30th March 2016

Talking Type with Alan Kitching

by Jim Ramsay, Design Director

With a world-renowned portfolio encompassing everything from a 30ft mural to a postage stamp, Kitching’s letterpress is still making its mark in our fast paced digital arena.

As we sat waiting for the talk to commence I glanced around the packed auditorium and wondered why so many fresh faced, hipster-type designers (did you see what I did there) had decided to abandon their iMice in favour of listening to veteran Kitching talking about getting down and dirty with ink. Oh, I know Alan is a highly regarded Fellow of the Royal College of Art, a Professor at the London Institute (University of the Arts London) and an elected member of Alliance Graphique but in this digital age of clinical communications what was it that drew the youngsters in?


As the lights dimmed and the unassuming bearded character took to the stage to deliver his sermon, it was apparent within seconds exactly what had drawn in the budding crowd. They were here to blossom and bloom and like the rest of us, to learn about a creative technique almost considered extinct in this age of instant communication. Alan is one of the Godfathers of the medium and they hung on his every word as he infectiously reminisced about his highly enviable body of work.

As he waxed lyrical about projects past and present we were transported to a different time where you could practically smell the ink, feel the textured papers and hear the block letters being set. There are, of course, way too many to mention, but I wanted to detail some of my personal favourites:


Why Iraq?

In 2003 architect Richard Rogers approached Alan to design an advert for the Stop the War Coalition protest in London. Kitching’s response was to create an advert that also doubled up as a ‘make yourself banner’. His typographic solution worked on several levels – from a distance it read ‘Iraq? Why?’ as the banner got closer the it read ‘Why Iraq? Why now?’ and when the banner was closer still the full message is revealed. Simply printed in black this communication is pure genius.


Printing in London Map 1476-1995

No Kitching talk would be complete without mentioning his typographic maps. In his personal project ‘Printing in London: 1476-1995’ each of the printing houses are represented on his map using the blue circle plaque associated with English Heritage scheme. The angular streets are naturally captured in lines of type, as is the free flowing River Thames, which although created in straight lines seems to flow across the map thanks to the varying shades of blue.


The Guardian Mural

After doing many creative pieces for The Guardian newspaper Kitching was commissioned to create a reception mural for their head office. Taking the seven brand values of the paper he represented these in a frenetic style to represent the frantic and frenzied world of journalism. In effect he created a visual sanity check which all employees would see as a daily reminder every time they passed reception.


Poster & Invitation

Multi-function is always a prevalent concept in Kitching’s work. This is arguably a direct result of trying to monopolise on the time involved setting up each project. A dual-functional design therefore kills two birds with one stone, saving both time and resources. His modular approach to the invitation does exactly that, when fully opened the invitation becomes a promotional poster for the event, complete with typographic map to show the location of the event.


Due to lack of access to wooden and metal type blocks and the machinery required for the process, letterpress is obviously not as commonplace as it was however Kitching strongly believes there is still a future for the process. He stated that many student designers now want to work more with their hands and are increasingly interested in the traditional hand crafted working. This is backed up by the resurgence of hand-drawn, calligraphic style portfolios we’ve seen at Teviot of late and it probably goes some way to explaining the presence of the aforementioned young hipsters in the room.

Rounding off his talk, Kitching mentioned his favourite quote ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ by Samuel Johnson. Just as Johnson never tired of London, Kitching will never tire of letterpress and he will also never tire of passing on his passion and enthusiasm to the typographers of tomorrow. Perhaps his next personal project should be to visualise:

" ‘When a man is tired of letterpress, he is tired of life.’"

Alan Kitching

A short behind-the-scenes film at Kitching’s studio creating a set of posters paying tribute to influential graphic designers: Tom Eckersley, Paul Rand, FHK Henrion, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Abram Games.

Jim Ramsay, Design Director

Talking Type with Alan Kitching