TBI Q&A: Catherine Griffiths

Catherine Griffiths' AEIOU
Graphic designer and typographer Catherine Griffiths talks about some of her upcoming projects.


Graphic designer and typographer Catherine Griffiths is in Auckland for a Design Assembly Winter Conversation  ‘A Type of Improvisation’ - discussing improvisation as it applies to her practice, and why it matters, through her own projects and the work of other practitioners.

In this QnA she tells us about some of her upcoming projects.

During what hours of the day do you feel most inspired?

Tricky to pick, because it shifts about ... but quite often in the night or early morning with a clear head.

How would a good friend describe your aesthetic or style?

Someone did describe me as “dangerous” — what did that mean?? me, my aesthetic, my style ...

What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest thrill?

The moment I see the idea working — that’s a thrill.

How does your environment affect your work?

If you mean the space I work in, then, given that I’ve been living and working (with my husband and photographer Bruce Connew) in a 35m2 space (as we do in Paris too) at Athfield Architects, Wellington, and I’m still functioning, I figure I’m super adaptable, because I continue to produce work of reasonable worth. It may shift my output, sideways perhaps, but certainly not for the worse. My proper studio ‘environment’, is currently locked in storage forcing me to find new reference points. Having said this, everything’s about to change with our move to Auckland, after 30 years in Wellington, before that, a sunny childhood in Whakatane.

If, by environment, you mean the world we live in and its effect on my approach, then that is profound. The landscape is strongly present and has played overtly in my work —the Wellington Writers Walk, as a series of text sculptures, is a poignant example of my response to the environment, our culture, our outlook, as is ‘AEIOU’, a typo/sound installation in Cuba Street where the vowels not only embody the myriad cultures that exist in one stretch, but are my expression of something deep within my own landscape.

Do you like to look at the big picture or focus on the details?

I’ve been told I’m a details person, but I do go for the big picture on occasion. Wide-ranging. TypeSHED11, an international typography symposium that I organised in 2009 with Typevents, Italy, would be a stark example of this affliction, or ability, to straddle the two.
What's your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in the creative industries?

Stay with your sense of self, do as you feel most strongly, hold vision and aspiration.

Which of your projects to date has given you the most satisfaction?

Most recently, ‘AEIOU’ ... I listen to passers-by who take a moment to observe AEIOU, then, in making out what it ‘says’, find themselves sounding out the vowels, or a variation on the theme. They often do it out loud. I’ve recorded a number of these recitations. I’m collecting them for what is an endless sound piece ...

The Wellington Writers Walk concrete text sculptures elicited this type of response from the moment they were being installed — and continues to, to this day. It has undoubtedly given not only me, the poets, writers and those involved, a good deal of pleasure, but the wider public, who is incredibly supportive of the work. Of course, with pleasure goes a little pain, but that’s another story!

Who or what has inspired you recently?

Ian Athfield and his iconic Wellington structure, where we live and work, and are witness to his thinking and ideological vision. Jun Miyake, the Japanese composer and trumpeter based in Paris. Oliver Connew, Bruce’s 5th, my stepson, who I’ve known intimately since he was four, has stayed true to himself and now, almost 20, is a dancer at the NZSD, making his mark out of classical and into contemporary ... made his first dance film the other day on Athfield’s steps. Incredible.

Tell us a bit about your background.

This from my website ... I am an independent designer and typographer, I work from Wellington, Auckland and Paris on a project-by-project basis. I studied Visual Communication Design at the School of Design, Wellington Polytechnic, New Zealand (1984–1986), spent three years as a designer in London, then opened my own studio in 1995. My work is a mix of visual communication design, self-published artist books, typography in public spaces, architecture and the landscape, and more recently, writing on design. In 2009, I organised (with Simone Wolf of Typevents Italy) TypeSHED11, an international typography symposium held in New Zealand.

Tell us a bit about your latest work/projects.

The Jets’ is a short, short film I made in response to failure and moments lost; and appears to have nothing to do with my practice as a designer, but actually, philosophically, it does.

Another typographic installation — nine excerpts of poetry and prose — is waiting in the wings. The project came to a halt a year ago, but thanks to the locals who banded together and lobbied for what they’d been promised, fingers crossed we will see it happen. Two dimensional in its application, it will be a very physical reading experience, located beneath a significant cross-water structure in Auckland.

Right now, a little intervention on the hillside here at Aths is underway ... as part of the typographic field of letters I designed for their logo (inspiration for this came out of Alaska — I’d given a couple of talks at the Alaska Design Forum, then gone as far north into the Arctic Circle as I could possibly go). Way-finding signage in the form of ‘breadcrumbs’ as I call them ... imagine this field of letters exploding and falling about the hillside, then rearranged a little to give some sense of direction about the site ... looking forward to having the objects ready to install.

Bruce Connew’s third artist book in the ‘I’ series: ‘I Drive You Crazy, to the Moon’ is waiting patiently for funding, so we can complete the trilogy. ‘I Saw You’ and ‘I Must Behave’ are self-published and can be viewed here. You can buy a copy online. One day, all three will be available as a very collectable set.

Tell us a bit about your Design Assembly talk.

Entitled ‘A Type of Improvisation’, I will discuss amongst other things, improvisation as it applies to my practice, and why it matters, through my own projects and the work of other practitioners. The workshop that I’m holding the following day asks the participants to design a large format poster using the letterform as the primary tool with which to improvise and construct meaning (but not the written word), whether social, political or cultural, with attention to detail, composition and aesthetic form.

I’ve invited designers Leonardo Sonnoli in Italy and Masayoshi Kodaira in Japan to critique the work following the workshop. The final selection will be printed as a limited edition set, post-workshop, and exhibited at the next Design Assembly evening. Both Leonardo and Masayoshi were guest speakers at TypeSHED11 in 2009.

What do you think are the current challenges and opportunities in the design industry?


If you could go back and choose a completely different career path to the one you've chosen, what would it be?

One moment I say music, another painting ... there’s nothing to stop me changing course whenever I want.

What place is always with you, wherever you go?

The landscape around me ...

What's the best way to listen to music, and why?

Being in a tiny space, with little room to move, I would have to say with headphones, good ones. But we’re working towards an acoustically warm space, with our books, a turntable, valve amp ...

You are given a piece of string, a stick and some fabric. What do you make?

Today, a flag.

What's the best stress relief advice you've ever been given?

Soon it will pass. Later you’ll forget.

What's great about today?

As I write, Bruce’s 3rd daughter Alice is flying across the Tasman with her few remaining possessions to start afresh in Melbourne. She has been through too many earthquakes in Christchurch, and fare-welled by the latest series of destroyers.

What’s your big idea for 2011?

The last time you asked this of me, it was a large upright circle for Wellington … which never made it. I’ve let that go, for this one, which is about to become reality: relocating from Wellington to the Supercity.

Further information:


Life in Italics
Writing by Types

Writing on Design

John & Eye
Shots in the Air
Locating our Feet

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

17 Jun 2011

Interests Cathy Aronson – The Big Idea Editor Cathy is a journalist, photo journalist and online editor.

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