Letters from Leeds: a city in typography

Leeds’ Colours May Vary bookshop is a hub for the city’s design, illustration and typography devotees. The team behind the shop, Andy Gray and Becky Palfery, have started a new project, Typesetting, dedicated to documenting the city’s typography – old and new. They talked to CR about why they set the project up and what they hope to achieve with it.

CR: Could you explain what the intention of the site is?

CMV: Initially the intention was to form an archive of found typography in the Leeds area with a view to seeing if an ‘essence’ or vernacular could be extracted somehow. As the project develops we have begun to also see it as a way of documenting the changes in the city.

CR: How can people get involved?

CMV: Anyone can get involved, we don’t need the photographs to be professionally executed, just clear and original. Head to the website and follow the simple instructions to upload and if the image is original, unique to Leeds, or represents the city somehow it will make it on the site.

CR: Is there anything unique about Leeds and the typography you have found there?

CMV: It is very much a work in progress and we would really like to see more contemporary subjects submitted to see if any themes, motifs, styles etc. persist over time. The idea is that we do extract or distil something specific to Leeds but we are a way off yet I think!

CR: Is this merely an exercise in nostalgia or is there something more we can learn from the examples you are showcasing?

CMV: A lot of submissions do tend to refer to the past and perhaps there is a feeling that typography was somehow ‘better’ in the past, that it was executed by experts, be they signwriters or stone masons. A great deal of signage now comes on a roll, is downloaded and printed and is often badly applied, or peeling off before the ladders are down and there is a tendency to look away from it, but we would be really interested to see examples of creative and contemporary typography in the landscape too. That said it is wonderful to map older forms as inevitably these will disappear.

We have worked with Leeds photographer Peter Mitchell over the years. He spent a long time documenting Leeds businesses and housing as it was being torn down and while some may see preservation as sentimentality we feel it is important to document it.

CR: You have plans to create an Open Source typeface which references the found typography of Leeds: can you explain how will be created and how you hope it will be used?

CMV: We would love to work with a typographer in designing a typeface that could be used every day, one that represents Leeds, that draws on its history, both commercial and cultural and captures a character of the city as it looks to the future. Not a display font, or something for ‘now’, but something that can be both practical and beautiful for years to come. We have yet to find a partner in developing the typeface, the project is in its early days and we would be very keen to hear from designers that are interested in collaborating on the project.

We are not designers or typographers but we love Leeds and we wanted to see this aspect appreciated and archived as well as giving something back to the city.

The Typesetting site was designed and built by recent graduates Hungry Sandwich Club and Josiah Craven. For more on Colours May Vary, go here

Leeds manhole cover by @wearebuild

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