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/>

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