19 May 2016

Early 1970s Britain was a country of formalities and social conventions; radio and television presenters all spoke with the same ‘standard’ accent. The visual landscape of the time featured either classical styles that had changed little in 200 years, or the rigid restrictions of Modernism. Britain was recovering from post-war austerity and it became a time of political and social turbulence as the country began to look towards the future.

When Punk first exploded in the mid-1970s it looked like chaotic, youthful rebellion and was a shocking contrast to the norm. Its DIY ethos and uncontrolled, home made style encapsulated the anti-establishment mood of the time. The former British Empire was dissolving and a new era in British music, fashion and design was beginning, one that would change things forever.

different fonts

Taking the stage to articulate the feelings of a dissatisfied generation calling for change were the Sex Pistols, who released their infamous debut single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in 1976. Their outrageous behaviour and contempt for established conventions announced the beginning of Punk. The band’s style of music was well represented by art student and anarchist Jamie Reid who had developed his unique collaged ‘ransom note’ typography whilst art directing a radical political magazine.

Punk and a new DIY culture

Although at the time Punk looked like a spontaneous youth movement, it was part of the Postmodernist movement that began as a reaction to the rigid restrictions of Modernism.

Apple had not yet released the first Macintosh computer, and home computers were still in the realm of science fiction. To create a record cover or a poster, a graphic designer would commission a typesetter who would type the words into a machine with no screen; they were unable to see what the typeset words would look like. The words were then printed on a photographic sheet to be pasted down onto the artwork, which was then photographed to create the printing plate. This was a laborious and expensive process.

punk culture boys

Reid circumnavigated this process, and instead he cut letters out of newspapers and magazines, collaging them together to be photographed. By doing this he could see what he was creating as he went along—trying out different font styles and sizes and seeing the results instantly. Treating type as if it was a photograph freed him from the restrictions of typesetting within a structured grid. There are parallels to be seen in the typography of the Futurist and Dadaists who used innovative ways to brace letters at angles in letterpress frames.

Although at the time Punk looked like a spontaneous youth movement, it was part of the Postmodernist movement that began as a reaction to the rigid restrictions of Modernism. Elsewhere Postmodernism was taking the form of New Wave Design, which was championed in Switzerland by Wolfgang Weingart and in Holland by Gert Dumbar.

The DIY design ethos gained new impetus with the arrival of the Apple mac in the 1980s. This gave designers direct access to typefaces and, for the first time, they could see what they were creating ‘live’ on screen as they designed it.

Punk is 40 years old this year. The DIY ethos is stronger than ever with the advent of new software and platforms such as Instagram where everybody can share their designs. What do you think the typography of a youth rebellion would look like today?

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