The Typographer as Reader

I would describe as semantic properties the manner in which the macrotypography of the page reflects and advances the conceptual structure of the text.
Gerard Unger has written:




Swann concludes his ‘Typography is too important’ with these observations:



As Swann suggests, technology has provided some useful stimuli for revising our view of the fundamentals or basics of typography.
In particular I have noted the emergence of debate on semantic issues in web design. Prompted by practical concerns and the need to explain and define ‘semantic markup’ this emergent discipline has re-identified an area I would view as key to the future development of typography within graphic design as a whole.
In an exceptionally lucid post by Mark Boulton in 2005: Titled Semantic Typography: Bridging the XHTML gap, he states



He goes on to say:



… and sets out a very objective and useful outline of typographic structure, breaking up language into semantically functional elements, leading to the well-argued point that


The thing that struck me as unusual about this was the way in which the practical demands of a new design medium had prompted a revisiting of key typographic fundamentals; ideas that would have been self evident to Ruder or Gerstner, but are ill-accommodated by a concept of ‘designers’ as these free spirits who ‘primarily think very visually’ and want to ‘create something’.
What Boulton has described as ‘a difficult task for the designer’, prompted by the demands of XHTML, is actually a fundamental, continuous and largely unexamined theme which runs through graphic design but is seldom accorded the creative scope or critical support it deserves.
We may need to start looking into different theoretical disciplines to inform our sense of the fundamentals. Swann has said:


Twyman observed



(It’s worth noting here that by ‘visual linguistics’, Twyman is referring to linguistics made visible – not a metaphorical linguistics of the visual like Lupton’s ‘language of vision’)

In a paper given at Reading in 1997 David Crystal proposed a development ‘towards a typographical linguistics’

If we accept this statement, it argues very strongly for the incorporation of linguistics into curricular design and the pedagogical frameworks by which typography is taught.



Christopher Candlin, in the introduction to Sue Walker’s Typography and Language in Everyday Life, says:



Walker makes the point that




These concerns are crucial in redefining the relationships between typography and graphic design, and to meeting the semantic challenges the subject faces in the fields of kinetic typography, and interactive texts,

I would suggest therefore that we need to reinstate language as a key focus of study for the typographer, and that both reading and writing be seen as integral to the activity of typographic design.
This might sound obvious – we’re teaching at undergraduate level after all – but this assumption cannot be made lightly.

I’ve already identified those factors which dissuade the linguistically-engaged from the visual fields of design, and promote those fields for the less verbal student.

Within practice-based design programmes, writing and reading are frequently perceived as a side-track or a bolt-on; revealingly described as ‘complementary’ or ‘contextual’ study – a distinction which deepens the perceptual rift between language and visual practice.
We may need in fact to dissociate reading and writing from their links to the ‘academic’ aspects of the student’s studies, and institute a new role for them within the creative practice of design.
Much as we would expect a narrative illustrator to maintain a practice of observational drawing, we should expect intelligent analytical reading to be a key element of a typographer’s learning; a ‘basic’, to be studied and understood alongside understanding of the point system and the grid.

The illustration student’s sketchbook is a recording medium, not primarily concerned with output or product but with process and the record of observation. As such, it responds to, and absorbs, a wide spectrum of experience – from the sublime to the banal. Crucially, the best sketchbooks are not displays of skill – and I have found the greatest self-made obstacle of the non-writing designer to be the perception of writing as a ‘skill’, an innate attribute of fluency. Some of the clumsiest draftsmen are the most profound – I’d take the clumsiness of Cezanne over the fluency of John Singer Sergeant?

I’d suggest that the typography student needs an equivalent practice of circumstantial reading and writing.

Familiarity with accurate and effective writing creates a developed linguistic sensibility, and that this in turn develops a typographer’s sensitivity to the nuances and structure of language. In an era where editorial/structural decisions increasingly take place within the design process, (and where the mediating presence of the sub-editor can no longer be assumed) it is particularly important that students learn to treat language with as much care, reverence and attention to detail as they bring to typographic form and composition.
The capacity for thoughtful and objective analysis of textual material, is the only substantial basis for meaningful decisions on typographic structure and differentiation.
This will not develop so long as reading is seen as a functional and acquisitive chore, but only when reading and the engagement with language is seen as a source of pleasure.
As a basis for deepening parallel and linkage between reading processes and creative visual processes, we need to prompt a non-linear, intuitive relationship to language and reading; to reinstate Picasso’s ‘finding’ alongside the objective and linear ‘seeking’ which so many students associate with reading.

We need to remind our students and ourselves that the intellect is a pleasure centre –even an erogenous zone.

Of the many orthodoxies and misconceptions stand in the way of this, the most pervasive may be our view of ‘Understanding’
I think that in the digital age we’ve moved towards an increasingly binary notion of ‘understanding’ –either we do or we don’t, either it’s present or absent. And we see the absence of immediate understanding as an obstacle -As though ‘not understanding’ was a brick wall that we turn away from.
I’d suggest that the ‘not-understood’ should be a stimulus, not an obstruction.



We live in a culture of efficiency, which characterises the ‘difficult’ in negative terms, as a problem to be addressed through the most direct and incisive route.
And yet: as a designer I tend to find useful parallels in music; to use the metaphor of music to describe and measure strategies and decisions, to review relationships of structure and idiom. These parallels work for me in cases where direct reference to visual examples would intrude upon the design process.
And at one time or other, we all encounter music that doesn’t make sense to us; that we don’t ‘understand’, that doesn’t conform to our expectations and definitions for what music is, and how it works.
There are two reactions to this:
“This makes no sense to me”; turn it off, walk away, change channel –apply binary approach to understanding: flip-flop, yes-no – I don’t understand, so the relationship stops here.
Or
– This is weird
– But this makes sense to someone.
– And therefore: A different definition of music must exist which makes sense of this.
– There is a sound-world, and a critical world, in which this music operates.
– I’d like to visit that place. Knowledge of that place would make my world larger.

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