The Typographic Hub

Graphic DNA

Graphic DNA is the subject of GERALDINE MARSHALL's PhD Research Project, which aims to develop and implement a systematic taxonomy to record the typography and lettering of Birmingham; the result of which will help broaden understanding of the city’s social, cultural, ethnic and historical visual identity.

Background to the project: Why Birmingham?

The identities of British cities are continually evolving: and Birmingham is typical of many of Britain’s industrial municipalities and representative of the changes taking place in cities across the country. During the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, Birmingham was the country’s leading industrial centre whose trades included, brass, jewellery and gun making: the city’s growth was led by pioneering industrialists such as Matthew Boulton and James Watt. During the first half of the twentieth-century, Birmingham continued to grow with the introduction of new industries, including the manufacture of motorcars, bicycles and motorcycles. Birmingham prospered until the 1970s when the decline in manufacturing industries pushed the city into recession.

Economic and industrial changes forced Birmingham to focus on service industries rather than manufacturing; its position at the heart of the national road and rail network has made the city a natural choice for conventions, exhibitions, sport and entertainment, whilst the redevelopment of the Bullring has made Birmingham a thriving retail centre.

The changes in Birmingham’s industry have been reflected in its physical landscape: many manufacturing areas have been demolished and old factories and warehouses converted into retail, leisure and residential accommodation. Whilst the regeneration is complete in many areas, in other districts such as Digbeth, the process of redevelopment continues and small independent manufacturing companies operate alongside artist’s studios and galleries.

In addition to industrial and economic changes, Birmingham has also seen a large-scale influx of an immigrant population - particularly those from Pakistan, India and the Caribbean, which has given Birmingham a distinct identity. These communities have brought their own strong cultural identities to the city in general, and to the districts such as Handsworth, Sparkhill and Sparkbrook in particular. The commercial and domestic landscapes of these areas reflect specific ethnic markets and form landscapes distinct from that of the indigenous population. This influx has brought with it another aspect to the typographic panorama with the introduction of non-Western lettering directed towards the particular ethnic audience and adding another significant dimension to this research.

Why lettering?

The distinction between ‘lettering’ and ‘typography’ is important to acknowledge as each perform distinct duties. ‘Put very simply, type is an industrial product capable of duplication and automation, while lettering is a one-off, created for specific purpose and capable of responding to the demands of scale, material and surroundings in quite a different way’ (Baines & Dixon 2002 p.8).  This important distinction will form the basis of the introduction to the thesis and will be fundamental to the discussion when formulating the terminology integrated into the taxonomy. 

Birmingham has evolved from a city dominated by manufacturing industries to one lead by service and creative enterprises, and the industrial, economic, social and ethnic changes have been reflected in the lettering found on its streets. The current regeneration of the city means that examples of lettering obscured for decades are once again revealed, whilst others are destroyed forever and new letterforms are added. Regeneration in the urban environment brings about sweeping large-scale change to the physical landscape. The process is expensive and intended to provide a long-term return on the investment – in terms of economic growth or recovery and improved perception of a fall into decline. The areas of regeneration can change dramatically from industrial centers’ to tourist destinations, from residential slums to boutique shopping venues. The lettering will obviously reflect these changes but remnants of the past often remain. Corporation Street for example has undergone a number of regeneration phases and this can still be identified today in the evidence I have already captured of four very different versions of the civic street signs for Corporation Street.  Apart from these more permanent remnants from the past, much signage and lettering tends to be far more transient than the physical architecture and is able to follow trends, adapt quickly to economic changes or population changes; I intend to discuss this issue at PhD level.

This project will trace these changes, document the old coexisting with the new, and record the evolving lettering landscape before the opportunity is lost. The reason I am using lettering for this project as opposed to architecture, for example, is that urban lettering is an amalgam of form, placement, scale, material and vocabulary. Lettering demonstrates how the elements, wit, accident, misjudgment, poor taste, bad spelling, necessity, and repetition can add the fine brushstrokes to the broader visual landscape of the city.

The study will use three specific areas in Birmingham, Ladypool Road, Digbeth and Corporation Street (City Centre). Each area of study will be approximately 1 mile in length.

Digbeth is an industrial area with many small, independent manufacturing businesses mixed with a vibrant art scene. Digbeth is in a state of transition and presents a unique opportunity to capture a dramatic change in usage.  A consequence of the regeneration of Eastside, Digbeth, is the gradual loss of small, independent businesses, which is, in turn, having a distinct impact on the visual language of the area.  This culturally led regeneration is forcing out the old character of the area and gradually imposing a completely new visual language and identity.

Corporation Street is one of Birmingham’s main historic shopping streets. It also contains offices and the law courts and is under threat as retail outlets move away to shopping malls, out of town retail parks and online shopping. The cost of such premium rate city centre retail space means that its former glory is tarnished and I am interested in recording how it is adapting to these new challenges. I will treat Corporation Street as a specific area of study in the creation of the taxonomy for comparative purposes with the other two selected areas but will also record photographically other areas of the City Centre including Colmore Row, Centenary Square and New Street.

Ladypool Road forms one side of Birmingham’s Balti Triangle and this culinary specialty reflects the fact the Sparkbrook has the second highest non-white population in Birmingham. Historically, Sparkbrook was completely rural before being swallowed up by the expanding Birmingham with traditional terraced housing built to accommodate city workers. During the 1960s and 1970s the influx of mainly Asian immigrants transformed the nature of ethnic profile of the area, which, in turn, dramatically changed the commercial make up the area. Ladypool Road is now almost entirely populated by Balti ‘Houses’ and shops catering to the Asian market. The combination of independent, ethnic businesses concentrated in a small district should prove to be interesting to see how the area has developed its own unique visual identity.

The capture of lettering and type will exclude more ephemeral examples (posters in shop windows, stickers etc) and more specifically graffiti but will systematically record all other examples of lettering in the specified area.

Can you help?

City wide photographic contributions are always welcome - in particular historical images of Birmingham’s lettering and type.

If you would like to know more you, contact Geraldine direct by email: geraldine.marshall@hotmail.co.uk

You can view the photographic record of the project and other examples of Birmingham lettering and type here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/urbanlettering/

And follow Geraldine on twitter: @BHamGraphicDNA