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Paul Stiff (1949–2011)

An obituary of Paul Stiff was published in ‘The Guardian’ on 7 April – see here. What follows below is an extended and re-edited version of that text.

Typography, and design more generally, are now ubiquitous and accepted as part of the culture. It was a virtue of the typographer and teacher Paul Stiff, who has died aged 61, to unsettle this state of affairs. In his teaching and in articles of great power, written in ordinary prose – neither academic nor journalistic – he asked questions: this looks all very well, but how does it work in practice? Where is the user and reader in the design process? Does this set of words and images even work coherently in its own terms? Isn’t design just another romance? With the rise of the practice of ‘information design’, his critical gaze was directed there too. His strong socialist commitments fed naturally into these concerns: for him, design was always a matter of everyday service to people.

Already in his first article, ‘Design for reading’, published in 1988 in the trade magazine Graphics World, Paul set out his case. Information design ‘says two things: first, put the user at the centre; second, find out if there are sharper ways of telling if typographic design works well than simply asking the designer.’ He pointed to the internationalism of information design, which may be applied to literacy programmes in Africa as well as to ‘public transport schemes in rich northern capitals’. There too he made a case for the unfashionable work of the modernists of the previous generation in Britain, who had worked for the ‘more useful and lasting forms of communication’.

Paul came from a working-class home in Middlesbrough: his father, George, was a wages clerk at the Lackenby steelworks of Dorman Long, his mother Margaret did shop work until her marriage. An ‘11-plus’ child, he attended Middlesbrough High School for Boys, though in 1963 the family uprooted itself and went, as ‘ten pound poms’, to Western Australia. The venture was short-lived: after the minimum two years (stay less and you had to refund the outward fee in full) they returned, first to Middlesbrough then to Coventry, where his political initiation came through the May Day Manifesto group there. He then did a year (1968–9) of sociology at Essex University, dropping out before the summer exams. His journey into typography began in Colchester: paste-up for a typesetters; a meeting with the printer Desmond Jeffery at a political event. Jeffery was an artisan printer in Suffolk, doing modernist work with a powered press; he printed for Solidarity, the libertarian socialist grouping.

In 1970 Paul started a year’s ‘ad hoc’ course at the London College of Printing, where Jeffery was teaching: he remembered this as time wasted – he hardly saw his mentor. In that year he met Jan Stebbing, then a postgraduate student at Essex University and later a teacher and literacy specialist. In 1971 they left London for Leeds, both to work as volunteers for Interplay, a community arts project and part of the alternative community then flourishing there. Paul went on to work for Books, the left-wing bookshop in Woodhouse Lane.

In 1974 he moved with Jan to a farm cottage outside Reading. He had started again as a student, at Reading University’s Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, on a degree course established in 1968 by Michael Twyman as a breakaway from the University’s Fine Art department. This small and then still-forming department proved a fertile ground for him: already very good in drawing letters and in organizing text on a page, he was able to deepen these practical skills, bedding them in historical and theoretical dimensions.

Graduating in 1978 he found employment with the publishers Routledge & Kegan Paul in Henley. The firm was then still independently owned and publishing humane and not wholly academic books. A lifelong member of the awkward squad (he had been expelled from one school for his long hair), Paul insisted that he work equally as editor and designer. With a sure command of English prose, his editorial skills were notable, both in close examination of a text and on the larger scale of its overall evaluation.

In 1980 he returned to the Department of Typography at Reading as a lecturer. In his first years in this role he was mainly a studio teacher, running projects; but the activities in this department have always exhibited a fairly seamless interplay of theory and practice, and Paul was always a strong presence in any historical or theoretical discussion. His institutional progress took this course: appointed senior lecturer in 1989, reader in 1993, and professor in 2010. His professorship was belated, and he himself had resisted it for over ten years.

In his articles, an early focus was on specification: just how was design implemented? His discussions wove together technical and labour history with much empirical observation and illustration. Following the shift in the 1980s to typesetting on the personal computer, the need for specification disappeared; the experience of the reader and user claimed his attention. The climate at the University was encouraging, and Jan (though they split up in 1981) had close links with the work being done at the Faculty of Education and the Reading and Language Information Centre. In 1986 Paul joined Information Design Journal as co-editor with its founder, Robert Waller, and was its sole editor from 1990 to 2000. This pioneering journal was one outlet for his work. Another was the MA course in information design that he established at Reading in 2004.

In 1987 he met Alison Black, who had come from the psychology department at Cambridge University to do postdoctoral research in typography at Reading. In 1990 her book Typefaces for desktop publishing: a user guide was published – very much a product of their partnership (texts used to illustrate the types in action were taken from the revolutions of that time, 1989–90). They separated at the end of 2001 but remained in close contact.

In 1996, the Department at Reading published the first number of Typography papers. Conceived by Paul as a yearbook that would publish articles at the length to which they wanted to go, this was not an academic journal. Yet in its eight issues it has published work of prime importance for the subject, including three major articles by Paul himself.

He was a wonderful teacher: demanding much from his students, always pushing them and equally himself, believing that critical standards were vital. Latterly he initiated and led two major research projects: ‘The optimism of modernity’ and ‘Designing information for everyday life, 1815–1914’. The first was an attempt to recover the wisdom of his elders, especially the dissenting, socialist designers who had struggled to work in modern ways in Britain in the aftermath of 1945. The second, an effort to document ‘the graphic equivalent of engineering … the most intelligent, but little known, ancestor of today’s graphic design’.

The last issue of Typography papers that he edited (no. 8, 2009) was a culmination of the ‘Optimism of modernity’ project. It opened with a scorching essay by Paul, surveying the field. This issue is enlivened by its sense of personal engagement. The project had started with the wish to re-publish Stuart Hall’s examination of the magazine Picture Post – Hall had been a central figure in the British New Left, including the May Day Manifesto – and its histories of neglected figures took in his mentor Desmond Jeffery and one of his main teachers, Ernest Hoch.

Paul, at the centre of the picture, looking at lettering in Rome in 2007; with him are students from Gjøvik University College in Norway, with their teacher Ole Lund (clapping his hands). The photo is by Gabriel Stebbing.

In the autumn of 2006, Paul (who, he acknowledged, had ‘smoked for England’) was diagnosed with throat cancer. He was operated on for this, apparently successfully; but the cancer returned. He lived out these last years very fully, with model fortitude. A wonderful cook and gardener, a great traveller and topographical enthusiast, he continued these pursuits with full engagement. The abrasive aspects of him softened, and his personal generosity only increased. Always the materialist and the reasoner, his sessions with the doctors sounded like his teaching seminars. Of one of the last, he told me: ‘we were motoring’.

He is survived by his brothers, Nigel and Michael; two sons, Liam and Gabriel, by Jan; a daughter, Eleanor, by Alison; and two grandchildren, Rosie and Maebh.

Paul Stiff, typographer and teacher, born 1 August 1949; died 12 February 2011

Robin Kinross