Typographic Education

Written for Education of an E Designer, Steven Heller
Typographic Education in a Digital Environment

“Place yourself in the background,” Wrote William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  The directive to the writer was to focus on content rather than style. By extension if we think of typography as pictures of words, then by designers of text should not decorate words, but use them plainly and directly, too. In a pre computer typographic environment, this directive was fairly easy to enforce. The typographic education of designers followed clear and methodical practices. A well-established history of teaching specific skills based on agreed upon standards was adhered to. Typography teachers were assured, then, that graduating design students could make a clean chart, or set body copy with a correct line length, not exceeding 52 characters, or use display fonts only for display, or not use Hobo in any context.

The Modernist approach to typography followed educational models of the Bauhaus and incorporated the pragmatic American concept of plain speaking. Eliminating decoration or flowery language is based on the desire of 18th century American colonists to distance themselves from Europe. Early Americans associated corruption in European government and business with ulterior motivations hidden behind a baroque vernacular. By speaking directly, we would shed corruption and deception. This idea develops further in typography by teaching designers to utilize only functional or “honest” typography, they would create work that spoke clearly and authentically.

A lack of options was key to this modernist approach.  I know from personal experience. In 1982 during my first year at CalArts a metal type shop was donated to the school. My work/study job in the type shop consisted of cleaning and organizing the metal slugs and type cases. During my first week, “bad” typefaces, as judged by the faculty, were emptied into a large bucket. The fonts discarded and removed from our menu of choices were primarily odd display fonts, fashionable during the 70s. What remained were fonts considered “basics” at that time: Bodoni, Baskerville, Garamond, Franklin Gothic, Futura and Univers. The intended result, for students to use a limited palette of agreed upon classic fonts was enforced. There was no room for font choice error.

“Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating,” continue William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style. And when applied to typographic education, we perpetuate basic American pragmatism and enforce “good design”, however, in the bargain we ignore the possibilities of digital technology. There is definitely a motivation, in many students’ typographic work today to embrace style and excess as opposed to intelligent reasoning and conceptual thinking related to content.

We can blame the digital technologies and mixing of mediums, from print to interactive for this instinct, but it is more about information and the way this information is delivered and processed that informs contemporary typographic solutions.

Victorian book typography is dense, tight and often gray. The primary delivery vehicle of information in 19th century western civilization was the newspaper. In the early 20th century, concurrent with the advent of radio, there was a relaxing of typography, looser leading and stronger contrasts. Black and white television paved the way of classic “big idea” design, which gave central image predominance and predicated the typography to remain simple and unobtrusive. Our processing of information under a barrage of messages in the digital age has opened the door to multiple typographic messages, often dissimilar or schizophrenic, complexity of form and a relaxing of standards in relationship to letterform design.

“Work from a suitable design,” caution William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in theThe Elements of Style. To ask a student in the current design curriculum to set this process of receiving and re-presenting information aside and work from a strong structure, international style Swiss grids, for example, is a valuable exercise. Yet to forbid them to investigate new ways of seeing and making meaning is archaic. Here, then, is one of the principle dilemmas of current typographic education. In order to break rules; a student must know the rules. In order to choose odd letterforms and compositions to promote unexpected meaning, a student must know which letterforms are not odd.

When I asked a student, recently, what typeface she used on a cookbook assignment, she could not remember. “It was one of the fonts in the ‘A’s on the CD.” she told me. This CD-ROM, is surreptitiously passed between the design students and is said to contain 2000 bootlegged fonts. Many of the students cannot remember most of the font names, and tend toward use of fonts with names like Alpaca, Andover, Bora and Collier. The choice of fonts on projects is inspired, not by a specific criteria, historical relevance, formal associations or oblique conceptual issues, but on which fonts are listed first on the CDhence the predominance of fonts beginning with “A, B or C.” Allowing students to have access to all 2000 typeface choices with no sense of a grid or proportions may achieve surprising, even appropriate, results with a very personal energy and spirit. But this is the exception, not the rule.  There are just too many choices.

“Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity,” affirm William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style. The relaxing of typographic standards is common. There is little need for fine details in a 72-dpi broadcast or web environment. Kerning is often damaged by technical restrictions in these environments, and the difference between a badly cut version of Firmin Didot and a beautiful cut is often undetectable. The democratization of typography has also led to the personalization of letterforms. Making a custom font is like a signature. It reflects the author’s personal concerns and issues. If a sloppy curve on a capital “G” is considered to be part of the personal vision, and reflection of the author, then we cannot fault it. Our ability to critique based on aesthetic concerns is impaired.

It is possible to forgive these offenses as personal exploration. But typography is a craft and the quality of a finished piece is often dependent upon a skilled typographic hand.  Conveying this to a student can seem at odds with the need for personal expression. The student working in several digital environments is drawn to the eccentric because it is easy to create. Typography, like all graphic design, is a tightrope walk between discipline and freedom.

In a school environment, mistakes and explorations are encouraged. Graduating a student who has never moved beyond the comfortable and expected is a disservice to the student and the profession. This student should be interested in and anticipate change. They should be able to typographically express an idea in print, online and in motion. The results should be unexpected yet appropriate; the typography should be well considered, whether it is minimal or complex. The decisions made, in addition to the obvious technical issues like small serifs on the screen, should be deliberate. To reach this place, the typographic education of this student must have included the same skills taught throughout history, addressing issues of structure, form, hierarchy, meaning and context. Today it must also place a priority on expression, experimentation, personal understanding, process and a willingness to be subversive. Combining these often-alternative ideas is not easy. It is a challenging task.

“Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. What you are, rather than what you know, will at last determine your style,” conclude William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White in The Elements of Style.  Armed with clear guidelines for excellence, based on traditional skills, encouraged to explore and expand with a belief in his/her value, the student is ready to face the profession. Perhaps it is presumptuous to assume that they will be missing out on something valuable. Perhaps the subtext of typographic anarchy in a digital environment is not a comment about the current state of design education, but rather about the promises we made to ourselves as students that we may have forgotten under the guise of maintaining order and tradition.