Some local found type, brings up notions of cultural identity

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What makes design in Australia unique is often found in traces that is littered and hidden in its communities. One can turn a corner and look down to spy a set of letter forms that completely contradicts one’s understanding of local design and expression.

This marble and brass plaque can be found in the pavement outside a modest building – the Old Scotch College site, 264 Spring Street, Melbourne.

One often looks upon expressions like these and ask a range of very type nerd like questions. Who was the person who made this plaque? Why are the letter forms gothic looking? When was it made? Why was this detail used? Who taught type to this person? In most instance one is only left with the work itself and no answers. And yet there are countless examples of work like this that exist. Amass these lessor known expressions, and one can in part acknowledge a strain of Australia’s design culture.

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Monumental for Parliament House Australia by Garry Emery 1981

Much of our design history is obscured, as fine moments of Australia design expression lay hidden in the detail of our social fabric. That is until a local design student, or practitioner, spots the piece, takes a photo, or makes a rubbing. Then recasts these obscure characters into a contemporary typeface. This new typeface with past references, is then used for a brand identity for a local bank, bar, bathroom product, or bicycle retailer … and so the culture of expression continues. Expressions like this plaque, brands of the past (Symbols of Australia by Mimmo Cozzolino and Fysh Rutherford), a typeface designed for a public building (like Australia’s parliament house designed by Garry Emery) are minute sample of such skill and endeavour that is scattered across the country.

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Just recently we had Gemma O’Brien from web log – for the love of type, visit the studio from Sydney with a crew — making a documentary about type design and designers who use type from Australia.

A question she asked related to the Australian design style debate and what makes the Australian design unique. It is an regularly sited issue, this question has been asked by the best of them.

One finds this question a little trying. Why do Australia’s find it difficult to see that we have a style of work? Why wouldn’t we? Is this cultural cringe in action?

When teaching publication design at Swinburne I had a hunch about the Australian design thing, and funnily enough the idea came from my international students – the German students particularly. As compared to Australian education, German students are trained in design so thoroughly, design history included.

Often I would find myself critiquing their work and mostly blown away by their output, yet there seemed to be a something missing in many cases and I put it down to playfulness, or the willingness to play with conventions.

Europeans have such a rich history of design and it this history that has the potential to become between many of my European students and their ability to play – as if they are weighed down by sense of design history.

One looks at many designs produced in Australia and wonder what my old German students would think. Would it be produced, would be a rough concept?

This situation highlighted a few things. In the Australian design context it is clear that modern Australia lacks, or has a thin layer of cultural history developed over the last 200 years (since white settlement) as compared to what is in place in Europe (with cultures that can be tracked across millenia). Along side of this modern proposition, Australia’s indigenous culture is one of the oldest on Earth, of which the majority of the Australian population knows little of.

In a society with such thin points of cultural reference its is now wonder that the basic question are regularly explored, it is now wonder that there is a range of designers and works that defies, divides, borrows, cringes, parodies, reveres. Australia is place where it’s designers can do whatever they want and from afar, in established societies with a rich history of culture, it is no wonder that Australian work is considered thin, naive, clunky, pretentious as compared to other established cultures.

The stand alone opportunity of producing design in Australia is that if one prepared to explore, there seems no limits where one can take an idea – as their is a modest base of history of design research, criticism, documentation and theory.

As Australian designers enjoy the benefits of improved design education one will witness a refinement in design sensibilities. These new insights may see that much of the work that made Australian work unique in the past – be it naive, clunky or out right wrong, all but disappear.

As design education develops, the potential to explore design expression, is being exploited by emerging designers, the key is to encourage and embrace Australia’s curious and explorative qualities and make it a key part of Australia’s cultural makeup.

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