Agency typographers are treating type as a key element of design as
much as a tool of communication. Here, Jim Davies examines the role of
these advertising image-makers.
Advertising typographers used to know their place. Their contributions
were always seen, but rarely heard. Yes, they added that little bit of
finesse to press and poster campaigns, but they were invariably regarded
as the last, rather tedious link in the creative chain, the last stop
before a new ad disappeared into that murky void known as ’production’.
If the creatives were the Damon Hills and Michael Schumachers of the
advertising world, the typos were the unappreciated chumps who
assiduously changed the oil and buffed up the paintwork.
How times have changed. Over the past four or five years, typography has
become part of the quotable culture. It’s ubiquitous; far more upfront
and aggressive. Media, particularly television and magazines, have
seized upon its potential for grabbing audience attention.
The more interesting, left-field practitioners (typographic designers
such as David Carson and P. Scott Makela in the US and Jonathan
Barnbrook and Tomato over here) are regularly asked to apply their
talents to everything from books and clothing to interiors and
advertising. Phil Jones, chairman of the Typographic Circle, an
organisation which represents both the advertising and design
industries, reports a sixfold increase in membership since the late 80s.
’There’s a real buzz about type,’ he says. ’There is far less elitism
than there used to be and a younger, more fashionable crowd is coming
Keynote events hosted by the Circle - featuring top speakers from the US
and Europe - sell out several times over. It’s not entirely ridiculous
to cite typography as the new rock ’n’ roll.
Advertising has been quick to pick up on the typographic zeitgeist, and
decent agency typos are enjoying an elevated status. Some have modified
their job titles: Barry Brand at WCRS and Kim Le Liboux at Bates Dorland
both style themselves ’head of advertising design’, reflecting the
broader scope of their jobs.
’I tend to work mainly on pitches and new stylings,’ Le Liboux says.
’I rarely get involved in the technical side. Any typographer who is
worth his salt isn’t concerned solely about type but about photography
and illustration and the overall visual feel of an ad.’
’The word ’typographer’ is archaic,’ Roger Kennedy, the head of
typography at Saatchi and Saatchi, confirms. ’It doesn’t begin to
describe what the modern designer with type does. We are image-makers
and responsible for bringing all the latest computer-manipulation
techniques into the agency.
’We are expected to push art directors’ layouts as far as they will go
and be familiar with the programs that allow you to do so,’ he adds.
Kennedy has touched on the root of typography’s recent resurgence -
technology. Wacky letterforms have been around for aeons - dust off an
ancient typeface manual and you’ll find fonts made up of copulating
couples, devils and obscure architectural details - but, crucially,
technology has opened up a world of possibilities, allowing instant
access to a host of fonts that previously had been difficult to lay
A proliferation of new fonts has suddenly become available too.
Specialist font creation packages for the Apple Macintosh have spawned
thousands of new typefaces - which take days rather than years to
produce. Many are practical, others are merely post-modern statements on
the nature of typography and technology; there’s one that gradually
disappears on screen, another that changes randomly every time you use
So from enjoying a couple of humbugs and the odd sherbet lemon,
typographers have suddenly been let loose in a sweetshop. More than
ever, typefaces are an effective means of setting clients’ products or
services apart, of hammering home and reinforcing a brand’s values.
Think of Orange, with its elegant, thin letterforms on a black
background; the Economist’s authoritative white serif, always on a red
background. More ingeniously, Switch, the direct debit card, uses a
headline font that mimics the slightly clumsy embossed plastic
letterforms on the cards themselves, while a recent campaign for Stanley
had a headline punched out of a metal surface using the client’s tools.
A spirit of typographic experimentation prevails, which can even extend
to quirky hand-drawn copy in instances such as WCRS’s Caffrey’s campaign
or BBH’s saucy ads for the Elida Faberge fragrance, Addiction.
Jonathan Barnbrook, one of the country’s top typographers, has worked on
campaigns for Nike, Mazda and Radio Scotland. ’It’s now much easier to
manipulate a typeface,’ he says.
’You can adapt a typeface slightly to give your campaign a unique feel.’
Barnbrook has designed one-off typefaces specifically for a campaign
(such as the launch of Femidom, the female condom, through Alliance
Dave Dye, the former head of art at Leagas Delaney, and now joint head
of art at BMP DDB with Mark Reddy, says: ’Typefaces are the first step
to giving a campaign a strong personality. It’s also a relatively cheap
way of producing a certain look or style. A top New York photographer is
going to cost you pounds 15,000 a day; a bloke sitting at a Mac in Soho
comes a lot cheaper but can still achieve a lot of impact. If a client
hasn’t got a lot of money to spend, it’s an attractive option.’
Leagas Delaney does not have an in-house typographer, so individual art
directors have to source and make their own decisions about
The agency does have several Mac operators on hand and, where necessary,
will pull in specialists from outside. Dye worked closely with BMP’s
typo-in-residence, Dave Wakefield, on an English Heritage campaign which
required traditional hot metal setting and, at the other end of the
spectrum, Leagas has benefited from a fruitful relationship with
Tomato’s Graham Wood, who worked on the highly experimental typographic
Guardian cinema commercials a couple of years ago.
Does Dye feel his territory is being threatened by the new breed of
thrusting typographers? ’It’s about being honest,’ he says. ’If they
come up with something better or improve on something you’ve done, then
it’s in everyone’s interest to go with that.’
’Our input is to the art director’s benefit,’ Saatchis’ Kennedy says.
’It’s all about teamwork and getting the best result.’ To illustrate his
point, Kennedy pulls out a series of recent press ads for the Army. The
body copy is based on the rudimentary, typewritten captions you might
find pasted on to the back of old Magnum photographs. Mimicking this
style of type was the bright idea of the art directors Alexandra Taylor
and Nik Studzinski. However, they probably had no idea how far Kennedy
would take it. He hired four 40s typewriters - the kind of rickety old
contraptions favoured by Vietnam war correspondents - so that each ad
would have a slightly different feel. The copy was typed out, scanned
into a computer and further distressed. ’We had a field day,’ Kennedy
Other happy accidents have made their way into Kennedy’s typographic
illustrations: a visit by a computer engineer to mend a machine revealed
an interesting circuit board, which was duly scanned and used in a
Metropolitan Police ad about computer theft.
The creative director, Adam Kean, came into work one day clutching an
X-ray he’d happened to have had taken, and this was co-opted as the
background for an ad for the spinal injuries charity, Aspire.
But not everyone is as convinced about the contribution typography has
made. In his Private View (Campaign, 14 February), Court Burkitt’s
creative director, Mike Court, criticised M&C Saatchi’s new Independent
campaign as ’yet another series of commercials that uses wacky
illuminated type to scan around the screen’. During the judging of the
Campaign Press Awards, the chairman of the jury and the creative
director of Lowe Howard-Spink, Paul Weinberger, hinted that over-zealous
use of type was turning press ads into small posters, to the detriment
of well-written copy. Another senior copywriter who declined to be
named, said he felt there was a danger of typographers using ’words as
visual structures rather than thinking about what they actually mean.
It’s a bit like architects designing amazing buildings, forgetting that
someone has to live in them.’
Dye has the final word. ’In the days of Dave Trott, ideas were put
across as simply and forcefully as possible, so there was a move away
from art direction and typography - it got in the way,’ he says. ’People
are looking at the best way of expressing ideas visually, which is why
type is so popular. I’d be interested to see if it still looks good in
20 years’ time, but in a way that doesn’t matter. Today’s ads are
tomorrow’s chip paper.’
This article was first published on Campaign