By Fran Weaver, July 2012
It’s easy to grasp the importance of graphic design in commercial contexts, but a unique World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 project shows that fonts and signs in urban settings can also provide insights into local history.
The Helsinki-based young artists’ collective Napa Gallery wanted to participate in Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital by encouraging people to see their surroundings in a different way and appreciate graphic design elements in the city scene.
“We feel Helsinki is beautiful, and we want to make it more fun for people exploring the city by opening their eyes to small graphic details they might otherwise miss, with our map of hidden visual treasures,” explains Katri Paakkanen, coordinator of the Font Walk project.
Font-walkers can pick up free maps, created by graphic designer Camilla Pentti, at Napa Gallery in Helsinki’s Kamppi district. The maps guide walkers around the easy route, which takes about an hour to stroll, allowing for stops to read the brief historical and typographical insights included on the map.
“We had lots of fun walking round with Camilla planning the route,” says Paakkanen. “In the end we chose 31 places where walkers can stop and look at some graphic element.
“We didn’t know where this idea would lead us at first, but we discovered that things like fonts and the design of signs can provide keys to local history. It’s possible to link certain typefaces to certain periods, for instance, and this helped us a lot with the research we did for the map texts.”
Some stops focus on features dating back to the art deco period, when many exquisitely ornate buildings were erected in this part of Helsinki. On one grand old building, elegant lettering spells out the word “maitoa” (milk), revealing the location of a long vanished grocery store. Font-walkers also discover a street corner that many people pass every day without realising they are being closely spied on by a bear.
“The main idea is to encourage local people to spend time getting to know their surroundings in a different way, and also to give visiting tourists an interesting way to pick up on some little details,” says Paakkanen. “We’re also running a light-hearted competition urging people to post images on our Facebook page of interesting graphic features they find around the city.”
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