Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Gangland Caff

Black plastic sign boards were once a common sight across London, and last summer I featured a decrepit specimen advertising electrical wares by the seaside. Perhaps it had retired from a life of crime in the metropolis.

In typographic terms, these signs are inherently sinister. The design draws on the white-on-black aesthetics of the chalkboard, but with none of the latter's grace. It combines a brutal typeface with a technology that, while initially promising freedom of choice, in fact constrains any graphic invention. Tiny holes in the surface of the board clamp onto plastic letter-shafts, insisting on perfect rectilinear presentation, while no other design elements need be followed. The board is the epitome of the upright and the ugly, as self-righteous and unimaginative as the Cockney cafe proprietor.

Sign boards are a quirk of display technology, an evolutionary anomaly like the vicious star-nosed mole of the Pacific North West, a creature neither of the land nor of the sea, with its alien and disturbing snout. These strange inventions have preserved their form unchanged while new and flashier ways of marketing – LED strips, florescent stars, digital displays – passed them by.

Like its more majestic relative, the cinema hoarding, the sign board has always suffered from a paucity of alphabetic material. The board’s owner must endure the fact that, even from the outset, there are never enough letters provided. And so words are misspelt to begin with, dollars used to represent pounds, letters to represent numbers – and vice versa. Then comes the inevitable decline in standards, first a spattering of chip fat, and then growing chaos as letters go missing in action, sucked up the hoover along with baked beans, beard trimmings or dead mice; falling from the board and down the back of a leatherette sofa as the plastic pegs bend and break.

In this deadpan version, Gangland Caff, the artist Andrew Lee encapsulates the poignant role of the sign board as both a welcome and a warning. Lee's 'Slap-Up Menu' offers a selection of unpalatable snacks that combine Cockney rhyming slang with the great greasy spoon tradition. Make mine a knuckle sandwich and a ginger beer.

Gangland Caff / menu board / 46x62cms / 2007

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Shape of Time

Time appears to pass more quickly as we become older. Talking about this poignant phenomenon with designer Anastasija Tarana, I discovered that she had explored time's fickleness in book form. Tarana thinks the human obsession with measuring time is somewhat incongruous, a fool-hardy attempt to impose definite rules on an abstract force. Why should a minute be a minute? Our instinctive feelings - biological clocks - often bely this measured parcelling out of lives in hours and years.

Tarana's ideas were given scientific backing via the 'Logtime' principle - a logarithmic time perception scale developed by James Main Kenney in the 1990s to express why units of time seem shorter the older we become. Logtime theory is based on the law by which the apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 experiences a year as one-tenth of their life, and a person of 50 sees a year as one-fiftieth of their life. Elderly people may seem very slow to the young, but they are walking into the storm of sped-up time.

Tarana interviewed individuals of different ages, asking them to describe their impression of time and encouraging them to draw a coloured geometrical symbol to reflect their views. Particular age groups responded with uncannily similar symbols - circles from the children, triangles from the middle-aged. Tarana published these responses but also sought a design by which "the book form could be a container of this complicated data on its own."

The book that resulted from her research represents three different perceptions of a year at the same time. At 400 pages long, with each page standing for a day, it incorporates and extends the traditional 365-day calendar. It is a substantial object, but also possessed of a delicacy that suits its subject matter. Hand-incised holes in each page layer into tunnels representing the experience of a 10 year-old, a 40 year-old and a 70 year-old respectively. The book implies a longer narrative: the elderly person's year gets smaller and smaller, finishing in a point mid-way through the book, whereas the child's continues right through the book block to the back cover, and by implication beyond. Tarana used geometric shapes to symbolise the individual lives: the child's circle implies a simple level of experience, the elderly person's multi-faceted hexagon the complexity, and perhaps the wear and tear, of a long life. As Marcus Aurelius said, 'every instant of time is a pinprick of eternity.'

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Geordie Dialects

Traces of early invaders linger in bilingual signs to the bus station at Wallsend, although I believe the Romans invaded the farthest reaches of Northumberland without Arriva's services.