Seeing words: Phil Cleaver

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to catch up with the man behind our beautifully designed 26 awards. Phil Cleaver is, quite frankly, a design legend. He’s designed over 130 brand identities for the likes of Visa, created books for the V&A and British Library (to name a couple), and won more awards than you can shake a yellow pencil at.

With a CV that includes working with none other than Alan Fletcher and Bob Gill, and being the first ex-Pentagram designer to work at Wolff Olins, Phil is now the creative principle, managing director and founder of et al design. Needless to say, I was very keen to pick Phil’s brain on the subject of words and design.

Why design?

“The only thing I was ever any good at, as a kid, was either cooking or art. And my mum said ‘You can’t speak French, so you can’t go into that’. So I only had one choice. And I’ve been doing art ever since.

I left Central School of Art and Design 41 years ago. I’m so bloody old, we only had letterpress when I started. If you wanted to show someone what their letterhead was going to look like you had to physically draw it; you got a piece of tracing paper and you traced over the typeface. So that’s how all early type designers used to do type.

You’d mark it up in typographic language, because it has its own correction marks and ways of specifying things. And you would send that layout to the compositors to set the type. The compositor would have had seven years’ training. Now you have kids leaving art school at 21 or 22, who are setting type. The standard of type seems to have gone down, but it’s not surprising. People aren’t being taught at the level those comps were.

You weren’t allowed to go in the composing room by trade union rules, and if you were allowed to go in, you couldn’t without a layout. Of course the first thing I did at Central was go in the composing room without a layout.

I’m no good at doing what I’m told.”

The 26 Awards

“The brief I got was: could I come up with some equivalent of the D&AD yellow pencil for 26. I had the idea to give someone a chase of type, because it’s all about writing, and people don’t see type much nowadays. So, that’s how it began. I wanted something that would make people go “wow”. A lot of trophies don’t really have that “wow” factor. There’s a lot of perspex about. I wanted something that was different. I wanted something that tied it all back together.

I then had to locate chases and wood letters, so I started buying up odd letters. I keep going on eBay to buy chases! Spend all year buying up bits and pieces. And then like most things I just make it up as I go along. I like the fact that there’s not one award that will ever be the same. Maybe I’m creating a rod for my own back! But it actually makes the whole thing, I think, much more eclectic – much nicer.

There are two different trophies, and they have different type in them. Then I thought to myself, this is a bit mad, I should print them. So that’s how it ended up – printing them. I like the roughness of the printing because it’s very immediate, it’s not meant to be like fine art letterpress.

Your certificates are using a technique that forms something quite unique, because you couldn’t do it on a computer, because it’s the randomness of what you’re printing. And what I like about using metal and wood type is you’re controlled by the fact they’re three-dimensional pieces of wood or metal.”

Tactile Type

“The advantage of working with hot metal is it’s a three-dimensional experience. Handling and using type does give you a greater understanding of what to do – how instinctively it begins to work and, once you have that, you can take that knowledge to a computer. The problem is, if you don’t have that basic understanding of how to get type to work, you begin to lose a degree of that foundation of how it hangs together.

I mean we’ve got five, six hundred years’ tradition of typography, and it all grew out of hot metal – even Russian constructivism and Dada, Punk. Hot metal was still the main method. Computers are what we work with and what we play with. But without understanding a certain amount of type, you don’t get to play with it as well.

I’m dyslexic. Setting upside down, back to front, didn’t worry me at all. I’ve typeset in Chinese, Arabic, anything. And I’m looking at the type in a different way. I’m looking at the pattern it makes. I see pattern, shape and structure, and the fact it’s a different language doesn’t throw me. The fact I can’t read it doesn’t throw me.

if you want to study typography, pick up a book you can’t read. You’ll look at the spacing, the leading, the typeface – because you can’t read it, you see the beauty, you see the design.”

Shaping Words

“I learnt to read by memorising the shape of every word in the English language. I don’t get sound from letters – when I read I have no sound. By memorising all the shapes, I’ve learnt to write and spell. If something makes the wrong shape, I know it’s misspelt. It’s like if you were completely deaf I suppose. So I’ve learned type like that. It’s mad as a fucking hatter.

I think dyslexia is my super power. I wrote a book called What they didn’t teach you in design school and if you look in that, all of it’s wordplays. I play games the whole time with words. I look at a word like ‘belief’ and in it I see the word ‘lie’. I am always playing word games with type, because I look at a word and I see two, or three, words in it. That’s part of my visual language”

For the love of words

“I’m completely in love with words and reading. It’s the meaning of them which gives you the idea of how to design. It’s not just playing – it’s playing from the structure and the logic of the text. That’ll make me do a layout in a certain way because it’s the right way of representing that book.
I’m a great one for it not being about the design, it’s about the communication of the words.

I think the beauty of a piece of typography normally comes out of logic. You do it in the most logical way and it works well, and almost by default things look amazingly beautiful. But if you went in search of beauty, I don’t think it would work.

If you look at those 26 prints, some of it’s overprinted and some of it’s blind embossed and those details – that comes from logic and constraints, not from looking for it.”

Designing solutions

“I love solving other people’s communication problems. And it’s not about me, it’s about thinking: how can you solve this so that they get something better than what they could ever think of? If you haven’t got an amazing client, if you’ve got a committee of lawyers, you tend to not end up with amazing work.

I don’t ever have a preconceived idea of what it should be. But interestingly enough, all the design, all the branding, is based on words.

I hand-drew a 20 by 30 poster in script with famous women of the 20th century. That was one of my favourite jobs. I’ve still got it hanging in the studio and I did it 41 years ago. One of the reasons people like doing type is the fact someone else has actually drawn it. So you’ve got all these beautiful jewels, which another artist has painstakingly drawn. And then you get to play with them all.”

Playing Fonts

“Learning to work a typeface is like learning to play a musical instrument. To be a conductor, you’ve got to know how each instrument plays. So, with typography, you tend to start using one – that’s like learning to play one instrument. And it can take you 10, 15 or 20 years to master it.

Then you learn to play another instrument, and that’s another typeface. But you’ve got to master those typefaces. You begin to play with idiosyncrasies – the differences in the type – you learn to play it.

I was once asked if I’d go to a talk for three days on type design. And I said, well, it’s a bit like asking a carpenter to go watch wood grow. Once you’ve done the typeface give it to me and I’ll play with it.”

Working with writers

“I love working with wordsmiths. I work with a lot of poets – they are amazing wordsmiths.

I worked with a poet recently for a book I have coming out in December. I fold books up, then I collage the inside panels using ephemera I’ve been collecting for decades. I do things like fold the whole of the bible and then cover it with Chinese communist graphics. This book is all about how I do it, and I’d spent two weeks writing about the whole thing. The poet, she managed to précis all the text down to about three pages of poetry. The poetry sums it up so explicitly with each word – I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’m just in awe of what she did. Mind you, the book’s in Chinese as well and the translators are going mad. Because trying to translate that level of English is not easy.

Making these books and using found ephemera – the whole point is that there’s an authenticity of those things which you wouldn’t get if you resized them or manipulated them. It’s like the process of hot metal. And I think part of folding pages is like setting type. It’s quite therapeutic. It’s making things.

And I make a lot of books.”

– Phil Cleaver interviewed by Sophie Gordon

There will be an exhibition of Phil’s books at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, St James’, London SW1Y 6BN, Monday 2nd December till Saturday 7th, 10am-6pm. He’s warmly invited any members of 26 to pop by.

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