Making the (Upper)Case for Type Education

by Jack Curry. Average Reading Time: almost 3 minutes.

I think it has something to do with the current stage I am at in my life – and the formation of opinions about that stage – that I find that I’m constantly thinking about typography and its role (or the dearth thereof) in design education.

I don’t know that we fully appreciate the impact of the written word anymore; the implications that these words have had over the ages. Writing – more than any war, religion, or leader – has had the largest hand in shaping the modern world. It has been an essential element in human society since time immemorial, and the typographers and printers of ages past, it seems, had a solid grasp on both their craft and its significance in the world. To that end, I feel that to be a good designer, one must possess a solid understanding of the underpinnings of the profession (I think one could say this of any profession); not only that, but a respect for the weight that our work has the potential of carrying.

Those underpinnings include history; you must know where you’ve come from in order to have any idea of where you are going. I see all of these beginning typography classes that concentrate on the anatomy of letterforms, the different classifications of typefaces and then immediately jump into the use of type in design, really before the basics of language and the history of its formation have been explained. Sitting a beginning design student down in front of an empty InDesign document and telling him to compose something typographically is a bit like looking at a newborn child and telling him: “Right, now I want you to go out there today and run a marathon” – neither of them have developed the skills or background necessary for the undertaking.

In thinking about this, I am reminded of a feature on Tony Forster (the Herb Lubalin of the UK, as it were) in Grafik magazine a couple months back, in which his son Dan related a story from when he was a student:

Over the summer months preceding my first college course in graphic design, I had been taking an evening class learning how to use a Mac. Also during this time my dad set several projects for me to complete. I remember being keen and excited at the prospect of trying out my new computer skills on some ‘cool’ design projects.

However, my heart sank on receiving the first brief—to hand-draw a lowercase Helvetica “a” again and again until it was perfect. Initially unenthused at the prospect, I stuck at it and drew countless ‘a’s. Afterwards my dad said: “You’ll never learn anything about the form and proportions of a character just by pressing a key.” I’ll never forget that…

As a designer, we make things for people, and as such we always strive to understand our audience and connect with them on a very basic level. What, then, could be more elemental, more human, than the printed word; the rhythm and cadence of which derive themselves from the markings made by the human hand? There is a reason that different typographic styles have different meanings and effects on people; to understand the foundation of those styles can only be beneficial to us as designers and to the millions of people that view our work.

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