The Typographer as Reader

It is significant that the Bauhaus was formed from the merger of an academy of art and a technical college. I’d suggest that it is in this uneasy marriage that we can trace some continuing contradictions and ambiguities in typographic education.

The Bauhaus gave rise to a concept of ‘design’ which steadily gained cultural currency over a period of thirty years, providing the template for design thinking in the postwar reconstruction and into the early 60s.
It depends upon the assumption that there is a process or definition common to both the design of functional artefacts – fabrics, furniture, – and the process of graphic communication.

The historical authority of the Bauhaus ideal was such, that this unusual assumption remained largely unquestioned in design education through the late twentieth century.

In presuming to encompass typography within a broad ‘design’ agenda, while working at some remove from the printing trade, the Bauhaus also contributed to a developing notion of type as abstract form.
This idea embodies some very complex contradictions, which run deep into design pedagogy. The abstraction of letters, and their reduction to the status of formal elements, is a recurrent feature in graphic design education and has become a synonym for ‘creativity’ and dynamism.

I’d suggest that in this phase of design history, which still forms a foundation for many underlying perceptions of design education, the formal, abstract values of type were promoted and given cultural value, promoting the notion of a commonality of ‘design’ with other design disciplines –while obscuring the gap between communication and manufacture, between saying things and making things, by focusing instead upon those aspects of graphic communication which are held in common with other kinds of design. To view typography as form and pattern, shape and composition, foregrounds the affinities type might have with say, textile design, while negating the duty to language – or at least denying that duty any real creative status.

The metaphor of ‘engineering’ was central to the rhetoric of the Bauhaus, as was the unifying concept of architecture. Jan Tschichold wrote:

We might see here a worrying parallel to Stalin’s description
Of writers as the “Engineers of Human Souls”
But product design is not analogous to graphic communication.
Making things is not the same as saying things.

And when communication is measured by the aesthetics of the object, a dissonance occurs.

It’s widely recognised that typography is only secondarily a medium of aesthetic form and visual expression. Even Weingart places this third in his agenda, and hedges it with qualifiers. Before him, Stanley Morison said:

Yet the abstraction of language – for formal rather than linguistic purpose- is given disproportionate cultural value in design education
Armin Hoffman, in his seminal Graphic Design Manual of 1965, described writing as ‘linear geometrical signs …’ &ndash and proceeded to address typography through a series of exercises which break type down to its geometric elements rather than its linguistic ones.

Even as ‘design’ gathered cultural cachet in the reconstruction of the postwar years, the typographic scope of what was to be known as ‘graphic occupied an uneasy middle ground between compositor skills historically associated with the printing trade – in design for the printed page and related media- and the graphic art skills of the commercial artist – associated with posters, book jackets, advertising design. While the rhetoric of the Bauhaus gave the appearance of dissolving these boundaries, it was not until letterpress was succeeded by photosetting and offset litho that this merger took concrete form in the workplace.
This development marks a social change in the implementation of design – from shop-floor to studio, blue collar to white collar, trade apprenticeship to diploma and degree.

David Jury, writing on developments in British design education of the 1950s, notes that

In the interim report of the working party on typographic teaching, instituted by the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers in 1966, Michael Twyman observes that
‘the view of art and design held by teachers and pupils in secondary education is still largely based on the concept of the designer as an artist, and design courses as means of refining the ‘artistic ability’ of students

Twyman makes the further point that

In 1996, under the provocative title ‘Typography is too important to be taught to graphic designers’: Cal Swann notes, after reflecting on developments in art schools to full degree status, that
However, as a subject perceived to lie inside the larger subject of graphic design, itself sited within the culture of the art school, typography has had to accommodate itself to a broader pedagogical culture, rooted in visual values rather than linguistic ones.

And so, it may be that in order to better understand the current status of typography, we need first to unlearn the dominant assumptions of the previous century.

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