There’s a beautifully scattergun approach to A2Z+ Alphabets and Signs, a gorgeous compendium of loosely curated typographic ephemera and graphics. Its co-editor Julian Rothenstein claims that he’s “a completely non-academic kind of person, I just go on the hunt and find things I like that seem to fit.”
Sounds like a dream project—scouring book fairs, libraries, second hand book shops, and for the most part, designer friends’ bookshelves, for beautiful, unusual, inspiring type. Rothenstein describes a process that involves picking out images that took his fancy, with no constraints around era, genre, purpose, or indeed, anything else. “It’s completely instinct,” he says. “The book is so eclectic and random, but the whole idea is that designers can use it.” As such, the imagery is (almost) entirely copyright free.
In a sense, it’s a book built from designers’ collections for designers’ collections—according to Rothenstein, some of the richest pickings came from the shelves of his chums Richard Hollis and Brian Webb. Libraries, Rothenstein finds, can often be “too bureaucratic.”
There’s such a wealth of material in the book: alphabets, emblems, letters, and signs drawn from advertisements, shop signage, opticians’ eye charts, technical manuals, posters, and more. “As functional visual systems designed for communicative purposes, printed alphabets speak of their time and place, and assume recognizable styles,” art historian and writer Mel Gooding writes in the book’s introduction. “They invite contemplation as freestanding artifacts of their cultures, variously perfect, flawed, or simply queer. In every case, they are aesthetically expressive and culturally shaped.”
What’s so charming about the book is its subtle reconfiguring of the idea of what an alphabet can be. Lettering and symbolism is so much more than conventual typographic characters, and it proves the beauty in communicating through creative solutions and symbols. As Gooding puts it, “All letters begin as signs, writes Victor Hugo, and all signs begin as images.”
In that spirit of contemplation, we spoke to Rothenstein to run through some of our favorite images in the book.