The Typographer as Reader

Written language in the 21st century is less a linear structure or ‘complete’ language system than a component within a ‘mixed system’ closely integrated with images and icons.

Ten to fifteen years ago graphic designers were celebrating this dissolution of boundaries between image and word. We could see a shift from the dominance of the linear; from the 500 year legacy of set baselines, towards the ‘mixed language’ or purposely incomplete system of the screen – combining text, icon, image, and away from the linear structure of the bound book towards the more radial or nodal structures proposed by interactive media.

Now I’m beginning to worry about it. Teaching a generation of students who have grown up in this culture of mixed language systems, and consequently spent their whole literate lives in a very fluid, relativist relationship to language … I find that we can no longer assume the kind of attention to language that we’d previously expected of an aspiring professional dealing with type.
In a sense the task has become more complex. Rather than a single set of accepted conventions, we expect a student to manage an extended range of levels of formality: from the abbreviations of texting and emoticons, through the subtle gradations of accepted usage in emails, through to written letters and print.

I realised a while back, in drawing students attention to some fairly embarrassing error of usage, that the surprising thing was not that the error had been made, but the lack of concern .’yeah, ok, I’ll fix it ‘ (as the response to the kind of solecism that would have had me waking up screaming …) was not just the familiar cool nonchalance of the art student, but an indicator that it just didn’t seem that important anymore.
I’ve seen a decline in students’ affinity for the analysis and construction of typographic hierarchies.

At this point, it is commonplace to blame the education the student has received prior to University. However, it seems to me that the problem is not qualitative but structural.

Intelligent typography depends upon intelligent reading, but this exposes a faultline that runs through our education system and indeed across our culture: the contradistinction of ‘academic’ language-based study against ‘creative’ visual study.

Educational convention places the linguistic and the visual in opposition. The pupil with a developed linguistic awareness is likely to be encouraged towards ‘academic’ studies, and may indeed encounter some resistance in seeking to pursue the study of visual communication; a field still thought to provide for the ‘creative’ individual who characteristically ‘isn’t good with words’.
For the typographer, ‘not being good with words’ is a pretty serious impediment, and is an area in which graphic design degree courses often have to address the limitations of the education their students have received at secondary level.
The complaint that students don’t read enough, is a cliché of academic life, but for the student of typography it has particular implications.

In ‘Students who don’t read’, Don Roum makes the point that:



Part of the problem is simply that so few design students read for pleasure, or for the exploration of ideas, or indeed read at all unless required to.

William Drenntel said


Most conspicuous in its absence is the idea of reading as an exploratory or recreational activity. I sometimes think that I care less about what students read so long as they find something to read that matters to them. I’ve been tempted to add to the reading list for any typography module, the final instruction: Read something that isn’t on the reading list.
Even for the diligent and high-achieving student, there is a widespread perception of reading as a pragmatic, acquisitive activity. What can I read that will give me the information I need to fulfil this task? To answer this essay question, master this programme, understand this project? Study skills stress efficiency in this process. The ready availability of data from online sources makes of study and research largely a matter of editorial and evaluative sifting.
This is understandable, but bypasses a dynamic that is crucial to the kind of fulfilling intellectual life one would wish for one’s students. – that random or non-linear pursuit of further knowledge for the sheer interest it brings. An open ended process – creative noodling, free-associative research, the opening up to unexpected connections and possibilities.
While we recognise this creative dynamic in visual work, we neglect or marginalise its equivalent in reading and research. It might be described as ‘Creative Reading’.
Picasso said:

‘Finding’ is how we furnish our inner lives, find the inspirations and avatars which inform our work. It is how we develop a personal culture, a hinterland, and a set of critical standards.

At a practical level, the designer’s functional literacy is more important than ever before. Typographic designers are increasingly responsible for the origination and structuring of copy, on the page and on the screen. The mediation of the ‘editor’ is less widespread; publishing hierarchies are dissolving, and with the convergence of communications media a wide range of self-publishing activities have become key aspects of the designers practice.

Twyman, in the report of the working party on typographic teaching, comments that

And yet, the role of the understanding of language –both through analytical study and creative apprehension – still has an uneasy and ill-defined position within design education

As we have seen, the design philosophies which have helped define graphic design and design education, have had only a fragmentary, tenuous or troubled relationship to the linguistic purposes of typography. Despite the rhetoric of functionalism, the design ‘fundamentals’ identified by many modernist teachers are characterised by a fondness for abstraction; applying a reductive language of compositional dynamics rather than semantic values. These are self-evidently fundamentals of visual form, but they leave little space for the consideration of the fundamentals of linguistic structure.

Ellen Lupton said in Visual Syntax:


‘The language of vision’ is a resonant and appealing phrase. But as Lupton’s explanation confirms, this is something quite distinct from language itself. … and I’d suggest that in our pursuit of this ‘language of vision’ we may have diminished our vision of language.

The ‘formal oppositions’ Lupton describes are abstract in nature, and I’d suggest that organizing typographic elements according to abstract formal criteria is a strange and even perverse thing to do. Grouping ‘geometric and typographic elements’ as interchangeable or subject to a common set of processes or decisions, reduces type to geometry, or at least promotes its abstract qualities over its linguistic ones.

By comparison the ideal of type in the service of language – the fundamental duty identified by Ruder and before him by Morison, has long been perceived as innately conservative; the obverse of ‘creative’ expression, while visual development and innovation in typography has been characterised by a focus upon type as an abstract formal medium.

It may be time for typography to wake from the dream it has inhabited through much of the twentieth century; the idea of abstract formal essences shared with abstract art. The present conditions indicate the need for a shift from ‘painting with type’ to typography as reading.

In response to the changing challenges of typography in the current century, we may need to redress the balance in favour of deeper and more inventive attention to semantic values.
I’d suggest that the way that we address Weingart’s agenda and:



… is neither through the imposition or the destruction of formal structures, but through language: to develop a typography built upon the semantic properties of typographic space, and find a new perspective on the creative possibilities of type as a structural carrier of language.

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