Typographic Haiku: Collaborative Experiments

  • Tim Isherwood
  • Posted in: Exhibitions

Through my association and friendship with Dr. Judy Kendall, author of several books of poetry, including Climbing Postcards and Joy Change, and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Salford, we constantly discuss the fantastic opportunities within our respective disciplines for collaboration. As a typographer, one of my aims is effectively to dress language, to ensure that the text being read is enhanced for the reader by the choice of typeface, that the tone of voice the text wants to achieve is realised through its style and spacing, the context in which it is arranged. Ideally, and with some of my earlier works, I need language to help me explain my typefaces. The purpose of typography of course is of secondary importance to the context the message it is looking to express, or so conventional wisdom has it!

Judy and I share the same approach to both language and type, but we come at the solution from either end of the same problem, hence our almost continual debate about how we can use each others knowledge to enhance and develop each others practice, and also collaborate to produce new outcomes that expand on both our experiences to hopefully create interesting and challenging new works. It was within this creative territory that we decided to offer our students the opportunity to collaborate.


The first module of the first semester on the Creative Writing course asks the students, amongst other aspects, to create a series of short poems and haiku, which is a Japanese poem of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, traditionally evoking images of the natural world. It had been left open for the students to respond in whatever way they felt appropriate with regard to their generation of concept and content. Once this process had been completed and submitted for assessment, Judy was able to send these haiku to me for my Graphic Design students to use within their second module of the first semester, called Exploring Graphic Communication. Each student was given the task of producing an experimental typeface that conceptually represented the content of their chosen poem, from which they were asked to demonstrate how successfully their newly crafted letterforms displayed their respective poem, in poster form. The students were not permitted to use illustration or image to enhance their posters, only the typefaces they generated. The results of this exercise were then put before a selection jury comprising members of staff from each course, and selected for exhibition in the Project Space at the universities Media City campus.

Selecting the work for exhibition was an interesting process. I arranged with Judy Kendall (Creative Writing) and Tash Willcocks (Graphic Design) a date that we could all get together to look over the posters that had been submitted. The interest lay in the observation of the work from different disciplines. I felt as if the emphasis was somewhat biased toward the graphic design students as we were making selections for the exhibition based on the quality of the design work, looking at how well the typefaces that had been created and were composed within the poster format, and only secondarily considering the quality of the poem. It was through this process that we decided the haiku and short poetry needed its own voice within the exhibition, and so resolved to consider how this might work.

Having chosen the posters we wanted for the exhibition, deciding on 28, I took them to the Project Space in the campus at Media City that we were using to host the show and began to arrange them on the floor to understand how best to showcase the project. Having tried a variety of possibilities, I finally settled on a sequence for the posters that filled two of the three walls available, which meant we had enough space to fully present a wider range of poems from the module.

Posters in situ

During this Level 4 module (Exploring Graphic Communication), we ran a two day type making workshop that initially considered deconstructing type, such as taking an existing font and changing it by the addition of process, such as cutting up and re-forming, or drawing over with your opposite hand, for example, and led to more conceptual developments on the second day by asking students to respond to a series of given words, such as ‘society’ or ‘machine’. The ideas generated in these lateral thinking sessions enabled the students to consider some of the language employed in their supplied poems, and gave them the opportunity to react accordingly. Given that the traditional essence of haiku is that of natural form, and that the majority of poems reflected this theme in some way, gave the perfect springboard from which to create letterforms (some of which are featured within this site).

Organising the exhibition was not entirely straightforward. As the original poetry from the Creative Writing students had not been assessed by the time the Graphic Design students were given it to work with, it was felt that it should be anonymised. This proved very difficult in the initial preparation of the exhibition, as matching the collaborative students names to their works was complicated. However, once complete, I was able to begin the curation process in the exhibition space. Given the number of posters, and their size, I felt it best to display them in a single line around two walls of the gallery, which gave me a third wall to display (the fourth being window space) a greater variety of the short poetry than just those used within the posters. I decided to set each poem landscape on an A4 sheet, aiding the composition of the text on the page, allowing a generous white border around the poem. I decided to set the text in Mrs Eaves, a wonderful typeface designed by the brilliant Zuzana Licko in 1996. Having admired the font before but not used it, it turned out to be an excellent opportunity to stretch my kerning skills, as the spacing between a variety of letters is somewhat inconsistent. Although this process was time consuming, I enjoyed it immensely, being able to indulge myself in that practice, but also becoming significantly more appreciative of the poems.

The opening night event was very well attended by students and staff from both courses, as well the Head of School. We asked each practitioner to stand by their own work, be it poster or poem. This gave us a fantastic opportunity to allow the collaborators to meet for the first time, and share their thoughts about each others work and subsequent interpretations. Their seemed a genuine buzz in the space as creative individuals from different disciplines were able to converse and share ideas within the context of this project, and potentially further projects.

Opening night 1

We intend to repeat this exercise with next years cohort, making a few refinements here and there, whilst looking to showcase the work created externally and involving a wider audience. Watch this space.