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In Conversation with Old School New School Design and Typography Founder Veronica Grow

How did we progress from scribes to typesetters? What is typography and why does it matter? We have a chat with Veronica Grow, founder of Old School New School Design and Typography, ahead of two new courses starting at the Convent in March.

Firstly, tell us about the name Old School New School (OSNS). Does that encapsulate what you do, the merging of the old and the new?

Correct. Old is the new new! We are all about getting back to basics and listening to the wisdom of the hands and heart, as well as the head. We feel that mainstream education has lost its way and listens only to the head. It concerns me that we have lost the notion of skill, and people no longer know how to work by hand to produce something of quality. Instead, they want to learn a bit of this and a bit of that, but we want our students to learn one thing and do it really well.

What is typography and how does it differ from calligraphy?

Both typography and calligraphy are ‘writing’. Humankind has always needed to write, and there were scribes who were employed by kings, the church and the original Italian merchants to create written documents and contracts. With the growth in commerce and technology, this needed to be done more efficiently, and so the printing press was created to make the process of writing faster. And hence we have the birth of ‘type’, which is writing with prefabricated letters. This is why the rules of calligraphy and typography are the same. Today, we are all typographers, because we all use type when we type on the word processor, but sadly we just grab a font from the list and type without thinking about font or typeface we have chosen. This is what I refer to as ‘fast typography’. In the same way that McDonald’s is fast food and we are not interested in where the meat and bread came from, so it is for typography. At OSNS we teach slow typography.

You have two short courses coming up next month on word design and script lettering. Who these classes are for and what can participants expect to learn?

Script Lettering and Custom Word Design is about drawing a word. It is a good two-day workout for people who love to draw. You don’t need to know anything about calligraphy as this is an entirely different process. It involves drawing the word, and then refining and editing it so that it is perfect. In the 1950s before we had computers, all magazine headings and titles were created using this technique. It is useful for creating logos, book titles, and poster titles. We also teach you how to flourish, so that what you produce will look very fancy! You learn the history of the technique, which is actually very useful and helps to sharpen your eye to find the most ideal placement of line and space. It will definitely help you to become a better drawer, and designer. It is not easy, but it is a lot of fun.

You’re following this with a more rigorous five-week course on type design, aimed at professionals and highly motivated students, for which there’s an application process. What are you looking for in an applicant to make sure they’re going to get the most out of the course?

An applicant will need to have completed a graphic design program or course or worked as a communication design professional for at least two years so that they know how to use typography effectively. They will need to have an excellent work ethic, a lot of drive, good manual skills and be a team player with a hunger to learn.

You’re one of the only schools in Australia to offer a class this extensive. Is there a risk of typography becoming a lost art form if not for classes like this?

OSNS is the ONLY school in Australia to offer such an extensive program. There are other courses, but they do not teach the history of ‘writing’ and do not explain the history of quality, sound typefaces that were originally designed for text and reading. Students need to understand this DNA of contemporary typography.

Are most of your enrolments from people looking to hone their typography skills, or wanting to learn something completely new?

Most of the enrolments are from people who did not get this learning in their undergrad course. They were not taught how to draw letters correctly, create a professional level typeface, or what even makes a good typeface. There are consequently very few type designers here in Australia, and it is seen as a mysterious art form when most of the professional type designers have studied overseas. There is an increasing demand for custom typefaces that are designed specifically for a branding message to help individualise branding stories. Increasingly the only way for a brand to differentiate itself is via its typeface. This is where our students fit in.

Old School New School prides itself on its practical hands-on approach and moving away from the confines of a computer. Is it a challenge to get people to stop relying on the comfort of the computer screen, or do most artists and designers find it refreshing?

For digital natives it can be a challenge, especially if they have never drawn. For students who have always drawn, drawing letters comes quite naturally and they love working by hand. It is actually a lot more efficient and quicker to draw the core characters of a typeface first in pencil, and then when the character is defined to continue designing the remaining glyphs (characters) on the computer.

What are the benefits of working this way?

Once you have the skills and knowledge of how to draw letterforms, it is more efficient and quicker. It saves time and money. It is also good for the heart and soul because it makes the designer feel happier and more highly valued. Clients also value seeing the initial concepts for logos and word marks presented as a nice tight pencil sketch because they feel that is much more special and customised than something churned out on the computer. Working by hand enables the designer to tailor something very specific and special so its win win for client and designer. The outcomes are always much more creative and interesting and work effectively to help specialist brands shine.

How does the hand drawn work of the typographer go from the page to the screen, for the purposes of reproduction and digital publishing?

Their hand drawn glyphs (characters) are imported into type design software and traced. Spacing parameters are created around each glyph so that it will work in every other possible letter combination to create words and sentences. It is then exported as a TTF font, which can be uploaded into InDesign or any other publishing software to use in any design project being web pages, posters, anything at all.

Old School New School’s workspace has natural light pouring in from the gabled rooftop windows of the Mercator building. Is it the ideal space for typography and collaborative learning?

Yes, it’s very peaceful, especially first thing in the morning when we need to focus on drawing. In winter it is very cosy and warm with the hydronic heating, and it’s a big space where we can make a mess, without bumping into one another. It works very well.

Does Old School New School have any more exciting plans for the remainder of the year following these runs of classes?

Yes, we do have plans. Our type program graduates will be exhibiting their typefaces toward the end of May. We are exhibiting at Cam’s Gallery in September, and we will also be running new two-day intensives on sans serif letterforms, and exploration of vernacular letterforms. We will also continue to run our monthly three-hour Brush Script Calligraphy introductory class, for people who are interested in trying calligraphy out, and we will continue to run our copperplate calligraphy classes throughout the year too. I studied in America last year, and I will be unpacking all my knowledge into many short courses over the year. We will also be running a classic sign painting class.

Old School New School Design and Typography is part of the Convent’s in-residence community, comprising more than 100 writers, artists, designers, illustrators and creators.