In this elective class we will work our way through a series of typographic exercises and open-ended projects which investigate the possibilities of language as it becomes visible. Each of these projects / prompts is broadly concerned with the design, application and exploration of typographic (and linguistic) systems. We will approach the term ‘system(s)’ as a means of sharpening the focus; providing parameters to work with and push against. But also begin to pick apart a ‘messy history’(1) of typography, and its continued use and misuse of ‘systems’ in relation to forms of power, control, statemaking, semantics, monolingualism and illusions of ‘neutrality’. That ‘printed words are never obediently transparent’;(2) that ‘the power to control the written word [has] the ability both to amplify voices and to silence them’;(3) that type choice can be a political choice;(4) and ‘typefaces have agendas too.’(5)
For the majority of the semester, Mondays will be dedicated to type exercises informed by weekly readings, and Wednesdays set aside for more expansive projects / prompts. Exercises and readings will provide a space for us to collectively develop our formal and conceptual command of typography — ‘setting’ type and setting our own typographic systems, rules, logics — while also interrogating the history of the discipline and the expanded role of the typographer in contemporary design and wider society. While projects will require more in-depth research, agency, experimentation, refinement and production.
One of the first known definitions of a typographer was offered by Joseph Moxon in his 1683 book Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing. ‘By typographer’, states Moxon, ‘I mean such as one, who by his own judgement, from solid reasoning within himself, can either perform, or direct others to perform from the beginning to the end, all the hand-works and physical operations relating to typography.’(6)
While the technological and ideological backdrop has shifted significantly since the time of its writing, Moxon’s definition still holds true in many ways. The role of the typographer is to give form to ideas through type. Not merely technical reproduction, but a synthesis of concept, craft and communication. To adapt Fred Moten’s description of poetics in a 2018 lecture titled Recess and Nonsense (here with poetics switched out for typography): ‘Typography is the relation and the difference between content and form. Or. Typography thinks and enacts the differences that constitute the relation between content and form.’(7)
There are many conventions and so-called ‘rules’ associated with the practice of typography — some are critical to communication, while others are more arbitrary and open to interpretation. Becoming familiar with, and being aware of, these conventions is important and useful, but ‘good’ typography is not merely about the dutiful application of a set of rules. We will work towards a typography that is conceptually sound and formally interesting in relation to a specific context. We will pay close attention to language itself and how typography acts as a conduit between author and audience, between sender and receiver.
(1) See: Maryam Fanni, Matilda Flodmark & Sara Kaaman (eds.), Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing & Typography, 2020 & Martha Scotford, ‘Toward an Expanded View of Women in Graphic Design: Messy History vs Neat History’, Visible Language vol. 28, n. 4, 1994. (2) Sam Thorne, ‘Will Holder: Publishing as an act of performance; the materiality of language’, Frieze no. 118, October 2008. (3) Aditya Mukerjee, ‘I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name’, Model View Culture no. 18, March 2015. (4) Agyei Archer, ‘Type Choice, Political Choice’, Typographica, February 21, 2019. (5) Sam Thorne, ‘Will Holder: Publishing as an act of performance; the materiality of language’, Frieze no. 118, October 2008. (6) Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-works Applied to the Art of Printing, 1683. (7) Fred Moten, Recess and Nonsense: The End of the Poetry World and the Ends of the Poet, lecture at Naropa University, Colorado, 2018.