Week One: History Revealed

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

The purpose of this weeks lecture was to identify the contemporary and historical significance and impact that typography has had on a location.

Stuart Tolley began by discussing his graphic design studio, the work he produces (example below) and the significance that typography has within that work. He also mentioned how side projects aide a richer understanding of typography.

Image: Transmission › Quarto Publishing. Build+Become Book Series

Through the short film, presented by PBS Arts, it was clear that designers felt type as being a form of expression, identity and spirit. If a poster is generating attention, it's doing its job!

There are so many aspects within type that need to be considered in order for it to be successful in fulfilling its purpose, such as: colour, size, texture, style.

A Brief History of Type Design

  • In the 15th Century movable type was created by Johannes Gutenberg. Books, text could be mass-produced at a low cost.

  • During the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century, people moved to urban areas in search of employment. The rise of an urban population created the need for signage, posters and newspapers as well as competition and need to stand out.

  • Within the 19th Century, cities were full of signage informing the public of services and products available. This signage would usually be painted on buildings, as this would be pre billboard. The image below is an example of this, close to where I live.

Image: Taken by me

In Tainan, Taiwan, artist Yan Jhen-Fa paints the movie posters for the local movie theatre (below) and is one of the last to be doing so. I like how his posters don't make even the biggest of Hollywood films feel out of place and almost conform to the identity and cultural heritage of the city. It's globalisation and local tradition and culture working in harmony.

Image: Taken by me

Gucci's art walls (below), painted on the sides of various buildings in numerous cities, around the world almost seem to be a nod to this previous way of advertising in the 19th Century.

Image: 假日打卡熱點!Gucci藝術牆最後告別作,再以「手繪」詮釋最新形象廣告 | Vogue Taiwan

Painting the sides of buildings wasn't the only way to advertise. There was a time where skyline advertising was banned in London, so the company that made the famous OXO beef cube and its architect, Albert Moore, incorporated the design as windows on a tower (below) to get around it.

Image: Our History - Oxo Tower

London Underground

Image: EDWARD JOHNSTON. The Father of Modern Calligraphy | by Teodora Botezatu | Medium

Edward Jonston (1872-1944), pictured below, was a British calligrapher, creator of the Jonston Sans typeface (1916) designed for the London Underground signage (above). The typeface combined readability, beauty and simplicity and is described as the voice of London.

Image: Edward Johnston - Wikipedia

Signs; Lettering in the Environment

Road Signs

In the reading, it was interesting to learn that signs stretch back as far as to Roman times, and are still visible in many towns and cities. A lot like the ghost signs that can be viewed on the sides of some buildings. Signage is a visible viewpoint into our history, showing the kinds of products advertised at the time and the original names of towns and cities.

Signs are a means of communication. Road signs can be slit into two categories, 'informatory', giving directions, and 'regulatory', giving instructions or warnings. With this in mind, they, therefore, have to be universally understood. This is done by taking into account the scale, contrast, letterform, and placement. Signs that need to read from a distance need to consider more space between characters, words and lines with the majority of sign systems used for large transportation networks since World War II is in the style of typeface sans serif.

Signs Abroad

Although there are many signs and symbols that are universally understood around the world to mean certain things, such as red at a traffic light being stop, it isn't always the case. For example, we in the West take it for granted the pictograms of a man and woman to mean toilets, however, in some other countries they simply mean just man and woman. This informs us that not all symbols can mean just one thing across different countries and cultures and therefore have to be monitored. With this in mind, signs abroad also deliver us some kind of comfort when travelling. Entering a new country for the first time can be daunting with numerous barriers inhibiting smooth conversation, however, signs can guide us in requiring even our most basic of amenities.

Place Names

In addition to directing and instructing us, public lettering can contribute to the way we identify, and to some degree, respond to the places and spaces we visit. The definition of a sense of lace through the way in which local streets are named is nothing new. Street names and sign can be influenced by the location and the materials that are rich within that location. The street signs in Venice reflects the cities beauty but aren't always the most practical, however, this is also part of Venice's charm. But other factors can lay a part too. Given the limited daylight in Scandinavian countries perhaps it is no coincidence that a high proportion of fascia lettering uses neon.

Edward Fella: Letters on America

In the reading, it's mentioned how every country has its patina of language repeatedly splattered over its landscape, which is very apparent in the US.

Edward Fella has amassed thousands of polaroid photographs which he began around 1987. His work isn't about capturing the whole word from the signage but the vernacular lettering, spacing, and form.

Image: (41) Pinterest

Image: edfellaRoids_136.jpg (577×612) (iconolo.gy)

The reading reminded me of a short trip I took to the US a couple of years ago. I was mesmerised by the signage, like works of art and reminiscent of times gone by. Below are a few photographs of signs I took.

Workshop Challenge

I live about an hour away from Taipei in Taiwan. I'm in the countryside rather than an urban environment which I feel is reflected in the typography.

Chinese Calligraphy

I also wanted to show this poem I got from a local artist last year. It's about a traveller but I've forgotten what it says exactly.

Five Typography Examples

Below are the five examples of typography that I feel best reflect the identity of the town (Yilan, Taiwan) where I currently live.

1. Temple Lanterns

Temples are an important part of Taiwan's culture, history and identity. You're never too far away from a temple here which is further proof of their importance. In the previous module, I looked into Onion Design, a design company located in Taipei. The company is a 2-Time Grammy nominee for Best Album Packaging at the 57th and 62nd Grammy Awards as well as the winner of the 30th Golden Melody Award for best music packaging, which reflects Taiwanese temple culture. The type on the lantern is hand-painted, which is how a lot of signage is still done here. It's painted in red paint, which has many positive connotations, not only in Taiwan but many other Asian countries too. For example, the colour red symbolises good luck, joy, happiness and fertility, to name a few.

2.Local Artist's Calligraphy

I got this calligraphic poem from a local artist last year. Firstly, it's by a local artist which I feel is a strong connection to the culture and identity of where I live. Secondly, calligraphy, or simply ink and a paintbrush are one of the earliest forms of graphic design and written communication. Chinese calligraphy is very expressive and I still see some signage around the town that's inspired by it. The local market stall holders still adopt this method of communication as a tool to sell their produce to passers-by, chefs from local restaurants, the people that make up this town's personality and overall identity.

3. Motel Sign

Close to where I live, in the township of Jiaoxi, are numerous hotels, spas, and retreats as Jiaoxi is famous for its natural hot springs which attract tourists from all over during the winter months. With so many hotels in competition for custom, it's no surprise that the signage has to do most of the fighting. The example I've chosen uses neon lights and a mixture of both Chinese and English, reflecting the broad appeal the area has. The Chinese typography seems to be influenced by Chinese calligraphy which shows how this town is still in touch with its heritage, culture, and tradition even though the usual suspects of globalisation, such as Starbucks, are present.

4. Engraved House Name

This house name is engraved in marble which is a rock I've found to be dominant in a lot of buildings and signage. Some experts estimate that Taiwan has 30 billion metric tons (33 billion short tons) of marble deposits, one of the world's largest. Marble belts are found in the eastern part of the Central Mountain Range, extending from Suao in the north to Taitung in the south. Total length is about 200 kilometres (124 miles), with a maximum width of 10 kilometres (6.2miles). Many strata are more than 1 kilo­meter (0.62 mile) thick. Not only this, but the colour gold represents wealth, as it does in Western culture too.

5. Market Sign

Traditional markets are also a big part of Taiwanese culture and identity. They sell anything and everything and is where chefs from the local restaurants will buy their products to create some of the worlds most famous cuisine! Their signage can echo traditional Chinese calligraphy, like the one above, done by hand with black ink on a white background. Even though globalisation has brought with it the likes of Carrefour, which is located in a local shopping mall which dominates the skyline, these markets remain extremely popular with locals, selling good quality local produce at a fraction of the price.


It has been a really interesting week. I've started looking into the geology of Taiwan as I noticed some type engraved into marble, it's a fairly rich resource here. So much so, as some of the pavements are paved with it, which is pretty hazardous in wet weather! This has made me realise just how much location influences typography, not just in regards to the tools available but the materials that act as the canvas. It has also been interesting to see how typography has developed from ink and paintbrush to printing and fascinating to see examples of both, merely a stones throw from each other. However, this also makes me question how long will these older processes be around for.


Transmission. (n.d.). Transmission › Quarto Publishing. Build+Become Book Series. [online] Available at: http://www.transmission.design/work/quarto-publishing/ [Accessed 24 Jan. 2021].

Eliot Stein (n.d.). The last film poster painter of Taiwan. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.com/travel/gallery/20181107-the-last-film-poster-painter-of-taiwan [Accessed 24 Jan. 2021].

Oxo Tower. (n.d.). Our History. [online] Available at: https://www.oxotower.co.uk/our-history/ [Accessed 24 Jan. 2021].

Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Edward Johnston | British calligrapher. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-Johnston [Accessed 24 Jan. 2021].

Behance (n.d.). Onion Design Associates 洋蔥設計 on Behance. [online] Behance. Available at: https://www.behance.net/onion [Accessed 27 Jan. 2021].

Baines, P. and Dixon, C. (2008). Signs : lettering in the environment. London: Laurence King Pub. [Accessed 30 Jan. 2021].

China (Taiwan), M. of F.A., Republic of (n.d.). https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=&post=. [online] Taiwan Today. Available at: https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=20 [Accessed 31 Jan. 2021].

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