Presentations

5g Educational Font

June 28th, 2004
5g Educational Font Project5g Educational Font Project

This presentation is about my experience teaching typography at the Bruno Cassinari art school in Piacenza, Italy. The name of the class was 5th G (Graphic); students were 18 years of age.

The aim of the course was to make the students aware of the basic role of letters in the process of design, within the understanding and representation of information structures, as well as the comprehension of personal design identity, i.e., developing one’s own “style” to apply to graphic projects. Lettering as a mean to know, to know how, and to act — in Italian: “il sapere, il saper fare, il saper essere.”

Each lecture was organized to stimulate sharing ideas and welcome questions. The introduction to the topic of each meeting saw the presentation of physical objects, such as wooden block letters or LP record covers (vinyl’s sleeves). Teaching topics included calligraphic styles, samples of the imaginative power of letters, principles of basic design and writing, graphology, the letter as an object, anatomy of letterforms, the Vox and Novarese type classifications, principles of book layout, introduction to digital type design and fontography, typography and poetry, introduction to calligram and palindromic compositions, typography and music covers design, typography and information architecture.

Short workshops were organized to experience the application of the ideas generated in class, using both the hands and the computer. The final workshop made use of the students’ handwriting for a chirographic font.

To each of the 16 students I assigned a group of glyphs so that one person did not happen to write two consecutive letters in alphabetical order. Talking about design constraints, I requested the use of a 1mm flat felt-tip pen, and 10cm square paper sheets. None of the student approached the letter-drawing task creating contours or outlines, they all wrote the characters. Once the handwritten characters were collected, we tried to get some order/structure done: students started a process of rough normalization of the signs. That was done in Macromedia Freehand. Beside the pen, I showed the student another tool to design letters; the software Fontographer.

There are several type design methods, they depend on the type of project. Sometimes it is enough to start from just a few hand-drawn rough sketches and other times from a whole alphabet of tight drawings. I think it is advisable to sketch something on paper first (rather than starting from scratch on the computer), but most of the real design work happens once the designer get the shapes on the computer screen. The iterative process of shaping letters on screen and proofing them at different sizes into words is where the designing happens.

The students had to figure out how to get those letter shapes on a software grid to be designed as a font. The result or outcome was random, “a font written by a schizophrenic person or a group of normal persons,” as Luc Devroye described it. After the 5g font was done, I collected 20 reviews by friends from different countries — mostly designers and artists —, different views about that one handwritten typeface completed by several people at once.

I saw in the students an unexpected interest and curiosity in how the font works — the possibility to ‘write’ with their class’ character. I asked them individually to write a short comment, a classroom memory of sort. “That was really interesting, because asking them to typeset a personal comment about how the font relates to the classmates, meant students ended up sharing things they hardly shared before” said Cristina Martini, the art teacher of the class. The font project was a social artifact.

The participants were exposed, in an entertaining way, to the educational and architectural role of typography. The font was a real “memory object" for the students. In my opinion typography is about preservation, and it has the power to reach the essence of human communication. Teaching typography is therefore a responsibility for all educators, not only in art and design schools.