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On a Sunday afternoon, the MATTER studio is dark and silent save for the print shop, where Griffith has been working for hours to carefully align two small, custom-designed blocks of metal type on a pair of letterpress printers in order to print forty copies of his carefully constructed "Definition of Graphic Design." While Griffith introduced the definition three years ago as a four-by-eight-foot stencil displayed on a downtown wall one night to the consternation of the Denver police, this time the work will be printed on five-by-seven-inch cards that will be sent to friends and colleagues.
One type block displays the definition in backwards Gotham letters: "In practicing graphic design it is implied that — from deploying the most basic proportions of a letterform to negotiating the format, inclusion of (or reference to) material objects — any competent attempt will include the creation and application of some sympathetic agreements, a concern and further effort to ensure that the work is conditioned by the message it will convey." The other block features tiny annotations Griffith added to the text after a friend informed him that the definition was completely inaccessible. One note explains that "proportions of a letterform" can refer to the relationship of the x-height to the cap height and the weight of the thickest stroke to the thinnest stroke, while another points out that "the message" is also the name of a very important jam from 1982.
In this print shop — littered with drawers of letters, ligatures and punctuation marks, T-squares and X-ACTO blades, cans of ink in colors like "Oil Forest," "Royal Purple" and "Downtown Brown" — everything is measured in picas, which correspond to a sixth of an inch, and points, which measure just 1/72nd of an inch. "It's the way we see the world because that's the way we change the world," explains Griffith. Take the two blocks of text he's been positioning: He figures there's just a point or two of give if both are going to align correctly on the final print. And since the annotation type is only two and a half points tall, he has to apply just the right amount of ink to the letterpress so that each tiny printed serif is readable.
Sometimes the typefaces Griffith chooses to work with are unique and expressive, ornate letterforms that call to mind a certain mood or timeframe. Other times, like with this project, the typefaces he selects are relatively simple — he's using Gotham, a type inspired by architectural signage of mid-twentieth-century New York City, for the graphic design definition, and Clarendon, the first typeface ever registered under Britain's Ornamental Designs Act of 1842, for the annotation — in order to let the words speak for themselves.
Once everything is prepared on the two letterpresses, Griffith is finally ready to begin production. First he prints the annotations, pulling a metal lever that brings to life a fifty-year-old motorized letterpress, which he calls "the young press." One by one, he slips a blank card into position as the iron jaws of the machine close and open, leaving behind tiny, red-inked words. Then he moves over to the other press, a century-old device powered by a foot pedal, shuffling the half-printed cards in and out of the machine at a much faster pace.
"Anyone who prints says you want to have your whole self involved, because if you don't, you make mistakes and potentially hurt yourself," he says. "We've not had an accident yet."
Griffith could do this same job in moments using a computer printer, but he insists it wouldn't be the same. "The effort it takes to produce something ultimately communicates its truthfulness," he says. "People wouldn't spend a long time telling lies. That's what the Internet is for."
Most people would look at the five-by-seven cards produced by this exercise and see black-and-red type against the white of the page. Griffith and other type experts see the opposite: white space broken up by black and red marks. Griffith knows what it feels like to be the one bit of color in a sea of white space.
Born in England to middle-class parents from the British West Indies, Rick Griffith held his own at the elite private schools where his parents managed to send him, especially excelling at oratory and debate. He really stood out after his family immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s and settled in suburban Washington, D.C. "I was a black Englishman who did not fit in with the black kids and did not fit in with the white kids," he recalls.
"Being lost in that was very interesting for me," he adds, speaking without a hint of a British accent. "I became a bit of a chameleon in this country."
In 1986, the seventeen-year-old chameleon rebelled and ran away from home. Griffith found refuge in the hardcore punk culture that was emerging in the D.C. area, a scene that would produce bands like Scream and Fugazi. "Being aligned with the punk movement gave me a chance to have a really strong voice," he says. "Terms like 'No business like usual' became commonplace for me."