Ed Ruscha x Arnold Newman

Ed Ruscha in his studio by Arnold Newman, 1985. I’m a sucker for photographers’ printing markup – especially when it features my favourite painting. More of this sort of thing in William A. Ewing’s Masterclass: Arnold Newman

Perfection, paralysis and design

“The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: PARALYSIS.”
— Winston Churchill

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
— Voltaire

Sorry, couldn't decide which quote to open with. Both are equally good … sure, Churchill is a marginally more contemporary voice … but Voltaire has a bit more umph … of course the context of Churchill's quote may be more relevant (a message to landing craft designers who were wasting too much time arguing over details) … but I like the black and white, good versus evil imagery of Voltaire … now I think about it, actually there may be an Aesop quote that's more appropriate … or perhaps …

This is how I spend my days, in a state of constant indecision. The debilitating belief that all options but one are incorrect could generously be called perfectionism, but a more accurate term would be option paralysis – the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none. An interminable mull over whatever trivial options lay before me, every action bogged down by a fear of choosing unwisely – what to write, what to wear, what to watch, what to eat (my sincere apologies to anyone who has ever sat with me at a sushi conveyor belt), what to anything.

At some point, no idea how, I managed to make the decision to be a designer, a profession that revolves entirely around making decisisions. Every new brief brings a fresh blank rectangle, waiting to be filled with my astute selections. Type, colour, image – I'm paid to choose. A thousand preferences and variables wrung from my mind, and they all have to be perfect. The more minimal the design, the more glaring the non-perfection – nowhere to hide in all that damned white space. Once the precise shade of white has been chosen, that is.

Just getting the title onto the page is like wading through a mental swamp – I might narrow my typeface selection down to a few possibilities from that endless drop-down list (having agonised over which typeface selection method to use) and then … I stare at them. One of them must be the one, must be right.

Which is probably wrong. Every little fork in the road threatens to bring my work to a complete standstill, all because of some irrational belief that every molecule of the universe should be arranged to some ideal, unknown pattern. Perfection leads to indecision, indecision leads to procrastination, procrastination leads to cat GIFs. Perhaps perfect is the enemy.

Of course, perfection is just an excuse, an admission of defeat at the daunting multitude of possibilities and variables available to me. Design shouldn't be about scrolling up and down lists. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to self-imposed constraints, like Massimo Vignelli's "a few basic typefaces" ethos or Jenny Volvovski's From Cover to Cover project, in which she redesigned dozens of strictly green/Futura/Caslon Italicised book jackets. Can paralysis be bypassed by having all of those decisions already made? Maybe. Probably. Of course, to reach this point, first I'd have to come up with my particular set of constraints.

Besides, the paralysis only lasts so long. Once decisions start being made – usually once the white has been killed, the fear of the blank page overcome – the ball starts rolling and real design starts happening. And then it reaches a momentous point in the project where I am the one presenting the options to somebody else; the client takes on the burden of selection. Three or four ideas will be sent out into the world to fend for themselves. Not yet perfect, but perfectly good.

I reckon Voltaire will do just fine.


Deep in the bowels of my hard drive, I've stumbled upon a back-up of an old blog from my youth. In one charmingly quaint post, I proudly announce my arrival on an exciting new social network website thing: Myspace.

Remember Myspace? It all seems such a long time ago now. Before Facebook came along like a glorified Friends Reunited for Oxbridge graduates; before Instagram filtered an entire generation into greenish little squares; before Twitter confused us with its peculiar constraints and pitchforks. Here was your own personal plot on the internet, and endearingly unsightly social CV with which to connect with friends and strangers (and some guy called Tom), driven by that most valuable, universal cultural currency: taste in pop music.

It was chronological and comprehensible and charmingly innocuous. Can internet be bucolic? I think it was bucolic. At least, that's how it looks through this rose-tinted hindsight. Spurred by nostalgia, I've decided to revisit my old profile, to see what online me used to look like.

Or at least an approximation of me. Little remains of what Myspace once was. Multiple acquisitions, redesigns and pivots have mutated it beyond recognition. It's very much the Trigger's broom of social media. It no longer has any evidence of me ever having existed. However there is a capture of it in the Wayback Machine archive; just a snapshot, a faded memory of my profile from one day in April 2006. It'll do.

Some elements remain: obsessively curated lists of favourite bands and films and books; a pretentious literary quote in my bio; a truncated column of comments, fragments of inane, deeply meaningful conversation. Mostly there's just lots of dead links and little boxed question marks quizzically suggesting where images and videos once existed. It's an abandoned house, all creaking floorboards and cobwebs. Interactions, opinions, signs of life, all gone.

(Perhaps most heartbreaking of all: nothing remains of the fussed-over and cobbled-together CSS customisations that, for some reason, we were allowed to shoehorn into the site. Undoubtedly the first baby steps of many a professional coder).

This is only twelve years later. The original Myspace was huge. And yet it's existence is almost entirely anecdotal. All we have are mentions in old blog posts, articles, jokes, a weirdly dated mention in the first Iron Man. An entire social network – at the time, the social network – can now only be inferred from the impression left by its impact.

This isn't how we were promised computers would work! Our digital selves will be immovable, everlasting, job-interview-scupperingly indelible! Immortality of the written word! Right? No? No.

By now it's pretty bloody apparent that user-created content is now either ephemeral – digital footprints washed away by the tide of progress – or sold to the highest bidder and nefariously used against us by megalomaniacs. The internet is facing a crisis of identity, so how best to reclaim our own little territory online? Blogs, good old fashioned blogs, offer some semblance of security, but many still rely on the whims of the platforms that host them. Or how about Myspace Classic? That could be fun. For a week or so.

Perhaps the best thing that's emerged from all of this impermanence is from an even older cornerstone of the internet: the burgeoning newsletter scene. Emails aren't going anywhere any time soon. The content isn't held in one place – it's multiplied and dispersed, a thousand messages in bottles. What goes in them and where they go is entirely up to you. Your emails are blank canvases. They are your space.

Now then, has anyone got Tom's email address?

Written for Creative Review

A note on notebooks

“On August 12, 1982, I took a 10 x 7 1/8 inch National Blank Book Company composition book from the supply closet of my then employer, Vignelli Associates. From that moment, I have never been without one.”

Ten years ago, Michael Bierut wrote a column for Design Observer about his notebooks. Over 26 years, he had filled 85 hand-numbered, uniformly-sized, marble-covered books with sketches and lists and ideas. Together, they formed a history of his working life. This piece (or rather the photo that accompanies it, every book stacked high on a chair like some kind of Pentagram monolith) often comes to mind when I'm looking through my own notebooks.

Whereas Bierut's have a sense of elegant consistency and rational process to them, mine are a bit more erratic. Mostly half-full (because starting a new notebook is way more satisfying than filling an old one), they flit from one overpriced faddish brand to another, sizes and shapes all over the place, all frayed bookmark ribbons and twangy elastic straps. They make for a most precarious tower.

Every now and then I'll dig through them, an archeological expedition through my own history for gems of ideas that may be worth revisiting. Surely there must be something worth salvaging from all these years of scribbling?

It would help if I could actually understand any of it. At some point in my twenties, my brain gave up on sensible handwriting and instead switched to a kind of scattered shorthand that only makes sense to my own eyes in the moment. It appears to be mostly uppercase, occasionally straying back into lowercase halfway through a sentence or word. Sentences be damned. It looks like the work of a maniac who's been learning how to forge Cy Twombly's shopping lists.

Viewed collectively, patterns appear. There are lists and calculations and epiphanies and doodles, doodles, doodles. Some pages are crammed with dozens of little rectangles, hastily-sketched thumbnails of book cover ideas. Others have nothing but a single word on them, screaming at me to complete an important task – MAILER or VAT or TUNNOCKS. Every now and then different colours are used, presumably serving some kind of logic or code, or perhaps merely celebrating the fact I'd bought a new BIC 4C.

The mental spillage isn't confined to books, despite my considerable investment in them. I have things scrawled onto stray bits of paper, index cards, Post-Its, bookmarks and envelopes (not to mention the wealth on nonsense saved as drafts in pretty much any app that I can type into). None of it is numbered or dated or in any sensible order.

My teetering tower of notes may hold some meaning, a souvenir of the messy workings behind years of professional output, but it's mostly inconsequential or incomprehensible now. Whatever wonderful ideas I once had, the meaning has been lost somewhere between brain and hand and page and time and can only be inferred from the occasional recognisable phrase that stands out from the rest of the gibberish (basically my notebooks are the written equivalent of Rowley Birkin QC, Paul Whitehouse’s very, very drunk anecdotalist from The Fast Show). All of this underlying chaos can't be good for my work or my mind.

Ten years later, and Bierut is now on book 119. It's an enviable routine, and I'm thinking it's time to rethink this part of my own process. Maybe I can get some order and clarity into my work with a fresh batch of no-nonsense, school-grade, basic exercise books. I'll make a real concerted effort to only fill them – right up to the last page – with legible human language. Notes that serve the future as well as the present, a history worth revisiting. And so the tower grows.

Written for Creative Review

Irritating gentlemen, distracted boyfriends and milkshake ducks

“The secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow; there is no humour in heaven” — Mark Twain would’ve loved Twitter. Since its inception in 2006, the platform has become home to both an endless stream of soundbitten misery and a very particular strand of comedic discourse. One-liner by one-liner, professional comedians, satirists, cartoonists and writers have found themselves up against … everyone. A logical progression of the ‘anyone can publish’ thinking that still drives the internet, editors and printing presses are no longer boundaries to getting jokes out there in front of a cackling/heckling public.

But how do jokes work on Twitter? There's endless potential for mirth within that empty text box, but a great deal of it tends to rely on variations of what linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum calls a snowclone – “a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognisable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (named after the well-worn journalistic cliche formulation ‘if Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y’). And then there are the mini dialogues – short vignettes presented as scripts, with the action denoted by brackets or asterisks, often culminating in a stock punchline.

Phraseology recurs over and over: hold my beer; life comes at you fast; me in 2017, me in 2018; one does not simply walk into …; cop starts breakdancing; record scratch, freeze frame; don’t @ me; #exceedinglylonganduselesslyuniquehashtag; said no-one ever; that feeling when; is your child texting about …; you had one job; etc. This familiarity suits the rapid currents of the Twitterstream – you already recognise the structure, it's just the subject or the context that changes.

Is there a pattern to any of this? Well, they all share an unpolished immediacy, or an appearance of it at least (who knows how long these jokes linger as drafts) while making use of typographic limitations conjuring a certain naïvety in a default deadpan voice.

A relatively recent addition to all of this is ‘Milkshake Duck’, a snowclone that draws its template from a tweet by Ben Ward (@pixelatedboat) that captures the zeitgeist of relentless celebrity scandal: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshake! 5 seconds later We regret to inform you the duck is racist”. The phrase has now found itself canonised as slang, at hand for yet another awful revelation about an adored public figure. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary even anointing ‘Milkshake Duck’ their word of the year.

Images add another layer of endless tropes to contend with, but for the sake of oversimplification, it basically comes down to this: it's all one massive caption competition. Again this largely comes down to following familiar structures; original photos that slot into an visual snowclone. For example, found text that fits exactly the rhythm of a famous lyric – apparently there's endless potential for words that match the cadence of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. And what Dolly Parton fan could resist a shot of four loaves of Soreen? Once you've seen it highlighted by Sean Leahy (@thepunningman), it's hard to believe that Groupon's headline “BUY NOW: Prosecco and a ‘wow’ burlesque show, plus a meal for two” was written without Oasis’ Wonderwall in mind.

With others, the image itself is the constant; stock images that crystallise a particular theme. Berthold Woltze's 1874 painting The Irritating Gentleman, with its Jim-from-The-Office glance to camera, has become a shorthand depiction of mansplanation (still the default mode of discourse for great swathes of Twitter's users). And one of the silver linings of the Trump presidency has been the appearance of the Prankster Joe meme – user-captioned photos of erstwhile Vice President Joe Biden apparently explaining his latest Trump-baiting prank to a mildly despairing Barack Obama.

These are just a few examples within examples – despite the best efforts of sites like knowyourmeme.com to classify and track them, it's impossible to ever pin down a definition of any particular trope for very long. The nature of Twitter humour is that it's a moving target. The creativity comes with endless variation and adaptation; usurping the expectations of the joke itself becomes the joke, until the original joke is no longer recognisable and the humour relies on recognising the process of mutation.

To see how far one joke can be stretched, observe the fate of a seemingly innocuous stock image by photographer Antonio Guillem. As a man gasps at a passing woman in a red dress, his partner glares at the back of his head disapprovingly. At some point somebody came up with the idea of labelling each of the characters in this seemingly universal dynamic (it’s thought that the original take on it was to illustrate, of all things, Phil Collins being wooed away from prog to pop), and over the course of 2017, a constant supply of variations on the Distracted Boyfriend image appeared, becoming ever-more bizarre and self-referential. The same models had been used for other stock images that Twitter users gleefully constructed into some kind of narrative (in summary: that guy is the worst), jokes branching off from jokes. There was now a plot. And then in January of this year, it took another leap: Tom Cruise tweeted a still from the new Mission: Impossible film that echoed the composition of Guillem's original photo. Within minutes, it had been remixed and reinterpreted and Photoshopped into surreality. On Twitter, with a captive audience able to recognise call-backs and iterations, everything becomes in-jokes about in-jokes about in-jokes.

Try raising any of the examples given here with somebody not on the network, and chances are they'll have no idea what you're talking about. What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter. These joke formats, structures and affections are often unique to Twitter's particular context of syntax and constraints – themselves subject to constant change. From the beginning, Twitter has repeatedly adapted to how it's being used. Hashtags, retweets, images, polls, emoji and GIFs have all been integrated over the years, each bringing new mechanisms for humour.

What's next for this perpetual and perplexing open-mic might? Twitter's most recent, and briefly controversial, evolutionary step was expanding the 140 character limit to 280. Combined with integrated tweet-threading, this has changed the rhythm and nature of the network, and with it the humour. While some bemoan the loss of succinctness and the creativity that stemmed from those confines; this broader canvas offers an interesting opportunity for longer jokes; storytelling can now coexist with the one-liners. Here, amongst the sorrow and the joy, is a new frontier for writers, voices, brands to forge new tropes and narrative forms. Unexpectedly, Twitter may have become the saviour of long copy.

Written for Creative Review

A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand

Poster based on Rand's cover for Direction magazine, 1939

Paul Rand is a little gap on my bookshelf. Princeton Architectural Press’ recent reprint of his 1985 monograph A Designer's Art (complete with obligatory afterword by Steven Heller) pretty much lives on my desk these days. Over 27 essays, he discusses a wide range of subjects still pertinent to design today, all accompanied by numerous examples of his work (more of which can be found at paul-rand.com). Demonstrating Rand's ability to simplify shape and colour and space into the most striking form, it's surprising how contemporary much of it seems – there are posters and covers and identities in here from seventy years ago that could've been made yesterday. One gripe: given Rand’s distinctive use of colour, it’s a shame that some of the images are black and white. Still, it's a stunning collection and offers a valuable education from one of design's greatest teachers; open it on any page and there's something that will spark inspiration. An essential read for designers, artists and everything in-between.

A Designer’s Art, 1985

Minute Man National Historic Park poster, 1974

Dada poster, 1951

The International Design Conference in Aspen poster, 1966

IBM poster, 1981

AIGA poster, 1968

Yale University School of Art poster, 1988

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition catalogue, 1970

Westinghouse Annual Report, 1974

The Pebbles on the Beach


We’ve just returned from three glorious days of seaside frolicking at Boggle Hole in Robin Hood’s Bay. Within moments of arriving, I dawned on me that I’d made a huge mistake and neglected to buy Clarence Ellis’ rock-spotter’s guide The Pebbles on the Beach. Faber's beautiful new edition, designed by Alex Kirby and illustrated by Eleanor Crow, has a wonderful fold-out jacket for easy reference and would’ve really come in handy for imparting some geological wisdom to my boy.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 15.11.03.jpg

In its absence, he had to make do with my own home-brewed classifications, such as: small pebble; largish pebble; black pebble with a stripe; pebble that is probably a new potato; don’t touch that pebble, a dog made it; and fossil it’s a fossil FOSSIL no wait it’s seaweed.

Pestering artists about their pens

Jeffrey Alan Love recently tweeted a sketch, simply captioned “illustrator’s funeral”. Leaning over an open casket, a mourner asks one final question of the deceased: “What pen was that?”.

Ah yes, the question, I know it well. Artists, particularly those with distinctive styles (such as none-more-black Love), must spend an unseemly amount of time fielding this one. The thing is, it’s not so much the corpse I relate to in this situation, but the inquisitor. I don’t know why, but I simply must know what tools people use.

Years ago, I read an interview with cartoonist and illustrator Tom Gauld, in which he declared the Uniball Eye Micro his favourite pen. Jealous of his robots and monsters and jetpacks, I immediately bought one, certain that it would magically imbue me with his drawing skills and invention. And sure enough … well apparently pens don’t work like that.

Still, who am I to let the obvious realities of the universe get in my way? Years later, I still love reading about what’s in other people’s pencil cases, and picking these things up, hoping to immediately adopt some new technique or style.

And yes, dead or alive, I will pester people directly. What pen was that? Where can I get one? And what about that? What pen was that? Creatives have made themselves constantly botherable, the immediacy of social networks allowing me to tap them on the shoulder day or night with whatever inane question has popped into my head. What am I supposed to do, just leave it un-asked, let the curiosity fester in my mind? That can’t be healthy.

Yes, I’m aware that, as well as being bloody annoying, the question is also kind of incredibly insulting. The insinuation is that the credit for the work goes to the tool rather than the hand – “Wow, you’re so talented at choosing pens! They make such wonderful pictures while you hold them! Teach me where I might procure these mystical ink-wands!”

Maybe I would give it a rest if only they didn’t respond – but they always respond. Even when having their talents tacitly undermined, it turns out that people who love pens love talking about pens.

So now I have a big pot full of the accumulated preferences of strangers. Copic markers, Japanese brush pens, graphite sticks and obscure imported mechanical pencils of very particular pedigrees and girths. I’ve even developed a thing for expensive professional pencil sharpeners, as if they will somehow improve anything. And now I’ve started sketching on my iPad, I have a whole new line of enquiry. Yes, that’ll be me at the funeral, politely harassing the deceased’s family about Procreate brush settings.

And yet, as much as I leech other’s inventories, this obsession over the tools of others isn’t actually reflected in my own work. The more coveted and hard-to-get a pen is, the more likely it will stay in my pot, untouched and precious. Sure, the Gauld-approved Uniball still gets a lot of use – but mostly for writing shopping lists.

I suspect my own response to “what pen was that?” would be rather uninspiring. I invariably end up with whatever is in reach: one of the numerous almost-dry felt-tips scattered about the house; a shattered and blotchy kitchen-drawer Bic; that antique Argos pen that hibernates in the lining of my coat.

And of course – of course! – it doesn’t matter one jot. A pen, all you need is a pen. Find your own line. Whatever it takes to get the drawing from in here to out there, to make some marks and get ideas down onto … onto … um … What paper is that?

Written for Creative Review

Personal project: Madame Bovary

Way over here on the furthest back of back-burners, I am very gradually working my way through David Bowie's list of 100 favourite books, redesigning the cover for each title. Here’s the latest, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The picture is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s 1870 painting A Woman Reading. I’ve posted/deleted this four times now. The problem with personal projects is that there’s no client to take it off my hands, so I end up tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and …

Reading: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

I’ve been a fan of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG for a years – his intelligent look at the world from a very particular architectural perspective makes it one of those blogs that leaves you feeling a little bit smarter after every visit. His post Nakatomi Space , which reappraises Die Hard as one of the all time great films about architecture, radically altered the way I read films and buildings.

That piece pops up again in A Burglar’s Guide to the City, Manaugh's entertaining and insightful exploration of how city and crime are shaped by one another. It’s filled with anecdotes from both sides of the law and across history. There's the 19th century architect and socialite who was at one time responsible for 80 percent of all bank robberies in the US; the burglar who lived inside a Toys R Us for months, setting up his own surveillance network using baby monitors; the inventor who developed a material so sturdy and impenetrable that his panic rooms may well be the last architectural structures left standing long after the collapse of civilisation.

It’s an absolutely cracking read, and well worth dipping your nose into even if your aren’t planning any heists in the foreseeable future – although by the end of it you may well be tempted.

Personal project: The Face Redux


NME RIP. It was a slow, painful death, but it’s still left a great void in British pop journalism. Which seems like as good an excuse as any to relaunch The Face, right? But not your grandma's The Face; a different kind of magazine to the original, but retaining the same core pop ethos. Quarterly, thick, high production values, passionate writing about pop, not fighting the tide of the web. And NOT nostalgic. So no dragging back the old writers to relive the good old days; get some new voices out there (consider this a very optimistic job application). Structurally, the Little White Lies model would work well. One big fat interview with the cover star – guess who my suggestion for the first issue would be – followed by lots of tangentially related stories, offering the sort of depth you don't get online.

You never know, it could happen. 

New work: James Joyce


A particularly fun element of last year's Wolpe Collection launch was the opportunity to redesign some classic Faber & Faber jackets using the new versions of Berthold Wolpe’s typefaces. I spent way too long mulling over whether or not this one needed an eyepatch over the O, but in the end I just let the Albertus Nova curly bracket do all the work. 

New work: The Wolpe Collection

One of my favourite projects from last year: art directing the launch of Monotype’s revived typeface family The Wolpe Collection, working alongside type designer Toshi Omagari and writer Michael Evamy. As well as various bits and pieces of marketing material, the launch involved an exhibition of Berthold Wolpe’s work at the Type Archive. Check out the video below for a nice overview of the show.


New work: No Surface All Feeling


This year’s Secret 7” design, for Manic Street Preachers’ No Surface All Feeling. Just a little something to help raise money for Mind. Plus it’s rather liberating designing without text for a change – generally not something art directors are too keen on.

Yuschav Arly

Loving the playful geometric portraits of Indonesian artist Yuschav Arly. Brace yourself for a whole lot of teal. There’s something very appealing about constraining one’s work to a very particular palette – an approach common among a lot of my favourite artists and illustrators. 

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M. Monroe #8


Marilyn Monroe hairdress test for Let's Make Love, 1960. Although it’s just a functional image, I love the surreal composition of this. I think I may prefer all of the photography surrounding Monroe’s films – especially the many candid shots of her reading – than the films themselves. 


After a bit of a hiatus (and a kick up the bum from Do Open, David Hieatt's inspirational book on the art of the newsletter), my mailing list – aka Meanwhile – is once again finding its way into people's inboxes. For the uninitiated, it's a semi-occasional newsletter, a digest of fascinating/obscure design-related links from across the web. Positive, good, smile-making stuff only. And because your time is precious, it only takes about thirty seconds to read. 

Subscribe and enjoy.

Chris Ware on the New Yorker


Over the last ten years, Chris Ware has been capturing the shifting values, worries and conventions of 21st century parenthood on his covers for The New Yorker. From the playground full of fathers to the ubiquitous glowing screen of the always-online parent, these scenes will be all-too familiar to any parent. Here are some of the best.

Type safari

If you have a bit of time on your hands (or indeed if you don’t, but are procrastinatively inclined), may I recommend a stroll down the infinite scroll of typesetting.co. It’s an archive of type found on the streets of Leeds – all the painted, stencilled, chiselled, carved, forged, tiled, scrawled, unique, peculiar characters that populate the city. A welcome change from the sterile perfection that your computer beams into your eyes all day long.

Inspired by this, I’ve taken it upon myself to explore the veritable type safari on my own doorstep, to photograph the wild words of York. It’s a very different city to Leeds, significantly more compact and touristic, less susceptible than its industrial neighbour to the effects of commercial regeneration and Greggsification. But there’s still a lot to unearth here. It was built by Vikings, Romans, printers, chocolatiers, philanthropists, tourists; a jumble of history crammed together in a maze of streets and Snickelways and Shambles, all of it peppered with type. Some of it is obsolete, some of it is still functional, all of it is interesting. And I want to capture it all.

So now, any time I’m out and about – when I’m meant to be errand-doing or child-fetching or pub-frequenting – I’ll have my phone unholstered, ready to shoot any fragments of typographic history that cross my path.

On streets constantly a-heave with tourists, this can be a particularly entertaining pastime. With a muttered “ooh that’s nice”, I’ll stop and point my camera at an awkwardly-located bit of type clinging to the side of a building. Immediately, the effects of crowd psychology will kick in around me. Looking up at something invariably makes others else look up, in case they’re missing something worth looking up at. This contagious gaze is only exacerbated by me point-and-clicking whatever it is up there. What has he found? It must be wonderful! Maybe a medieval thingamajig, or one of those Elizabethan somethingorothers!

But no, it’s just a funny-looking comma. Or an infuriatingly upside-down H. Or something large and unpronounceable branded onto the side of a trendily repurposed shipping container. Or a meticulously hand-painted and uncanny approximation of something that may have once been Futura. Or BANK hewn proudly into the brickwork above the door of a coffee shop. Or one of a thousand wonky house-numbers. So many words and numbers taken for granted by residents and visitors alike.

(Not all of it is ignored. York’s most famous, and questionably repainted, ghost-sign even has its own merchandise. Nightly Bile Beans Keep You Healthy Bright-Eyed & Slim … on a t-shirt. Everything here is ripe for tourism.)

It’s the really old, unloved finds – those pieces of type that have somehow survived years of urban rearrangement and renewal – that are the most interesting. And it’s not their age as such, rather the effect time has had upon them. Faded lettering emphasised by an outline of rust; edges and angles deformed by a century of repainting; characters eroded by the miniature desire paths of fingers traced over them again and again; logos colliding in the sedimentary layers of wheat-pasted gig posters. This is more like geology than typography.

It’s a constantly surprising pastime. I’ve always been conscious of the type out there, but only in passing moments, observations here and there. There’s a difference between noticing something and actively looking for it.

I was expecting to take a few snaps of some nice old letters, but it’s become more than that. The concerted effort of hunting has opened my eyes to appreciate how all of these stray moments of type co-exist, function and contribute to the vernacular identity of the city. The photographs I bring home are souvenirs of a renewed fascination with history, with the city, with design.

Written for Creative Review