There are designers and creatives who are capable of delving into many analog mediums at once (this maybe calligraphy, or origami, or whatever.) Their projects seem to have exciting new approaches, often narrated by nuances of the medium used. However, I have almost always been more of a digital designer. This post is a small window into my process of designing the signage for Royal Academy of Art’s (KABK) Library in The Hague.
Towards the end of last year as I was applying and looking for work, I tried keep myself busy by engaging in stone carving lessons at KABK. Sanne Bereen (the letterpress instructor at KABK) who was also taking these lessons, brought up that the school’s library could use a signage system. And without thinking much of it, I offered to help out and we began to discuss further. I thought this project would keep me busy until something more concrete turned up. Sanne had a lot of experience in the field and it would be an opportunity to learn from doing something I hadn’t before.
The KABK library is a small, well lit, and a neat space that is very loved by the people who used it regularly.
After the first meeting with the librarians I began sketching. In order to understand what they had in mind, I proposed a few different design directions. I appreciated their perspective and feedback, even if it was to process my own thoughts.
The librarians chose the third and final direction, which was also the one I was rooting for, for which I took my inspiration from the space. The space has recurring square and rectangular shapes, a lot of steel – which gives it a modern appeal. But the historic arch above the doorway, the people, the books and the nature of the space, soften that first impression. I wanted to bring the contrast of these elements and their significance into the design. Alot of people have actually gone and called it ‘a square peg round whole design’, which is perfect!
Initially, I imagined the design to be quite – for the lack of a better word – constructed. As per my limited research on signage in indoor spaces, stencils seemed to be the latest of trends. Here was my take:
Feeling unsure when I saw the result, I spoke to some colleagues and type people around The Hague. One suggestion was to maybe try different kinds of cuts for the stencils, some suggested adding humanist elements; this lead me to question whether stencils were even necessary, as stencils or sign plates would involve more material in comparison to just cutting the letters out. I made some simulations on Photoshop with the letters in different materials and styles, to help the librarians see what I was imagining. Vinyl or other 2D material could also be used for the signs, but I was just generally at the stage in the project where things get quite existential and start to fall apart and nothing is “good enough”. One thing I was reassured of, was the necessity of testing in this whole process. Going to all the lengths to be sure that the final result is the most efficient one.
Signage letters; more stencil explorations; Photoshop simulations of the new signage;
While talking to a colleague my attention was brought to one of the early bits in my sketches. I went back to it, scanned and tested the shapes in different sizes and they seemed to work for the intention. In the process, I also learned that any cutting device (laser or a drill) would need room to turn. There had to be some provision in the letters’ joins and crotches for that. I buried my head in my thoughts again and went back to drawing with the new considerations.
Non-stenciled letters and early drawings of ‘Biblio’
The new forms were sturdy regardless of the material they would be produced in. They were space efficient in horizontal and vertical metrics with shorter ascenders/descenders and slightly condensed proportions. To avoid kerning ‘gaps’ and save up on that space, the A, M, V, W, were designed with curved diagonals instead of straight ones.
Type Details in Biblio Specimen
First material test for the signs; used superglue and my hands for typesetting.
I tried different ways the signs could work and this was certainly out of my comfort zone, since I lack experience working with material as well as signage design. I had mostly just seen the wood workshop from the outside and the big tools and saws kinda scared me. But I needed the system to work in my absence and I certainly could not sit there and manually type-set every single word and sign by hand. ALso, if in the future more signs were needed, the librarians should be able to do it with minimum help. It had to be more efficient. Secondly, the acrylic allowed in the lasercutter wasn’t thick enough, and a thinner sheet would get heated up and melt! Metal was expensive, so we decided to go with 4mm plywood.
The new samples were made;
1. With a horizontal bar in the background, which meant that the letters and the bar would be cut as one piece. I based this on the principle of linotype – instead of typesetting everything by hand, the line was pre-set.
2. But plywood also burns! And the next solution seemed to be to spray paint the wooden signs. We had only made a sample, when we were suggested by one of the workshop instructors to use masking tape over the ply boards before putting them into the laser machine (could’ve never guessed this one on my own) to save them from the burn marks.
3. To make the type stand out more, I used the ‘engrave’ setting on the laser cutter, over the bar and avoiding the letters. And about six trials later – after trying the different engraving and cutting settings, making the inktraps wider, M’s crotch higher, figuring out the right combination of Adobe Illustrator commands to achieve exactly what I wanted and multiple cuts and splinters later — I had my signs.
All we had to do now was install them.
Different stages of production
The shelf signs were relatively easier to figure out. These were smaller sub-sections’ signs to be placed on the book shelves. Mostly to be engraved, cut in plywood and installed on the shelves using magnets. These however took longer to produce because of the sheer number of them and the process of engraving.
Left – bits of masking tape scatter as the laser cuts through the ply board. Letters on the shelf signs are engraved, but the fan and laser from the machine remove most of the masking tape covering these. Right – Pillar signs laid out on the table.
This is a summary of the process and despite making the whole thing sound so dramatic – these are just some letters in a small library of a small country, fulfilling the basic needs of some very lovely people and making them happy as they look at it everyday.
Since, I have gone on to publish this lovely piece of work as a functioning typeface on future fonts, and it continues to grow. I have also talked about it a few times, hopefully I can share those videos and talks soon. Thanks for reading!
Namrata Goyal © 2022