Inspiration: Eric Gill

Eric Gill was an artst, calligrapher, stonecarver, sculptor and typographer living in England from 1882 until 1940.  He grew to be a highly respected stonecarver and letterer during his lifetime, and produced several still-famous typefaces, such as Gill Sans, Joanna, and Perpetua, among others.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has used Gill Sans for it’s identity for quite some time.

BBC Logo

BBC Logo

Eric Gill is an interesting figure in history, with his autobiography recalling events which, if true would mean that he was either sexually perverse or insane.  It is also possible, considering his incredible wit, that the sordid events written about in his autobiography never actually occurred, and that he was using his autobiography as a way of pushing the public’s “buttons”.

In any case, we can look at his life, works and perspective on design and learn a great deal.  I’m recounting here several amazing quotes from Gill that can help us see how he thought and operated.

When asked to describe his early artistic motivations,

Eric Gill began to recount the first time he saw his mentor, a true calligrapher, writing.  He described those experiences thusly:

On those occasions I was caught unprepared. I did not know such beauties could exist. I was struck as by lightning, as by a sort of enlightenment. On that evening I was thus rapt. It was no mere dexterity, that transported me; it was as though a secret of heaven were being revealed.

Hopefully we can all relate to that experience, whether it was seeing a beautiful work of art as a child, or seeing a clear rainbow after a summer rain, there is nothing as inspiring as beauty.

On comparing typography to other forms of art:

Moreover it is a precise art. You don’t draw an “A” and then stand back and say: “there, that gives you a good idea of an ‘A’ as seen through an autumn mist”, or: “that’s not a real ‘A’ but gives you a good effect of one.” Letters are things, not pictures of things.

This is a fascinating take on what makes typography stand apart. When we view a painting or a sculpture, we are looking at a depiction of something else, whereas with typography and in an abstract way, photography as well, we are looking at the actual thing – not a depiction of something. But what happens when we add imagery to a typeface? What about old illuminated manuscripts, wherein letters were often embellished to appear like a person or something from nature?

In his later business life, Eric successfully broke into the world of architectural drawing, carvings and inscriptions. Historically, these things were all done by the architect working on the building in question, but Eric began to gain the trust of architects, and would remove this part of their workload from them.

One secret to his success:

My chief claim was that I could relieve the architect of the necessity of supplying drawings in connection with one craft at least. But such a claim depended upon my ability to give them something better than they could get otherwise. Therefore I had to profess to “know” — and to know better than they did themselves.

This is the task of all designers, and in fact, any business seeking to provide a good or service that the customer could potentially provide themselves. I have been asked before, “Why should I pay you to develop a website for me, when I can get a free one included with my GoDaddy hosting plan?” Or, “Why should I hire you to create a custom logo for me, when I can use a Microsoft Word template and do it for free?” We must be true experts, we must truly know more than our clientele about what makes a design work, and how to communicate visually. We must be completely fluent in the visual language. That is the key to success as a designer: the ability to understand and communicate in the visual language of line, shape, color, contrast, movement, structure, form, purpose, and so forth. But just as important as commanding the visual language, we have to be good with verbal language — we have to help our clientele understand why they should hire us and not go it alone. We have to “know” better than they do, and we have to communicate that knowledge.

What is Good Lettering?

And what was fine lettering? It was in the first place rational lettering; it was exactly the opposite of “fancy” lettering. That was the new idea, the explosive notion, and, you might say, the secret. For the world thinks that art and reason are complete opposites, that the artist is the irrational person and all his works the product of caprice and emotional temperament. Art dealers, art critics and artists themselves have more or less consciously conspired to preserve the fiction. Thus art becomes mysterious and a false glamour surrounds it — and better prices.
And what applied to the “fine” arts applied to all the others. As soon a thing was given the title of “artistic” it was supposed to be a work of fancy, and irrational. Artistic lettering meant lettering in which legibility was sacrificed to something called beauty — beauty, “the beautiful”, that which tickles your fancy.
On the other hand, following Morris, following Ruskin, following the universal practice of the world, we were in revolt against the whole conception of art as being irrational.
What is good lettering? That was the job before me. And at every point a justification must be found in reason. Of course we weren’t teetotalers about fancy work, but it must be kept subordinate, and even fancy work should grow out of legitimate occasion. What is decoration but that which is seemly and appropriate?

What is Legibility?

Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to.

What a great way to look at it. This is an essential principal for all successful designs. We must not put roadblocks in the way of the audience — this is why website intro movies, and sometimes even Welcome pages are a bad idea. If someone visits your website, they are doing so to see the content that the site holds. They aren’t coming to see a movie about how great you are. They want to know what you think, and how you operate. Unless, of course it’s a movie or television network site. In that case, visitors are coming specifically for video content. This applies to print design as well, in that an otherwise good design can become completely ineffective if it is too far outside the understood norms of the target demographic. Know who you’re designing for; who you’re trying to reach. Operate within what those people expect, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries and expectations just enough to give your design a breath of fresh air. It needs to stand out, but not be conspicuous; it needs to grab attention without being gaudy. We need to set trends without turning away those who would follow our trends.

Nevertheless, seeing the whirl of eccentricity into which modern advertising is driving us, it seems good and reasonable to return to some idea of normality, without denying ourselves the pleasure and amusement of designing all sorts of fancy letters whenever the occasion arises. A man who knows his road can occasionally jump off it, whereas a man who does not know his road can only be on it by accident. So a good clear training in the making of letters will enable a man to indulge more efficiently in fancy and impudence.

On Having Good Design Sense:

Good will seems to be a common possession of mankind, but good sense, i.e. intelligence, critical ability, and that intense concentration upon perfection which is a kind of genius, is not so common. Everybody thinks that he knows an A when he sees it, but only the few extraordinary rational minds can distinguish between a good one and a bad one, or can demonstrate precisely what constitutes A-ness. When is an A not an A? Or when is an R not an R?

On Modern Manufacturing:

So we have the designer who designs what he never makes and the worker who minds the machine which makes what he never designs. And we have the salesman who neither designs things nor minds machines but is supposed to know what the public wants. But the public doesn’t know what it wants, and it has no means of finding out.
My one complaint against machine-made goods is precisely this: that they too often hide their light under a bushel of “design”. Think how decent alarm clocks might be if they were just as plain and well-made outside as they often are inside!
If we insist on the ornamental we are not making the best of our system of manufacture, we are not getting the things that system makes best. The process by which a railway locomotive has become the beautiful thing it now is, this process must be welcomed in all other departments of manufacture. … And ornamental typography is to be avoided no less than ornamental architecture in an industrial civilization.
The truth is that a thing fit for its purpose is necessarily pleasant to use and also beautiful (i.e. seen as being in itself delightful to the understanding). I think an artist is not a person who makes things beautiful, but simply one who deliberately makes things as well as he can — whether he is a clock-maker or picture-painter; because machine-made things are very much better when no “designer” has had anything to do with them — when they are just plain serviceable things. I think that if you look after goodness and truth, beauty will take care of itself.

4 Responses to “Inspiration: Eric Gill”

  1. Jean-Marie Clarke says:

    I am looking for the published source of the quote: “The shapes of letters do not derive their beauty from any sensual or sentimental reminiscences. No one can say that the O’s roundness appeals to us only because it is like that of an apple or of a girl’s breast or of the full moon. Letters are things, not pictures of things.”
    Can anyone help?
    As for this thing about letters being things, not pictures of things, all I can say is that, in my long experience in the world of art (historical and contemporary), the whole point of the exercise is in the resonances between what we rashly call “things” and how we picture them. In fact, there are no things independently from our pictures of them, and our pictures become things in turn… Very circular, and enjoyable: why try to break it?. This is another reason why Gill can say that “Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to.”

  2. @Jean-Marie Clarke: thanks for chiming in! Good points all around. Fascinating business, this art of lettering, isn’t it?

    I wrote this article using information taken from a MyFonts newsletter, which in turn pulled quotes from an old interview:

    An Essay on Typography (London, J.M. Dent, 1931); Autobiography (London, Jonathan Cape, 1940); Essays (London, Jonathan Cape, 1947)

  3. I love posts like this! Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

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