That time the Prodigy unwittingly stole my handwriting, and other misadventures in typography

or, a potted history of procrastination, dead birds and terrible handwriting…

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In some areas of the country the police struggle for space to run identity parades, or how not to take a passport photograph.

I blame my art teacher. It’s all her fault. Back in Art & Design class at school she had no idea what to do with me. It’s not that I was bad at it, I’m actually pretty skilled with a pencil, brushes and paint, but there’s only so much you can learn from trying to recreate a stuffed pigeon in the style of Gustav Klimt.

The problem was we spent so much time on the Art bit, but for me the Design part of the class held so much promise but failed to appear. So, after another frustrating lesson of me constantly asking if the Bauhaus had a taxidermy department, my teacher finally caved in and managed to find an old Letraset catalogue in the back of the dead bird cupboard.

This changed my life. Forever.

My wife likens my handwriting to the final acts of a dying spider. I like to think of it as creatively unkempt, much like my facial hair, but the problem I seem to exhibit is that sometimes the ideas are trying to force themselves out of the tiny confines of my mind so quickly they cause my hand to jump around the page, like I’m trying to write with the business end of a taser.

I’ve always wanted neat handwriting. At school I would sit opposite the posh kids and marvel at their copperplate 30º slanted script work (there weren’t really any posh kids at my school, I grew up on a council estate, but there were a few families that had their own caravan parked on the drive, so to us they were the posh lot). I even tried to emulate it, but unfortunately at the time I had one of those pens that doesn’t write that well and just spits, despite the promise of fluid handwriting, being able to write underwater and in outer space.

While High School struggled to satisfy my growing interest in design, college and university were the total opposite, happily allowing me to gorge in as much of it as my eyeballs could healthily absorb before hallucinating in a kaleidoscope of pantone colours.

College was a blur (motion, not gaussian), but my love of lettering and type remained and I eventually found myself studying on one of the only specialised typography courses in the country. This place was amazing. It still had a fully functioning press (type, not juice), housed in the kind of building that would make hipster property developers collapse (figuratively, not monetarily), but mixed with a dazzling array of modern design equipment. I think we were all high at the thought of the shiny new suite of Macs, but much to our collective dismay we quickly found out that before we were allowed near them we had to learn a great deal of traditional typographic practice and letter drawing techniques. This involved maths. And writing. Very neat writing. And lots of maths for working out how much very neat writing you could fit in lots of different sized boxes. All done with a pencil.

Sadly this didn’t always mix with our own need to consume as much alcohol the night previously as possible. For some of us this was the first time away from home, away from the restrictions of one shandy or glass of Cinzano a week. Obviously, we were perfectly sensible about managing our alcohol consumption in contrast to the passionate pull of historically respectful script-work (short of being practiced under candle light). Oh, and don’t forget the maths. We could never forget the maths, as we’d all had to spend six quid on a special kind of typographic ruler for this particular task.

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Growing up in the eighties on a council estate meant that learning to drink (ir)responsibly involved liquors like Cinzano, Mad Dog 2020 or, if you were lucky, Babycham and Advocaat. Look at that type though, that kerning’s getting a bit fresh!

It got to the point that Wednesday mornings were drawn out in a Kubrickian tableau of time altering slowness. You see Tuesday was the popular local student night, so the following morning suffered considerably for the lack of focus given to it. We tried to abuse that Wednesday morning, abuse it so thoroughly we should have stood for our crimes at the Hague. Friendships were forged, romances bloomed and penmanship was forgotten. And this is not a healthy environment for teaching what can be a particularly complicated subject.

We had some great lecturers. They were patient and knowledgable. Skilled and thoughtful. But by some force of chance (or a considerable quantity of foresight) they had reserved the Wednesday morning lecture for one specific individual. This morning was to prove a challenge, not because it was a struggle against the soporific pull of the previous evening’s imbibing, but because it taught us penmanship could be fun, and that really messed with our need to go and get thoroughly wasted the night before.

Type design was taught to us by the somewhat mephistophelean character of Timothy Donaldson. He’s the kind of typographer, alongside luminaries like Seb Lester, who’s made calligraphy modern and trendy, up there with skateboarding and beards (he’s also famous for the typeface behind the original McFlurry logo, but I think he likes to downplay this particular accolade).

With a shock of untamed hair and a broom for a calligraphy brush, he taught us that rules were for squares and all that mattered was the movement of your pen. Quite often it wasn’t even a pen, as we would each sit down with a random collection of items you could only find between the sofa cushions or under the cooker, while Tim spooled up a soundtrack for the morning’s session. Amongst the regularity and mathematical focus of building an understanding of the world of typography, this was an island of chaos. It would work like this: we would sit there with our array of implements and a pot of indian ink and Tim would play loud music. All we had to do was make an impression, a shape or form that responded to our interpretation of what we were listening to. What would result was a jumbled mess of different, but very individual script work.

Suddenly, the out-of-control handwriting had found somewhere it could express itself freely.

Our next task was to pick forms out of this jumble that could work as lettering and bingo, instant typeface. Well, maybe not quite so instant, but the resulting work was an incredible free moving interpretation of each of our own handwriting. After the arty bit we were slowly taught the science of compiling a working font. I let my mum name mine, because this felt like the grown up equivalent of letting her pin my scribbles to the fridge.

Smack my b!7€h up, smooth criminal

This brings us to the crime in question…

When all of the smaller project work and lectures had rolled by and the final major projects arrived, it fell to us to decide what we would dedicate our self directed study towards. Some people designed brochures, others newspapers. I myself settled on creating a fully fleshed out and mocked up editorial publication for the games industry, just because we don’t already have enough magazines about computer games (although none of them at the time utilised 9pt Meta and fabulously detailed clipping paths). One of my erstwhile peers dedicated their final piece of work to creating a catalogue for all of the typography that had been created by the student body during the year.

During the course we had all, at some point or another and in various states of completion, designed a typeface. Depending upon how much you felt like dedicating to spending every spare hour crafting this into a working font, some of us came away with a fully functioning and installable typographic product.

This would turn out to be a magnificent showcase for our work, giving each of us further exposure for our typefaces. It was a fantastic idea, and only required each of us to hand over the working font files for our designs so that our creations could be immortalised in the first type directory for the university.

Now, this is where it starts to unravel. You see, giving fonts and software to a design student is like putting a monkey in front of a big red button with the words “don’t push” emblazoned on the top. It’s a basic testament to evolutionary science that our laboratory primate will undoubtedly be led towards triggering worldwide armageddon. In the case of design students, fonts travel moderately quickly (mainly by 3.5 inch floppy disk. This is pre internet-revolution after all and Pirate Bay was still only an attraction at Disney).

After university we all went our separate ways, some to find gainful employment, others like myself to study further. Little to my knowledge my digitised handwriting had found fame of its own, having landed at the design agency responsible for XL Recordings, with bands like The Prodigy, Beck and Radiohead signed to them. Through some quirk of fate, the designer for a spin off album by the DJ from The Prodigy had clearly become jaded with Helvetica Neue, deciding to look for something considerably less swiss, less regimented, simple and austere as a creative alternative.

So, they decided to use my handwriting instead.

They were clearly after something with an edgy and distinctly erratic flavour, so I guess it fit the bill. They weren’t to know the font had been acquired by fiscally challenged means either, but I guess this just adds to the anti-establishment values of the music it now adorned, along with the merchandise, limited edition vinyl, collectable playing cards and one of a kind jewellery and tattoos (as seen on TV).

I was to learn of the life my handwriting had forged for itself one day while rummaging through the local HMV on lunch break.

Remember HMV? It was one of those once-great retail giants that the internet stepped on, like Woolworths and Rumbelows.

It was a mecca for music, with over an acre of CDs from every musical genre imaginable, including Phil Collins. I was minding my own business mooching through Metallica albums when I spotted something familiar out of the corner of my eye. It didn’t register at first what I was looking at as it had been a while since I had last seen it, as well as seeing it somewhere I never imagined it would ever be.

My handwriting. On a CD. In HMV.

I’m pretty certain this was the life goal and creative nirvana for my 13 year old self, sat there painting dead birds in the style of a dead Austrian bloke.

After the initial shock my first thought was how nice it was they actually found a use for it, as after I designed it I could not for the life of me figure out how to apply it. To anything. It was the albatross of the typography world to me.

After finding it had been used I started to dig a little deeper. Turns out there was a whole digital community and pack of teaser material surrounding this album, all featuring my handwriting. This must have been how Howard Carter felt when he tripped over a guy rope to stumble into the tomb of Tutankhamun (well, maybe not, but I was jazzed anyway).

After a while my surprise turned to indignation. Here’s something I crafted, something I slaved over and poured myself into creating, that I trusted to someone in the hope that it would help get my work some attention. Well, I certainly succeeded at that, just not the kind of attention that attracts money, or indeed actual attention, as no credit had been given to my work whatsoever.

I think in hindsight this is what I was more upset about, that all of that hard work could go by without any recognition. At the time I was still at that stage in my career where I would do freelance work on the cheap or even for free, especially if I thought it would gain me some credibility, so the application of my typeface in itself was pretty awesome, it just lacked the association of me actually having made it.

I thought about suing for a while and even wrote a few emails enquiring as to how the typeface had been acquired, but then over time I realised something far more profound. I realised I had an amazing story I could tell when I got older.

I’m now older. Achievement unlocked.

I’m Head of Design at 383, a customer experience studio based in Birmingham, in the UK. I’m passionate about creating exceptional experiences through thoughtful design and understanding human behaviour as a creative tool. I’ve also been known to grace the pages of National Geographic with my photography and make the odd public speaking appearance ranting about narrative strategy.

If you’d like to say hi, you can find me on Twitter.

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I’m Head of Design at 383, a customer experience studio based in Birmingham, in the UK.

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