"X" 2017. Created for 36 Days of Type. All images courtesy of the artist.
If you've ever wondered what written language could look like millennia from now, you're not alone. If you've gone and gotten your doctorate in the subject, on the other hand, you're quite a rare individual. Meet Barry Spencer, PhD., Speculative Type Designer.
What exactly is speculative type? "I tend to label anything that stems from the existing Latin letterforms or relies on them for understanding as 'experimental,'" Spencer explains to Creators, "while shapes and forms that deliberately move beyond that comfort, start from a blank slate or push and challenge our understanding of a letter, are 'speculative.'"
In other words: if you might actually be able to read it, it's not speculative type.
Spencer wrote his doctoral thesis on this practice, and now leads workshops in speculative letterform creation, while continuing to post astounding works of letter art to his Instagram. His designs range from relatively readable Latin letters to neon geometric grids and cryptograms (many of which are still unsolved).
For obvious reasons, most type designers prefer their work to be readable. It's a field where designers can play with limits: how far can you push a design before it "fails" by no longer serving the purpose of legibility? Spencer, on the other hand, prefers to work completely outside that boundary.
This also means his process is highly instinctual. "Mostly I just allow myself to act on weird ideas," Spencer says. "My process usually revolves around trying to extend and push my boundaries, expectations and perception of how letterforms can look or be created, just to see what happens when I do."
He usually starts by sketching letterforms by hand, often leaving him with several options to choose from for each letter. These, he transfers to a grid. Originally, he used gridded sketchbooks for this, but eventually he started creating his own grids, too. In 2015, he drew a new grid every day for 100 consecutive days.
Once the forms are on the grid, he transfers them to Illustrator where he can work with them as vectors, creating words and artworks. Recently, he began learning AfterEffects and creating new, animated letter works based on his own grids, as part of 36 Days of Type.
Grids for letterforms.
Spencer would love to see his work used in an alien movie or video game, and/or participate in a dialogue about cognitive psychology and perceptive understanding. Ideally both: "The idea that what we understand today will most likely not be understood by future generations is fun to think about, so what could we play with now that might influence that evolution?"
The speculative typeface "Clara" is Spencer's greatest challenge yet to the world: a speculative typeface that he's also "imbued with a level of encryption." He's scattered clues throughout his Instagram history, but as of now, nobody has deciphered Clara.
Think you can outsmart Dr. Speculatype? Give it a shot.