The alphabet that keeps on giving

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There seem to be certain irrefutables about life as a graphic designer. That Helvetica will be everyone’s favourite typeface (and film). That, if ever asked to design anything for a film client, they will happily play with sprockets, film reels and/or directors chairs as iconography.

That (whilst they would never be caught dead wearing the colours themselves) they will merrily recommend phenomenally bright pinks, oranges and greens to clients on a weekly basis.

The other irrefutable truth is that they will spend inordinate amounts of time twisting and turning found objects in their hands or on their computers to make letterforms, to an almost obsessive degree. Just in the last month you would have seen this ad for Audi on British poster sites, making quite ingenious use of road signs.

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And you would have seen the blogosphere light up with interest in Gary Hustwit’s next project (on product design) and its already-designed poster’¦

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..or visited degree shows with their endless variants on a similar theme, whether they be bulldog clips or ring-pulls.

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Now, whilst all of the above are nice pieces of work, it would be only prudent to point out that making letterforms up out of objects is, er, not exactly new. As long ago as 1954 Gene Federico was substituting type for wheels in this classic layout.

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Then Michael Tesch offered us this in 1959.

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And Herb Lubalin, no less, was making creative use of slinkies many decades ago.

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In the mid-nineties (in a definitely retro mood) we based an entire season of paper posters on letterforms made from folded or ‘˜found’ paper-related objects.

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But nobody interested in ‘˜found’ alphabets can ignore the definitive version, by Mervyn Kurlansky, then at Pentagram London. It dates from 1977, and was done for what was then called Preston Polytechnic. He used any objects he could find lying around the studio to create his alphabet, originally printed in black and white…

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…which was then re-printed in U&lc magazine and eventually re-created it in colour.

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And whilst some of the objects might not have stood the test of time (B and C, for example?), the idea still looks like it could have been done yesterday. Marvellous.

Whether they know it or not, designers have been standing on the shoulders of Kurlansky’s alphabet now for decades. Paul Elliman has been collecting found items and objects for years to build his ‘˜bits world’ typeface since the mid-nineties’¦

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…used here in collaboration with GTF in this project for the Chaumont festival dating from 2004.

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So ubiquitous is the technique that there is, of course, a flickr pool celebrating found alphabets.

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And some of them are very nice indeed.

And as we write, thousands more designers and photographers are arranging found objects into letters and experiencing that ‘˜eureka’ moment for themselves, and who’s to say there’s anything wrong with that? Each time it’s done, it’s done slightly differently.

Perhaps this is just one of those ideas that will keep going, and going, and going, and going…