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Kinneir, Reading, ‘Typography papers’

Designers, places, publications are woven together and put in historical perspective in this short text by Paul Stiff. It appears in Italian translation in Progetto grafico, no.4/5, 2005, to whose editors we extend thanks and greetings.

In what for England was the unusually hot summer of 1976, the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) held a ‘Working seminar on the teaching of letterforms’ in Reading. The fact that the same spelling is used for two quite different words – one standing for a provincial town some 65 kilometres west of London, the other for a collection of highly complex and ill-understood mental activities – and further that the words are pronounced differently (the town is ‘redding’, the cognitive acts are ‘reeding’), thus demonstrating yet again the sadistic unpredictability of English orthography, gives modest pleasure to members of the small Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the town’s university. (They also enjoy the confusing presence of near neighbours such as ‘topography’ and ‘typology’.)

ATypI’s seminar lasted for four days in early July. It was organized quite informally around four groups, and these groups worked hard. It was, after all, a ‘working seminar’, and ‘Reading’ – the word now became a short-hand for its little group of typographers, whose ‘department’ had existed as an independent academic unit within the university for only two years – was known even then for its work ethic.

Along with a handful of fellow-students, I was given the job of helper to a working group leader – I became Ladislas Mandel’s gofer – and so got free lunches and entrance to evening sessions. Among these was a lecture given by Jock Kinneir (1917–94), who had recently come to the end of ten years of teaching graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London, work he had done in parallel with his professional design practice. I am now ashamed and sad to say that I remember very little of his talk. He was not wholly pleased with the variable quality of implementation of the specification for the design of Britain’s national road signs which he had devised with the help of Margaret Calvert. His last projected image was a road sign of fine simplicity, which he offered to us with a smile of twinkling approval: it showed a long-shafted arrow, in white on blue, directing drivers to the imagined cradle of the democratic polis, Athens. The Greeks, he reckoned, had got it right – in spirit at least.

The other thing I recall is that, after he had finished speaking and the floor was opened for discussion, I asked Jock Kinneir a smart-aleck question along the lines of ‘why did you describe serifs as additions to letters?’ His reply was tired. I did not understand how, on that night, I was parading my ignorance. But the story of Kinneir and Calvert’s sanserif was perhaps known only to a handful of aficionados, and had probably been forgotten by others. Nor did I then see clearly how it was part of a bigger project, an uncommon and welcome example of the role that confident, open, outward-facing design could play in civic life. That point wants making. In his warm and perceptive obituary of Jock Kinneir, Robin Kinross described him as ‘naturally democratic’.1

Ole Lund, of the Høgskolen i Gjøvik in Norway, has done us a valuable service by setting out the terms of a public debate about Kinneir and Calvert’s signs which took place in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Remarkable though it was for its time, that debate cannot be compared with what in some fields of endeavour is called ‘open peer review’ and which in typography is still quite rare: one thinks, for example, of the debate conducted in the early 1980s through the pages of the American journal Visible Language on Donald Knuth’s ‘Metafont’. However: argument about the British road signs extended beyond the pages of specialist, professional, and academic periodicals, and emerged in newspapers and magazines of politics and current affairs. It was about things that mattered in everyday life: the look of our urban fabric, the style and manner of those telegraphic statements which guide us from one end of the country to another. The sign system is still controversial. It has been called ‘a house style for Britain’ but also the product of ‘a vision of shabby utopianism’.

We can now see that from a designer’s viewpoint what was significant about Kinneir and Calvert’s work was not a surface feature, the style of letterform, but rather the fact that they had designed a system for designing. Their modular system of configuration for directional and other signs could be implemented by the thousand across the country, not by them – the designers – but by local traffic authorities and sign manufacturers, simply by following the specification.

Ole Lund’s article about this subject grew from a chapter in his doctoral thesis (‘Knowledge construction in typography: the case of legibility research and the legibility of sans serif typefaces’, The University of Reading, 1999) which I had the pleasure of supervising. I then encouraged him to publish a revised version of it in Typography papers, the series of book-length volumes which emerges from Reading more or less annually and which I edit. That article, from Typography papers 5 (2003) and here translated by Antonio Perri, is the text before you now. I am happy to see it in Progetto grafico, a publication which I greatly admire.

We began Typography papers at Reading in 1995 because we could not find English-language places which were hospitable to writing seriously, at appropriate length, about our subject. Of course, we use the word ‘typography’ in a much broader and more generous sense than is suggested by its primary use in much of Europe: not just ‘printing’, but rather ‘designing language for reading’. We ask our authors for evidence and reasoned argument; we are unafraid of accusations of pragmatism and empiricism because these are what our subject most needs now; and we are edgily curious about the boundaries between typography and other practices and subjects. We published the first five volumes ourselves, in Reading. Typography papers is now to be published in London by Hyphen Press, Robin Kinross’s venture. This gives us pleasure and even a little pride.


1 It was first published in a British national newspaper, The Guardian, on 30 August 1994. An extended and revised version, ‘Obituary: Richard Jock Kinneir’, appeared in Directions: newsletter of the Sign Design Society, vol. 1, no. 7, pp. 2–3. It is now much more easily found in Robin Kinross’s bracing collection of writings over the past 25 years Unjustified texts: perspectives on typography.