An ode to the dot in typography: MuirMcNeil on the tipping point between legibility and pure abstraction

When does a letterform become language, an object or image? Find out more with the London-based studio’s latest type specimen, TenPoint.

5 November 2021

There is one detail in the type design process which continues to fascinate London-based collective MuirMcNeil. It involves a tipping point. In this case, the tipping point between type being functional or pure abstraction as a shape. It’s a question that sparked Hamish Muir and Paul McNeil (founders of the studio) to carry out a series of experiments exploring such. Interestingly, all these experiments operate on single dots, “the most significant and ubiquitous elements of visual communication today.” By enlarging and isolating the dots, MuirMcNeil looked at the lowest possible pitch of type anatomy, documenting its findings in a project titled TenPoint.

Hamish tells us, “most of our projects begin as studio experiments that usually start with relatively simple questions about specific aspects of form, text or language.” In this case, the series of visual explorations started by building alphabets with dots. Paul Klee famously described drawing as “taking a line for a walk” but today, the design pair assess that “dots seem to have become far more ubiquitous and far more powerful” with the digital age. “Software programmes trace everything we do – our ideas and our gestures – in intricate arrangements of binary points clustered tightly together in mass formations.” The possibilities of using dots in design is infinite. As Paul points out, “they hide in plain sight to create spectacular, seamless illusions as images, words, movements and sounds.”

TenPoint therefore questions the fundamental notions of what a letter is. Examining the relationships between language, object and image, the project investigates when a letter becomes legible as opposed to an abstract shape. Its projects usually combine intuition and experience with systematic visual interrogation. In other words, as Hamish points out, “we think of our modular typefaces and the components from which they are made as the building blocks of larger compositions: simple bricks that will lead us towards more complex visual architectures.” In this way, the type specimen makes evident how every letter and every word is constructed in the close up enlargements of dots.

When it comes to physically constructing a new type design, MuirMcNeil follows the general process of sketching by hand, writing notes, repeatedly trying and failing, until something clicks. The pair uses Illustrator and Fontlab to generate as many viable permutations as possible, in turn, touching as many corners of the design space as they can. Pushing letterforms to the precise point where they can no longer be read, and instead appreciated as symbols and icons, the project “emphasises the idea that form and content are like muscle and bone.” Paul points to a quote by the painter Giorgio Morandi who said: “Nothing is more abstract than reality… To achieve understanding it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.” And just as the 20th century artist suggests, “we like looking hard at things, and we like inviting people to do so too,” Hamish continues.

The modular project asks the viewer to consider how letterforms become a vehicle for language and also how they communicate through their form. It throws up questions of subconscious and conscious association, and where letters fall when it comes to this, investigations folded throughout the new type specimen. Look closer, and you’ll find yourself lost in the mesmerising enlarged dots that embody so much of the physical world around us. Distinctions between type and pattern merge playfully throughout the type specimen, in a record of MuirMcNeil’s dot-based findings.

GalleryMuirMcNeil: TenPoint (Copyright © MuirMcNeil, 2021)

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MuirMcNeil: TenPoint (Copyright © MuirMcNeil, 2021)

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Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

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