There are many cultural projects in the borough, and two that stand out are Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop and the Facebook page “Walthamstow In Pictures”. The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop has recorded residents’ stories for over thirty years, bringing the area’s history to life. Each record is unique, and it is possible to see trends of people making their homes here. The project is an outstanding example of the qualitative archives possible within a community, and it inspires my aims for Stowe Framework because it captures a wide range of views.
As another example, the Facebook page “Walthamstow In Pictures” publishes people’s photos of the area and have built up an enviable local archive. Rick, the person behind the page, has shared his motivation behind starting and maintaining the page, saying that he loves “love reading comments on the shared photos. [The sharing of photos has facilitated] childhood reunions [and] even families who lost touch with each other.” He preferred to keep his identity to himself as he feels that the page works best from an anonymous point of view. This approach has worked, as he has thousands of photos in organised albums on a page that has upwards of eighteen thousand followers.
The advent of social media has allowed keen amateur historians to build archives as they wish and enables the community to interact more easily. In comparison, the local archives stored at Vestry House Museum are available only in person and subject to curation. Above shows the comments and discussions on the photos. They are of equal importance because they collate memories that form the area’s history, readily as part of people’s everyday social media communication.
If any fault were to be found with Walthamstow in Pictures, it would be that Facebook optimises the images and making them part of the Facebook infrastructure means it will be difficult to migrate the archive to another system later. Despite this, Rick’s work to maintain and increase the archive is focused and is to be applauded.
After the discussion of the term ‘vernacular’ above, the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop and Walthamstow in Pictures are examples of vernacular archives. However, they are described as such not to deride these collections; instead, to differentiate between the origins of the archives and the easy way people engage with them. These collections have equal importance to the formal histories we see in museums and official online archives.
I devised the first activity of Stowe Framework and detailed the results of the first alpha test here. In the Area Survey, the participants are asked to take a short walk around an area of E17 and take photographs of typography (or lettering, as I described it) and remember where they took them. When they returned home, they choose five examples of lettering, mark the examples’ positions on a map of Walthamstow and answer some questions. One purpose of the activity was to add more examples to the photo archive. More than that, the underlying motive is to enable the participants to start thinking about how they undertake the challenge. In asking them to submit only five examples to me, they curate their experience rather than unthinkingly responding.
I have copied out the questions with my reasons for asking:
Looking at your photos, did you start to favour certain types of lettering? Can you guess why that might have been?
Here, I want the participants to notice patterns about their preferences and a reason for their bias. For example, a couple of remaining ghost signs feature advertisements for printing presses and typewriters, and the owner of a local publisher might find these fascinating. I intend these to lead to further qualitative research between myself and the participant.
Did you stick to a route, or did you let yourself wander? Did anything draw you off your expected route? What was it?
I am curious about the participant’s mindset: do they start with a rigid plan, or do they wander? How they react to unexpected stimuli? The questions are deliberately broken down into easy clauses to allow comprehension by many people.
Did you find the lettering you were expecting? What surprised you?
Like the questions above, I want to understand the participant’s preconceptions and if they are open to being challenged.
What do you think the lettering tells you about the area you surveyed? What kind of lettering would you like to see more of in E17?
Now, I am eliciting their opinion of what the lettering says about their area rather than speculating, and giving them a chance to shape the area in the future.
Lupton, E., 1993. (qtd. by Barbara Glauber). In: B. Glauber, ed., Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the Quote Vernacular Unquote. New York: Cooper Union, p.5.
Poynor, R., 2013. No more rules. London: Laurence King.
Keedy, J., 1993. I Like the Vernacular … Not!. In: B. Glauber, ed., Lift and Separate: Graphic Design and the Quote Vernacular Unquote. New York: Cooper Union, pp.6–11.
What is meant by vernacular typography exactly? The concept of the vernacular within graphic design came about in the 1970s to 1980s as a reaction to the rule-based schools of modernism. Designers took inspiration from outside of the design world, and vernacular came to mean “natural, unschooled sensibility free from the stylistic self-censorship of modernism” (Lupton, 1993). Equally, Poyner states that “vernacular design’s appeal lay in its authenticity, the sense that it was a natural, unfiltered expression of the way people felt, of their local concerns, untainted by strategy, marketing imperatives and the slickness and calculation typical of the design’s elite professional class” (Poynor, 2013). Both Lupton and Poynor recognise that work termed vernacular took an instinctual route with design, free from the calculation and underlying marketing strategy. The recognition of vernacular resonates with the aims of Stowe Framework, because the project aims to reflect what is here in the community.
A champion of vernacular design in the 1980s, Tibor Kalman and his New York design company M&Co viewed vernacular design as “just there, part of the landscape, a form of visual slang” and that it was “a source of clean, honest inspiration” (Poynor, 2013; Lupton, 1992). While Kalman accurately recognised that most people pay no attention to their design environment, his view was naive to the politics between the dominant culture and subcultures by which he was inspired. Vernacular, and drawing inspiration from it, has its problems. By designating a design or piece of typography as vernacular, it creates an ‘othering’ of the said piece and a division that suggests some design work is more laudable because of its origins. Lupton describes “the term ‘vernacular’ is also relative: it places a standard language against a lesser dialect, a dominant culture against a secondary subculture” (Lupton, 1992). In this project, ‘othering’ could take the form of comparing branding of multinational companies, for example, Nando’s, Sainsbury’s, HSBC, against small businesses with signs designed by the community. In Walthamstow, it is the multinationals that stand out and seem ‘other’. While Stowe Framework concentrates on what I see as the vernacular, it includes visual references to large scale because to the people of Walthamstow, these pieces of lettering are as much part of the environment as a local butcher’s prices on a chalkboard.
The research underpinning tries to embody Kalman’s technique of seeing what is truly there and often overlooked, while respecting the context by reporting and analysing. As Keedy describes: “What is needed is an awareness of what crossing cultural/historical boundaries actually means, as well as an understanding of the importance of context” (Keedy, 1998). Stowe Framework focuses on typography rather than overall vernacular design, but the same design criticism applies to typography as a subset of designed work.
Lightboxes and Lettering – Project by Rendezvous Lettering
First, I want to take a look at a typography project started in the past few months to raise money for people living in Lebanon whose lives were devastated in the wake of the explosion. Dr Nadine Chahine started Font Li Bierut to raise money for the city through an IndieGoGo appeal:
“The blast that rocked Beirut on August 4 resulted in more than 177 fatalities, 6000 injuries, with an estimated 300,000 people left homeless. The scale of the blast is unlike anything Beirut had seen in its turbulent history and Lebanon is already suffering from near economic collapse, a banking and currency crisis, and the pandemic. To show support and solidarity for the people of Beirut, the international type design community has come together to create a typeface that would raise funds to support the victims of the blast and the reconstruction efforts.”
The typeface Li Beirut has more than 300 glyphs drawn by 157 designers from all around the world and “includes decorative isolated Arabic letters and Latin capitals as well as Arabic numerals and a few symbols, all in one font file, together symbolising the solidarity of the international community with Beirut and its people.”
At first, I thought, why international type designers? Why not local ones? before realising that everyone would be suffering and not in a place to contribute to a project like this whilst trying to rebuild their lives. I would like to involve the local people in my project, because although we are in the midst of a pandemic and people are suffering, the community are looking for ways to improve their area and forms of entertainment!
“The Lebanese people are suffering from massive financial difficulties with 50% of the population now under the poverty line. Small businesses are under strain, especially given the pandemic, and now with the blast many people are destitute.” The charities being supported are Plan International, Save the Children and Action Against Hunger. Chahine decided to print the goods in Beirut to support a small businesses, rather than printing elsewhere, and despite the shipping costs. She says of her decision “it meant a lot to be able to print at home, and for people around the world to get postcards that say: printed in Beirut. This way we show support to local businesses, and send the message that no matter what happens, Beirut carries on, and its renowned presses will not stop. Not for war, and not for explosions. Beirut lives on.”
As a potential contributor, I appreciate her stance to support the local businesses because work will help the communities around them. This gives me food for thought for my project: I want to support those around me as much as possible and that means local presses too. It might be expensive to print locally, but it will go back into the local economy.
On the other hand, the gifts given to the backers are being bought by people around the world, rather than the local people. Beirut is in desperate need of funding, and although Walthamstow has its problems, it is not in an emergency situation. I’d like my project outcomes to be able to be enjoyed by the local community as much as they contribute to the community.
Carrying on with the theme of local resources, I am recalling an exhibition that I visited as research for GDE720 History and Futures. Lucy Harrison and Rosa Ainsley of Rendezvous Projects started a project called Lightboxes and Lettering that focussed on people’s experiences of working in the printing presses of East London in the pre-digital age. It involved collecting oral history interviews, visiting local history archives, mapping out past and present presses, running workshops with volunteers to introduce people into ways of printing.
The area included a huge swathe of East London, including my borough Waltham Forest and the Olympic Park area which has seen huge changes over the past 20 years. In my project I would concentrate much more on just Walthamstow as I think this is more manageable.
In their own words: “The project explored how the printing industry has changed with the arrival of digital technologies, and how newer processes have transformed the everyday lives of print workers. Volunteers were engaged in oral history interviews with current and former employees, and in digitising archive material collected from existing and private collections. Members of the public took part in artist-led workshops, using some of the processes and exploring the archive material uncovered by volunteers. The project culminated in 2020 with an exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery, a publication, and an online exhibition on this website.”
It’s great to see a local project in my area of interest so that I can see the scope, outcomes and schedule of what will be reasonable in the time period. I think I need to be more realistic with my outcomes, but that will come in a different post!
Stuart put me onto Typography Summer School, run in several international cities and set up by Fraser Mudderidge
I referenced Vernacular Typography for the last module because it has a flavour of what I want to achieve with my collaborative tool: documenting typography in all its everyday form. I love the way that she has found ways to keep the blog up-to-date from the pandemic signs to protest placards.
I like the blog section of the website as it is much more what I have in mind, however the instagram feed and shop show a much more curated selection of image. While that’s fine as that is what Molly Woodward intends, I want the outward facing parts to be truly what Walthamstow represents rather than what I find the most aesthetically pleasing. How can I make results of workshops appear live so that everyone’s ideas are included?
I do like how she descibes her project:
All over the world, there are cities and towns that retain their rich traditions of vernacular signage. Unfortunately, the fate of these typographic havens is being threatened by the uniformity of corporate advertising, which ignores and subverts local history and tradition.
Vernacular Typography is … dedicated to the documentation, preservation, and promotion of vanishing examples of lettering in the everyday environment. It seeks to explore, protect, and support the typographic environment in cities around the world
All over the world, beautiful examples of vernacular lettering are in danger of being replaced by disposable signs that represent large global corporations.
Typography is a powerful marker of regional identity and has a remarkable ability to capture the local character of a particular time and place.
Unfortunately, in some places globalization has all but erased the local typographic heritage. Cities that once had a unique typescape now look like they could be anywhere in the world.
The goal is to as many images of endangered local signage before it disappears altogether; create an archive to document and share those images; and work to revive the tradition of creating new, original lettering in the built environment.
She also describes her work more as vernacular lettering than vernacular typography and I want to adapt this phrase as it describes my aims. At university I studied Old and Middle English and works such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, of which some are written in vernacular language of the time. So, it’s close to my heart.
It’s at this point I reach the actual lectures! Ben Evan James in Academic Creative Practice gave some really good advice, even though I am not aiming for a PhD in Graphic Design.
Sometimes I have got stuck, and even though I feel more focussed now I need to keep up the momentum. Writing down issues can help us see new connections (and new problems!) and at an MA level, we are unlikely to build an entirely new ladder. However, we can look to see what ladders are out there and help to build a new rung. My research and contacts for Week 3 have expanded to look at projects in the area and in the same-ish discipline.
He suggested that just after a project we should write down answers to questions such as:
What did I do?
Why did I do it?
What remains unresolved?
To gain a full understanding of how the project went. This kind of self-evaluation I do try to do continuously through projects and can understand how answering the questions at the end can push you further forward.
Evans James also said to signpost throughout a report by using headings, chapters, and devices such as Firstly, Secondly, and to make sure that the writing is accessible. Even studying English at BA level I have found some resources out there have befuddled me so much that I put them down. However, some academic writing is dense because it wants to include as much as possible within a word count, so there is a balance between filling out to make it readable and getting a full depth within the words.
Evans James also suggested that the writing style should be critical and analytical rather than descriptive (like this sentence) and I do agree. Part of the reason that I’ve avoided doing CRJ in recent modules was because I felt that I was just spouting off what the lectures said, but now I think that I’ve found a balance that evaluates the context in which a source is found.