Teacher, father, speculative type designer and doctor. This guy has it all. Barry Spencer is a type designer that makes us ask the question – what the hell is a letterform anyway?
Hi Barry! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. First things first do you make people call you a Doctor and what the hell is a Speculative Type Designer?
Not a problem at all, thanks for having me. Haha! No, I don’t specifically go out of my way to correct people and make them call me doctor. There are very specific instances where I might feel the inclination to clarify, but it’s rare and reserved for certain outlets.
All through my PhD I remained certain that I wouldn’t be a dick about it and correct everyone, but then in my final year after so much effort to get the thesis over the line, I remember thinking “No! Fuck that! This shit was hard. I earned that title!” Haha!
By calling myself a Speculative Type Designer, it’s just a means to directly indicate the kind of letterforms that I often create. I “speculate” about what I could possibly make and it will very frequently be shapes that goes beyond something “experimental” and into another realm entirely. The letterforms themselves are all still designed to be associated with the linguistic sounds we know for English, but now with unexpected forms and something I use to challenge how I create.
How did you find yourself in the world of type specifically? Has it always been a subject/discipline that interested you?
I wasn’t always specifically interested in type from the get go. I had dabbled in university as part of larger projects, but it wasn’t until my first year out that it became something that I wanted to focus on. It came to the forefront during a bunch of workshops called “Everything In Between” run by the design studio 3 Deep in 2005. For 13 weeks, we were given a new brief to answer in 3 hours with no access to digital technology. The studio had a strong relationship with type and it meant that I could explore that side of design with some great mentorship and support. In the end, I decided it was an area that I wanted to focus on.
Truant (2017) WIP
Who has been the biggest influence on you that has helped shape the way you think/work now?
Well as I mentioned above, the workshops with 3 Deep definitely got the ball rolling, but it was very much gradual shift over a long period. In the beginning, I was designing letters that were very straightforward and along the lines of what you would expect, it was only after talking to David Pidgeon (from Design by Pidgeon), that things got a bit more focussed. When speaking with him, he said that he was immediately drawn to my more playful or experimental typefaces and suggested I consider it further. It was after that conversation that I came up with my first driving “mantra” that questioned how far I could strip back or add to a letter before we wouldn’t consider it a letter anymore. That is what set me on the path of research where I came across the likes of Wim Crouwel and Philippe Apeloig whose work also reinforced the kind of thinking and approach I was taking.
Once further research became an option, I also can’t go past mentioning Anthony Cahalan as the prime instigator in the completion of my PhD and allowing me a space to articulate and reinforce my obscure methodology and practice.
Your 100 days project has been quite an undertaking and has been a great project to see unfold, can you explain what exactly it is? and what you will have at the end of it all?
Thank you, it was a fun project and quite a bit has gone into it. It started as part of a worldwide initiative where you would do a “thing” for 100 consecutive days in 2015. It could have been anything, drawing, cycling, writing music, anything. I chose to spontaneously create a grid structure each day adhering to a specific set of rules: I had to use a red and a black fine liner, I could not plan what I was going to do, I couldn’t stop drawing once I’d started, I had to use a 17×17 unit square grid from one of my Moleskine notebooks and finally, any mistake I made had to incorporated into the overall design.
After it was all completed I went through and vectorised each grid with the intention to create type from them. I also tried my hand at crowdfunding the production of each grid into sketchbooks through Kickstarter, but I didn’t reach the ambitious funding goal I was aiming for. In hindsight, I probably should have done it in stages and not done the whole 100 at once, but live and learn. I did produce 5 of the grids into prototype booklets that I have been selling to quite a few awesome and enthusiastic people to play with, but there are still loads available for anyone else interested. It’s great to see people use them in different ways such as colouring books for mindfulness or as inspiration for unique illustrations.
Like I said though, I use mine to make letterforms and I use the obscurity of the patterns to challenge how each letter can be created. So far I have made the typefaces Owen, Ono, Twiggy, Nikau, Cora, Aneeta and Clara from some of the different grids, with many more that are still in development. My goal is to make 100 typefaces from each of the 100 patterns, but it may take a while… I think I calculated about 11 or so years if I created one a month. Haha!
Scintilla (2010), Fathom (2010), Hiero (2009)
What are some other processes, outside of the 100 days project, you have used to create typefaces, where does your inspiration come from?
I have always liked working of some sort of structure. In the beginning, it was pretty much always a simple square grid and from there I’d make the letters, but I enjoy interacting with other languages, ancient alphabets and I often draw inspiration from things I have simply observed in my day to day and I use it to make a new grid or letterform to work from. I like to stay alert when I’m out and about, I’m the kind of guy who is taking a photo of the floor looking at the pattern or looking up at one specific part of a window frame or a tiny crack in the footpath while I’m walking. My phone is crammed with “maybe I could make something out of that” pictures. However, my process mostly involves questioning whether I could take something further because I never like to take the easy way out, so it’s not unusual for me to have a butt load of alternative versions sketched out for every letter before I decide on the final one.
One of my favourite moments is from a couple of years ago, I was trying to make letterforms based on a grid I had made that was inspired by fractal patterns found in Federation Square. What I had drawn was ok, nothing crazy, just some slightly odd letter shapes, when a student of mine came up and bluntly said “they look shit!”, which confirmed my suspicions that what I had made was indeed “shit”. So, I scraped everything I had made and decided to swing for the fences instead of being so safe and literal. In the end, I created the typeface Edie, which is one of my favourites. (The student has since told me that he likes where I ended up, so I chalk that up to a win).
100 Days of Spontaneous Sketchbooks (Covers)
100 Days of Spontaneous Sketchbooks (Interior)
One of your most recent projects is Clara, described as going “against the natural order of things” can you talk us through this typeface and perhaps why you get so much enjoyment out of twisting and pushing the constraints of the Latin alphabet.
Clara was a very fun typeface to make. Originally she was designed for an independent magazine with a theme focused on “Sin”, but they disbanded before she was published. Based on grid 17 from my 100 days of spontaneous project, the idea behind the letterforms was to explore at the far reaches of letterform play. I knew I wanted to create something challenging and closer to my most obscure output, but it was during development that the idea to push it even further and incorporate a coded element came to mind. After that I wrote the article Cryptic Clara and her search for Clarity that contains subtle hints on how I made the letters and what I have done with them to try and get people involved in her decipherment. A set of my booklets will go to the winner in the end. (No winners yet though).
To be honest, the coding/cipher side of things was a result of not being able to choose from all my various options for each letter. It is the kind of thing I love to pay attention to when I’m making something, things like my indecision leading to more options for every letter, the mistakes from my “100 days” patterns becoming permanent and other “accidents” making me take an unexpected path. I have even made an identity from the accidental show through and impression lines in one of my sketchbooks that came through on the next page. It helps to be open and loose with your preciousness of ideas.
For Clara and a lot of my other experimental and speculative typefaces, the point is to explore and play and a lot of my process comes down to allowing myself to try something that might be considered “wrong” and getting away from what I (and others) would expect to be making as a letter. There is a creative freedom to that that means that I’m able to make a lot of very cool things that, had I been following the more traditional path, I would have dismissed or deleted.
As well as being a type designer you are also a design teacher, how much Speculative Type makes its way into the classes you teach and do students respond well to it?
In terms of approach, thinking and direction, as much as I can. I feel it’s important to instil a sense of open exploration into my classes. I teach a wide range of students from multiple disciplines and major studies, so whether I’m teaching type or something based around contextual studies, the approach stays similar. What could we be doing, not what should we be doing. I try to get my students to consider the alternatives and constantly question whether what they are creating is the expected answer and whether a different approach might lead to something better instead. That whole, “just because it was done that way before, doesn’t mean we can’t try something new or different” kind of thing. That approach will very often lead to a more interesting, innovative or exciting outcome.
Finally what are the best tips you have for letterers, calligraphers or even budding speculative type designers and typographers?
I would probably just say to try and explore more and have some fun, do something in a different way, don’t be tied to a certain style or traditionally expected way of doing things just because that is the way it has been done before. Of course, I’d also say to know what you are meant to be doing and how to talk about it before you try to fuck with the system. Especially if it’s going to invite criticism by going against the tide, because if you do end up following this kind of exploratory path, not everyone is going to agree with or like what you do and that is ok, they don’t have to.
Barry has an upcoming workshop on Experimental Type Design – check it out here.