In each print, colorful letterforms flow over and around one another. They don't spell anything; the meaning is in the bold, fluid shapes of the letters themselves. "He's taken the type and removed them from having to communicate a verbal message so he can explore the emotive qualities and emotive potential of these letterforms," explains Alfred. "What's great about this work is it ties back to about 90 percent of what is on view in the museum. It's not very different from a representation of a Western landscape or a painting of a human figure. One can have the same sort of emotional response."


Smiling mischievously, Rick Griffith prowls the halls of Edison Elementary, nodding good morning to students and faculty alike. He makes a quick detour into a classroom to lead the kids in a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the blushing teacher, a family friend, then heads upstairs. At the open door of another classroom, he catches the eye of his nine-year-old daughter, Marin, and makes a funny face, wiggling his fingers at his temples — and being careful not to attract the attention of Marin's third-grade teacher, who's not likely to appreciate that sort of thing.

Eric Magnussen
MATTER art director Jeremy Peterson is in it for the love, helping to create works like Rick Griffith's typographic  experiments.
Eric Magnussen
MATTER art director Jeremy Peterson is in it for the love, helping to create works like Rick Griffith's typographic experiments.

Finally, he reaches his destination: the classroom of third-grade teacher Floyd Baltz. As Griffith makes his way to the front of the room with a strange little shuffle, slapping high-fives with delighted students, Baltz points to his guest's hairdo and announces, "If you don't know Mr. Griffith, don't let these fool you. They are not horns."

"It's Krusty!" hollers one of the students, referring to Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons.

"Herschel Krustofski," corrects Griffith, before taking a seat and clearing his throat with an exaggerated, dramatic flourish. It is time for the spelling test.

"Number one: 'Somebody.' As in, 'Somebody moved my cheese,'" says Griffith in a deep, professorial tone, triggering a round of giggles. "Quiet," he snaps, feigning annoyance. "This is a place of deep sadness, not happiness."

Griffith continues through the words he's selected for the test, illustrated with the sort of examples only a mind like his would dream up. Toothbrush: "As in, 'I would know what a toothbrush is if I used one.'" Driveway: "The eternal question being, why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?" Flashlight: "If you go to a wedding fifteen years from now, that song will be playing, you will be dancing, and it will be funky."

After each word, the students scribble down their answers on long, thin paper pads that have lines for twenty words, followed by the compliment "Great Job!" Imprinted at the bottom corner of each page is the trademark "SPELLRIGHT: A Tool for Practice & Learning," alongside the logo for MATTER.

Over the past two years, MATTER has produced more than 5,000 of these SPELLRIGHT pads, all from reclaimed paper, and donated them free of charge to Edison and two other public elementary schools in northwest Denver. "I'm obsessed with it," says Griffith. "As long as they are taking spelling tests on paper, we would like to help them out."

He came up with the idea four years ago, when his older daughter Rowan, now twelve, was a student in Baltz's classroom. Baltz had suggested he run spelling tests for the class, but the first day Griffith showed up, the students spent fifteen minutes just tearing pieces of paper in half to use for the test. "It was an enormous waste of time, and there was nothing enriching about that task," recalls Griffith.

So he offered to cut up and provide paper for the tests, a process that evolved into the SPELLRIGHT pads. In the coming year, Griffith wants to find a way to take the program nationwide. "It signifies my minor, tiny contribution to a tiny little problem that I observed, that if we can solve it on a large scale, we can maybe be contributing to a better public-school education for hundreds of thousands of students," he says.

For Griffith, the project illustrates the importance of design thinking: designers taking the same creative and analytical tools they use to craft pleasing images and objects and coming up with ways to make the world function better. "Design is greater than graphic design or industrial design or architecture," he says. Or, as he explained it last summer at TEDxBoulder, a conference highlighting cutting-edge ideas: "The nature of design thinking is, 'What if we can put ourselves in touch with a resource, connecting surplus over here to a need over here?'"

That's why the MATTER team is constantly on the lookout for shuttering print shops: All of the MATTERIAL product lines are made from skids and pallets of unused paper other businesses have left behind. That's why everything MATTER mails out is shipped in packaging saved in the cardboard morgue in the back of the studio, a mountain of empty beer cases and iMac boxes. That's why one of Griffith's most oft-repeated slogans these days is: "Act as if every resource is scarce."

And that's why, for Griffith, the SPELLRIGHT pads are a win-win: "It relies on reused paper, pulled out of the waste stream, and it helps the public-school system."

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