Urban Tales Typography Installation

From Here to There

Massey University student Katie Bevin creates a typographic installation that combines ancient technology with new-age social networking.

For her capstone project in Massey University’s College of Creative Arts, graphic design student Katie Bevin was challenged to combine a rigorous research process with development of typography and a site-specific narrative.

Bevin’s Urban Tales is a conceptual shadow typography installation that gives voice to her initial research focus––how social networking may affect human relationships––in an indirect but surprising way. And it leads visitors on a thought-provoking journey through a popular urban park.

From there to here

At Massey University, students in the College of Creative Arts are introduced to environmental graphic design through a course called Spatial Typography.

“The course has two primary aims: to nurture students’ ability to collaborate with others who have different skill sets, and to introduce them to environmental graphic design,” says Nick Kapica, Bevin’s instructor and head of department in the College of Creative Arts.

For their fourth-year capstone project, Bevin and her classmates were required to spend the first semester in intensive research. During the second semester, they applied their research to a project for which they had either written the brief themselves or reacted to an existing brief.

“I started off my research with an idea about social networking and the loss of face-to-face conversation, but then a lot of my research started to prove the opposite,” Bevin notes. “So I moved into more of the effect technology has on people in their environments. I was quite interested in urban environments and how people move around them, and that led me to the idea of telling stories about places and, ideally, to helping people look at places in new ways.”

Urban Tales emerged in response to a brief from the International Society of Typography Designers (ISTA), entitled “True Stories/True Geographies.” It asked designers to create a vibrant and intriguing form of typographic narrative in the cityscape.

Shadow type

Bevin explored a wide range of media for her project, but ultimately chose temporal typography and selected the urban Waitangi Park as her setting.

“I was intrigued with the idea of creating something over time and the notion that people would experience it as it happens,” Bevin explains.

At the entrance to the city park, eight bollards are spaced at regular intervals along a concrete walkway. Recognizing the opportunities presented by the bollards, the walkway, and the abundant Wellington sun, Bevin conceived a typographic installation that would work like an analemmatic sundial. 

Using the bollards as gnomons (shadow-casting objects) and the space around them as her canvas, Bevin manually measured and recorded the length and angle of the shadows they cast at various times of the day.

Then she focused on developing a modular geometric typeface whose letterforms could build on the shadows cast by the poles. The poles are 1000mm tall by 170mm in diameter, so Bevin designed the typeface equivalent to the width of the shadows they cast. Appropriately naming her typeface Umbrate (“to shadow”), Bevin designed it in 170mm by 170mm modules that, when combined, form 850mm by 850mm square letterforms, their length 150mm less than the height of the pole.

Bevin reproduced parts of the letterforms on the ground near the poles so that, as the sun moves across the sky, the shadows cast by the bollards move, completing a letter at each increment of 45 degrees. Words become visible when shadows meet the shapes on the ground, constructing a phrase that appears over a 10-hour period. The lines of the phrase are visible from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with each word appearing for approximately an hour. The forms ultimately spell out the phrase by Dr. Seuss:

“From here to there and there to here”

She chose the quotation for its length––eight words, corresponding to the eight gnomons––and its appropriateness to the project. “I wanted to link the quote to my concept of experiences and encouraging people to experience their surroundings,” Bevin explains. “I also liked the rhythm and repetition of the words, which seemed to allude to movement, the movement of the shadows themselves, and the idea of a journey.”

Social media

Bevin circled back to her original research to integrate social media into the project. As part of her goal to lead visitors on a journey of discovery, she added an interpretive element by gathering site-specific stories through Twitter and Facebook. She posted a map of the park on Facebook, then asked friends to mark themselves on the map and Tweet a story about a memorable experience there.

Eight of these “micro stories”—from short poetic responses (“A shout of victory came from the old post building’s rooftop tennis courts -1939”) to the more factual (“Walking past the repair yards -1973”)––are reproduced in small scale within the individual letterforms.

“My goal was to gather shared experiences that make it a special place,” explains Bevin. “They’re written in a colloquial style to sound like they are part of a conversation––the conversation of Waitangi Park. When you read one of the pieces, you are already inside the story, in the environment in which it is set.”

Making it real

Bevin hopes her conceptual piece will be installed at the park, and she has presented a proposal to that effect to the Wellington City Council.

Her modular typeface also allows for the piece to be constructed in any location that offers linear shadows cast at regular intervals. “So this could be installed anywhere. The message can also be changed to fit the environment in which it’s placed,” she adds.

The 23-year-old New Zealander is now working as an environmental graphic designer for Frost Design (Sydney).

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 33, 2011

Jury comments
“Even with a non-existent fabrication budget, this student work had more visual impact than many of the projects submitted by professionals and design firms. It stood out because of the unexpected use of existing environmental details (pylons), the formulation of a new modular typeface, and its overall creativity and novelty.”

“When something touches you and elevates the mundane in such a simple and profound way, it can only be terrific design.”


Location:  Waitangi Park, Wellington, New Zealand

Design:  Katie Bevin

University:  Massey University, College of Creative Arts

Instructor:  Nick Kapica (Massey University, ICD subject director/project mentor)

Consultants:  Nick Kapica (project mentor), Annette O’Sullivan (research advisor)

Photos:  Thomas Le Bas


New Member Offer

Click to access the 2020 "Never been an SEGD member before" $185 sign up offer

Upcoming SEGD Events

2021 SEGD Academic Summit Philadelphia
2021 Wayfinding and Placemaking
2021 Exhibition and Experience Design