The New Alphabet presents a visual vocabulary, featuring 25 volumes and photography from Wolfgang Tillmans

Launched via Spector Books, the 88-page publication delves into the concept and functionality of the alphabet.

26 February 2021


The alphabet is something that almost everyone has to learn. It’s a standardised set of basic written symbols or graphemes – the latter a term used to describe the letters – and is used to represent the distinctive sounds between spoken languages. It dates back centuries, with the Proto-Canaanite script (also known as the Phoenician alphabet) considered the first, followed by modern alphabets such as Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin. The Egyptians, too, used hieroglyphs to describe sounds. Whatever the context and date, though, there are now countless alphabets in use today and more often than not they are associated with a standard ordering of letters.

The world relies on the alphabet, point-blank. And this is a concept that’s fully examined (and reinterpreted) in a new book published by Spector Books, titled The New Alphabet. The 88-page book sees a mix of black and white plus colour images paired with texts on the matter, alongside pictures by Wolfgang Tillmans. Those involved include Anna Cotten, Yuk Hui, Ben Lerner Bernd Scherer on the text and edits by Haus der Kulturen der Welt; art from Tillmans and Kanako Tada; and a visual language conceived by designers Olaf Nicolai, Markus Dreßen, Hannes Drißner, and Malin Gewinner.

Within The New Alphabet, the first of its 25 volumes, the book traces the relationship between binary code and monadology, a philosophy determined by Gottfreid Wilhelm Leibniz – whereby ‘Monad’ refers to an individual substance that reflects the order of the world from which material is derived. The New Alphabet delves into this philosophy, looking at the technical and cosmological aspects of non-Western writing systems, providing an alternative understanding of language. Not to mention a poetic interpretation of such, creating a powerful display of the ways in which children learn their ABCs in particular.

“The underlying concept of the series consists of reflecting its theme, The New Alphabet,” says Olaf, who was first invited to design the series, and therefore went on to develop the identity with the three other designers. “Within the design, not as an ‘object’ or motif, but rather in such a way that the design itself can be read as a statement: what are the possibilities of variably generating assertions from a given number of elements, and how would such a code work?” In response, the design steers towards establishing a framework. Just like the alphabet itself, the design was conceived from a number of elements, determining their combination based on a set of rules that mark out the available courses of action, “and thus form the grammar of the series.”


The New Alphabet, published by Spector Books (Copyright © Spector Books, 2021)

As such, The New Alphabet is derived from sequencing, combinations and various alphabet elements. Malin, one of the book’s designers, describes it as being likened to building blocks: “consisting of letters, words, colours and the materiality of the paper. All of the applied elements function according to the principles of variation and permutation.” This means that the twice-folder cover features four custom colours on the one side, plus a word field that has been “filtered out” from the contributions of the volume on the other. “This is complemented by the lettering DNA, which takes on a different typographic form on each volume,” says Hannes. “Both sides of the cover – referring to them as front and back would be a misnomer, since each is folded partly to the front and partly to the back – stand in contrast to each other: a glossy surface to an open one, a coloured space to one on which thin black lines form letters, words and sentences.” These specific word fields are thus presented on the cover as a form of “constellation”, or better described as a collage of individual words and phrases, creating a new compilation of text associations.

With 25 volumes in total, each can be arranged with open covers to form a series of posters that present the merging of a colour gradient. There are many options of how to present the volumes, which can be either via a horizontal or vertical positioning. What’s more is that the debut volume presents a selection of 26 colours, four of which are combined in an iris print on each cover. “Two of these colours reappear on the following volume, in combination with two new colours,” says Markus “the level at which the cover is folded also changes from volume to volume so that the division of each coloured area and the size of the DNA lettering is never the same.”

An additional element is that, within the four colour plates located inside each volume, each presents one word per colour. “If you open the volumes and place them next to each other, you end up with a linguistic laboratory of words, phrases and sentences in multiple combinations,” continues Marcus.

All in all, The New Alphabet does what it says on the tin. The artfully detailed designs and formulations have in effect created its own set of rules and guidelines, giving the reader the opportunity to create their own set of combinations and thus a new visual vocabulary. “The multifaceted visual and semantic combinations not only link the volumes to each other, but also provide playful options for arrangements that can be used to introduce alternative logics into the order of the series,” says Malin, on a final note about the book’s lasting impact. Hannes, on the other hand, concludes: “As more volumes are published, this ‘vocabulary’ of the series is expanded, and the generation of new expressions from an extremely reduced number of linguistic building blocks is its special appeal."

GalleryThe New Alphabet, published by Spector Books (Copyright © Spector Books, 2021)

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The New Alphabet, published by Spector Books (Copyright © Spector Books, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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