You’ve probably listed off your dream dinner party invitee list before, but what if instead of a dinner party you were asked to plan your dream design conference line-up, and create posters to promote each of the imaginary speakers?
This is exactly what students of the Type and Typography course at Burg University of Art and Design in Halle focused on last semester. Each student designed a speaker poster for an imaginary conference called “Strange Lab,” an idea dreamed up by their professor, type designer Andrea Tinnes. It’s a project that Tinnes has been assigning her students for two years now. Last year, Hito Steyerl, Corita Kent, and Archigram were the headliners. This year though, Tinnes’ line-up is all-female.
“During a time of so much discussion around the under-representation of female designers at conferences and in juries, I thought to myself, ‘Why not celebrate the many women that have contributed to the creative field?’” says Tinnes.
The students’ posters celebrate contemporary designers such as Anja Groten, Félicité Landrivon, and Offshore Studio’s Isabel Seiffert. The great Margaret Calvert is also on the imaginary line-up, as are Sheila de Bretteville, Zuzana Licko, Muriel Cooper, April Greiman, Johanna Drucker, and the team behind Spare Rib magazine. From beyond the immediate sphere of graphic design, there’s Hannah Arendt, Yayoi Kusama, bell hooks, and Jenny Holzer. The various type treatments reference specific speakers: the black-and-white, 3D appearance of Muriel Cooper’s typeface draws from the designer’s own computer experiments; Margaret Calvert’s poster alludes to her iconic UK signage and sans serif type.
One of the problems design educators regularly discuss is the difficulty of contextualizing design history for their students: How does it fit into a classroom of students who are primarily grappling with fundamental layout and technical lessons? When it comes to the history of design itself, there is no neat, singular account; rather we must embrace complex, divergent narratives.
The Strange Lab exercise invites students to interact with various histories while still focusing on the process of making, bringing typesetting, text formatting, InDesign, and pre-press skills together with a critical engagement with politics, theory, contemporary design, and design history.
“I want to encourage students to observe and question, and to think beyond what’s obvious and expected,” says Tinnes. “By introducing the students to these brilliant, fascinating women, I want to make them acquainted with their work, biography, and viewpoints. I also want to open up a discussion about the lack of visibility of women in the art and design world, and to question the graphic design canon.”
While students address composition and hierarchy, they are also asked to research their assigned speaker, translating their outlook into visual and typographic metaphors. “It was important to me that the posters weren’t just about purely biographical dates but the students’ own assessments of each women’s specific approach, method, and contributions to her field,” says Tinnes. “The exercise also triggered a lot of vital discussion about the power structures responsible for gender disparity.”
Each poster was printed at the school’s printing workshop, designed in black-and-white with one spot color (purple, red, or green) chosen by each student, and paired with paper in neon red, neon orange, light blue, or purple. A conference booklet designed by each student lists off the imaginary speaker line-up and their various lecture titles. Bikini Kill and Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna in conversation with Peaches, followed by Zuzana Licko on Emigre? Yes please.