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. In Part 1, Jan Conradi introduced a multi-faceted model for building and strengthening educational programmes in typography. By balancing the themes of historic preservation, reclamation, adaptive reuse and planning, typographic education can move from a 'project-based' curriculum to one where students can better understand and implement the principles of good design. Discover how to help students analyse the relationships between typographic form and visual communication in Part 2 of this series...

Section Two: Reclamation

Focus: Seeing
Advocating fundamental typographic standards. Identifying typographic variables and through systematic manipulation, illustrating their impact on message clarity.

A solid understanding of typographic variables should be a fundamental core of every design curriculum. Educators must refuse to sanction mediocrity by consistently pointing out examples of crude and sloppy typography. Students must become aware of hackneyed solutions such as: relationships of point size, line length, leading and spacing that hinder absorption of text content; arithematic symbols standing in for quotations and apostrophes; awkward text rags that distract through too much visual activity or through inadvertent formation of an identifiable shape. In our profession such lapses in form are significant and are inexcusably amateurish.

That these clumsy solutions continue to proliferate points to a dismaying lack of typographic standards coupled with the increased democratization of publishing. Educators must structure experiments that allow design students to identity and manipulate variables and to understand their inter-relatedness and their impact. Our students must understand that although the tools of typography are widely accessible, professionals are held to a higher standard of accountability.

Students delight in finding typographic faux pas once they know what to look for. Their resulting journal of sketches, photos or photocopies is most meaningful when accompanied by notes and critiques using precise design vocabulary. There is no shortage of poor typographic work but remind students to document examples that are elegant or clever or beautiful as well. By consciously seeking both, the contrast between them becomes even more apparent.

A sound typographic education focuses the student's attention, assuring comprehension of fundamentals before jumping into creating specific products. Exercises are not simply for beginners. Advanced students benefit from continued exercises as a way to reinforce their understanding and their confidence for executing increasingly complex assignments. Students at all levels must be reminded that poor typography has ramifications beyond simple visual ugliness.

Section Three: Reuse

Focus: Implementing
Investigating issues of reading and communication to pinpoint critical characteristics of letter/wordform recognition. Analyzing the relationships between verbal and visual, image and type.

To consider reuse of typographic form implies awareness of how typography was used and manipulated in the past. It also implies recognition of broader issues influencing how typography is presently used, whether in traditional print media or in digital delivery. What is the difference? Eric Eaton, a senior designer at Wired Digital, says "the Web is about cross-sections, broad strokes, big pictures. Good typography on-screen is certainly not about subtle distinctions between letters. Typesetting in the case of the Web is an amalgamation of type delivery, display, and client interpretation."[3]

Educators must cultivate a healthy skepticism in students who are generally too accepting of what they see. As they study characteristics of type and investigate variations in visual form, students should strive to generate both questions and answers. What is the driving force for a solution? Artistic sensibility? Technological considerations? Content interpretation? What does it mean to use a typeface in a way that is appropriate to its original time or purpose? Could it - or should it - be used in a distinctively different way? Has type been chosen more for novelty's sake than for an ability to effectively convey information? Students must use the design process to generate multiple possibilities and to analyze the communicative and visual impact of their decisions.

In his book Inside the Word, Parisian designer Philippe Apeloig writes "... illustration rarely reaches the same level of conceptualization as that achieved in typographic compositions... Typography is the very essence of drawing: a balance between full and empty, light and shadow. It is a discipline halfway between science and art... and exact and arbitrary materials... functional and poetic. "[4] Type seldom stands alone though, so typographic education cannot ignore image. How do type and image work as a team? Exercises and problems that explore, recognize, and control the relationship between type and image are another critical component of design education.

Are we educating our students to become thoughtful and outspoken design professionals? New York designer Rocco Piscatello told of a meeting with a client who wanted certain parts of a text to be visually highlighted. Piscatello told him that the words, as currently written, did not deserve such visual emphasis. As a result, a professional copywriter was hired to rewrite the pedestrian text and the final piece was strengthened in both design and content. We need to remember that part of our task as professionals is to give clients what they need - not what they think they want.

In Part 3, Jan Conradi examines the educator's role in fostering cultural sensitivity, social awareness, and intellectual stimulation.

[3] - Eric Eaton, Why Type on the Web is So Bad. [1997 Essay on-line]; available from; Internet: accessed 16 July 2004.

[4] - Philippe Apeloig, Inside the Word, (Baden, Switzerland: Lars Muller, 2001), p49.

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.