13 November 2006
Jan Conradi
Jan Conradi

Based on a paper presented at the AIGA FutureHistory Conference, Chicago, Illinois (October 2004), this three-part article outlines some possibilities for increasing the focus on typography in design education.

Design educational programs vary greatly. Some of this variety is good, reflecting the diversity and energy of the profession. Unfortunately too often this variety reflects lack of quality: lack of substance, focus or organization. Typography - an integral component to communication - is commonly the weakest educational link. It should be the highest priority.

Typographic education suffers because of the proliferation of design programs and the lack of qualified and knowledgeable faculty to develop these programs, set standards, and maintain a rigorous learning experience. This steady erosion of basic typographic knowledge must stop. The issue is not "do we teach on the computer or through insistence on hand skills," nor is it about conservative versus experimental approaches to typographic form and communication, nor is it about distinguishing between interactive and traditional media. These arguments are tedious and distracting from the real issue. These are programmatic decisions - not indices of quality.

The issue is that the knowledge base for fundamental typographic understanding is eroding while the need for substantive typographic education is increasing. Typesetters (who in the past saved many of us from our own ignorance) are an extinct class. They have been rendered obsolete by designers who may not understand the nuances of typography but who do, thanks to technology, control the final form of the work. It is unconscionable to allow designers to graduate ignorant of the foundations of typographic communication. Unconscionable, but unfortunately quite common.

Design students generally lack understanding of and appreciation for the traditions of typographic form. This is not a statement of typographic conservatism; it is a reality. There is a difference between experimental typography and typography that is sloppy and awkward because it was created in ignorance. Students believe design is ephemeral - gone into the ether or the landfill after a quick perusal. While that is often true, such a mindset does not lend itself to a desire for mastering details of typographic function and form. As educators we must instill that desire in our students.

Instilling a passion for typography is not easy. Typography involves subtlety, attention to detail, and patience - not attributes most college students have cultivated. Our task as educators is to insist upon mastery of a typographic knowledge base as a key step towards professionalism.

Perhaps an analogy to other professionals provides a starting point. In hiring a professional - a dentist, an architect - we don't expect to know everything about what they do. But we expect them to know what must be done. We understand that if they have not mastered their subject, we will suffer for it. It is reasonable and logical to expect a similar level of expertise for typographers.

A model for typographic education can be borrowed from landscape architecture and community planning. Good stewardship - whether topographic or typographic - requires balance between historic preservation, reclamation, adaptive reuse, and planning. This model is thoughtful, flexible, and sustainable. It provides a structural basis for a thorough and organized typographic program that references and builds from the past while looking to the future. It avoids a "project-based" curriculum, which too often focuses students upon narrow solutions without facilitating their development of vocabulary and criticism and their understanding of universal principles.

The typographic stewardship model consists of five sections, each targeting a specific facet of typography. The model is not intended as a linear progression but should be integrated throughout every level of an educational program. The route to success is to think programmatically. Courses must reinforce each other with content that reaffirms and assures student's understanding of key information.

Section One: Historic Preservation

Focus: Thinking
Providing an increased emphasis on typographic content within educational programs and creating awareness of the rich and varied traditions of typography.

Standards are not arbitrary. An effective educational program establishes context, thus informing students that standards endure because of their ability to enhance communication. Beatrice Warde's The Crystal Goblet is an excellent initiation to historic study. An eloquent plea for typographic clarity, it is as pertinent today as it was when first published in 1932. The Crystal Goblet essay, which has been republished in multiple sources, should be required reading but if students use the internet to find it, make sure they read the full essay rather than an abbreviated version.

Frederic Goudy said "only an inventor knows how to borrow. We should study [the early types] not merely to revive or imitate them because we admire them indiscriminately, but rather so that we may piece together the broken threads of tradition, there intact, and finally to adapt them..."[1] Zuzanna Licko could be studied as an inventor who also knows how to borrow. Or Matthew Carter. Or perhaps Gerard Unger, who succinctly points out that "typography itself is a language. But a language can create problems as far as communication is concerned."[2] Promoting student mastery of this typographic language is the educator's primary task.

A capable educator develops creative and meaningful learning experiences for students. Students can be challenged to conduct typographic research individually or in teams. Their opinions must be supported by facts to encourage substantive debate and discussion. Subjects will vary. Which is more critical: the person who designs a handsome typeface or the one who uses type in a powerful way? Which is more essential: legibility or readability, and what is the difference between them? Which letter of the alphabet has the most colorful history or the most intriguing basic form? Students could stage a hypothetical meeting: if Chank Diesel, Carol Twombly, Adrian Frutiger, and John Baskerville met to talk about typography, what would their conversation be?

What are the watershed moments through typographic history? The impact of "new" technology is worth investigating: how might students compare Gutenberg's movable type with the invention of the linotype, or with the Macintosh computer? These discussions illustrate the additive nature of history as it connects to current ideas. Research is as likely to lead students to insights from 2004 as from 1904 or 1604. Students soon realize that dramatic changes have created opportunity and turmoil through the centuries of typographic history. They also discover many concerns remain constant.

In Part 2, Jan Conradi discusses how educators can help students explore the links between typographic form and visual communication.


[1] - Frederic W. Goudy, Typologia: Studies in Type Design & Type Making. 1940 (Republished by Berkeley : University of California Press, 1977)

[2] - Gerard Unger, Not the Typical Type. [2003 Interview on-line]; available from; Internet: accessed 16 July 2004.

About Jan Conradi
Jan Conradi teaches graphic design, typography and design history at the State University of New York at Fredonia (Fredonia, New York, United States) She has written numerous articles and book reviews on topics related to design education. She is currently writing a book about Unimark International and is also developing an introductory textbook for graphic design.