Concept, project, workshop on public lettering
Virtual Itineraries is a project about environmental lettering; the workshops encourage learning through a direct exploration of the city. Participants are encouraged to roam around urban sites to document examples of signs and lettering using mobile phones and digital cameras. They then share the results online using social software, to create freely accessible, geotagged databases of public lettering. The project, which I developed with the help of Eric Kindel, was funded by CETL (Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) and builds on a tradition of teaching about lettering and signs in the Department of Typography in Reading.
At the core of this workshop is the creation and sharing of public lettering in a shared virtual space. Participants venture out into parts of the city to record examples of lettering, which range from the monumental (stone carving, incised metal plaques) to the vernacular (hand made or generic neon signs, graffiti). These include commercial signs, historical artefacts, wayfinding signs, and more.
The resulting collections are uploaded to the social software media-sharing site Flickr and tagged according to our series of descriptive categories for lettering, construction techniques, and genres. They are also geo-tagged, enabling the mapping feature in Flickr. The resulting media pool is a virtual lettering map that traces the journeys of participants, and that serves as a database of public lettering in the city. See for instance the Reading pool of 2010/2011, and the collection assembled by screen typography students at the University of Cooperative Education in Ravensburg, Germany.
VI may be run in small groups, which promotes conversation around individual sites and helps participants to trace and re-interpret their unique itineraries for the shared virtual space. The process preserves yet translates the materiality of environmental lettering in the urban landscape. Journeys are recorded with the help of common devices such as mobile phones and cameras, and the process of building of the digital archive occurs in real time and space. The workshop intentionally makes use of free, commonly available media-sharing sites so that the resulting pool of geo-tagged material is also available as a public resource on the internet.
Background and history
The Virtual Itineraries idea grew out of study trips taken by Reading staff and students to Italy. There, student groups studied and recorded civic inscriptions and ‘lettered’ sites in the extraordinary cities of Rome and Florence. Although the study trips are no longer taken, Reading was intent on retaining elements of the experience. The project also builds on the Department’s extensive archives and collections of public signage and lettering. Originally a collaborative venture between Reading and The Central School, the teaching archives of lettering of varying periods, forms, materials, locations, methods of making, etc, were entirely physical collections: photography, rubbings, publications, and more. The Virtual Itineraries workshop evokes the lettering collection but creates a participatory version through the use of social software and the exploration of locations nearer to hand. The digital aspect also helps to involve students in contributing to collections and archives, as the Department’s historical lettering collection becomes digitised. A Virtual Itineraries exercise offered both continuity to the notion of lettering tours and itineraries, and contributions to collections through the organised collection and sharing of visual records of sites.
Virtual Itineraries workshops have been held in Ravensburg, Germany and in Manchester, UK as part of the Futuresonic Social Technologies Summit in 2009; the project has been presented to the Sign Design Society and is regularly run as an undergraduate module at Reading, taking in sites throughout southern England.