The recent American documentary film Helvetica - which is about the Helvetica typeface - made the point that typefaces have power, personality and are omnipresent. The success of that film around the world demonstrated that type design was not a rarefied aspect of contemporary design. In an age of digital communications many of us are required to think about, and make, decisions about typefaces on a daily basis.

Printing Types: New Zealand type design since 1870 is an occasion to consider the work of local type designers. This is an important project because as curator Jonty Valentine says "it is remarkable how un-heroic and invisible the history of type design has been here". While type design has been the focus of a local journal (The National Grid) and an international conference staged in New Zealand (TYPESHED11) Printing Types is the first exhibition and related publication completely focused on contemporary and historical New Zealand type design.


Valentine has discovered a field of practitioners - a number with international reputations such as Robert Coupland Harding and Joseph Churchward - with intriguing stories. Churchward is the subject of a recently published book by David Bennewith. Another highlight is little known designer Tom Elliott, creator of the iconic 1970s Air New Zealand typeface.


Contemporary type designers in New Zealand are exemplified by designers such as Kris Sowersby and more speculative practitioners like Luke Wood, who are producing work of intelligence and wit. The result of these projects is sometimes taken far beyond what the designer originally intended. For instance, Wood's McCahon typeface (2000) has had a very eventful life which highlights the value of typefaces as commodities. In its short life it has been appropriated by a multinational, found its way onto fruit juice bottles and been used in the branding of a Colin McCahon exhibition.


Curator Valentine sees the occasion of Printing Types as presenting two important opportunities. One is for type designers to start sharing their stories. The other opportunity is the chance for local designers to talk and think about their practice in ways beyond what he calls the ‘salvation narrative' that dominates current design discourse. He concludes by saying that Printing Types provides "a prompt for type designers here to tell their stories in the international parlance of their practice but also in a range of our own local accents."



Joseph Churchward, Robert Coupland Harding, Tom Elliott, Mark Geard, Maarten Ideema, Narrow Gauge, Warren Olds, Bruce Rotherham, Shabnam Shiwan, Kris Sowersby, Luke Wood, Jack Yan

Shabnam Shiwan, Black Grace, 2006.

Robert Coupland Harding, The Book Borders, 1877. Digitised by Sai Promsri and Letitia Lam.