Uniformity is desirable, even attractive, in some contexts. It’s good that traffic signs are recognised as such and that most people can understand them. A corps de ballet, or a chorus line, is a thing of wonder when individuals conform to a larger design. We like it when petrol, coffee beans and biscuits are sold by a generally agreed volume or weight.
Elsewhere, people instinctively buck against standardisation. Australians like things a bit mixed up. From the food we eat to the patterns of our social interactions, we are a society comprising different ideas from different places. One doesn’t need to dig deep to find evidence of multiculturalism. It’s all there on the surface, in the visual cues with which we communicate. That’s the testimony of two experts who read a society by its signs. They are not semioticians but people who work with type and typography – from shopfront signwriting to neon and electronic billboards – and can tell us what they say about the culture that produced them.
Lebanese type designer Nadine Chahine was in Melbourne recently for International Design Week. Among other things, she has designed an Arabic typeface for Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper and the Arabic variant of Frutiger typeface that is used at Dubai Airport. When she arrives in a city, she looks at its streetscape, people and their lifestyle, but she can’t avoid studying its use of text. Typographically speaking, Melbourne is in keeping with the global trend for modern sans-serif typefaces such as Frutiger and Helvetica. “But what I find interesting in Melbourne is the coexistence of so many different scripts in the street signs and shops,” she says. “If it’s a Vietnamese shop, you will have text in Vietnamese. If it is Chinese, you will have Chinese script as well, and that you don’t often find in other big, cosmopolitan cities. When you are in London or New York, it doesn’t jump out that quickly. “You see so many different scripts here and that gives it a kind of richness that is very interesting. It’s not just the Latin (alphabet), it’s about the Latin sitting with so many other scripts as well.”
Local typographer Stephen Banham, founder of the Letterbox design studio in Brunswick, has made a study of Melbourne’s signage and typefaces. Long gone are the neon billboards that once illuminated the Yarra’s southern bank with letters spelling A-L-L-E-N-‘S or A-S-P-R-O. But Banham, on an hour-long exploration of a city block between Swanston and Flinders streets, can point out rare type from an earlier age. The former Capitol Theatre, opposite Melbourne Town Hall, has a rich typography, with the theatre’s name variously rendered in 1950s-style condensed slab serif (inlaid in the paving at the cinema entry), 70s glitzy gold capitals (inside) and neon tubing surrounded by lightglobes (hidden between awnings on Swanston Street). In the laneway out the back is a real gem: original signage – with art nouveau decorative features and wedge-serif type – that echoes the cinema’s interior design by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.
Banham recently has opened an exhibition at City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall, on another variety of signage: street names. In the show, called Cluster, he illustrates the groupings of suburban streets named by theme. Elwood, for example, has a literary cluster (Byron Street, Dickens Street, Shakespeare Grove) and Narre Warren has a Beatles theme (Jude Place, Norwegian Way and the inevitable Abbey Road). “Signs are way-finding systems, but they are not just about navigation; they are about how we understand the environment,” Banham says. “Signage is a component in our visual landscape, in the same way that architecture is, and industrial design. They are all parts of a very large system of how we read space and how we see ourselves.
“Melbourne’s landscape has given it a different visual culture to that of Sydney. The flat topography and regular street grids gave the city long sight-lines ideal for large advertising billboards. The street-art phenomenon has given the city’s famous laneways a contemporary urban complexion. But Melbourne also has a substrata of historic signage that can be read a little bit like an archeological dig. Banham descends a subway at Flinders Street and ducks into the Campbell Arcade, built as a pedestrian thoroughfare for the 1956 Olympics. It is a cave of pre-digital signage. The former telephone booths are indicated with a sign spelling T-E-L-E-P-H-O-N-E-S, inset into the curving tiled wall. “That’s condensed sans serif, condensed for economy of space,” Banham says. “It’s been beautifully crafted to go around these corners.”
He is disappointed to find that the vestigial sign for the Mutual Store, at the far end of the arcade, has been erased. It may be emblematic of the condition of much contemporary signage and advertising, which is temporary or ephemeral. Digital displays, such as the electronic billboard on top of Young and Jackson’s hotel, allow for a greater variety of advertisers but their messages are mere flickers compared with the single-name neon signs that once occupied Southbank. Banham works in a profession whose instincts are for uniformity: the “total design” concepts with which corporations brand everything from letterhead to the company fleet and head-office towers. Banham says he prefers a more diverse culture of signage: he has seen the deadening effect of style-book rule at city-state level in Singapore. “Style guides always flatten the visual landscape of an area when they are out of control,” he says. “It kills me, every time I go around Singapore; I think it’s so flat. They have bulldozed all complexity out of that culture and it’s such a pity.” Australian cities are more diverse, showing what Banham calls a “wonderful multiplicity” in our visual language. “I’m always asked, is there an Australian style of graphic design? There is none,” he says. “The style is the fact that there is no style.”
This is the same quality that Chahine noticed in Melbourne. She did not have time on this trip to venture to Arabic neighbourhoods to see their signage, but she has left some examples of Afandem Arabic type, which she designed, at the State Library of Victoria. Afandem, she says, is based on classical Arabic script but she has given the curves a more contemporary contour. In one example at the library, the elegant cursive script reads: “Full of love”.
“When you look at the ways we communicate, you have the visuals, the graphics, and the typeface through which the words are being communicated,” Chahine says. “So a typeface is the visual embodiment of your message. It is both the gift and the wrapping paper at the same time.”