Beyond Small, Medium, and Large

Few things exist in our culture that are more universally recognizable than letterforms. Their instant accessibility to a mass audience explains why they are so frequently utilized to create symbols and logotypes and why they are so important to the education of graphic design students. Before we learn our ABCs, letters are abstract shapes with no meaning. As the letters become recognizable, the individual forms and structures become invisible to the eye. Familiarity breeds indifference, and the unique forms that define each letter are replaced with a name for identification, eventually revealing words, phrases, and sentences. This ritual, our earliest contact with graphic design, is the path to literacy, but it fails to develop and cultivate our eyes. The question is how does one transcend immediate recognition and replace it with observation and perception?

Creating letterforms by hand provides the perfect means for achieving this goal and, in the process, learning important basic design principles—principles that are available only through the direct experience of making. Unlike most design courses that strive for diversity, the focus in this context is exclusively on learning basic formal properties consistent with existing traditional alphabets. This being the case, why not save time and use the computer to produce the letterforms?

The computer’s capability to produce perfect letterforms of any font and size is an important resource for designers. This perfection, however, assumes a certain authority that is antithetical to seeing and to visual thinking. Every letter in the alphabet has formal idiosyncrasies that require visual adjustments to compensate for mathematical certainty. The computer’s capacity to make a square with four perfectly equal sides, for instance, accurately reflects the definition of a square that appears in the dictionary. Mathematical perfection, however, ignores the fact that the visual world relies on imagination and illusion. The graphic designer needs a foot in both worlds and must reconcile these polar opposites. The fact is that the vertical sides of a square must be longer in length than the horizontal sides to create a “visual square.” Unless the appropriate compensation is made, the computer can only produce squares that appear too short. One may ask, how long must the vertical edges be in order to appear correct? The answer is, “Until the sides look equal.”

There is no formula that I know of. Finding the correct length is accomplished through trial and error, accompanied by careful observation, evaluation, and judgment. To reach this conclusion, however, one must be curious and confident enough to question the precision that comes so easily with the machine. Unless students are made aware of this visual phenomenon and encouraged to exercise their capacity to observe, doubting the authority of technology is virtually impossible.

Letterforms have a direct relation to geometry; designing a square presents the same issues as designing a letter. The computer can produce letters with strokes guaranteed to be exactly the same width, but unless visual adjustments are made, the strokes will not possess the same visual weight. Painting a letter as simple as a sans serif capital H offers challenges for determining important visual phenomena, such as the relationship between horizontal and vertical strokes. For instance, how thick must the horizontal stroke be to appear the same weight as the two vertical strokes? Where must it be positioned to appear in the center of the verticals (the visual center)? If both vertical strokes are mathematically the same width, are they visually equal? New questions and more complexvisual adjustments are required for designing letterforms that contain diagonals and curves. When students transcend recognition of a letter by name and begin to see it abstractly—the H, for example, as two vertical strokes connected by a single horizontal stroke—they immediately extend their understanding to the E, F, L, and T. At first glance, the results appear like replicas of Univers or Helvetica but they are never an exact match. Students begin to realize they are creating unique forms of their own that occupy the fertile creative space that lies in between presets offered by type fonts. This new awareness gives them the confidence and permission to search beyond default givens for a more individual voice. Through this process, students learn to trust their eyes and their judgment. They experience the weight of responsibility and the reward of accomplishment.

Taking things for granted confirms preconceived assumptions and eliminates the proclivity for further examination. During an interview in the late seventies, the philosopher Mortimer Adler was discussing his book How to Read a Book. Mistakenly, I assumed he must have been speaking about a book for children. Baffled by why a brilliant thinker would write a book for adults about such a pedestrian subject, I read the book.

As it turns out, there are numerous ways to read a book, and reading this one sparked important insights. One of the many benefits achieved through painting letterforms by hand is that it teaches students how to work. This begins with an introduction to tools and materials. Being accustomed to the immediate gratification from instantaneous results using the computer, students begin in a tentative manner. The quality of their first pencil sketches varies widely and reveals important information that teachers can use to help them improve. They confront new problems when they begin using paint, their eyes often only inches away from the work, painstakingly trying to paint a perfect edge. The quality of work changes immediately when they realize that spending time making a razor edge is an irrelevant diversion that prohibits them from seeing the form as a whole. Aware that a sketch is not a result in itself but a path to discovery, students stop viewing the sketch as precious; the concern for surface perfection is replaced with a desire to find the correct form. The studio comes alive with sketches pinned to the walls made with a variety of materials. Realizing that a certain distance from the sketch is required  to see it properly, students no longer remain seated at their desks but stand in front of their work at arm’s length, holding separate brushes for black and white paint. This activity creates a rhythm in the room: Students approach their work to add paint, then retreat to observe and evaluate the result.

Through the process of painting numerous variations, students become conscious that counter forms are not leftover transparent holes but crucial elements in designing letterforms. Awareness of the essential role that negative space plays in design changes how students think as well as how they see and experience their surroundings. The alphabet is a complex design system of inherent formal relationships with rules that provide a means to evaluate work objectively. By understanding these relationships, students can experiment with new and unique letterform combinations that are not possible using existing type fonts. Most importantly, they experience the benefits of having physical interaction with their work and the rich potential they posses as individuals to create unique and unpredictable results.

In a world where information about virtually everything is available instantantly, it is rewarding to discover things that exist but remain hidden, invisible, unless perceived through observation. As we move forward, it is important to preserve the valuable human component to the process of making and visual thinking.

While technology expands its influence on traditional means of thought and design, the role of the graphic designer will continue to evolve in new and unpredictable directions. The rapid pace of these changes makes determining the most effective curriculum and identifying qualified teachers a moving target. Department chairs will become more tempted to eliminate courses deemed unnecessary in a digital environment. Before eliminating classes that may seem obsolete, design educators will have to carefully weigh what is gained and what is lost in the process.

Previously published in “Voice”, an online publication of The American Institute of Graphic Arts

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