How to start a revolution with Comic Sans

Could something as simple as font have been the catalyst for the spread of punk or behind Donald Trump’s win? We explore the hidden power of typeface

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The idea that something as simple as typeface can be an integral part of a protest movement might sound a bit far-fetched. But the role of fonts is just as important as actual words in communicating a message to the masses. It’s why you don’t ever stray too far away from Arial or Times New Roman on your CV – you don’t want to come across as too much of an avant-garde loose canon by opting for Lucida Handwriting or Bradley Hand. Or why you don't commonly use curly script-like letters for your uni essays.

Sarah Hyndman creates workshops and events designed to teach the art of typography and deconstruct the power of design. The ‘Never Mind The Typography’ exhibition outlines how the angst and rebellion of punk was expressed in every fibre of the counterculture, even right down to the lettering. “When punk (and its typeface) arrived in the mid-70s, the design at that point in time was very traditional and old-fashioned, kind of nostalgic and backwards looking,” she explains. It was this reaction to the rigid restrictions of modernism that gave birth to a whole new movement in innovative design. Cast your mind back to the creator of the ransom note style and the Sex Pistols logo Jamie Reid, and the slick layered graphics on British Independent album sleeves created by Barney Bubbles, who also designed the logo for NME magazine. “With all of this comes the layering of meanings, layering of images, often lots of references and subtexts that were put in so you had to be in the know to understand the references. You know from that type style that the album is going to be in a certain rebellious underground – it's going to have swearing in it, basically.”

From Obama’s modern typeface and Trump’s pseudo-homemade shouty font to the possible revolutionary power of Comic Sans, we talk to Hyndman about how to make your words capture a rebellious spirit.

ON THE DIY NATURE OF PUNK …

“Not only were you the designer, you were the band. You would make up the tickets and the record covers and it would be made out of whatever newspapers you could find, piles of Letraset (transferable ink letters), lovely Letraset was in its heydey. Felt tip pens, stencils, anything you could find. It was a point in time when technology suddenly enabled the everyman to actually become their own publisher, even if it was just a local photocopy shop in the library it was cheap enough that you could go and mass produce your magazine and hand it out on the street or sell it for 50p or whatever. It was the first time when it was properly democratised. Being able to disseminate your own information and you didn't have to go through the professional channels, so nobody else was editing it or preventing it.”

ON THE POWER OF FONT…

“Typefaces make an initial, instant impact. You read the words exactly the same way you would form a first impression of how you look at somebody from their body language, from the way they dress. Because we do this incredibly instinctively, in a split second, we come up with a preconception about what we're going to get. If you’re in the supermarket one (font) might communicate whether a product is expensive, or if it's cheap. We have been learning these visual codes all our lives, we learn them from everything, from movie posters, etc. Punk, before you've even read any of the words – had already ripped up what you expect from the establishment and thrown it back in your face. You already knew that you were being shouted at, it was all being just deconstructed.”

“He literally is embodying the voice of the voiceless, by making it look cheap and DIY. And it's all shouting, all upper case. It kind of reflects the way he talks really quite well” – Sarah Hyndman on Trump

ON THE NEED FOR CHANGE AND INNOVATION…

“Anything that is rebellious and anti-establishment once it's existed for a little while it becomes a part of the establishment. It's just a cyclical thing. It becomes a style, that's why all these years later The Libertines put out an album with the ransom note style on it because they're now using the visual code of rebellion that was set up by punk, but actually it's become almost a cliche.”

ON THE POLITICAL POWER OF LETTERING …

“During Obama's 2008 campaign, his message of change was completely embodied in this use of Gotham typeface, which at the time was completely different to the very traditional typefaces that would have been in the typographic landscape in the US. So he was able to rebel in that way, and then a few more examples – like the miner strikes in the 80s, look at the typefaces that they use.

Donald Trump’s campaign had ‘TRUMP’ in Akzidenz-Grotesk BQ Bold Extended, with lots of spacing between the letters, and ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ is in FF Meta OT Bold. Both are proper designer typefaces, so clearly his stuff has been designed. He hasn't just whacked Arial on a word document, but, I think it's all designed to look like he had. It's all created to look very un-designed, to make it look anti-establishment and anti-corporate. In contrast, everything Hillary is putting out is very designed. Obama's stuff was very beautifully designed, but we all know the designers involved in all of Obama's stuff. Whereas Trump, you can't find out who they are, they're anonymous. That's how he literally is embodying the ‘voice of the voiceless’, by making it look cheap and DIY. And it's all shouting, all upper case. It kind of reflects the way he talks really quite well.”

“I was thinking the other day that ultimate rebellion is if we all start using Comic Sans.” – Sarah Hyndman

ON THE BIGGEST DESIGN REVOLUTION TODAY…

“On Facebook and Twitter, you can't change the type. But the one place that you can is Snapchat. And as long as you use Avenir, you can make it bold or italic or underlined and in really hideous colours, you can put it in any angle. It's really quick and instant and because it's only going to last for 10 seconds you're not going to spend any time trying to design it. And for me, that's the closest parallel I can think of to the punk ethos of today.”

ON THE ULTIMATE REBELLION…

“I was thinking the other day that ultimate rebellion is if we all start using Comic Sans. The whole point of rebelling with type is that firstly you look at what's the context, so with Punk the context was modernism, and what do you do that's different. I think that spirit (of Punk) will always prevail and I really hope we are about to enter a new era of, well it won't be called punk, but it's something. Something that's a DIY movement, everybody rebelling against this awful corporate monster that's taking over.”

Sarah Hyndman will be talking at The Museum of Brands this evening, and The Graphics of Punk exhibition will run until January 29, 2017

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