Teaching typography in quarantine
ESSAY: Advanced Typography Workshops in Quarantine
by Thomas Girard
In October 2020, Thomas Girard of the Graduate Liberal Studies programme at Simon Fraser University taught a course in Advanced Typography at a design school in Vancouver.
Here, he provides a summary of that course with nods to the history — and ubiquity — of typography and its continuing importance, including how poor and confusing cartography might impact the design of a ballot and even the outcome of an election — Ed.
The argument is always that design isn’t about saving lives. Some people argue for its importance, for example with the historical example of poorly-designed election ballots causing American voters to be confused enough to vote for the wrong party or candidate. Teaching typography during the pandemic puts an interesting lens on it. In one sense it is the least of our worries, but historically it has been so important that it must not be allowed to gather dust. I teach a class called Advanced Typography at a small private design school in Vancouver and I often reflect on how, throughout history, typography has been carefully documented and considered in practical ways in its relationship with current technologies, in the impact it has on people emotionally and, most importantly, in the way we read. Letters are meant to be read, and through the careful study of topics like typographic readability and legibility we can assess its continuing importance. Some say we can never see history while it’s unfolding, but I simply offer this précis of typographic studies so that perhaps we can reflect, “Wait a minute, writing actually says a lot.”
The poster is the hallmark of typography, the one deliverable that will never disappear. It had its heyday during the Grunge period when cool bands plastered printed posters all over the place, and any designer could make a decent living designing and typesetting these. At some point that shifted and we had to ask ourselves if we had to repurpose posters, thinking of them as a little square Instagram icon on the corner of a screen, or on the side of a Greyhound bus, or in between YouTube videos before the person watching hits the skip button. Or as a motion graphics trailer before a feature film. The question of the relevance of a poster will of course never be fully valid simply because it has so much good baggage. It’s what designers knew and loved and learnt about growing up, and this will continue to be true for as long as knowledge gets passed along. And yes, in a school where we design for screens and try to be vocational to match the needs of industry today, we have to ask ourselves if posters will make the cut into curriculum. I can promise you one thing: those with wisdom will ensure they will.
Dinner Table Conversation
As design becomes dinner table conversation I hope that typography makes the cut – so that people can laugh about Comic Sans, or chuckle about Helvetica at a defunct American Apparel clothing store. It’s funny to me that American Apparel is now history and no longer current. I suppose that’s what happens as time marches forward – your own history continues to be relevant to you and casts a magic spell that makes you smile when you see typographic instructions for a VCR, or the typography of a novel falling apart at the seams in a thrift shop. My focus on the history of design at this time might seem questionable, but admit that I enjoy talking about the Bauhaus, and the time when sans serifs were emerging, and the time of the chopping off of the serifs, as some designers refer to it during that period; and the illuminated manuscripts that included letters hand-drawn by scribes before the proliferation of the printing press, or the wicked angularity of type during Russian Constructivism. But these are tangential these days. They are in some ways specifically typographic matters.
I had a trip to London somewhat recently and became overjoyed when I found a Josef Albers original in a small frame around a less-looked-at corner of the Tate Modern. In my course I talk about Albers and Itten for their contributions to colour theory during the Bauhaus. A quick aside: typographic colour is actually a grey colour, which we perceive when we look at a page filled with letters and squint our eyes. Of course, we can open Photoshop and select a letter and pick a red swatch, and the colour will change; and I still feel deflated when asked to convince a group of young designers that colour is not in fact colour as we know it, when they just want to use the Pantone Colour of the Year, or when they have never used anything other than Twitter Blue. Who am I to say? These days the authoritative knowledge of an instructor can be questioned like anything else, and sometimes it makes me wonder what relevance I have other than facilitating critiques and telling stories, the odd one that we can all chuckle at. But I guess that is a legitimate role, and perhaps most academics will agree that the life of an academic has plenty of paradox. Paradoxes? Often I wish I was young enough again to simply be an adult’s curiosity.
When asked to talk about motion graphics I still mention a design production studio that was already history 15 years ago when a professor introduced it to me. Imaginary Forces during its heyday did all the big typographic Hollywood blockbuster trailers, or at least the coolest ones, based out of a little studio in LA. I Googled them to see if they are still around. They are, and they’re now doing perhaps the less desirable of those blockbusters, but, I imagine, as profitable as ever. Students have no idea about references that are second nature to me, so I feel sometimes that I transmit information that students will actually read and enjoy and remember, which is a nice feeling. They should read from the reading list (see Works Cited, below), but they complain it’s too expensive. I tell them they only need to buy one book, offering A History of Graphic Design, by Alston Purvis and Philip Meggs, for its high-quality reproductions of movie posters and posters for bands. But you can’t tell young people anything these days. They might agree or argue, but they will move on to the next thing pretty quickly without much care for what came before it.
Grids can be taught right at the beginning, but that’s not how I learned about them. I was taught to experiment first. Only later did I learn that typography had been organized very carefully so that it made sense. Typography really made sense with connected terms like The Swiss Style, The International Typographic Style, and Modernism, and it wasn’t hard to prove that even Postmodernism and simple chaos made sense. Still, when I look at a layout with timeless typography, I do feel it’s better, but perhaps that’s just the bias of an aging designer. Grids are in a handful of things that I teach right at the beginning. Names like Josef Muller Brockmann are connected to those times that witnessed the transitions between Modernism and Postmodernism, making for a rule-based world in contrast to running around like chickens without their heads.
One thing I’ll say about negative space is that I have typography students who really like to fill up all the space with everything. If they are reading this they should know this is not an original endeavour. The space that’s filled or black and the space that’s empty or white work in tandem, with some saying the white negative is where the DNA is – it’s what we read. I call this filling up of space decorative design simply to make a point, not as a subtle way of insulting something I don’t fully understand. And one could fight back claiming that to leave a page blank is no better. What I do know is that elements work together and somehow rub off on each other, in the process tainting our perception of a page. Typography is an art and a science. The practised specialist uses negative space to guide the eye, lead us around shapes that affect our memory and subconscious, and determines how we read, even through the negative.
So, the next obvious idea would be that typography should be clear and it should be readable. No different than written words, one might claim, as William Zinsser asserts in On Writing Well. Instead of overpowering, typography should recede and weave its magic without intruding or butting in with showy stylization. It should cast and retain its spell after the dust has settled. Type that shouts is in opposition to this, but type that whispers might also draw attention to itself and for that reason could be equally unnecessary. Helvetica, the font, was always the emblem of transparency, but history taints itself, and in current times Helvetica printed and posted on an out-of-service bathroom door, or on a no smoking sign might say a little too much too soon. So even clarity in typography is riddled with complexity as it struggles to free itself. In short, typography needs a day off once in a while too.
Mathematics and typography are not distant cousins. Mathematical patterns seen in the proportions of a human body, in the shell of a snail, and in the ripples of the ocean if we stretch a little, are just as much typographic as they are parts of nature. The Fibonacci series is one example of this: a series of numbers from nature that can work to create harmonious design. In traditional design education, words like beauty, elegance, and timelessness have always been synonymous with good design. We now live in a design world where things have to be tested and evaluated before they can ring true, but believers in human-centred design and more universal aesthetics might still draw on mathematics to communicate, and they would be perfectly correct. Break a page into three equal parts, and you have a “rule of thirds” layout which still stands tall as a soldier marching for math and typography. The curious craftsman who ignores the three sections, well, they are just as susceptible to its genetic order. And when a radical designer makes a jumbled mess, let’s just say that it also has its place.
Contrast in typography is another magic trick. How do you make contrast? Look closely first. Even a blank page is something, and its proportions are something to contrast it with. Add an element to the page, some letters for example, and you might begin to imagine the complexity that even a lazy detective would find, balancing proportions with negative space and an inked surface. And then do less. Doing less is hard work. Two patient competitors both doing less might be the cause of the most vicious battle, doing nothing at all while also doing everything, all at the same time. In other words, even in silence there is white noise, and if a tree falls in the woods there is always a tree falling, and in the blackness of night there is the blackest black. We are always in the elements. This is typographic contrast.
An Alarming Fact
If you told me an alarming fact that people spend their whole lives designing fonts, I might think you are telling me a joke I didn’t understand. In fact, the design of letters has been going on for a very long time. The first examples in our recorded history are inscriptions on tablets recording ownership of land and other financials, while equally early on are the illuminated manuscripts – labour-intensive and valuable hand-lettered books that, at the time, were equivalent of owning a house today. And when the printing press emerged, people interned carving type out of lead. They might never complete more than one letter a day. Type has existed in all shapes throughout history, and always behind it all were type designers. These days, with a computer, it’s faster but not better, even though type designers today are capable and what they create is good. People like Matthew Carter, known for working at Microsoft Typography on faces like Verdana and Georgia, have made letters in virtually all the ways they’ve ever been made, in contrast to type designers today or in the recent past who might find themselves with a pirated copy of fontlab and some curiosity. In the documentary Helvetica, Matthew Carter argues that it’s very difficult to sit on a plane or a train these days and answer when someone asks what you do and you answer type designer. They might reply, “I thought they were all dead.”
Kerning, letter-spacing, counters, and ascenders and descenders are all part of this mystery system we call typographic vocabulary. Much like Canadians might learn to speak both English and French, a designer during their formal education might be forced to learn the language of English along with the language of typography, a highly visual form of the English language that traditionally helped copyrighters communicate with art directors in ad agencies or in editorial design. The markings on a page using these words is one way that designers communicated with one another through annotation. However, in most Adobe Software we can quickly change some aspects of typography in a vector software like InDesign or a more common program, Adobe Illustrator. But more importantly, through typographic vocabulary, we can talk about those changes and only afterwards make changes that might make or break typography.
Arms and Legs
Much like we have arms and legs, typefaces have anatomy. Alexander Lawson’s book The Anatomy of a Typeface was evidence of this, solidifying the idea that the anatomy of a typeface was real while finding a place on every typographer’s bookshelf, if only to be read by the title on its spine. Much like we have a stomach that can be round and empty sometimes, the lowercase o also has an empty stomach, the negative space inside the letter, a counter. Little feet are called serifs. Type with long arms and legs might be considered to have ascenders and descenders. Some wording for typographic anatomy is very ordinary, like typography with feet or typography with arms or legs. A letter might wear a hat, or it might look like a water droplet called a teardrop serif. Other letters that look like binoculars like a g we simply call a binocular g. All of these words describing the anatomy of type slowly cast a magic spell and let us see the world a little differently. Erik Spiekermann in Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works talks about how he enjoys looking at letters while some people enjoy looking at, ahem, nude women or men. Letters are his friends, he says.
We need to discuss certain recommendations. Never stretch type, for a type designer may have spent years of their life making the thing, and then to turn it into a deformity in a matter of seconds is horrific. Never use Comic Sans except perhaps for a comic book, since a comic book is what it was designed for. Every font has a purpose. Use it for that. Most of the time the side of a truck isn’t meant to look like a comic book, so why would you make it look that way? Comic Sans has a bad reputation beyond this, as something cited to avoid, but I don’t see it that way. Instead it’s something we should carefully consider and employ for its intended use, which I’ll admit is very limited in scope, and which puts it in a corner by itself most of the time. Putting generous amounts of space between capital letters, also known as letter-spacing, is usually good, as capital letters are notoriously hard to read in longer strings of text, and this letter-spacing will help it. On the other hand, tightening the letter-spacing in a font like Helvetica can actually help Helvetica, as we read word shapes; so when there is less space between characters in certain fonts with upper and lower case, reducing the negative space helps us understand it as our eyes travel over the shapes and as we engage in the process of reading. Of course there are exceptions. Spekiermann says you shouldn’t put too much space between lowercase letters. People understood it and learnt that, but then they disagreed and did exactly what he said not to do. They rejected an idea once learnt, which is of course is another way.
In our current typographic climate I am often called on to talk about the type of the present day. Which font should I use? Should I pay for a font? How can I learn about type? I wish I could offer shortcuts, but there aren’t many. Today type has to work on the small screens of our iPhones, or it has to move around a screen in video, which affects the job of a type designer as well as the job of a typographer. Old type that hasn’t been digitized recently often suffers in small-screen environments. Google fonts is an alternative. But is it complete? Type today considers a myriad of modalities that we never could have imagined ten or five years ago. To make it relevant today we have to look at it in these new contexts and ask ourselves if it is still relevant; we have to think about how we can amplify the value of a craft that has been invested in so heavily over time, we must admit it will hold an important place in history. We are the key decision makers for our future.
What do you imagine?
- Gary Hustwit, Shelby Siegel, and Luke Geissbuhler, Helvetica: A Documentary Film (Plexifilm, 2007).
- Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003).
- Alexander Lawson, The Anatomy of a Typeface (David R. Godine, 1990).
- Alston W. Purvis and Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (2006).
- Eric Spiekermann, Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works (Peachpit Press, 2014).
- William Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: Harper Collins, 1990).
Thomas Girard has a B. Des (Communication Design) from Emily Carr University of Art + Design (2005). He was employed in 2011 in Beijing at the technology company Lenovo as a Staff User Experience Designer. At the Innovation Design Center he worked on high profile User Experience Products for the China market. In 2017-18, at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, he taught degree-level courses in Mobile App Design, Interaction Design Principles, and Prototyping Interactions. Since 2019 he has been an MA candidate in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at SFU. He has also been accepted for graduate studies at the Royal College of Art, London. Visit his personal website here. Editor’s note: for The Ormsby Review, Thomas Girard has also written an essay, “Unique ways of prototyping: Podiums, prototypes, and Plato” (August 23, 2020) and “Letters from the Pandemic: Dear Thomas King” (December 17, 2020).
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