Back Story Every year New Contemporaries selects the best emerging artists in the UK and honors them with an exhibition and publication. Every few years it also selects a studio to redesign the visual identity of the exhibition catalog, and this time around the job went to London-based Hato. The designers got the brief in March and in August launched the redesigned publication, which Hato’s Ken Kirton describes as a fitting representation of the 45 new artists it features. A bold royal blue, image-heavy three page spreads, and a font called Left by the Czech foundry Heavy Weight gives the book a visual heft that matches the impactful, fearless, and at times political artwork of this year’s batch of artists.
Yet Left became a different thing entirely when it came to creating a headline font for the work. Hato started with the typeface as a base, but then created a digital tool that allowed all of the New Contemporaries artists to manipulate the alphabet as they saw fit. In a single 24-hour period, each artist got a link to a website where the letterforms were deconstructed onto an interactive grid block. Clicking one panel of the grid blew up that one side of the letterform, distorting it to absurd dimensions. Each artist worked from what the person before him or her had left, so that a “B” with a bulbous top half could be ballooned even more or knocked in the other direction. After a full day of this tweaking and re-tweaking, the shapeshifting alphabet was locked into place and the last iteration was used for the publication.
The resulting face suggests its communally crafted origins: the letters are thin and fat and wavy and truncated, like they’ve been cut out with scissors by a classroom of kids who’ve yet to master coloring within the lines.
What’s it called? Like the author of a cut-and-paste ransom note, Hato gives no name. This is mostly just because it’s not an actual typeface you can download, just an aspect of the larger project. But you might also think of it as nameless because it doesn’t have just one creator; its anonymity is fitting for the collective nature of the face.
What, too lofty? Kirton draws up a better parallel—one between a physical community and a typographic one. “What’s so nice about designing fonts or working on typography with a wider community,” he says, “is the sense that a font is like a community where each letterform is different, but they share a grid or they share a weight or certain number of shapes, so collectively they are one.”
What are its distinguishing characteristics? Uhm. Let’s not mince words here. Even Kirton admits that “you could easily say it’s an ugly font” though he adds that it’s also beautiful “…in its own way.”
Type purists may disagree with that last statement, but the fact is that a collectively manipulate-able font like this could have easily ended up way more absurd, or even illegible. Hato had to define certain parameters to keep the alphabet at least looking like an alphabet. You have the grid and the constraints of the digital tool to thank for that.
What does it pair well with? It works well with Left, as the New Contemporaries publication shows, and looks great in a sharply designed publication, laid out all funky and deconstructed across the page. Pair that with some of the UK’s best artists and an audience with a sense of humor. In fact, that’s the only instance it will work in, since this no-name communal typeface is not available to the masses.