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Professor Paul Stiff 1949 - 2011

Professor paul Stiff

Professor Paul Stiff, pictured centre

Professor Paul Stiff, typographer, design historian, writer and teacher, has died after a long illness. Since 1980 Paul taught typography and graphic communication in the department of the same name at the University of Reading. Here he was a leading protagonist for 'design for reading' and inspired generations of undergraduates.

In his teaching Paul's aim was to construct a knowledge base to inform the exercise of professional judgement, and to develop the ‘reflective practitioner' model of design engagement. He planned, developed and directed for its first four years the innovative and renowned MA programme in Information Design. This has recruited internationally (USA, Canada, Australia, Norway, Brazil, Chile, EU) and has provided a life-changing and transformative experience for its graduates.

He was a meticulous teacher and would not countenance sloppy thinking of any kind; he challenged, irritated, inspired, encouraged, antagonised and stimulated would-be typographers and information designers. Those who responded to his questioning and insistence to try again realised that such demands were driven by his belief in the importance and value of the discipline that he nurtured and loved. Such students have gone on to become exceptional designers, some of them teachers, and some writers: Paul regarded it as his privilege to have been able to guide them.

Paul was an exemplary editor and designer of  leading journals in typography and graphic communication, regarding this as an essential element of the subject building necessary for an emerging academic discipline. He was co-editor of Information Design Journal from 1985 to 1989, and was sole editor until 1999. He was founder editor of Typography Papers in 1996, now internationally recognised as the benchmark for research and scholarship in the field.

Paul's writing has defined the subject in numerous ways, and it is difficult to select particular examples. However, three lengthy essays deserve particular mention to demonstrate first, the breadth of engagement with the subject, and second, the extent of the intellectual enquiry that underpins his work. His paper. ‘Instructing the printer: what specification tells about typographic designing', written in 1996, looked at the relationship between designers, compositors and quality. Nearly ten years later ‘Brunelleschi's epitaph and the design of public letters in fifteenth-century Florence' was about the design of inscriptions in works of art and architecture. In ‘Austerity, optimism; modern typography in Britain after the war' he wrote about post-war Britain through the lens of ‘design for printing' and the foundations that were built at this time for modern design and ways of doing it.

Since 2004 Paul has been Principal Investigator in two major projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: 'The optimism of modernity' and 'Designing information in everyday life 1815­-1914'. Both of these embrace the 'design for reading' theme that has pervaded his work, and they bring together history, theory and practice in ways that have attracted considerable attention: of one of the 'Optimism of modernity' published volumes one Royal Design of British Industry wrote: 'a sensational set of essays - a really important document in design history'. Paul enjoyed working on these projects because, as with his teaching, he influenced and challenged his post-docs. He brought together ideas from these projects in his last public speaking engagement, at the ATypI conference in Dublin where he talked about typographies in everyday life, viewed through lenses both historical and political. It considered the social contexts in which everyday reading happens, and the diverse social practices of literacy. Typography ran as a thread through these themes.

Paul has played a central part in building the world-class Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. That Reading is now the pre-eminent place for the subject is due in no small part to his work and engagement. Many of Paul's students and colleagues were inspired by his love of food, wine and cooking, and will have relished and savoured his ribollita, polenta with a simple tomato sauce, or a glass of madeira and 'plain cake'. One of his greatest pleasures in the last few months of his life were the lunches, teas and suppers that he shared with colleagues and friends.   

Sue Walker | March 2011

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