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BRIT(ISH): Visualizing the UK with Type

By Isabel Lea

I’ve always believed the role of a designer to be like that of a translator. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with words and languages, and so I’ve naturally gravitated towards a kind of design that allows me to translate these things from the written to the visual, bringing them to life.

As the first Adobe Creative Resident based in the United Kingdom, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to spend a year visualizing culture and language in our everyday lives through design. BRIT(ISH) is my starting project for the residency. The project is an attempt to explore insights and ideas about being young and British during this turbulent time. I aimed to visualize often-intangible emotions in a playful way that other people can understand. Each object in the collection directly responds to quotations, insights, and stories I collected from the environment around me in the UK.

Click the image above to play a short video showing the products that resulted from my research.

INSIGHT TO IDEA

For me, projects that respond to stories and insights are often the most interesting because they add a level of unpredictability to the process and can result in something much more authentic. For the BRIT(ISH) project, I began to collect insights and anecdotes from people about their lives and how they felt about being young and British. The first step was to translate these into rough prototype designs.

I collected the information in a variety of ways: jotting down overheard train conversations on the back of receipts, online surveys, asking questions in person, photographing ambient typography, and collecting random ephemera. I think people often expect research processes to be really meticulous, but I’ve found that people are more honest when they don’t feel under pressure to give you the “correct” answer, like it’s a test, so I prefer to work more instinctively, especially in the early stages.

Back in my studio in Leeds, I looked for themes and insights in the scraps of information. I knew that I could never summaries all of the UK, so I focused on specific things to visualize a few individual perspectives. 

Many of the quotes I collected were specific inspiration points for designs. From there, I went onto sketches, vectors, and prototyping. Throughout the process, I printed, annotated, and refined, using a large concept board to help me see the bigger picture. I got continual feedback on the clarity of my ideas, which was important because my initial research stage was a mixture of instinct and first-hand experience. Feedback at the later stage helped me understand if my directions (and ultimately my instincts) were correct.

A prime example: Stereotypically, British people suffer from “stiff upper lip”: an inability to express their emotions outwardly. My experience suggested that among young people this attitude was starting to shift, and people are becoming more emotionally open. The ideas of emotional expression and fragility were a common point of conversation among young people. To translate this into something physical, I experimented with re-interpreting an everyday object to make a social comment. In this case, I turned tape stamped with the words “fragile” into a scarf prototype. We like to keep some in the studio for our slightly more fragile moments, and I have it on good authority it’s useful for hangovers, too.

DESIGNING THE INTANGIBLE

The biggest challenge with this project was always going to be translating the ideas into physical things. Early on, I decided to focus on the message and use minimal color and the same typeface in all of the products for a sense of cohesiveness. It forced me to explore how this self-imposed limitation could be applied in a lot of different ways.

My early tests for the series of design prints explored how I could use the letters themselves to express the meaning. I tried lots of different ideas in this process, both in analog sketches and later as digital compositions. It was important to me the ideas were simple and clear; if they didn’t work as a sketch, I didn’t take them further. Phrases like ‘life is a balancing act’ worked brilliantly as simple typographic compositions, but many others I abandoned.

Along the way I discovered that some of the prints also worked well as animations in After Effects, which prompted me to experiment with animations that later were the base for augmented reality experiments in my exhibition.

I’ve always been interested in how people perceive time differently. I decided to visualize this disparity in bespoke clocks; for example, the optimist clock with 13 hours explored the idea that some people believe they have (or wish they had) an extra hour in the day. The nihilist clock, with its fallen numbers, was for those where time feels meaningless anyway. The different outlooks reflected a polarized attitude toward the future that I’d observed in the UK.

Because I haven’t studied product design, the clock designs proved a challenge. I developed many iterations, from cardboard prototypes to the full metal and glass pieces I exhibited. The faces themselves went through many digital iterations.

When I make projects from public insights, I enjoy finding ways to bring them back to the public, from exhibitions to pop-up shops. As the insights for the BRIT(ISH) project came while on the street in the UK, I wanted to bring it full circle by photographing the products on the streets of Leeds.

I was also lucky enough to exhibit my designs in London, which taught me that people may see different things in the same piece; for instance, some people hung one of my prints upside down, organically forming a new take on an idea. It’s this unpredictability of insight and emotion-driven design that draws me to projects like these.

To make a typographic collection more playful in its execution, I used augmented reality to animate some of the concepts. Once people downloaded an app to their mobile phones, they could hold it over the prints to play animations that added to each print’s concept.

Click the image above to see the augmented reality in action.

People all over the world are buying these products; this global relatability shows that there's a real power in using design to start conversations and visualize the intangible. As I continue the residency this year, I hope to continue finding new and experimental ways to spark these conversations and make typography playful.

For more work by Adobe Creative Resident Isabel Lea, follow her on Behance and Instagram, and visit the Studio Atypical website.