A Q&A with Designer Violetta Boxill

The Alexander Boxill co-founder on presenting W.E.B Du Bois’ pioneering 1900 infographics for a 21st century audience.

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  • Exhibitions

As W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives reopens in Amsterdam, we talk to exhibition designer Violetta Boxill about her approach to revisiting Du Bois’ seminal exhibition that challenged racism in turn-of-the-century America.

Why did you decide to create a typeface especially for the exhibition rather than use an existing one? 

The exhibition includes 63 charts that were drawn in 1900 by Du Bois’ team of students at Atlanta University. When you study the charts you can see these different hands at work - it's amazing. Re-creating the originally hand-drawn letters digitally felt like an extension of this teamwork.

What do you feel the typeface adds to the exhibition design?

Hopefully it draws attention to the beauty of the lettering within the charts themselves. They were drawn in the late 1800s but look so contemporary. Coupled with the data visualisations, they are astonishing artworks. I adore the numbers! And the ‘%' charter is so unique.

How did you go about creating the typeface?

I’d say they were letterforms rather than a typeface as the letters are individual ‘drawings’.

Essentially, the letters are uppercase sans serif drawn with straight and angled lines but on closer inspection you see that every letter has its own expression, a different weight, expanded or condensed to varying degrees, with some italicised or reverse italicised. You discover something new every time you look at them.

I knew my letters were going to be cut in vinyl and reproduced much, much larger than the originals. To retain that hand-drawn essence, I had to create letterforms that were less precise, because a ‘perfect’ font combined with the vinyl cutting process would not have reflected the idiosyncratic charm of the original letters.

I curved many of my corners to give the perception of an ink nib on paper. And not all the lines are straight. Time wasn’t on my side but I tried to ‘affect’ and tweak letters that were displayed closely together so you would get the sense that each letter was unique.

What were the most challenging and positive things about designing this exhibition?

The obvious challenge was the size of the space we created the exhibition for. We were very keen to show all the charts, as this hadn’t been done before in the UK or in the Netherlands. And we were also very keen to echo the flip-frames from Du Bois’ original 1900 Paris installation. We managed to do both.

To absorb the (sometimes heartbreaking) data, to admire the pioneering infographics, to study the letterforms… to have all these as close companions for a few months while I designed the exhibition was a privilege. The power of Du Bois’ work to fundamentally challenge the representation of Black Americans is inspiring and to design a show promoting it was simply joy.

See W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives at Westergas Amsterdam until 19 December 2021.

Visit Alexander Boxill for more on Violetta’s projects.