I got out of the university sector because it is such a constraining thing the disciplinary apparatus just shuts down free thinking and innovation in my experience. And then the, dreaded learning outcomes thing came in and you have to figure out what it is that you want students to get at the end of it, so you can measure it. And that is not my experience of learning.
My experience of learning comes from getting people excited about things. and then Waving goodbye as they go sailing off into whatever it is they're interested in and good art and design education has always gone down those tracks
You're listening to the Still Curious podcast with me, Danu Poyner. My guest today is Peter Gilderdale, who is a writer, calligrapher, and recently retired lecturer in design history at Auckland University of Technology. I first met Peter when we were both working at AUT and he was serving as head of research for the art and design school.
In this episode, we discuss what good education looks like in design, what universities do well, but also how they can shut down free thinking and innovation and why they may be writing themselves out of being relevant. We explore how assessment gets in the way of learning the difference between pursuing excellence for yourself versus being part of a place that exudes excellence and how to keep the university system happy without losing it.
Peter talks about what's involved in being a professional calligrapher. What's driving a recent resurgence in interest in calligraphy among young people and why it is that so many good calligraphers also turn out to be so good at playing golf. We hear about engaging with the past as a way of finding other people and how doing a PhD about Edwardian postcards helped Peter to connect with his family's history as immigrants.
And we also learn how a timetabling clash led Peter to discover one of the world's oldest signed works of art while working on an archeological dig in Egypt. Finally, we discuss what it's like to be an insider outsider in the art community and why one of the top results when you Google Peter's name is an article about why he can get stuffed.
This episode is slightly longer than some of the others. And while Peter's dog eventually loses patience with the discussion, I hope you will find it enjoyable and interesting throughout its many tangents. It's Peter, Gilderdale coming up right after the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious podcast.
Hi, Peter. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. How are you?
I'm good. Thanks.
Oh, that's good to hear. Lots to talk about. I'll jump straight in if that's okay. Yep. So you describe yourself as a specialist in typography and design history with an interest in user experience design and until recently you were lecturing in communication design.
So that strikes me as a really interesting mix of things. And I'm going to ask you about some of them in more detail, but is there a a thread of interest running through those things? How do you story that?
I think yeah, and you can probably add artistry and Dietrich technology into that mix as well.
That was the early part of it. Yeah. For me, the the bit that goes through most of that is the a marrying of image and text. My parents were an artist and a writer and I've always had those two things going alongside each other. And so I write and I make, and I'm interested in the place where the two intersect and so graphic design or communication design in various forms is where that happens.
But more recently the user experience part has come in as a sort of third element to it. I think traditionally it was very easy to just get caught up with the the form of it and actually thinking about what it's for and so on is it is also important. So that element has come in more recent.
Thanks. That's a really good summary. And lots of things to, to dig into a little bit more there. Can I just probe you a little bit on the design history side of things, cause that's a really interesting idea. I always like to ask people, how would you explain that idea to a 10 year old version of yourself?
I don't think my 10 year old version of myself would be terribly interested to be quite honest. My 10 year old version was very interested in art history, and even my 20 year old version would have been struggling with with design history. I found found design really when I moved to Denmark and became interested in because design here in the 1960s and seventies and early eighties was not exactly a huge thing that we didn't have wonderfully designed things.
And then I moved to Denmark and I saw the potential that design could have to affect people. So I think for me design history, if I had to explain it to a 10 year old, would would simply be that it's about understanding the things that are around us and the ways that we communicate and the ways that people have used those things in the past and how what we do now has developed out of that history.
And I'm always interested in engaging with the past as a way of finding other people. You can do it as an anthropologist, you do it in the present with different cultures as a historian. You engage with people across time. But it's always about finding those different ways of doing things.
And yet also the things, that the same motivations drive people. We all want to make our lives a little bit better and a little bit easier and so on and design has always attempted to do that.
You mentioned you're interested there in, in how design affects people. Are you thinking of any particular examples of what that means?
Oh well, I mean, on the one hand you can pick out design that looks good and functions terribly. The LSE lemon squeezer, if you know that particular object, is it every designer of a certain year had that hanging around in their office because it looked so cool, but you would never want to squeeze a lemon on it.
The juice went everywhere. That's an example of aesthetic design. An example of the sort of design that I think is cool would be the whoever thought of the countdown at traffic lights for the participants. Was a genius, right? That is such a simple, straightforward way of making people's lives better so that, whether you have to run for the light or not, and when you go every day on a bus and you have to cross traffic lights and so on that has materially improved the experience my day.
And that's, that's a wonderful piece of design to my mind.
Absolutely. Okay, so you're particularly interested in calligraphy as an artistic form. So we'll talk a bit about that. And you've worked as a professional calligrapher in New Zealand and also in Denmark and have some international recognition for that work.
Can you walk me through what's involved in being a professional calligrapher?
Huge monetary uncertainty could be the abiding thing. The reality is that people who want calligraphy, to pay for calligraphy are people who are doing weddings and things like that. And so your life as a professional calligrapher ,that tends to resolve around doing certificates and wedding invitations and things like that, which you can only do for so long.
And alternatively you can try and make your calligraphy into some kind of art so that people can put it up and put up texts on the wall and so on, all of which I've done at various times, none of which is terribly satisfying, and I'm still struggling to find exactly where I want to make calligraphy function. So yeah, I don't think I've hit the sweet spot yet. But the good thing is that it's had quite a major revival in the last 10 years or so. And there are a lot of younger people who are in the calligraphic arena doing really cool work. And unlike about 20 years ago where it felt like it was stultifying, there's actually a really interesting body of calligraphic work out there.
It's still mainly those sort of areas that I was talking about, but I'm hoping that at some point it will spread outwards. I'd like using interesting different lettering in any kind of context. So it's very easy to pull it into a graphic design context. It's a little harder to figure out how to use it in in ways that are meaningful for people.
Mainly because people are very unfamiliar with, in the same way that people don't really know much about type or recognize the subtleties of typographic expression. Most people recognize a Gothic as looking heavy metal, and they'll recognize a copper plate piece of calligraphy as looking fancy and wedding like, and that's about the limit.
And so the struggle always is that if you're trying to push the limits of the medium, you have to try and take your audience with you. And that's not an easy thing.
Just to linger on this point a little bit then, I'm wondering if you could help me understand the difference between typography, graphic design and calligraphy because they seem like they have a lot in common that you're very careful to separate them out. What can you tell us about that?
Graphic design or communication design is the overarching use of text and image to communicate something. So that's the overarching thing .Within that, you've got the different elements. So there's the pictorial element, which is illustration and so on. And the use of text traditionally in a typographic medium used to be using hot lead letters, which you set out. Now it's digital, but it's always about a finished letter form that has a fixed shape in an alphabet, which you put together with other letters to communicate something and you can design type faces but, generally speaking, they just have one shape.
Calligraphy is about taking a pen and using movement to create a shape and no two shapes are going to be the same. There's an individuality and a kind of unique quality to the calligraphic mark. I would say for me, a piece of typography is an exclamation mark, whereas a piece of calligraphy is a question mark. When you're doing calligraphy it's always about finding something out. You never know what the piece is going to be until it's finished.
Whereas, generally speaking, in design you have a very clear idea of what the draft is. You've got a draft of what it's going to be, and then it's just about finishing it off using typography to make it a little bit tighter. It's a different way of approaching, but I think that if you think of typers as the stamp and calligraphy as the wave.
So different process, different motivations for,
yes. Yeah. I think calligraphy tends to attract people who want to make something that is, is a bit individual and unique.
I'd love to ask you about the revival that you mentioned about bits, all zoom out for a moment first, I think because you obviously have a love of calligraphy and you're a teacher of calligraphy.
I'd love to hear how you became interested in it. Given that you mentioned that design history of something you got into after a little while and wasn't first cab off the rank, so to speak. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in these things?
Yes. I think from memory, littering was included in the art curriculum at school, and I remember having to do some job. The teacher asked me to do some lettering for for some project or other that the school was doing. And I used some calligraphy pens for it. I'd forgotten all about that until quite recently that what I remembered more was that after I left school, we'd had my seventh form year in England and I went to a boarding school for a couple of semesters and then to art school for one semester. And at that art school, I didn't get taught calligraphy, but there was somebody teaching it to other students and periodically you'd see examples of calligraphy posted up. And there was one particular poster that got put up around the student cafe'. And and I looked at it and said, "God, that's terrible".
And of one of the other fellow students said that's calligraphy, it's much harder than it looks. And I can remember thinking, I reckon I can do a heck of a lot better than that. And when I got back to New Zealand, my dad had calligraphy pens because he'd learned a little bit when he was at the Slade School of A rt. He never did a lot of calligraphy.
It wasn't his thing. But he had a couple of models, sheets, so I sat down and started to try it out and by a couple of weeks, I was doing stuff that was better than what he did. And since I'd given up ever being able to draw better than him I moved from thinking that I was going to be an artist to thinking I was going to be a calligrapher.
Ah, that's interesting. Finding an area where you can make your own mark or wave as it were.
Yes. Yeah. That's the thing is, if you do something you want to do it well and calligraphy just felt very natural to me. I've always drawn rather than painted, I'm a black and white person.
I like the immediacy of the ink line. I don't much like painting things and filling things in with color and so on.
That was right from the start as a kid. I always drew.
Given your background and what your parents do, was there ever a chance that you wouldn't be taking an artistic line?
Did you ever consider, you know, investment banking or uh,
Not investment banking? Maths was never my forte. But I did, as a teenager, as well as a small kid, it was professional cricket. And later on I played golf to a reasonably good level. And did have thoughts about doing that professionally, but when I hit calligraphy, it was like, it's the same process.
Mentally I didn't realize this for quite a long time, but actually a lot of calligraphers are also good golfers. When you swing in golf, you have to set yourself up, and then you simply use muscle memory.
And you have to get your head out of it as much as possible because the moment that your head starts going in there and thinking, oh, I'm doing this nicely or something's going wrong, it goes wrong. And the results magnify every little bit that goes wrong in the processes and the swing gets worse. And that's exactly what happens when you're making a calligraphic letter. You start it and then you just have to see what happens and it has to flow,
and ideally the line comes out fluid. But the moment that something starts going wrong, you're in big trouble. And so mentally, I I think it's exactly the same process.
That's so interesting. Are any of them typographic?
No, not usually. what, where the overlap is in letter design.
I, you find some people that are really interested in calligraphy will move over into letter designing, but actually I think most calligraphers feel topography is just a bit constrained to be honest.
So interesting. So coming back to what you mentioned about the revival of interest in this art form, What have you noticed about where that's coming from and what is driving that?
It's actually coming out of popular culture?
There was a emerging of graffiti and calligraphy. It's called calligraphy CT, and suddenly you've got a lot of people in the sort of graffiti subculture, tattooing and areas like that who suddenly discovered calligraphy and a number of them have then gone on to become very fine
calligraphers. But their following and their following on social media and so on has has linked up with more traditional calligraphers. And there's really a quite interesting sort of mix. I finally put my toe onto Instagram a couple of years ago, and it's a very interesting area to look at, to see how the very traditional calligraphers and these sort of young active people who are coming out of this graffiti subculture are finding common ground.
Podcasting is of course a very famously visual media. So normally we'd hold up some examples and you will put some in the notes, but that's really interesting. How do you think people today would discover a curiosity about this way of doing things, given that everyone's digital first and got electronic devices.
And this is a very kind of physical medium
I'm guessing by YouTube videos of it happening. Traditionally you would discover an interest in handwriting, at least from school, from being taught it. Certainly, I'm old enough to have been taught copperplate at school.
And I was always interested in handwriting, and I think most people, older calligraphers came in via that, but now I think it will be from people seeing it as something a bit different and exotic, and there's the pretty large amount of calligraphic image demonstrations on on YouTube.
So if somebody gets sucked into seeing one or two of those and is interested, I think they'll easily find a lot more.
Yeah. Yeah. I'd like to ask you a little bit about how you like to learn yourself, Peter, because you have a really interesting way of framing things and combining theory and practice,
of course. So how do you like to go about learning things?
In as unstructured away as possible? I think I really just find what I'm interested and then go for it. Is what it amounts to. I mean, I've I've always been like that. I've never been bored. It's certainly never been me.
I've always and I know my mother used to say as a child that I never was short of things to do. I read, I look at things at you just think about them and if something is interesting I try it out. It means I'm not at all systematic.
And I don't set goals and, try and achieve them. I just find what's interesting and find how it connects with other things I'm interested in. And yeah, think about it.
That's really interesting. Of course, that resonates with me as well. I'd certainly take a similar approach.
I'm interested in how that translates to the professional space because you've spent a fair while as as an academic at a well-regarded academic art and design school in Oakland. What can you share about that experience and systematizing knowledge, whether it's structured or not?
the thing was when I went there I was still in the phase of, do I finish off an Egyptological PhD and, go into that arena or do I go into the calligraphy and which I'd been getting into more. And I had an offer from Auckland uni to come and finish the PhD, and then, there'd be a job going and I had six hours of part-time teaching at at ATI as it was then. I opted to go to ATI because the education was so much better.
To my mind, it was student focused and exciting and what was happening there was such innovative and people were figuring it out as as they went along, but it was really exciting. And gradually, as the place got bigger, the structures got put in place and you've got faculties put in place.
And people came in and they wanted to make papers which had fixed links. And then the dreaded learning outcomes thing came in and you have to to figure out what it is that you want students to get at the end of it, so you can measure it. And that is not my experience of learning.
My experience of learning comes from getting people excited about things. and then waving goodbye as they go sailing off into whatever it is they're interested in, and good art and design education has always gone down those tracks. Trying to fit it into the horrible constraints of a traditional university,
and particularly when we became a university, which I was one of the few people who was heavily opposed to the idea, because, I got out of the university sector because it is such a constraining thing. The disciplinary apparatus just shuts down at free thinking and innovation in my experience.
And I just I've seen. There are amazing people. My colleagues, ex colleagues now are amazingly good educators and they're still fighting to do good education within the constraints, but it is really hard, when I think back to what we were actually doing in the 1980s and early nineties to look at that and then to look at how we operate today.
And I just don't think students get the same experience.
Could you share any examples of what it looked like when it was working really well?
For example when the 1990 Commonwealth games was happening, the organizers came to us and said that they, could we get involved with the graphics of it?
They had a logo and that was about it. Rather unwisely, it turned out we said yes to this because it pissed the industry off no end. But but what we were able to do was simply take the second years and say we're canning all of your classes, and you're going to work on this for two months.
Right. That does sound exciting.
And they got their work out there. It was an absolute way to get students to learn on the job and to see the reality of what they were doing. And it was a hugely beneficial educational experience for them. But shortly after that we had a paper structure put in.
And once you have that, you can't do that sort of stuff. You can't suddenly leap on the opportunities that come in and over the years managing courses, I've had many people come with ideas that could have been that beneficial,