Typography: Going back to the future
March 30, 2008
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)
My son studied graphic arts in high school in a vocational program (actually at the school where I work). At the beginning, the students see what letterpress is all about before moving on to offset printing. The teacher likes the students to get a feel for letterpress and chemical printing processes before they use the computer.
We know that students will be faced with computer apps upon graduation, but having hands-on application in addition to computer work is essential.
Posted by: Michael Sporer | March 30, 2008 at 10:35 PM
Interesting post, Garr, and particularly the video of Dabner. I've often felt that choosing the right typeface is like choosing the right wine for a meal. There are stories in the subtleties of each face. And a given face, particularly in headline applications, can either illuminate or destroy the idea being conveyed.
But does one need to be an oenophile to enjoy wine? No. Same goes for type, particularly for business applications. We need to look first at what is trying to be conveyed, not at how a line is set or how the vehicle (the type) is shaped. For most business applications, it's counterproductive to get obsessive about type -- unless you have design responsibilities.
What we *should* be obsessive about is having a message that captures people's imaginations and prompts them to action. If we have that, even Arial or Times Roman as set by a computer is not a deterrent to changing the world.
Posted by: John Windsor | March 31, 2008 at 02:14 AM
"orces you to slowdown. When you slowdown you can think. When you slowdown, sometimes — not always, but often —you get smarter. "
Smart enough to know that "slow down" is two slow words.
Posted by: vanderleun | March 31, 2008 at 02:23 AM
Great post (as always). Although if you're not careful with the quotes you use, you might have to rename your blog Presentation Jazz. ;)
I often spend days to find the "right" font for my video-projects. I do however way to often still end up using Helvetica, especially when looking for an "invisible" but clean sans-serif.
Posted by: T. Benjamin Larsen | March 31, 2008 at 05:06 AM
And if you want to localize your message, you may like the "Manuel de typographie française élémentaire" by Yves Perrousseaux, or other references for French language. Do you always write accents on capital letters? À savoir...
Posted by: Jean-François Charles | March 31, 2008 at 09:35 AM
Thanks for posting this highlight on typography. During my schooling to become a draftsman we were taught to draft by hand, lead on paper, then ink on mylar. When I heard Dabner's thoughts on taking the time to think I couldn't help but think of those first projects. Today I am building a Balanced Scorecard for a public agency and with it a requisite dashboard. I'm starting to ramble, but the point about taking time to think about the message, the medium, and the audience is never waster.
Thanks again. I've never regretted tuning into your blog and I'm looking forward to the next installment.
Posted by: Chris Mears | April 09, 2008 at 09:59 AM