Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Typography in Design Education: A Trend Responding to a Growing Disparaity in Typographic Communication

I spend a good deal of my waking hours focused on design education, whether it be my own MFA studies through the Savannah College of Art and Design or the courses that I teach to undergraduate art and design majors at Virginia State University. Of course, that design education thinking also tends to spill over to the time that I work as a designer, which comes in handy when explaining design decisions to non-designers. When I am not studying, teaching, mentoring, or actually designing, I am frequently discussing design education with other designers and design educators.

Therefore, when I scan design websites and blogs, I spend a good deal of time reading up on trends in design education. One trend that I am happy to report that I continue to see is an education movement returning to classical typographic training.

With the advent of technology that engendered ease and capability for design, much of design education shifted out of necessity to technological training. A common complaint that I hear amongst educators, and echo myself, is that the emphasis on technology results in a design vocational training rather than a multi-faceted learning experience that guides students through the comprehensive scope of the design process. Add to this the fact that many workshops and conferences are largely sponsored by software companies, and the push for technological training—and the necessity to keep up with its changes—the push for designers and design students alike to embrace technology over tradition is apparent.

In Gerry Leonidas’s ilovetypography.com article, “A few things I’ve learned about typeface design,” the author expresses his concern for our collective knowledge in design and typography. He also notes that the source for much of design reference is obtained through technology, a factor that has its own complications.

“Many designers have a very patchy knowledge of the history of typography and letterforms. More worryingly, students and designers alike have little opportunity to experience genre-defining objects in reality (imagine discussing a building looking only at the blueprints for building it, not walking up to it, and through its rooms). It is perhaps not surprising that the wide but shallow knowledge gained from online sources is dominant; there seems also to be little discrimination between sources that employ review and editorial mechanisms, and those that are open to wide, unchecked contributions,” (Leonidas).

Leonidas observes that without the history and understanding of typographic treatment and design solutions, designers are in danger of not understanding the evolution of these processes and are forced to “reinvent the wheel” without the understanding that comes through historic knowledge.

“To paraphrase Goudy, the problem is not any more that the old-timers stole all the best ideas, but that the old ideas are in danger of being re-discovered from scratch. (Just look at the web designers rediscovering the basic principles of text typography and information design, as if these were newly-found disciplines.)” (Ibid).

Rob Carter, Philip B. Meggs, and Ben Day expressed the same concern when writing a definitive text on the subject of typographic application, Typographic Design: Form and Communication, “The rapid advance of technology and the expanding role of visual and audio-visual communication in contemporary society have created new challenges for typographic education. Faced with a complex communications environment, and the changes that are occurring that are anticipated, how can a designer nurture sensitivity to typographic form and communication? An appreciation of our typographic heritage, an ability to meet the standards of contemporary design practice, and an innovative spirit in facing tomorrow's challenges are required,” (Carter 187).

The need to balance the core needs of design education with technological instruction is necessary, but this vital curriculum shift is difficult to apply to the demands of necessary college requirements and consumer expectations. Often, the response to departmental shift toward classic education is met with resistance by administration, students, and parents. And certainly, educators do not want to graduate theoretically astute designers lacking real-world skills.

Carter, Meggs, and Day describe the need for a balanced approach, “An effective curriculum is composed of perceptual and conceptual development, technical training, and processes for solving multifaceted design problems,” (Ibid). The disadvantage of curricular struggle and the complication of balancing theory, practice, and marketable skill is outweighed by the resulting knowledge and skill afforded future designers and the profession as a whole.

The advantages of the trend to return to classical training in typography are numerous, not the least of which is the act of problem solving. Typographic concept and application is not unlike a complex puzzle, or as a college design professor of mine referred to it, “neurosurgery on a mouse.” The result of understanding and effectively applying the history and knowledge of typography to one's own work is an exercise in problem solving and design thinking, skills that go beyond the letterforms and composition. These skills are necessary in all areas of design and in process evaluation. As Mitchell Goldstein puts it, “Much of design education is about learning some key techniques and then trying to apply them to your work in interesting ways,” (Goldstein). Beyond its role in typographic communication, the study of typography prepares students for upper-level thinking and application of design.

Designer and past-president of AIGA National, Sean Adams explains the qualities of the pre-technological design education in an article included in Steven Heller’s Education of an E-designer. “In a pre computer typographic environment … 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,” (Adams 38). “The Modernist approach to typography followed educational models of the Bauhaus and incorporated the pragmatic American concept of plain speaking … a lack of options was key to this modernist approach,” (Ibid).

Adams goes on to explain the broad reach that typographic education has on design, “… 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,” (Adams 40).

In Abi Huynh's article, “The Right Type of Education,” also on ilovetypography.com, details the Type and Media masters program at the Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in The Hague. The program aims at a rounded approach, mixing both theory and practical components. Huynh describes the nature of the program. “The ten-month course is divided into two distinct parts, and limited to eleven students a year. The first five months comprise eight different weekly classes that expose students to numerous fundamental aspects of the type design process. The second half of the course is focused mainly on the development of individual final projects,” (Huynh). She then goes on to give examples of the student work.

The examples given of these independent projects are balanced, comprehensive designs for typefaces that work because the principles are understood and applied. The designers have taken cues from the masters and apply them in a modern way. This is a far cry from much of the typefaces found available to purchase online, many of which are free or low-cost—making them particularly attractive to students—that imitate but do not embody traditional and purposeful typographic design. While this approach to typography references or indicates a style, much is missing.

Jessica Karle Heltzel writes in her article “Steer Clear of the Uncanny Valley,” about this appropriation without substance. “Designers’ un-informed use of visual nostalgia is of great concern. [Tal Leming of type foundry Type Supply] relates the work of designers today who appropriate these styles or methods of making to the ‘uncanny valley.’ The uncanny valley, a robotics term coined by Masahiro Mori in the 1970s, suggests that when human replicas look and act, almost, but not perfectly, like human beings, it causes a sense of revulsion among human observers. Humans can sense that it’s inauthentic—and it’s creepy. Leming views lettering in the same way,” (Heltzel).

The continued concern regarding typographic education is resulting in more concentrated programs like the KABK at the Hague. Type-specific programs are cropping up internationally. For example, Type@Cooper—a Postgraduate Certificate in Typeface Design offered by the Continuing Education Department of The Cooper Union in conjunction with the Type Directors Club—is a highly-focused and comprehensive study of key typeface design principles: technique, technology, aesthetics, expression, history, and theory with well-known typographers such as Ed Benguiat, Jonathan Hoefler, Jessica Hische, and Paul Shaw. (Type@Cooper)

TeachingType, an initiative to develop and refine graphic design education, hosts international workshops and programs concentrating on the design and application of typography. The initiative covers all aspects of type from Basic Type: Format, Grids and Baselines—a workshop at the University of Applied Arts Vienna in 2010—to the Typedetail project—a 2009 project with the students of the BA Graphic Design, Central Saint Martins, UK for processing text and understanding typographic details. (Teaching Type)

The stress on a return to understanding the basic principles of typographic communication is being stressed by designers, design educators, and type designers alike. Jessica Karle Heltzel writes in her article “Steer Clear of the Uncanny Valley,” about the shift in typographic education and application. “Before the digital era, learned skills such as typesetting and lettering were often considered more of a trade than an appreciated craft. As far as [Ken] Barber and [Ben] Kiel [of House Industries type foundry] are concerned, these trades are crafts and there’s a lot to be learned from them. ‘There’s a wealth of knowledge from these trades that have come and gone that we’ve forgotten about, these trades that weren’t really associated with the profession of graphic design, for example, lettering artists. When graphic design made this leap in the 1950s and ‘60s from a trade to a profession, much of the knowledge surrounding the trade kind of got forgotten, and it is forgotten in design teaching now,’ says Kiel” (Heltzel).

When there is a true understanding of the craft of typography, and the application of this knowledge is applied to the act of design, designers produce meaningful solutions rather than merely stylistic imitations. This skill goes beyond quality to the essence of typographic application: legibility and communication. When designers understand their tools, they create holistic and profound work that is consistent in message and form and that conveys the intended communication to a broader audience. It is also a lot easier on the eyes.

Works Cited

Adams, Sean. "Typographic Education in a Digital Environment." Education of an E-designer. Ed. Steven Heller. New York, NY: Allworth Press, 2001. 38–40. Print.

Carter, Rob, Philip B. Meggs, and Ben Day. Typographic Design: Form and Communication. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Print.

Christé, Mathieu, and Berton Hasebe. "Type and Media Masters." ilovetypography.com, 22 Aug 2008. Web. 20 Jan 2012. <http://ilovetypography.com/2008/08/22/type-and-media-masters-course-the-hague/>

Goldstein, Mitchell. "A Design Education Manifesto." AIGA.com, 8 March 2011. Web. 20 Jan 2012.<http://www.aiga.org/a-design-education-manifesto/>

Heltzel, Jessica Karle. "Steer Clear of the Uncanny Valley." AIGA.com, 25 Oct 2011. Web. 20 Jan 2012. <http://www.aiga.org/steer-clear-of-the-uncanny-valley/>

Huynh, Abi. "The Right Type of Education." ilovetypography.com, 20 Nov 2009. Web. 20 Jan 2012. <http://ilovetypography.com/2009/11/20/the-right-type-of-education/>

Leonidas, Gerry. "A few things I’ve learned about typeface design." ilovetypography.com, 25 Mar 2010. Web. 20 Jan 2012. <http://ilovetypography.com/2010/03/25/a-few-things-i%E2%80%99ve-learned-about-typeface-design/>

Teaching Type <http://teachingtype.com/>

Type@Cooper <http://coopertype.org/>

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Colors Issue 7: The AIDS Issue

Known as the “Bad Boy of Design,” Tibor Kalman was notoriously outspoken about what he referred to as “professional design” (Heller, Obituary) and provoked both the design establishment and the public with his satirical and shocking work that captivated international audiences. Ironically, Kalman’s style would become the establishment that he fought against, being housed in the MoMA and creating a new design aesthetic (Poynor).

Kalman worked to create a situation in which he had complete creative control and could work within his own ethics (Cullen). He said, “Look, if someone is going to permit me to make a publication that is politically and culturally progressive and not tell me to put their favorite movie stars on the cover, if I get to do what I want in an honest way - as I did in the beginning at Colors - then I'm going to do it,” (Wieners).

Kalman’s art direction and design for Benetton’s magazine, Colors, gave birth to iconic imagery and commentary of the 1980s that have equal impact today and created an international brand and conversation about issues including racism, sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, religion, politics, and social responsibility. Benetton became synonymous with this work and developed as a brand because of it (Lyman). Moreover, it created a dialogue about the issues addressed by Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani.

Toscani’s photographs are well crafted, beautifully composed It is not Toscani’s photographs alone that communicate to the viewer, though the imagery plays a large role, but the layers of concept, the art direction, and the imagery interacting with typography.

For this post, I am referencing issue seven of the magazine because it is a beautifully crafted work, and it illustrates a continuing need of the world community: sexual education and sexually transmitted disease education, prevention, and treatment.

“For the first time the problem of AIDS is tackled clearly and directly, discrediting prejudices and spreading accurate information on prevention, without being alarmist and with a little irony. The issue ends with an editorial in which the image of US President Ronald Reagan, victim of the virus, is accompanied by a eulogy for the man he could have been if he had acted differently towards AIDS.” (Colors, Aids)

Typography works overtime in the Colors magazine design, as the magazines were published bilingually, with text running simultaneously in the same spreads. Kalman directed his designers to craft this text with finesse that harmonized the two languages into a composition that emphasized the weight and power of the type as an equal figure in the composition to the imagery. Not formally trained in typography, Kalman worked with designers to  (Heller, Obituary), however I theorize Kalman’s own bilingual experience growing up as a Hungarian immigrant in the Hudson Valley of New York (Heller, AIGA) helped to inform his direction of the interaction of the two languages.

The above spread from issue seven of Colors, “Safe Sex Kama Sutra/Le Kama Sutra du «Safe Sex»” incorporates French and English in a composition where every element has a place and without which would seem incomplete. The common word “Kama Sutra,” common because it is foreign to both languages, is shared by both sets of copy and ties the two languages together that are otherwise separated by placement and color.

The composition on the grid created by the blocks of text and the composed titles creates a cruciform, a visually balanced symbol that may be interpreted as a reference to the red cross indicating medical attention, to Christian morality, or to a positive sign—indicating HIV+ or a positive reaction to, or empowerment by, safe sex—and is echoed in the next two spreads, shown below.

The type on the above spread accents the spread, again creates the cruciform shape—this time incorporating the gutter as the vertical crosspiece of the form. The typography again works seamlessly with the imagery. The text is shaped about the form in an aesthetically pleasing way, but it also creates parentheses around the object of attention—the latex-covered genital region of the model, which could also be interpreted as smile creases, further encouraging the fun and playful reception of a serious subject.

In a similarly playful way, the spread below treats a condom-covered monument like a centerfold spread.

The cover of the magazine sets up the viewer for the magazine. The red and black color scheme that we will see again throughout the issue is established. A red, rubber-encased hand jabs at the text in a gesture that defies the disease with an obscene gesture while visually representing the act of coitus protected by a latex barrier. The finger enters the text like a sheathed body part into a body, but it also breaks up the offensive acronym with the force of the protected digit. The image is strong, but it is the image’s interaction with the type that gives it context and meaning.

After discussion with my classmates, I have additional insight brought to my attention by Matt Hepworth who noted the reliance on the typophoto developed by László Moholy-Nagy

Cover of the revue foto-QUALITAT, 1931, attributed to László Moholy-Nagy

This cover image above, attributed to László Moholy-Nagy, is a strong comparison to the Colors cover, particularly considering the interaction of a hand with typography. Even the color palette is similar.

The artful typographic arrangement can also be attributed to the Bauhaus and Moholy-Nagy in particular. Though it is hard to separate our profession at all from the Bauhaus, as we owe so much to it, there are some cruciform similarities in Colors that are striking.

Bauhausbucher 5, Neue Gestaltung by Piet Mondrian, 1924, cover design attributed to László Moholy-Nagy

Another observation that I Matt had pointed out is the repetition of red and bright pink throughout the issue, a sexual color that adds to the slick and shiny imagery that evokes sexuality. I jokingly responded that Matt's observation was spot on: it was a graphic design equivalent to a baboon posterior.

These cues, whether through color or composition, are partially responsible for the emotional response to the work. Yes, the imagery is hard at work, but the typography carries a lot of the weight. The spread of the mouth biting the head, for example, is a background to the subtlety of the typographic design, which then is reinforced through future layouts. The photography, copy, and typography are working together seamlessly and in a delicate balance.
All in all, the more I consider this work, the more astounded I am at how well it holds up after twenty years. It still looks fresh and compelling today, and it still ignites conversation.

Works Cited

"Aids" Colors Magazine, Issue #7, 1997. Web. 7 Jan 2012. http://www.colorsmagazine.com/magazine/7

"An hour with Tibor Kalman." Charlie Rose. PBS. December 24, 1998. Television. Available on the Web, 5 Jan 2012.

Cullen, Moira. "Moira Cullen interviews Tibor Kalman." Eye Magazine, Issue 20, Spring 1996. Web. 5 Jan 2012.

Haber, Matthew. “Tibor Kalman: A highly innovative and influential designer, the onetime editor of Colors magazine died May 2.” Salon. Salon.com, Salon Media Group, Inc., 19 May 1999.  Web.  6 Jan 2012.

Heller, Steven. "Tibor Kalman: 1999 AIGA Medal." AIGA.com, 1999. Web. 6 Jan 2012.

Heller, Steven. "Tibor Kalman, 'Bad Boy' of Graphic Design, 49, Dies." The New York Times. nytimes.com, May 05, 1999. Web. 6 Jan 2012.

Lyman, Eric J. "The True Colors of Oliviero Toscani." Ad Age Global. August, 2001. Web. 7 Jan 2012.

Poynor, Rick. "Obituary: Tibor Kalman." The Independent, Independent.co.uk, 17 May 1999. Web. 7 Jan 2012.

Wieners, Brad. "Color Him a Provocateur." Wired, Issue 4.12, Dec 1996. Web. 5 Jan 2012. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.12/kalman.html

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Going the Way of the Dodo

Portrayed most notably in the drawings of John Tenniel and, later, Walt Disney studios for Alice in Wonderland, along with the occasional ornithological study, the Raphus cucullatus has become a punchline: a stupid, insatiable, odd-looking, fat, turkey-like bird with a giant, hooked beak and flightless, puny wings. All pomp and feathers, the Dodo has become a verbal shorthand for the outmoded, ineffective, and inane. The flightless, greedy bird with an alleged (but now commonly refuted) plumed bustle is a natural reference for op-ed columns and political commentary: here is an idea, party, individual on the brink of extinction, brought to this inevitable demise through lack of intelligence and the inability to adapt.

As in so many cases of unjust labeling and selective memory, the Dodo is a victim of poor marketing. Five hundred years ago when the Dodo was first discovered on the island of Mauritius by Portuguese mariners, the birds had no natural predators, did not fear man, and evidently were tasty. With those scrawny wings, just think of all that tender breast meat. All you had to do was wait until a juicy Dodo walked up to you and conk it in the head with a rock or whatever was in easy reach, and behold, you had the predecessor of the modern Thanksgiving meal's centerpiece, only way bigger than even the most robust of the genetically enhanced turkeys of today. Just think how many tiny sailors of yore could be sated with just one Dodo, which was estimated to weigh up to fifty pounds.

Reportedly, the buggers were greedy gobblers. Can't you just imagine them being seduced with chunks of pão, massa sovada, or whatever bread those sailors were eating back in the early sixteenth century? For reference, I am thinking of ducks and pigeons, the latter a close relative of the Dodo, when someone strolls into a park with a bread bag. I have seen sparrows go at it in fast food parking lots over a French fry. Birds eat a lot, and they can be uncouth about it, but I imagine that the Dodo was no greedier than a goose or a goat or dog for that matter. Or a hungry sailor with a rock, a knife, and a flint. In retrospect, what can those who ate a population into extinction say about gluttony?

Now, the bird-gorging was not the doing of the settlers of Mauritius alone. They also introduced non-native predators to the island where the Dodo had not naturally any predators, and these new critters, including pigs, indulged on the birds' eggs, so the live Dodos were rendered barren.

It was the fifteen hundreds, and people did not know any better, sure. Of course, this lesson may not have been heeded, exactly. It brings to mind the Africanized Honey Bee(1)
, the Northern Snakehead(2), and the European Starling(3), one of the species introduced to the U.S. with the hopes of importing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. But I digress on the follies of man.

Whether or not they were greedy is debatable, but were they stupid? Birds who had never seen a human and had no natural predators, how were they to know that the food chain was such a bitch? Or that they themselves were so succulent? Was it their intelligence that was lacking? Reportedly, the Dodos fished and had hunting prowess. They ingested rocks to aid digestion, which may seem odd but is not atypical for a bird. They were able to survive up until human invasion. In short, they were a trusting race picked off by alien beings landing with a mission To Serve Dodo. They were outgoing and trusting, which in truth are faults in many stations of life, particularly politics.

What the late Dodo needs is image management. Here is what we have to work with: trusting, adventurous individuals interested in sport (hunting, fishing, the "every man" pastimes) and feeding their middle class families, which were ripped from them as an intruding peoples performed a systematic genocide. A race so noble that Charles Dodgson, pseudonym Lewis Carroll, portrayed himself as the creature.
Taking that tact, "Going the way of the Dodo" has quite a different meaning entirely, doesn't it? An innocent population picked off by those larger and stronger than they. And, in many cases, that description fits perfectly.

  1. "United States Department of Agriculture Species Profile: Africanized Honeybee". Retrieved 10/14/2010.
  2.  "United States Department of Agriculture Species Profile: Northern Snakehead." Retrieved 10/14/2010.
  3. Mirsky, Steve. "Shakespeare to Blame for Introduction of European Starlings to U.S.: Brought here on a lark, starlings are now at every turn". Scientific American. 2008-05-23. Retrieved 10/14/2010.

About Dodos:
"Species factsheet: Raphus cucullatus
(2010)". BirdLife International. Retrieved 10/14/2010.   
"Dodo - Raphus cucullatus". The Extinction Website. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
Jamieson, Alastair. "Uncovered: 350-year-old picture of dodo before it was extinct". Telegraph. 2009-06-22. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Dodo skeleton find in Mauritius". BBC News. London. 2006-06-24. Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Scientists find 'mass dodo grave'". BBC News. London. 2005-12-24 Retrieved 10/14/2010.
"Scientists Pinpoint Dodo's Demise". BBC News. London. 2003-11-20.  Retrieved 10/14/2010.