Seeing words: Harry Pearce

Many members of 26 are no strangers to working with designers. But what does the relationship with writing, writers and words look like, or rather, feel like to a designer? How does it inform their work and their approach? Who better to ask than Pentagram partner, Harry Pearce – I caught up with him to find out.

Starting out

“My whole career has been in design and art. At school, art was always the centre of my world, and afterwards I then enrolled on a yearlong foundation course which guided me more towards Graphic Design than Fine Art. I followed that with a degree at Canterbury College of Art in Graphic Design. I came to London with a portfolio and walked the streets, knocked on doors and hustled till I got my first job, eventually working for a couple of design agencies until in 1990, Domenic Lippa , Giles Calver (who actually was an excellent writer as well as a managing director and a strategist) – and I got together, and for 16 years we ran Lippa Pearce. Eventually we were invited to join Pentagram, and here you have a platform that takes you across the world, and that’s been liberating. Dom and I are coming up to 13 years here now.

The way I work with my team has really remained the same all the way through. It’s a very intimate thing – we all sit on the same table, we all work together. I sketch, scribble and work with everyone around me. Ideas come from many places, many people – and often just from words.

Thinking back, I’m pretty sure I was to some degree dyslexic as a child – I probably still am. I remember seeing words as images – especially with logos. So, for instance, the Fyffes bananas logo which was just a blue oval with white lettering in it. I could never read that, I always saw it as an image. I think in a tiny way, that and many other such instances were pointers toward my life in design – images as words and words images. I see that way – even now.”

Words and imagery

“I do find the definition between imagery and words as a very blurred line. And I think that a lot of the way I approach projects has been very typographic, it’s my design backbone. I remember reading ages ago about the earliest forms of Sanskrit having so many levels of meaning. You have the written form, then you have the visual form, then you have the sound of the phrase, and it’s all part of a multi-layered presence of the language. Completely magical. It’s as if we’re living in an ocean of words – we’re just swimming in it and whether it’s sound, visual or it’s written, it’s pure.

So I find it quite hard to separate the visual from words, and I don’t want to. Why should we? I’ve written a bit for my last book and I’m writing more for my new one as well as other pieces. I am not a writer by any means, but there’s great importance in writing and also seeing this as visual. Look what’s happened in typography in the last 15-20 years. It’s become the absolute forefront of Graphic Design – when I began my career back in the early 80’s it didn’t seem to have the powerful presence it does now. Just small pockets of brilliance around the world, and not so easy to find. The expressive love that it’s since been given is very pleasing.”

The physicality of words

“Often if I’m designing, I’ll set text in American typewriter, chop it up physically and I’ll work with that to turn the words into a visual narrative, before I even design the final type layout. I feel my way into it. For me, there’s a physicality to words as well. I can’t necessarily just do it on the computer, I have to make them and play with them and find their form – particularly when I work with posters and book covers. It’s as much about the pause and the space and the relationship between the language and what its framed in.

Funnily enough, I now don’t read much about design, but I read relentlessly from the world of psychology, philosophy and art. I’ve always been fascinated by Carl Jung. And there’s a period later in his life when he delved deeply into alchemy. He gives some wonderful insights into how the language of alchemy is, by its nature and need, mysterious. The effect on the reader, is very powerful because it’s not obvious – it’s like metaphor, it teases you into something, working below the surface. The mystery of language is also vital. We are so bombarded with stuff, the bleeding obvious – however the more mysterious side of language is inspiring.

I’m sure graphic designers by their nature must adore words and love language. When I was young, I was frightened by language because of my dyslexia. I remember being made to read The Wooden Horse in class at school and the horror when it came to my turn. I had a particular issue with names – names were really difficult because I couldn’t see the phonetics, I couldn’t break them down. And then I remember at art college learning to set type and language became physical. It wasn’t the terror of sitting in a classroom trying to read, and something must have switched in me – going from fear to love.

Logos, for instance, you barely read what’s written, you largely see the form. I believe that’s ancient stuff – it’s pictograms. If you take a word and you write it in blood, there’s a whole other story brought to the narrative by this materiality and form. Making messages with things, with and beyond words.”


“I’ve worked with John (Simmons) on and off for as long as I can remember. There are many projects we’ve devised together, he has wonderful empathy for design. I think our ideas for the PEN identity were inseparable for instance.

And we’ve now got a writing partner here at Pentagram for the first time ever (he’s been here for eight or nine years) Naresh Ramchandani. I work with him often and creatively it’s quite hard to draw the line between where one idea ends and the other begins, it’s just a very easy flow.

Thinking of particular jobs – there was the recent redesign of The Old Vic theatre. It was the period after Kevin Spacey finished there when the identity, posters and the communication had been based largely in celebrity-driven photography which had a particular kind of Hollywood lustre to it. We began our work with Matthew Warchus, the new artistic director, who wanted to get away from this approach. Essentially, we removed imagery. We did everything with typography – it’s just the written word and it’s just relentless. But by removing everything else other than language – words, it’s given the theatre an identity through this pure form. I discovered this approach when I went to The Old Vic’s poster archive in Bristol and I uncovered dozens and dozens of them. If you go back in time 99 per cent of posters were made purely from type – from language. They were really quite special.”

Finding words

“My last book – Eating with the Eyes is about the chance finding of things that are so beautiful, but largely overlooked, in the back streets of cities all over the world. I love synchronicity and chance.

For me, a lot of these found things are very much rooted in language. I discovered an abandoned cement bag out in the Abu Dhabi desert that was printed in Arabic and English, and it had been torn so that the English had been pushed up into the Arabic script. This little moment became the inspiration for an identity project I was working on at the time for the cultural quarter of Abu Dhabi. It became a 10m high wall, nearly 2 miles long – an interplay of Arabic and English typography.

I loved being in Abu Dhabi. At that time I really knew so little about the Arab world and its culture. Having got this commission I thought, ‘Do I have the right, as a westerner, to drop into Abu Dhabi and make an identity for a whole area of the city?’. I asked if I could take a week or two to understand the people and the place as best I could. They sent me off to the desert and I lived with some Bedouins for three days. None of them really spoke English, but one old man did and we were talking about what I was trying to do and he was saying, ‘I don’t understand why you would want to create something so permanent’. Being Bedouin, he saw nothing is permanent – they’re traditionally always moving. I learnt so much from the Bedouin and also a master Arabic calligrapher who I spent another couple of days with who was trying to teach me the basics or Arabic – the six different types of typographic forms.” An impermanent typographic wall we made together.

Letterforms by chance

“In Zurich, I found this old box – an alphabetical teaching aid. I’ve since used this often. For example, here is a poster for an exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the writing of Utopia, by Thomas More. I was asked to create an image that would express something necessary for a future utopia to exist. My idea, my hope, was that chance and the accidental was still a fundamental part of our existence – that it wasn’t eradicated by some advanced system of human control. This poster was made by chance. We literally dropped the word utopia 53 times.

We recorded the way the type fell, and all these random ‘fallings’ became the poster.

It’s just language – language as image.

The value a writer can bring

“Rather like my relationship with John or Naresh – There’s an approach that writers can bring that I could never bring. There’s an angle that they would come at from a writer’s point of view that a designer would never have. Those two things coming together is a new form – a new piece of magic that we wouldn’t have had before.

It’s just a different take, and a really valuable one. I don’t necessarily sit down and think ‘This is a project where I really need to have a writer with me’. Working with writers naturally becomes a way of sharing and developing – extending, broadening ideas.

I’m a bit of an animal of habit so I do tend to work with a few people many times, rather than jumping around a lot. I value the trust and lack of ego this entails. I prefer to just get directly to the ideas.”

144 letters

“Whilst working on the PEN International identity with John I was searching for an idea for their symbol. I asked each of the member offices to write an alphabet by hand in their own language. They sent them back and we combined them all into a symbol. Originally, I did it because everyone was saying ‘You’re never going to get all these different places to sign up to a single identity’. I thought that by getting everyone to contribute we could bypass the issue.

I imagined these different letterforms making a composite, a symbol. When the alphabets began arriving we started trying to combine them and it actually looked like absolute chaos. The worst metaphor imaginable. However we then organised them into a circle from left to right, selected by the pressure someone had used on the pen to write each letter. This meant the lighter weighted letterforms went to one side and the darker went to the other. It gave the synergy and form to the whole mark, purely made by the individual’s own character.”

Working with words, and people

“I think like-minded people naturally find each other. Maybe some people want to remain alone with their work, but I’ve found collaborating with writers a most positive, expansive experience. I’ve also worked with musicians a lot and worked with their lyrics. The appreciation of what they’re doing and the precision of the way you break the copy, all of that becomes really quite a sensitive, intimate relationship between you and the words, and the person who’s written the words. I think you have to learn to tread very gently and appreciate the sensitivity – that’s a really important thing. For instance, the poster below: HARDWARE, SOFTWARE, EVERYWHERE, is a poster I made with Peter Gabriel. We wrote the copy together, and I we then turned this into a 25th anniversary poster for his Human Rights charity WITNESS.

I believe as a designer, you’re in this business to help impart things in the most clear or moving form that you can. Think of beautiful books where there’s harmony between the form, content of the book, the layout, the type, and the reading of it. When all those things unify perfectly, you can just feel the energy in it. It’s a bit like a great song. There are the words, then there’s the delivery, and the undeniable power of the two.

At home I have a room where I keep my most precious books and I find I need them near. They stand for something – something that I feel, I believe in, that I have gathered my whole life – whether that’s visual or written or whatever. It’s about having that near you when you’re working and being able to just pick up a book and think ‘this is so right’. It’s really important for me. Probably, as a writer, you read something by someone else and think ‘That’s why I love writing’.

This is all about being with the good stuff, so you know you’re in the right place and why you’re doing what you do.”

– Sophie Gordon

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