Emily Schofield’s Situationist Typography leapt out as a surefire highlight of this year’s London Design Festival for its nuanced letterform designs, careful use of color, and promise of investigations into a letter’s ability to “express protest.” That was enough to have us hooked, and then we dug a little deeper, and boy was there a lot more to it than that.
As the project’s name suggests, Situationist Typography looks at letterforms through the lens of Situationism. Very, very briefly, this theory evolved in the late 1950s through the Situationist International group, who aimed to erase categorization of different art forms, and instead see creativity as a seamless and integral part of everyday life. They also made some prescient observations on modern life—particularly Guy Debord’s assertion that everything had become a representation of something else—and it was these that initially sparked Schofield’s fascination with the group.
“I generally tend to get quite interested in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with graphic design,” she says. “I was really interested in the Situationist International group when I read a Guy Debord quote from Society of the Spectacle: I thought somebody had written it in 2016, but he said that in the 60s. I thought, ‘who was this guy who predicted the future?’
“I’m really interested in the effects of technology on society, as so many people are, and it was just startling to me that this person felt these things so intensely in the 60s. So many things he said have got completely out of control in the past 50 years. I was interested in his idea that the immense presence of all things commercial and entertainment-related creates structures for us. We think we live in freedom but we’re so ruled by these structures.”
Schofield found herself in awe of the witty and creative ways Situationist International expressed their discontent through unusual forms of protest. They focused on the city as a site that distilled the very essence of human nature—where everyone dashes from place to place with a predetermined direction and purpose—and reacted by deliberately meandering the streets with no planned timeframe or destination, or simply sitting and doing nothing in opposition to the idea we should always be busy.
“Their protests and methods are different to what people think ‘protest’ means,” says Schofield. “It made me wonder if there are forms of protest in graphic design. “I drew a parallel between typography as a tool that abides by rules, and thought that maybe type could break free of these structures.”
As such, the project aims to view typography through Situationist lenses by carrying out three investigations: The first is looking at the ability of letterforms to express protest, as delineated in her beautiful, Swiss-leaning series of posters. However, through these she found that letterforms themselves weren’t breaking free, they could never become disentangled from the slogans or missives they spelled out.
She then went on to a more rigorous investigation: “can the protest be just the typeface, not what it spells?” The result was a website that manifests the idea that a typeface can become autonomous and subvert its own content.
Users type into the site, and the words are automatically scrambled into “freaky digital type that refuses to work.” Schofield says, “It drives you insane, it just jumps from one thing to the next. It’s meant to be disruptive. I liked that it was a bit like Situationist International’s ‘culture jamming,’ making fun of something through association.
“It’s protesting the 21st century’s overwhelming information age and all that comes with that. It’s just this strange schizophrenic digital thing that breaks the rules of legibility.”