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 the final part of this series, Jan Conradi examines the educator's role in fostering cultural sensitivity, social awareness, and intellectual stimulation.

Section Four: Planning

Focus: Clarifying
Examining typography and design through scientific, social, psychological, cultural and other perspectives. Considering the impact and ramifications of design decisions in a larger context.

It has been said that bad typography never killed anyone, but are we sure of that? Intuition has its place, but educators must constantly reinforce the notion that coming to a problem from a knowledgeable standpoint offers the greatest potential for diverse ideas and unique and appropriate final solutions. Emphasizing the ephemeral or esoteric without considering appropriateness and meaning is counter-productive.

Education should emphasize reading, thinking, and testing visual solutions from multiple vantage points. It is not difficult to locate examples where design and typography have been objectively and scientifically investigated. Students could investigate James Montalbano's work in developing the Clearview type family, which increases the legibility of highway signage. Tests indicated that use of this type could provide up to a 24% increase in the amount of time a driver would have to read a sign when traveling at 70 mph. The nighttime legibility distance could be increased by 70 feet.[5] Montalbano's careful research and thoughtful design decisions may actually save lives. Recently the Federal Highway Administration granted approval for Clearview to be used as an alternate to the current Standard Highway Alphabet: the first new typographic decision the administration has made in half a century.

Students could examine specific uses of typography: in signage, on packaging, through film or digital display. They might look for research studies investigating how age and changing vision affect older people's ability to read. Color - its physiological and psychological impact on clarity and message - is another fertile area of study.

There are varied levels of research and even informal questioning can be a legitimate avenue for gathering information. Design students often forget their preferences and abilities are not universal. How might someone from another culture, age group, educational background, primary language, or gender interpret an idea?

Section Five: The Future

Focus: Integrating
Promoting intellectual rigour, attention to detail, and lifelong learning. Raising expectations for professionals to interact with educational programs in support of both students and faculty.

Creative director Stephen Doyle juried a design exhibit a few years ago and was critical of many of the entries for the prestigious competition. He said "Designers, it appears, cower behind a camouflage of complexity, taking refuge in confounding rather than clarification. We always want to push design forward, but we never ask where."

We must advocate fundamental typographic standards and an increased emphasis on typographic content within educational programs. Our profession and our educational institutions are too complacent and too accepting of mediocrity. We must make typographic education an issue by promoting those people - educators and practicing professionals - who uphold standards of excellence. We should not hesitate to be publicly critical of those who do not.

Who is accountable? It is the educator's responsibility to make sure that students ask - and have the ability to answer - questions defining the typographic landscape. It is irresponsible to perpetuate ignorance and disregard for basic typographic information. Stewardship acknowledges programmatic individuality, encourages depth and breadth of learning, and does not limit typographic diversity.

It is the student's responsibility to absorb classroom experiences and to seek enrichment opportunities beyond academic requirements. Building a reference library, attending conferences or presentations, participating in workshops or summer travel programs are important. Students can interview design professionals for their typographic opinions, gripes, successes and concerns. Face-to-face contact with local professionals is valuable, but emails, phone calls and letters to designers outside the area also offer legitimate learning experiences. These activities can have an additional benefit of easing a student's transition from school to work.

The design professionals have a responsibility as well. They should be aware of what is happening in education. They must reinforce high standards by providing a positive role model as a life-long learner. Contacting a professor or talking to a student only to fill hiring needs is not enough. Some designers "adopt" a local program and visit schools as a part of their professional commitment. It is good for educators and students to know that practising designers are concerned and are watching what happens in the schools. Designers can provide portfolio critiques, which are an obvious opportunity to point out typographic weakness in a student's work. They must realize that students listen to them - sometimes more intently than to their professors, unfortunately - so their comments reaffirm material that is being emphasized in class.

Despite time constraints and an ever growing list of content to cover, a design education must always focus upon quality. Too many programs do not, seeking novelty at the expense of substance. Too many so-called professionals encourage this. Gordon Salchow, professor at the University of Cincinnati, is blunt in his assessment of this issue: "Few schools expose students to a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, real excellence. Americans are fascinated by variety and often interpret this as complexity rather than recognizing that true complexity involves the depth of our understanding."[6]

The language of typography is a living language, and the resources of people, time and opportunity are too valuable to waste. We must carefully educate upcoming generations of designers to be skilled and articulate in using typographic language. Promoting ideas and expanding possibilities for the world's people through typography and design is a serious responsibility.

[5] - Clearview type is trademarked by Meeker & Associates. The statistics also take into consideration signage fabrication techniques that enhance visibility under different weather and lighting conditions. Studies are available on-line from; and; accessed 16 July 2004.

[6] - Gordon Salchow, "Two Myths about Design Education," Looking Closer: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, edited by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel, Steven Heller, and DK Holland. (New York: Allworth Press, 1994)

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.