Inspired by... blog

10 posts categorized "Typography"

02 December 2014

The new Gothic Type

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In an earlier piece, writer Emma Tucker explored the history of gothic type and its development in Europe. Here we trace the ways new designers are reclaiming blackletter, and explore the typographic choices made in the exhibition itself.

Despite its dark historic associations, gothic, or blackletter, type is still in use today, and not just in hackneyed representations of horror. In addition to its prevalence in certain music genres, contemporary designers are rediscovering blackletter and reclaiming it.

Poster for Only Lovers Left Alive, using the FF Brokenscript typeface

FF Brokenscript specimen, from

A poster for recent Jim Jarmusch 'horror' film Only Lovers Left Alive uses FF Brokenscript, a modernised version of traditional blackletter that retains all the defining angled cuts and snake tongue-esque forked stems, but with some some much-needed legibility.

Poster designed by Michael Bierut for the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine

Its roots in the religious are also being explored, albeit in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, and gothic type found a renewed place in the church earlier this year, when the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York issued an event poster that managed to be both irreverent and reverential, all at once.

Designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface, a contemporary take on traditional blackletter

Elsewhere, young designers are creating new interpretations of the design, taking the character of traditional gothic type and applying it to contemporary typeface designs, such as designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface, which has been used in recent record artwork and posters.

Perhaps ironically – but purposefully – blackletter is at a minimum in the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition, with gothic references kept subtle. The exhibition designer explains, “The arrangement of all the graphics of the panels are referencing tombstones, and the serif that we chose has these really triangular, quite aggressive serifs. It's a reworking of Stanley Morison's typeface Times new Roman, and as it gets larger the more extreme it gets.” She adds, pointing to a particularly vicious spur on the capital G, “that G could kill you, right?

Gothic type also makes its appearance in the pieces on display, and even within the actual literature itself. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto states in the preface that the work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family, and, claims it was “printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529”, calling to mind images of a dark, closely-printed lost manuscript.

Even in the cover of the first edition of Dracula there's a nod to the spikiness of gothic type in the stake-like descender of the R.

Other book covers seem to reference the dark inkiness of blackletter through the use of another, more legible, typeface.

Although not using 'typical' gothic type, this cover design seems to be referencing the dark, angular nature of blackletter

Dark though its story is, and despite its unavoidable historic links, gothic type demonstrates the power that type and letters can hold, both as a visual style, and its ability to provoke a response. In the words of German graphic designer and typographer Otl Aicher, “Writing systems are political, and typography is just as rich a source of cultural insights as gastronomy.”

17 November 2014

How the British Library supports designers

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If you are involved in illustration, graphic, interior or product designillustration, graphic, interior or product design, we can help you.

Be inspired by our collections
The Library’s collection includes a copy of every book and magazine published in the UK, photo books, artist’s books, knitting patterns, newspapers, vinyl covers, fanzines, calligraphy, maps, stamps and more. Whether you’re interested in interior design from the 1950s or examples of gothic type, we have something unique for you.

Image: British Library music collection

So how can you use the archive?  You need to get a free Reader Pass to see our collections in our Reading Rooms in London and Boston Spa, Yorkshire. These short animations should help get you started.

Product designer Eleanor Stuart was inspired by the Library’s Alice in Wonderland original manuscript to create a new home ware range:

Designer and architect David Ajasa-Adekunle used our Business & IP Centre to develop his award-winning Tetra Shed (below).

Image: Tetra Shed

See our Pinterest board of designers who have used the British Library to help develop their ideas.

Get help with the business side of things
In our Business & IP Centre you can get advice and support on working for yourself and setting up your own business. This could include business planning, finance, market research (we have some amazing reports on retail trends, for example) and intellectual property.  We run a full programme of events, networking and one-to-one advice sessions. Lastly, if you have already set up in business, you could benefit from our EU-funded Innovating for Growth programme.

A place to sell your products
The Library holds one-off markets and stalls within our buildings – previous examples have included a Christmas Market, Spring Fair and pop-up market for our Gothic Music and Fashion day.  We also stock designers’ work in our Shop (onsite and online).

Watch our Spring Market video:

Read more design-related blog articles here.


22 October 2014

Typography: From Gothic to Blackletter

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17. Morte d'Arthur (G.10510) - taken from 'Section 1 - for Dale' folder
Image: Morte d'Arthur

As part of our Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition, we asked writer Emma Tucker about gothic fonts (of which there are lots of examples in our archive). Emma is a writer covering design, music, and culture. She's currently working on a new design and type-focused print magazine for Monotype

There's no argument that cultural perceptions of the gothic come with a set visual language, informed by years of book covers, film posters, and history. Stereotypical graphic images of the gothic are often accompanied by appropriately spiky typography; the severe angles and points of the letterforms calling to mind engravings on ancient tombstones and the spikes of stakes. In fact, the typographic link has become so overt that too 'obvious' depictions of the gothic now feel inauthentic, or mocking.

There's also the borrowing of gothic type – or blackletter, as the script is commonly known – for music subcultures: punk, heavy metal, black metal, death metal. There's no doubt that, in the eye of today's culture, blackletter references the dark, the unapproachable, and somehow the undefinably supernatural.

The dark undertow of gothic literature is reflected in gothic type's own dark history, from its time as a vehicle for German national identity, through to its cultural appropriation by the Nazis. The more correct term for gothic type – blackletter, also known as broken script – refers to the calligraphic script of the Middle Ages, often hand-written by monks transcribing religious texts.

The very first metal type was born from this calligraphic style, and Johannes Gutenberg's 42-line Bible of 1455 used a blackletter which was based on liturgical scripts of the time. However, while roman types - the kind you're reading now - were embraced by most of Europe, and prevalent in England by the 17th century, Germany remained faithful to blackletter until well into the 30s.

Other European nations had jettisoned gothic letterforms in favour of the more 'simple' and 'graceful' characteristics of roman type, as opposed to the dark, angular, 'fussy' nature of gothic – barely legible to contemporary readers. The two styles were set against each other as polar opposites, with the very character of gothic type portrayed as somehow darker in nature. In his 1900 essay, Plain Printing Types, typographic scholar Theodore Lowe DeVinne issued a damning statement, describing blackletter as “a degenerate form of the roman character.”

Despite criticism, blackletter became a defining part of the German nation's visual character, with everyday books and newspapers published in gothic type, and children learning blackletter script at school. Some scholars even refused to read German publications set in roman type. However, during WWII blackletter was characterised as the 'German type', and debased and militarized by the Nazis for propaganda. Although the script was forbidden in 1941 – ironically by the Nazis themselves – blackletter remains touched by its cultural associations, unable to entirely shake free of its history.

Today gothic letterforms retain a dark historical resonance, but have also found new homes in visual language, particularly in that of subcultures. Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin says, “For current music and youth cults, blackletter is a means of proclaiming multiple identities: a collective, a people, a race, a nation, heavy metal, black metal, gothic – all of which celebrate brutality, or in a highly artificial way, the symbolism of death and destruction.'

Designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface, a contemporary take on traditional blackletter
Image: Designer David Rudnick's HyperZeit typeface

Gothic lettering proliferates in the visual language of the music scene, particularly in those pitching themselves as musical minorities. It's also the stereotypical type style associated with horror, which seems to reference the fear and darkness associated with its historical connotations. Type designer Gunnar Vilhjálmsson compares the typeface to dressing up in a leather jacket and ripped jeans, saying, “It's this naïve way of looking scary or getting respect. The blackletter or gothic types have that insult. That's the design programme of these typefaces, these letterforms. They have some kind of mystical dark history even though, if you know anything about it, you would see it's a normal letterform.” Some of the gothic power of the style also lies in the striking appearance of the script – diagonal, clearcut, and bringing to mind its original use in bibles and latin texts, which adds to the mysticism. “There's no other style of writing the latin script that is as bold and powerful” says Vilhjálmsson.

You can view examples of Gothic typography from the British Library archive on our Discovering Literature website.

18 August 2014

From the felt Cornershop to Marinetti’s Futurist Tin Book

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Lucy Sparrow’s felt Cornershop project is all over the news at the moment, and it sounds so fun. She raised £10,000 on Kickstarter to create a cornershop in Bethnal Green with products made entirely out of felt. And I mean everything. Chewing gum, fish fingers, Irn Bru, cat litter and instant noodles.  Even the cash register is made of felt!  It’s open until 31 August if you fancy a visit.

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Image: Fish fingers from the Cornershop

It got me thinking about some of the books we have in the British Library collection that are not made of paper. They fall under the category of 'artists' books' and we have items from around the world. Our Curator, Carole Holden, has written in the past about Andy Warhol’s Index Book which includes a balloon and Klaus Scherübel’s Mallarmé: The Book, which is made of styrofoam.

With help from The Art Fund, in 2009 we acquired Marinetti's metal Futurist book Parole in Libertà, also known as The Tin Book. Its full name is Parole in Libertá Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (‘Futurist Words in Freedom - Olfactory, Tactile, Thermal’). It is about rejecting the current format of sentences and words and moving towards "words in freedom".

The production of the book is fascinating. Its designs are lithographically reproduced over 30 pages. It was manufactured in a tin can factory in Italy. And of course, the tin pages reflect the Futurist love of the machine.

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Image: Marinetti's Parole in Libertà

Futurism was an artistic movement celebrating the beauty of technology, with the belief in looking forward, rather than the past. Marinetti even went so far as to say “destroy the museums, the libraries...” A little ironic in that his book is now in our collection, to be preserved in perpetuity.  I’m very glad we do have it, as it is visually stunning.

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Image: Marinetti's Parole in Libertà

If you’re a fan of his work, you’ll be interested to know that the British Library has over 70 books written by Marinetti (1876-1944), as well as a number of his manuscripts and sound recordings. It’s a fantastic collection.  You can find out more about how you can use our collections on our 'Help for Researchers' page for artist's books, fine presses and book art. And I've done some of the hard work for you - here is the catalogue link for our Marinetti Tin book.

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Image: Marinetti's Parole in Libertà

31 October 2013

Professor Pepper's Ghosts

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British scientist John Henry "Professor" Pepper (1821 - 1900) travelled the world demonstrating his scientific and technological innovations. He's best known for developing the projection technique "Pepper's Ghost" - a trick of lighting and glass that makes an actor appear ghostlike on stage. Our wonderful Evanion Collection of Victorian ephemera includes programmes, notices and posters of his lectures. (It's a great resource if you're interested in typography.) Check out this poster below. I like the bees - they look both gruesome and silly.

Happy Halloween.

Poster, Royal Polytechnic Institution, Westminster,  Professor Pepper's Ghosts, c. 1885,  Shelfmark Evan.466  

18 September 2013

London Design Festival - Craft Central's Imprint exhibition

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As part of London Design Festival, our friendly partners over at Craft Central launched Imprint, a cross-disciplinary exhibition of print design. I popped over last night to have a look. Here are my highlights:


Don't let the rain keep you from visiting! The exhibition is open until 21 September from 10.30 - 18.30 (Craft Central 33-35 St John's Square, London EC1M 4DS. Tube: Farringdon or Barbican)


DesignK's Tea for One Table - "Handmade in England and inspired by traditions like afternoon tea, these cheery designs melt our hearts." I agree!  


Katie Brown - Silk scarves designed and finished in Northern Ireland, printed in Macclesfield. On my Christmas wishlist. 


Stylist Marlies Winkelmeier and designer Alice Fleger of Dandelion Tree admiring Thornback & Peel designs. 


Thornback & Peel's shop is just down the road from the British Library. We'd love for founders Juliet and Della to visit the Library and check out our print collection


Eleanor is behind the Hampstead-based letterpress design studio Marby & Elm. I immediately thought of the Library's Evanion Collection of Victorian ephemera when I saw her designs. The type she uses has a very similar style and feel to Victorian posters and handbills produced for plays, exhibitions and circuses. When I told Eleanor I worked at the Library she squealed with delight and plans to come in and check out our typography collection. 

There is so much for designers to be inspired by at the Library. Check out our FREE show & tell of our gorgeous Exotic Prints and Drawing Collection. I could see a lot of the birds and flowers in the collection designed for a scarf, table or wallpaper and hopefully then sold at Craft Central!

20 August 2013

Alice in Wonderland-inspired ceramics and prints by Eleanor Stuart

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I met designer Eleanor Stuart last week at PopUp Piccadilly where she was selling her Alice in Wonderland-inspired collection of plates, prints and cards. The Library holds the original Lewis Carroll manuscript of Alice in Wonderland and we also have it available online through our award-winning Turning the Pages software which Eleanor used for her research. Here she tells up more about her work.

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Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind your designs? 

When I first came upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the illustrations by John Tenniel, I was struck by how intricate, surreal and detailed each drawing was. What I was particularly taken with was the expressions each character had that tell a story in themselves; from the rather angry-looking Queen of Hearts to the nervous and very late White Rabbit to the mischievous Tweedle Twins.

The inspiration for re-working and adding my own touches to the original work was a feeling that these original illustrations were being lost in a sea of cartoon versions of Alice far removed from these wonderful originals. The originals are also quite small and in black and white, so I felt there was a great opportunity available to revive the illustrations, bring them sharply back to life and add colour, quotes and my own little spin to the work.

We love when people use our collections to make something new. Can you tell us about how you used the Library for research? 

When researching Tenniel’s original illustrations, I used the British Library’s online Turning the Pages application to see Carroll’s original illustrated manuscript. What I had not previously realised is that Carroll had even illustrated his original work, and it was interesting to see that Tenniel’s illustrations do bear a close resemblance to those featured in the original manuscript.

I think the British Library and its collection is an inspiration in itself: knowing all these great works of literature penned by authors both British and from afar are housed within this one huge building full of rabbit warrens and glass columns full of old books where you can find and stumble upon almost anything in the world of literature is pretty amazing.

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I like that image - the British Library full of rabbit warrens! What fun! So what has been your biggest challenge as a small business?

Patience! With my designs and illustrations completed, and the ideas I always have swimming around in my head, I always want to realise them instantly which is of course not entirely doable. Learning to slow down and appreciate the processes involved with realising an idea has been something I have come to enjoy. For example when I was in the process of having my Alice Collection of fine bone china plates produced, it was so rewarding to be able to visit the potteries in Stoke-on-Trent to see how this traditional British industry is still applying traditional British techniques and sensibilities to the work they produce, and I feel this attention to detail and quality of work really shows in my pieces.

What does “Made in Britain” mean to you? 

“Made in Britain” is so important to me, I put it on my logo! Not only am I proud to be made in Britain having grown up in lovely Richmond, but I love that through the work I create I can support British industry and help to keep the skills we have in this country alive and current. I have met such enthusiastic, incredibly helpful and skilled crafts people in my search for suppliers to help create my products, which is such a rewarding experience.

I also feel “Made in Britain” is important not only to British people, but internationally as well. I have found when selling internationally and in Britain that the stamp of authenticity and that relationship between my product and globally recognised institutions such as ‘The Potteries’ in Stoke-on-Trent is really important to people. Not only British people wanting to buy British, but international customers wanting to buy into the quality and skills they associate with the British craft and creative industries.

I have also found other designers and illustrators are equally as passionate about that “Made in Britain” stamp of approval as I am. I have come to know and admire some really great people on my journey into the world of design and illustration including Jo Robinson from HAM who creates fun animal themed screen prints made by her own fair hand in London, Cecily Vessey who designs wonderful London themed illustrations across a range of ceramics, and Sara Smith (my neighbour at PopUp Piccadilly!) whose selection of colourful, gilded and illustrated teacups are really rather beautiful – and made in Stoke-on-Trent.

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The shop has been super busy, I hear. What kind of feedback are you getting?

I have had some really amazing feedback; I would say it has been one of the best things I have done as a small business in terms of exposure, testing the market and meeting other like-minded designer/makers. (Rupert Laing from Shortbread House has made mine and my fellow designers stay at PopUp Piccadilly particularly enjoyable with an ever refreshed supply of delicious shortbread samples to hand).

As a predominantly online business, coming out from behind my computer screen and meeting my customers, showing them my products and being able to have them touch and feel the quality of each item has been a really rewarding experience. I have also had a great response from potential retailers, so that is an exciting direction I am looking forward to taking my business in - with Alice and her surreal, mad and late friends in tow!

Images courtesy of Eleanor Stuart.

Check out this video from the PopUp Piccadilly launch:  


12 August 2013

Happy Birthday ZOMBIE Collective!

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ZOMBIE is a collective of five graphic artists and illustrators: Joely Brammer, Rebecca Jay, Alice Lickens, Maggie Li and Frann Preston-Gannon. Together they work on a range of creative projects and workshops. They took part in our first Spring Festival and created a giant illuminated manuscript with typographic collage. This summer they celebrated their third birthday. Here are some highlights from the party and on what inspires them.

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You guys know how to have fun! What happened at the party? 

The party was a celebration of three years of Zombie Collective therefore it was perfect occasion to let our hair down with friends, family and clients past and present. It was great to organise an event where the main purpose was to have fun! Joely made a Z shaped piñata which refused to stay attached to the ceiling and Maggie baked a Z shaped cake. It was all in the spirit of a children's birthday party so we included a craft table where people could make their own props such as moustaches, beards and crowns and then have their photo taken in the Zombie photo corner.

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What have been your biggest achievements and challenges over the past three years? 

Over the years we've worked with some great people including the British Library, Tate Britain, Design Museum and the Hayward Gallery. Our biggest achievements to date have been our nautical themed show Fathoms Deep at the Hayward Gallery in May 2012 where we curated a show of 20 people and transformed their shop into a nautical setting. Our most recent event was at Pick Me Up, Somerset House in April 2013. We were selected as a collective to exhibit in the graphic arts fair which attracts a huge international audience. For this we created a 3D Ideas Machine which dispensed small objects to inspire creativity and new ideas.

It was challenging when we first started as new graduates unsure how to approach being a new collective. What we've found over time is that our different strengths help each other to tackle our creative challenges. Whilst it can be challenging to work in a group, and particularly as we don't share a studio space, our collective skills have been invaluable to the success of events.

ZOMBIE Collective at our 2012 Spring Festival - ILLUMINATE! A Celebration of Illustration (Buzz Films)

Where do you find inspiration? How does digital content inspire you compared to seeing the real thing?

Joely: Digital content is fantastic due to its accessibility.  At the click of a few buttons you can find a wealth of inspiring materials and reference points which you can then share quickly with others. I recently saw the Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan exhibition at the Wellcome Trust. I had seen the digital content online which had lead me to visit the exhibition. The intricacy and pattern making in some of the pieces was simply lost in the online versions.

Alice: I spend a lot of my time thumbing through books and old type catalogues to pick up the next idea. Hunting out things on the web is also invaluable and it’s great to keep an eye on new work that’s coming out as well as plundering those weird and wonderful internet finds like Bulgarian stamps from the seventies and all those amazing things that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise.

Maggie: The internet and digital content have been indispensable when it comes to my work as I often have to research subjects I know nothing about under tight deadlines. It’s vital that I can access information quickly and the wealth of content online makes my job easier in a way. Having said this nothing compares with seeing original artwork and artefacts. I like to think digital content opens us up to more things and generates curiosity to go out and see the real thing, which can only be a good thing.

What are your plans for the coming year?

We're currently in talks about putting together a new exhibition in the new year. Alongside the show we’re planning a series of events such as talks from industry professionals and portfolio surgeries to help out fresh graduates and young illustrators. We’re also delighted that Frann, Maggie and Alice will have new books released in 2014 from Anova.

Photos courtesy of ZOMBIE Collective