My First: a closer look at designer Bruce Usher and illustrator Antti Kalevi's book, I Can Speak With Shapes


In partnership with

To celebrate the launch of Arjowiggins’ new digital range, we have partnered with the creative papers manufacturer to offer two emerging talents the opportunity to work with an established graphic designer to create a new publication that showcases the work of the participants and the potential of new digital printing techniques.

For the first book, type foundry and design studio Colophon Foundry / The Entente worked with photographer Sophie Mayanne on Twenty-Two , a chronological narrative tracking her journey as a photographer from graduation to today. Designer Bruce Usher took a very different approach for the second book, working with illustrator Antti Kalevi to create a visual poem, translated using a key, for I Can Speak with Shapes.

Our coverage continues with a closer look at the meaning behind I Can Speak with Shapes.

Creating a Concept

“We spoke about pulling Antti’s illustrations apart and finding a way to repurpose them,” designer and art director Bruce Usher tells us of the idea which underpinned I Can Speak with Shapes. Bruce soon hit upon the idea of playing with illustrator Antti Kalevi’s abstract shapes and turning them into an alphabet. For each of the 26 letters, Antti would draw a different shape. The shapes would together make up a poem, giving the reader two ways of reading the book. “The whole point of it is that it’s a picture book and then you get to the end and there’s a punchline. You find the key and go back and read it and interpret it in a totally different way,” Bruce explains. “It’s a book with abstract images, but it also tells a story at the same time,” Antti adds.


“There were a couple of things that I was inspired by that became references,” Bruce says. “There’s a book by Paul Cox called Abstract Alphabet: a book of animals which is a similar sort of thing but the compositions aren’t really compositions, they’re very simple. Looking at Antti’s work I realised that we could push that idea far, far further. Deciding that first bit was easy, but the bits afterwards were probably the more difficult parts – when we realised that the letters had to spell something!”

The Poem

Armed with their alphabet of shapes, Bruce and Antti needed something to spell out. After searching for a poem which might fit, they decided that they needed something more bespoke and Bruce wrote a poem of his own. To make matters more complicated, it needed to contain every letter from A to Z. “The poem is a pangram so it has all the letters in,” Bruce says. “I’m not a writer, the language is not precise – and that’s the whole point. I just wrote what felt right and then tried to make it rhyme.”

Back to the Drawing Board

“Once we decided on the 26 shapes for the 26 letters, we realised that there were a few words which were repeated more than once in the poem I had written,” Bruce explains. “Antti decided would be an amazing idea for those repeating words to have their own shapes.” Here, the communication methods used by the internationally-based pair took on new meaning. “Our words were a bit like the emoji language that we were using to message each other on our phones – you write a word in and it gives you a selection of 30 drawings to pick from!” Bruce laughs.


As Antti works from a tight roster of colours to keep his work easily identifiable, texture took on a significant role. “The main choices on the white papers were textual choices rather than colour choices,” Bruce says. “There was an original idea that we would have a torn edge on every page, so the illustrations felt a bit more ad hoc and loose, so the physical thing would feel like a sketch book.” The books were printed digitally with the help of Generation Press.

Hidden meanings

“Metaphorically,” Bruce considers, “it’s a book that explores interpretation and how the same thing can mean a lot of different things. The poem says, ‘Is there more ways of reading? Are there more ways of seeing?’, and that’s the question that the book is trying to ask. You read through the book once and you look at the pictures and they make you feel a certain way, and you find the key and read the book again and hopefully that makes you feel a different way.”

“The linguistic meaning isn’t the visceral or aesthetic feeling that you get from it,” Bruce adds. “There’s a page that has a big black ‘X’ on the spread. It’s a page that sticks out and feels almost quite aggressive and quite bold and stark compared to the other pages. And actually, when you use the key to read it you find that it’s not. It’s a nice thing having the shapes having a double entendre, literally meaning two things, because we’re basically giving you two different ways of reading it.”

Bruce and Antti used the following paper stocks to produce I Can Speak with Shapes:
Cover: Curious Collection Skin i-Tone Extra White 380g
Text Pages: Curious Collection Matter i-Tone Goya White 270g and Curious Collection Matter i-Tone Andina Grey 270g

Arjowiggins Creative Papers has refined and extended its range of digital printing papers to offer graphic designers greater creative freedom with new sizes, colours, textures and finishes, plus easy selection with a new reference book. With digital technologies breathing new life into the medium of print, this digital range of papers allows designers to take advantage of custom print runs and quick turnarounds, while widening their creative options and retaining exceptional print quality. We invite you to read more about the new Arjowiggins Digital Range. 

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About the Author

Bryony Stone

Bryony joined It's Nice That as Deputy Editor in August 2016, following roles at Mother, Secret Cinema, LAW, Rollacoaster and Wonderland. She later became Acting Editor at It's Nice That, before leaving in late 2018.

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