Fete Type Log #4, by Agyei Archer
A contemporary Trinidadian graphic designer functions primarily in one gear — foreign. Which is unfortunate, but a reality. Our foreign tastes results in a largely disproportionate misrepresentation of what we as a nation, and people, value and how we perceive our worth (see TED talk by Gareth Jenkins). Instead of a creative nation, as designer Vernelle Noel puts it, we are a consumer nation. By shifting to a lower gear — to design from a Trinidadian perspective — means taking a risk and trusting our own. Doing the hard thinking and restructuring necessary to negotiate foreign space locally, a post post-independence step towards a leading nation. That said, graphic designers have historically played a key role in mapping nations and major cities into (re)existence — visually and culturally (ex. New York, China, Singpore, Australia, Japan).
This week I'm proud to introduce guest contributor Agyei Archer (Innovant Design), who discusses the role of fete signage — a traditional form of graphic design unique to the Caribbean region — in the context of contemporary Trinidad. He talks about the challenges graphic designers face in defining their own visual space; and touches on how we've built walls, and re-enforced class in our own profession — a certain kind of structural inequality visually and culturally. Moving forward means a due diligence within our practice, with transparency and education, that's unafraid to big up our own, and have that influence us and others.
Why Fete Type Matters
by Agyei Archer
For graphic designers operating in the digital space, one question that comes up is how do hand painted fete signs fit into our contemporary space? Today digital typography, high-tech production methods and perfectly machined communications seem to dominate our visual landscape.
What makes fete signage important?
Why does it even matter?
Today, many designers can all, but casually name drop famous typographers and graphic designers, referencing their groundbreaking work in their respective fields. How many among us however, can identify Bruce Cayonne’s iconic typographic style, or put a name to the hand-and-eye measured, legible, large-scale typographic posters and signs on the East-West Corridor, where this type of work dominates the visual landscape?
Not many, I imagine. Probably with good reason — we’ve been conditioned that if it’s from here, it can’t be good. Excellent graphic design in Trinidad is still affectionately described as looking “international” — implying that it’s better than average, finally good enough to stand on its own feet in the international market, which must be superior to Trinidad in every way, right? A graphic designer from Trinidad hasn’t truly “made it” until they’ve worked for some international brands — that’s when their work is deemed worthy of acceptability by local markets. Furthermore, local franchise houses of international advertising agencies still dominate the professional market.
On the other side of commercial design, we have the craftsmen: the sign-painters, the joiners, the potters ... The men and women whose work involves as much considered effort as perhaps the most elaborately styled, one-typeface, sleekly-gridded movie posters. What makes them any different? Why is our marker for “good” design based on someone else’s cultural experience? Is it because we’re just not very good? Could it be the ubiquitous scourge of foreign influence that makes us favour Mike and Molly to Calabash Alley? Maybe. I don’t know, and I reckon after we’ve figured it out, we’d have wasted a lot of time waffling.
Fete Type in Context
Bruce Cayonne is a graphic designer from Arima, whose work primarily features in the public space, produced at large sizes, with a strong focus on typographic communication. He produces promotional posters for some of the country’s most popular parties, and his work has been shipped up the islands. He’s really good at what he does. He’s quick; his letters stand out; he makes effective use of size, colour and layout to establish hierarchy of type; his speed allows him to be affordable, which allows him to be accessible to multiple projects per day ... it’s a freelancer’s dream. If it didn’t work, he’d have been out of business ages ago. He’s been in operation for 26 years, and it doesn’t seem as though he’ll be shutting down anytime soon. The style is ubiquitous and like every design field, there are those whose work isn’t as effective; Bruce’s work stands out even in a sea of similar styles. It’s easy for us to gauge “good” work with the benchmarks that we’ve imposed on ourselves, but maybe it’s better to look at Bruce’s work from the perspective of accomplishment of its goals: people attend the parties he creates fete signs for. Maybe we need to readdress our standards of design, or at least what we accept as “good” or “bad”.
He may not think it himself, but Bruce Cayonne is a graphic designer, through and through; he uses rhythm, hierarchy, type, colour, proportion and contrast to solve complex visual problems — imagine, having to work out in which visual order to list a group of people who all think they should be name checked first — it sounds easy until you've tried it.
It’s not that Bruce isn’t identified as a good, creative problem solver — he’s been written about (see Treasure Island, by Melanie Archer) and has been part of larger exhibitions/projects in Trinidad like Galvanize. However, there’s still an air of novelty about his craft ... it’s kitsch, it’s nice to make reference to, but it’s best if it stays in its space. Maybe it's comfortable for us to put Bruce and others like him into a separate bracket, one where we don't have to risk the dangers of comparison between the effectiveness of our solutions ... maybe it's about confronting a difficult reality in the parallels between his work and ours. Bruce's work is touched by a careful kind of consideration, something you rarely see these days, especially in the age where you can set your kerning to "Optical", deselect and move on.
Bruce lacks the mysticism that the educated, middle-class graphic designer is privileged to. There’s a mystique surrounding creative problem-solvers, individuals or teams that disappear into air-conditioned offices and return (sometimes, a bit late) with carefully executed, pixel-perfect digital and printed mockups.
Now compare this to Bruce. Who works in the converted garage space next to his house, with waterproof paint, cardboard and about fifteen brushes. It’s just not the same, right? Wrong. His work has developed into a style that has lent far more to our public visual landscape than many of the triple-figure, agency-produced billboards that litter our roadways. It’s not talked about because we don’t want to get shown up: we’ll have to be accountable for the quality of our work, for heaven’s sake! He can’t be our equal, because that means sometimes his work could be better; and at under $100 per poster for some projects, that’s probably a scary reality to embrace.
It’ll be okay though: we’re working on it. Kriston and I have been talking about how we could learn from; educate; archive; and truly honour Bruce’s work and work like it. We’ve come up with a few things. The first is obvious: digitise some letters and make a font. This is useful for a lot of reasons, but I think mostly for archiving. After Bruce's body of work ends, there should be a record of the iconic typographic style that has coloured our visual landscape for years. It’s the least we could be doing, really.
Next, it’ll be interesting to see what results we could get from using the influence of Bruce’s typographic style to produce a contemporary digital typeface, something that can work at small sizes while still retaining some of the character, impact and effectiveness of Bruce’s style.
Now that the letters have been interpreted digitally, we can stow it away and add to the Archive, something that students, designers and design enthusiasts can witness and use in real time; Bruce’s style can be digitally immortalised, but never for profit. If you want to use his style, give him a call and head up to the studio in Arima. He’s a really nice guy, and he likes to talk about his work.
Over the coming weeks (or months, or years), I’ll be working on a digital production of a typeface based on elements of Bruce’s letter style and will be documenting the process. Half — so other designers can see/critique the process used; and the other half — so I don’t forget how to do it the next time. It should be fun, and it’s my hope that the production of Cayonne Sans will elucidate the relevance of Bruce’s work, and encourage other designers to seek inspiration and reference from local sources; we’ve got so much to pull from, it’s a shame that we look so far away for inspiration.
Additional Reading: Treasure Island, by Melanie Archer (click to download)