TEDxUCLA 2011: Minding, Mining, Mending, Mapping

If “h” is a chair…


About Andrew

Andrew Byrom is a British-born graphic designer, typographer, and college professor at California State University, Long Beach. He studied at Cumbria Institute of Art and Design at the University of East London.

His studio clients include The Guardian Newspaper, The Goethe-Institut, Penguin Books, The New York Times Magazine, Du Magazine, Elle Decoration, and Sagmeister Inc.


There is quite a well-documented phenomenon that we all have, I think, for face recognition and the idea of searching out faces, human faces, from our very from a very young age. And you don’t have to do much to ask someone to find a face or to look at something and, within that thing, find a recognizable communication.

This one, I think, is probably the most widespread, or the one that I see every day and the one that I can’t not see a face.

I came to the conclusion when I first came to the States from the UK that perhaps this was designed on purpose to look like a face to put children off from sticking their fingers in it, you know? If you look at it, it kind of looks like the face you might pull if you were being electrocuted. Note the bulging eye.

So I was introduced to typeface design, which is what I’m going to talk about today as a student at the University in London. And the reason I told that story up front about face recognition is because over time, I’ve developed a kind of face recognition from everyday objects, but what I’m starting to recognize is letterforms.

So here’s one of my earliest type designs, and this is when I was a student, and I’ve gone outside and I’ve jumped in front of, you can see the London bus there. I’ve jumped in front of some buses and some taxis and I’ve taken photographs of the road, and I’ve designed the typeface that would go with them. And these are some of my earlier explorations within type, typeface design.

So the one on the left is a colorblind test, and the one on the right really is face recognition. Typeface recognition. The one on the right is made of flexi or bendy straws, and this is my first real typeface design in the year I graduated from university. Basically, it’s found straws, bent and rearranged to create letterforms.

Now over time, I begin, I began to see letters everywhere and letters in everything. This is something I saw in a brochure or a catalog you can buy, you can go and buy your Band-Aids. And I started, when I studied this, I looked at this, I thought it was saying something. And I became convinced that there was a typeface within it.

So my work from there on in became looking for or searching out typographic forms, and then taking those forms — and these forms would be from the everyday world — taking those typographic face recognitions and taking them back and digitizing them into a typeface. So the whole idea was to look at something, the actual three-dimensional, and bring it back to a flat, traditional typeface.

Now something happens around this time, and it was this: I was sitting in my office in my studio in London, and I saw this chair in the corner of my office. And because I’m becoming obsessed with typeface design and seeing letters everywhere, I started to think that this chair looked a little bit like the letter “h.” And then I thought, “Well if I if I can accept that as a letter ‘h’ and we can accept that now as a letter ‘h,’ then what would the rest of this typeface or its alphabet look like?” And here it is. And what happened, I drew this very quickly, and this design was cut and pasted in Illustrator very quickly, and had my answer.

And what I like about typeface design, there’s many, many different constraints that are associated with it. There’s a long history, there’s this very nice system that goes along with it, there’s the alphabet, which are like place cards that we can put ideas onto. So typefaces, once you’ve had an idea and once you’ve come up with a system, they kind of design themselves if the system works.

So here was my idea. If “h” is a chair, can I design this whole typeface and will it end up looking like these things are little tiny pieces of furniture? So if you note some of them, I went on, obviously, I got overexcited and I went on and I met this guy who could weld and we made these things, and we put them into a gallery, we had some gallery shows, and so we had the whole set. And now these, when we, we put them into a big space and then kids came in to rearrange them and wrote curse words, as you would, you know?

So then an interesting thing happened. A designer asked me, or questioned the design, and said, “Well, look at those, the P and the Q and the R and a few of these letters, if they were really sitting there, would fall over.” And my answer then, which really was getting out of a problem, was: “A three-dimensional P would fall over.” Right?

And I’m not sure if I really meant it when I said it, I was just trying to get rid of him, or dodge the question. But afterwards, that had a profound effect on me. I was looking for constraints within the furniture design and applying them to typography. And that idea of looking for constraints in a different medium or a different process and applying it to some rules I’ve mastered is how I’ve developed since then.

So — and I’m going to show these designs in a kind of linear order here — my next idea was to basically take that typeface, which was called Interiors, and make a tubular steel version of it, make it like the Wassily chair, a Bauhaus classic. So the idea was I was going to take some tubular steel and I’d remake these and maybe put some leather patches on these and be able to sell them.

But I realized through the process that what I was doing was not letting the constraints of this material lead me in any direction. And so I went all out to find, if I could, a process that would alter my design. So this was my original design and as you can see it’s pretty much a bended or a curved version of that first design. And I realized through the process that if I just change this material from steel, strong and durable and furniture-like, to a more delicate material like neon, then I’d have a brand new type of design and I would have new constraints for which to affect my letterforms.

I went to the local neon manufacturer, I showed him this design on the left, and he told me it could not be done. “You can’t do this. You can’t have stems coming in. Neon has to be a continuous flowing line, like a piece of string, it has to come back on itself.” And he gave me all the constrictions and restrictions and constraints of the design. It was fantastic!

So I did the one on the right, and I designed this and I came back to him and I said, “What about now?” And he said, “No, I really don’t think you can do this because these are free-standing, they hold their own weight. Neon’s like low-relief. It comes off the wall, it comes out.”

So I redesigned it again and I tweaked it and I came back and I would, he would drive in in his truck in the morning and I’d be waiting for him with my drawings, y’know? And in the end, he got kind of annoyed with me and just said, “Look, I don’t want to do it, all right? And leave me alone.”

And then two weeks later, I got a phone call on a Sunday afternoon from him and he’d said to me, “I was lying in bed last night and I realized how to do your design.”

And I’d hooked him in, right? Which is also something to learn how to do, you know, collaborating with people isn’t using people, it’s getting them in. And we had this shared moment together in his studio of “oh oh oh” in his workshop and we made a little prototype from the neon. So this is this, so designed.

So, and again, these things are freestanding, he had to work out this quite intricate way of putting them together, to weld them together at the end, and all this stuff. But I would never have designed this without that collaboration and without that little back-and-forth and without learning from him as much as the constraints of that material as I needed to know — probably more than I needed to know — but I needed to know for something to happen with my design that was forced.

So I got a little ahead of myself at this point because I was realizing, I was dealing with, my other designs followed suit, I was dealing not with just typography but with almost product design. So I began to think of what kind of products could I make with this three-dimensional approach to typography.

And this idea was inspired by a modern dome tent, these tents that you put the poles in very quickly and you can just *pop* and they give you a nice tent and you can jump in and sleep. So I did a lot of research into how these are made, what materials are, I sourced materials, I had the tubular plastic with the elastic cord that runs through them, and I made these intricate little letterforms. And here when, and they come in a little bag and you open them up and and *pop* and you have your letterforms.

And they’re ideal for maybe a protest march. We can go on, we could write something, and then when the police come, we can just pop it up. And what what, you know? And I liked the idea of temporary, I wanted to give people big lettering. Temporary signage systems, I called it. And you could have this for your opening or some kind of event.

Now what happened to me, these were exhibited in a furniture design exhibition held by Design Within Reach called Modern Design Functionality. It was an odd thing, MDF was an unfortunate kind of lettering, but… MDF. And so they asked me to use these letterforms to have this sign that would go into this gallery space for this event. So I made them and I took them to Chicago, and as I was packing these things up afterwards, put them together and I was outside, some guy that I’d never met before that wasn’t in the event came past and asked me, because one of them started moving off down the street with the wind. He asked me, “Are they kites?” Now, what I didn’t tell you was because I’m not a product designer, I’m very naive with all of this material. I’m learning things and all the time, and I’m delving into these new areas, and it takes a long time.

The design, this design took me like 18 months just to get the prototype to work. The little three-way angle joints that I had to make myself, and all those parts, to get those sourced and make them, took me 18 months. This guy asked me if it was a kite, and it was a moment of “No… but it should be!”

So within two weeks, I had my kites made and we went down to Seal Beach with my kids and we flew them around and an audience gathered around us, and you could sort of see from looking no one knew what was going on, as you can see: “What’s this supposed to be?” And then all of a sudden, every now and again, you’d have the “Ahhh!” y’know? When they aligned perfectly at this point.

So, yeah, and in that lesson. It’s also — I guess so, in there is also a lesson too. Time… what I should have said up front is, typeface design is this kind of subsection of graphic design, but you don’t have to have a client to do it, right? You don’t have to, you can, it’s self-initiated. So you have an idea and you have, any typeface is basically one person’s kind of idea and they tweak it and tweak it. And I see these as typefaces still, they’re objects, but they work in the same way, they get used by other people. I’m showing you the prototype but they’ve been used by different clients over the years to say different things, just like a typeface I might have designed — a conventional typeface — might be.

So here I am having these ideas and looking at objects around me and trying to find typographic form, or trying to squeeze typographic form into those, these kind of scenarios. And then at this point I started to look at my own 2D, a backwards kind of approach. I looked at my own two-dimensional designs and started to see then what they would look like if they were three-dimensional.

And this is a stencil design I designed, so I’ve designed, and if you study the breaks in the stencil that I needed to keep it from falling apart and for keeping the paper strong and then analyze those, to me they started to look exactly like what you’d need if you were designing handrails in a bathroom. The breaks are at the same place. So again, this kind of is, once you’ve let, allow yourself to go there, this design builds itself.

So I went again to the company that makes handrails for hotels and bathrooms and I spent a lot of money and a lot of time on their machine because my design I just went and bent things and I went, “Let’s make this.” And they said, “You can’t do that, it’s a compound curve. And if you’re gonna manufacture these things, you’ve got to figure it all out on the machines.” So I spent my most of my time, or money was spent paying for time on the machine, you know, measuring what could be done. And then through that process, again, all the constraints went into being able to make these letterforms.

So, and, one of my fears is that I make something and then further on down the line, someone says, “We need this. We’ve got this huge hotel chain. We want your type in every hotel in America.” And I turn around and say, “I can only write the word play. Sorry.” Y’know? So what I’m not showing you here is my, kind of, other processes that I’ve designed is always the whole set of the alphabet, I design every letter, and that in itself, making sure that works is a big part of the process.

So, which leads me to this: this is an image of my window in my office. And I think we’ve all done this: we pull it. So the only difference is when I pull it, I don’t walk away. I go, “Ooh, wait a minute!”

This is a Venetian blind. it’s been pulled on one side and not the other and it curves up beautifully. And if you study that and really look at the lines and how those lines gather together as that tapers in, if you’ve got some kind of typographic problem like myself, you start to see that there’s a typeface waiting to happen in this.

So I bought a few of these things, laid them out and went around, pulled a few strings, and wrote my word. Now, the reason I’m showing you this one at this point is because I think the process here is backwards. I didn’t design the typeface to make it three-dimensional. I had this three-dimensional idea and I think the answer here, the ultimate answer is not this, but the typeface that came from it because there’s no way I would have sat down and drawn some of these lines at a computer or with a pencil. These, this design would not come out of my head if I hadn’t gone through this process of feeling and making and observing an object. And so now what I like about this is instead of having, ’cause I can open and close these blinds on the wall, so instead of having light, regular and bold, I can have open, regular, and closed. And again there’s something, I think this was, this is the ultimate kind of design from that whole process of looking at window blinds.

Now most recently I’ve been commissioned to design a catalog cover for UCLA Extension. Now — yes! — and it’s been an ambition of mine to do that, it’s a prestigious job, and some of the designers that have worked on UCLA Extension catalog covers in the past are very well-known and respected. So for a long time that’s been something I’ve wanted to do and now I have the opportunity to do it. And as you can imagine, I’m going all out to do something, to do something different.

So as I collaborated with the neon manufacturer, and as I’ve collaborated with a lot of people along the way, I worked this time with a furniture maker and we made 15 desks and tables at different heights. And you can sit in them, you can dine on them. And what we’ve done is we’ve, outside this building right now, we’ve set up a live link — you’ve got to trust me, here we go — of the letters.

So it is, it’s lunchtime coming up now. I’d like to invite you to go out, grab a T, and sit on a C. Thank you.