the writing’s on the wall

0 Commentsby   |  03.16.11  |  Weblog

I have to confess that this month I’ve been lured into a bit of graphic design. It’s a challenging project, matching typeface to photography and other design elements to suggest a certain flavour of tradition with a hint of nostalgia. For once, I had to go beyond the standard image editing tools and make tracks into the heady world of fonts. At the same time I started to read ‘Just My Type,’ a really well written book on the cultural meaning and context of a well turned alphabet character. (Also interwoven is a history of the printing press.) It’s a fascinating insight into the importance of speaking well in 2D. This got me on to thinking of how we are surrounded by signs, messages and graffiti and what they are unconsciously saying to us 24/7. Words demand attention. How many times do you read the same magazine cover, packaging or errant post whilst sitting on the loo? It’s compulsive. The writing is definitely on the wall, literally and everywhere.

Words in pictures can be the subject of the image or they can be selectively used to add, detract or change the intended meaning. They do this by slyly talking to the other side of the brain at the same time; pictures speak to the dreamy, receptive right brain whilst language is managed by the pragmatic left. In practice this offers the opportunity to have words reinforce an idea with a double barrelled approach, contradict it with a mad sign or simply cause confusion with mixed messages. All in one picture. What fun!

Luckily I’m a big fan of words, my strap line on the website is still pictures|moving words – a lofty reference to my writing which I try to live up to. Sometimes though I stumble across words out in the world that just have to be included in a photograph. It might be a defaced Banksy or a hand painted warning on brickwork that suggests another time, another world. In a remote cottage on the Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, I found a readymade still life which tells you a lot about the kind of place you’re in — in two languages plus photography. When I’m working in another country, I’m especially interested in what clues can be gleaned about attitude. One of my favourites, from Sologne in France was chalked on a blackboard in a humble restaurant: Quand les gros seront maigres, les maigres seront morts — loose translation:  Only when the thin are dead will the fat be thin! Having a shot of the sign means I can get it translated later and even, on occasion, remember the simple wisdom! If, like Arabic or Hebrew, the whole alphabet is different then writing can appear simply as shapes and symbols – graphic elements. This can’t be seen in English as your impatient left brain will be screaming WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

For me the pictures that work best are the ones where words and image complement each other, they work as a team to say more – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. KNOW HOPEproclaims a hefty paint-brushed message on a dilapidated wall in Tel Aviv … BROKEN HEARTS RECOLLECT THEMSELVES WHILE DISTRACTED. The building itself looks pretty hopeless with rickety shutters and sun bleached walls. Tel Aviv, with its history of conflict, knows a thing or two about broken hearts. But what made someone climb a ladder and leave this missive writ large so that we all might see it? A local, kindly soul I suspect – and one with an eye for bold design in unusual places.

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