For the past twenty years or so many software companies have oversold "quick & easy" design, just as late-night TV informercials today oversell the idea of losing weight without having to workout or change your lifestyle. Why use your brain (or work hard)? — just follow our easy template for success, they say. Now, I am not suggesting that software templates are by their nature bad things. They can be very useful. But a template without knowledge and understanding can also be a dangerous thing. In the world of software apps such as presentation tools, we often rely too much on templates and shortcuts. Instead, we should spend more time in our professional development exploring and understanding deeply the art of design in all its myriad forms before we even turn on the computer. As technology gets more advanced and more complex, much of it actually gets easier to use, yet most of the discussion is still on tips and tricks of using the features of the tool itself. What's needed — now more then ever — is better content creation, better stories, greater creativity, and the ability to think and apply a deeper knowledge of both the art and science of visual design.
Can we learn from the past?
Type is a wonderful thing. And while I don't recommend that we all become professional typographers, it is in our interest to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the rich art of typography. Printing with letterpress or movable type in the West goes back to at least the 1400s (the Chinese were doing it even before that with woodblock printing). The history is deep and wide, yet most people only have a cursory understanding of typefaces or fonts. It's possible to learn much about the power of typography with a computer and books—and most importantly—a good instructor. But can we benefit in the here and now by looking to the past and even using tools of the past to get a good grounding in design and type? If you could study type while learning to produce good work with a letterpress, would it make a difference? The video below called Typography School features veteran graphic design/typography and letterpress instructor David Dabner from the London College of Printing.
Slowing down and deleting the non-essential
Probably the greatest advantage to learning letterpress is simply that it forces you to slow down. When you slow down you can think. When you slow down, sometimes — not always, but often —you get smarter. Or as David Dabner said in the clip above:
"Computers make students sloppy. It makes for sloppy thinking. Good typographers can think. If you can't think you produce a lot of nonsense. Because in thinking you can delete the non-essential."
This does not mean that computers necessarily make students sloppy — computers are just tools after all — but there is no denying that a PC with all it's great power can indeed make users sloppy if they have no clue about the rules and reasons of the art. It's fine to break rules — but first you must know the rules and the traditions and the conventions. A computer is wonderful, but as Dabner says, "It won't teach you to think." Dabner here says there is nothing wrong with the computer but that it's often better to go analog and just use a pencil and paper sometimes. "They stop actually using pencil and paper and they work directly on the computer," Dabner says, "which in itself is OK, but I think the computer inhibits their ability to develop." Dabner likens applying the art of typography in today's world to playing jazz. That is: "You've got to learn the instrument first."
Using type today
The tools of today are fantastic. No one is suggesting we abandon them and return to the past. But we need to learn from the past traditions and the proven rules of the art as well. And learning the art with the tools of the past, with all the constraints they impose, can be an enlightening, educational experience. Today, when people say "you have to know how to use the tool" too often they mean the features of the software. Using software features is important too, but these tools are ever-changing, ephemeral ones. What is much slower to change and far more grounded is the actual art itself. Here are a couple of good books to help you learn about type. These are not the only ones, but one of these will get you started.
Here are a couple of short videos just for fun.
Helvetica (the film)