening, I was feeling pleasantly culture shocked; this was certainly  no computer science conference.

I realised quite soon that I was actually supposed to enjoy myself. We filed into the opening session to the strains of `We are the Champions' by Queen. At the front of the dimly-lit lecture theatre was a three-seater sofa and a giant screen. The talk-show atmosphere was heightened by the first speaker, Eric Spiekermann, guru of typographical design and co-founder of The Font Shop, who inadvertently welcomed everyone "this evening" (it was 9.00am on Saturday morning).

At first I found Erik's presentation slightly quirky. (`I'll raise some questions but I won't give any answers away... The only question I know the answer to is "Is there life before death?''.)  But, as the weekend wore on, I realised that this was the straight guy. Eric interposed at several points over the two days with eminently sensible suggestions, counterbalancing some of the more crazy comments.  This fact made it difficult to argue with his comment, in a question and answer session on Sunday, that "The nurds that understand computers can't explain them". At the tumultuous applause that greeted this comment, this particular computer science lecturer realised that she was the only "nurd" present, along with 599 graphic designers and typographers, and decided not to let on ... .

To return to 9.00 am on Saturday morning, Erik's presentation set the scene for the rest of the weekend and for the other 19 speakers; no answers, just questions. Spiekermann's suggestion that "There has been an alarming increase in the number of things we know nothing about" was picked up by type designer and publisher David Berlow. He claimed that graphic art is at a time of "significant darkness and confusion".

Berlow asked some interesting questions and again, in the spirit of the conference, left most unanswered. He did, however, comment on the  popular question of whether linear representation is still appropriate. Predictions of the end of linear reading, said Berlow, are rubbish. The World-Wide Web is linear-based; representation is getting more linear, not less. (This interesting comment was probably lost on the majority of the audience who, it turned out later, had no idea what the World-Wide Web was.)

Another interesting question he raised was whether our letters are changing back to pictures. (He didn't answer this one but it seems to me that if one based one's conclusions on some of the recent type-faces produced by FUSE, the answer would have to be yes.)

More good news for computer scientists worried about their image: online has become "totally in".  According to David Berlow, the design community are the "infonaughts of the information age". Many designers have become technology junkies.  But obviously not that many; when he asked who had seen Mosaic, only a dozen or so out of the 600 present put their hands up.  Still, who wants to? According to the next speaker, art director Phil Baines, the Internet is the place for sad people who can't face up to reality.

Phil didn't restrict his criticism to technology junkies. FUSE itself came in for a drubbing in his presentation; was it, he asked "merely the Lettraset of the 90s?".  FUSE is supposed to be a forum for experimental typography but Mr Baines could see little
experimentation; he didn't even see good typography.  Someone, it seems, had suggested that 2the starting point [for typography] need not be the alphabet - the keyboard can be played like a musical instrument". This was blatant rubbish. For Phil Baines, if it's not the alphabet, it's not type.  Baines identified a tendency in design to put "self expression first and to hell with clarity and real communication". The result was woolly free-thinking and a lack of rigour.  The value of a typeface was its usefulness, not its existence; bicycles with square wheels might be different but ... .

After a presentation in which designer Ian Swift (Swifty) treated us to the history of every record cover he had designed in the last eight years, Neville Brody, founding partner of FontShop, gave a talk entitled "Why FUSE?". Brody presented his view of life, the universe and typography  to the accompaniment of a flashy and amusing, but totally unconnected, multi-media back-drop. Among his pronouncements, two stand out in my memory:

"About 2 or 3 years ago, we realised type was dead" and

"There's enough legibility in the world - let's have more illegibility".
 
One of the more endearing features of the weekend was the fact that the majority of the speakers were horribly nervous; speech wasn't their medium and it showed. (Having said that, the graphics were terrific.)  I don't think I have ever heard so many ums and ahs in a conference.  One of the only people who didn't apologise for being nervous was Erik Spiekermann, and he apologised for being boring. The problem was compounded because everyone was trying to be desperately hip at the same time. I did begin to suspect that, for some, the deadpan presentation was all part of the image.  To put expression or  modulation into their voices just wouldn't be cool. Malcolm Garrett, who claimed he had been invited as the "token
futurist", was a prime example of this phenomenon. He did, however, liven up his talk with short snatches of extremely loud rock music and some wacky graphics.

When a young man in a ruffled scarlet shirt strolls up to the microphone and drawls in a husky voice "God is the ultimate typeface", there is some unkind satisfaction when he then discovers that his slides are being presented in the wrong order.
Lucas de Groot overcame this technical hitch and went on to give a long and interesting talk entitled "Jesus, Thesis and Porno - an Interpolation Theory". It culminated in examples from his "pornographic alphabet"; innocent-looking letters that can be animated into suggestive positions. I was about to reassure you by saying "It's ok - this is art", but I remember that Erik Spiekermann insisted that graphic designers aren't artists. In fact, when a student commented from the audience that she didn't know whether she was a graphic designer or an artist, he told her in no uncertain terms that she'd better find out.

Other helpful advice from Erik included the following:  "Don't teach computers at college - teach living .... Teaching
computing is all about teaching monkeys little mechanical tricks". Thanks, Eric, I'll try and remember that ... .

I'm a novice in this field and I admit to never having heard of Vaughan Oliver. I assume that when I know a bit more about the
subject, I will understand why I was expected to sit and watch him show clips from old movies about nothing in particular.  No doubt, I was sitting at the feet of a genius and was too much of a charlatan to realise it. "Is he well-known?" I whispered to the student next to me. The student looked incredulous and informed me that Vaughan Oliver had done all the record covers for The Pixies....of course, silly me .....

Other members of the audience seemed similarly frustrated and cries of "We don't want to see old videos" and "We want our money's worth" eventually resulted in the videos being switched off.  So Oliver played us his favourite sound track instead - five minutes of drum beats accompanied by a background of pornographic moans.

I have only mentioned a few of the many presentations at FUSE'94. This is probably because, as one of the later presenters commented, a lot of them were "difficult to summarise - even for the speakers".

I went to FUSE94 to be educated; I  was  educated. At some point on Sunday afternoon, one of the speakers projected yet another variation of the 26 letters of the alphabet onto the screen behind him. And, all of a sudden, I realised just how beautiful the alphabet could be.
 

Judith Wusteman, 1994


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