In the 1990s, this was one of only two Typography courses in the country and I must admit, when I applied for it, I didn’t even know what Typography was (no, it's not the study of maps). A chance space on my UCAS form was hastily filled in by copying a friend, thus altering the direction of my life forever.
I discovered that Typography is ‘the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point sizes, line lengths, line-spacing, and letter-spacing, and adjusting the space between pairs of letters.’ Wikipedia
So, basically, I studied letters. While the initial lessons of my first year seemed remarkably easy (write the alphabet in chalk on some black paper then spend an hour discussing it, take the whole of the next lesson to adjust the spacing between a circle, square and triangle with blu-tac on a wall), it became a very intense, demanding four years which trained every one of my classmates and I into finely-tuned, exacting and precise typography geeks.
We learnt to appreciate the role, shape and preferred spacing of the non-specific cue (bullet points)... the merits of Gill Sans over Helvetica... the one and only suitable application for Times Roman... the impact of the real romans on the curves of our modern letters, the effect of the industrial revolution on poster design... In fact, a whole of load of history and theory lectures, research and essay writing I really hadn't expected for an 'arty' subject.
The course was small, and, I realise now with hindsight, how lucky I was to be offered one of the twenty spaces available. 19 out of the 20 of my year group went on to become designers and have all had varied and successful careers, albeit with twists and turns in other directions later on. Wherever the students of 1996 have ended up, we can all still spot the difference between a hyphen and an en dash, get slightly stressed about poor kerning and cringe when we see Comic Sans. We know what looks good, and what doesn't and understand that great communication design is built on a foundation of understanding the message, the end user, creative ideas, experimentation, solid images and elegant typography.
Twenty years later, I find myself working for HM Queen Elizabeth II, having meetings about a book of victorian photography while in a private library in Windsor Castle, surrounded by drawers and cabinets filled with the finest prints the world has ever seen. Or sitting at a highly polished mahogany table in a private room at St James's Palace where George IV's children used to play, discussing the design for a new book on Windsor Castle. Visiting the Olympic Park while it is just being built, as research for a collection of books I'm designing for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
And I wonder, why me? How did I end up here, with this incredible job? I trace it back all the decisions that led me here, and it leads me back to that empty space on the UCAS form, and the University of Reading.