Paul Stiff, 1949-2011

March 31, 2011

A leading typographer and design historian who dropped out of university as an undergraduate has died.

Born in Middlesbrough on 1 August 1949, Paul Stiff abandoned his degree course in sociology at the University of Essex in favour of a training course at the London College of Printing.

From 1974 to 1978, he studied typography and graphic communication at the University of Reading before joining the publishing house Routledge and Kegan Paul as an editor and designer. In 1980, he returned to Reading's department of typography and graphic communication, where he spent the rest of his career, first as lecturer, then as reader and eventually as professor. There he developed and directed an innovative MA in information design. His teaching was committed to the concept of the "reflective practitioner".

As part of his drive to develop typography as a serious academic discipline, Professor Stiff worked as an editor and designer on leading publications such as the Information Design Journal, before founding Typography Papers in 1996. He also published several wide-ranging essays. "Austerity, Optimism: Modern Typography in Britain After the War", for example, explored how developments in design were linked to changes in British life. Others considered the design of inscriptions in Renaissance architecture and the relationships between designers and compositors that lead to high-quality printing.

From 2004, Professor Stiff was the principal investigator on two major projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, The Optimism of Modernity and Designing Information in Everyday Life 1815-1914. He was able to report some of the key findings in his last public-speaking engagement, at the Association Typographique Internationale conference in Dublin last year.

For Sue Walker, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Reading, Professor Stiff 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," she said. "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, teachers and writers. Paul regarded it as his privilege to have been able to guide them."

Professor Stiff died of throat cancer on 12 February and is survived by his three children.

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