If Typography was a Video Game

Norbert Florendo's picture

Recently, Andi Emery started a topic asking if teaching traditional copyfitting methods to graphic designers had value anymore. This is a question of particual interest to educators who want to improve typographic awareness in students.

Given the fact that typography is a minor sub-set in most general graphic design programs, it sparked an interest in exploring types of exercises that might stimulate creative and cognitive abilities useful to budding typographers and type designers.

The topic of type education already exists under the heading of Typographic Edumacators within the Special Interest Groups area of Typophile. This topic area is sadly malnurished having only two replies to an important topic started by Nathan Matteson over two years ago! All of the real dialogs related to education are actually peppered throughout the entire Typophile forum.

'Nuf said.

If Typography was a Video Game
This is a thought that came to my mind after participating in Andi's topic. No, I'm not advocating a game blasting Comic Sans with laser guns, or a Sim game trying to pickup type hotties at a party. I'm not even suggesting an "educational" game a la Sesame Street or Nick Jr. (though they're wonderfully useful).

I'm thinking more in the line of simple, engaging and hopefully stimulating exercises that might trigger higher cognitive and creative activities in the mind of students. Obviously this doesn't need to take the form of a video game, but the only reason it came to mind is that all designers are now trained in front of a screen.

Here goes my first shot:

Is this ancient Chinese game (or variant) useful in developing a heightened sense of notan?
Can it help designers to create a plethora of recognizable shapes using only a fixed set of elements?

Description (From Answers.com)
Tangram (Hanyu Pinyin: Cantonese: ch'i ch'ae pan; literally Seven-Board of Cunning) is an ancient Chinese puzzle.
It consists of 7 pieces, called Tans, which fit together to form a square:
5 triangles of various sizes,
1 square
1 parallelogram
The objective is to form a given shape with seven pieces.
The shape has to contain all the pieces, which must not overlap.


I can already see that exploring helpful tools and methods of developing typographic sensibilities will be a slow and laborous mission, as it has taken me a considerable amount of time just to get this post up. Hopefully a few of us can collectively hatch up some worthwhile exercises. I've got a few more simple activities to share, but it takes time to really think them through.

Look for the "Typography Edumacators" topic area to come alive again.

paul d hunt's picture

this was one of my favorite things i got from typecon:

oldnick's picture

Excellent suggestion, Norbert. The real strength of tangrams, I believe, is in its making people aware of possibilities. I have great admiration for the more skilled practitioners of the art, who seem able to coax an immense range of images out of what is really a rather limited tool set.

Another exercise which might prove helpful in developing typesense would be a game which has rules, but they are not spelled out at the beginning of the game: the purpose of the game is, in fact, to discover the rules. Ideally, these rules could be expressed graphically. Just a thought...


Yes, I'm old. So what?

andi emery's picture

Norbert, the tangram exercise is an interesting starting point. What would be the exact objective/learning outcome, as it relates to typography? I mean, are we simply trying to get students to recognize forms and how they fit together or are we trying to have students recognize form and counterform? Is this more of a spatial exercise or can we tie it in more closely to type?

(Thanks for starting this up!!)


drs18's picture

Regarding the limited use of “Typography Edumacators” - I'm a fan of "cute" when it's appropriate; but I would guess that a title like "Typography Edumacators" is a bit too cute. If this blog is a tool of industry professionals, which I think it is, why not assume an initial, respectful tone and call it "Educators"?
How serious is your initial take of text set in Comic Sans? Possibly, Popeye has left the building...

andi emery's picture

Paul, I thought Ellen's game was really clever too - something that might actually appeal to young people. It would be great if we could apply that same idea to a lot of other type setting rules, wouldn't it?

oldnick's picture

I’m a fan of “cute” when it’s appropriate; but I would guess that a title like “Typography Edumacators” is a bit too cute

Geez, lighten up, David. It's the people who take themselves too seriously who are the problem (like the guy who inspired the "Edumacator" term).

Nick Shinn's picture

You're on to something here Norbert.
But shoot-em-up games are bit anti-social, innit.
(Oh, yeah, sorry, gotta lighten up and not be so politically correct, remind meself that violence and war is cool these days, hey, love that irony and kick ET's butt heh heh heh.)
The game could reward players for putting the right punctuation in the right context, with a special bonus for getting the abbreviation 'postrophe the right way round.

andi emery's picture

How about something along the lines of Phil Baines' deconstructed font that he designed for Fuse magazine. You know the one entitled "Can you...?" Essentially it was all about how much you can take away from a letterform and still recognize the letter.

(The creative juices are flowing now!)

oldnick's picture

The game could reward players for putting the right punctuation in the right context, with a special bonus for getting the abbreviation ‘postrophe the right way round.

Hey, I know people who think SpellCheck is a video game...

andi emery's picture

Nick, did you ever see that post that I put up with all the typos in it? It was a misspelled ode to the spellchecker? (Since you seem to be on this bend today!) : )

hrant's picture

Edutainment is always a good idea, at any age.


andi emery's picture

That would be Edumatainment, I think.

William Berkson's picture

Here is a kerning video game from University of Delaware. Very nice. This I saw in the typophile news feed yesterday, via Veer.

andi emery's picture

Wow! That's great William! Thanks.

Norbert Florendo's picture

that link to Ellen Lupton's game is great.

keep the ideas flowing. Also explore those activities which are of particular value to graphic designers in training their "typographic eye."

thanks for getting the ol' juices flowing. The tangram has no definitive educational outcome, and it may be only one of several obtional exercises for students. By suggesting the Tangram I am exploring simple ways of stimulating higher levels of pattern recognition and creating recognizable shapes with minimal visual clues.

What if I asked a student to construct each character of the alphabet using only a hairpin, 2" piece of string and 2 M&Ms. I'm not joking...

I had the same feelings exactly about "Edumacators," but now I think it might be OK. We'll just have to see if we can keep interest growing or if we go down in flames like the previous attempt.

oldnick's picture

Also explore those activities which are of particular value to graphic designers in training their “typographic eye.”

For a revivalist, discovering the "rules" is the key ingredient in creating a character set consistent with the artifacts at hand. For those who design their own typefaces "from scratch," perhaps a game in which the player devised the rules (which might have unintended consequences down the line) might be more appropriate.

William Berkson's picture


That was my reaction too. It is really both fun and educational, which is actually a rare thing. The 'shoot the straight quote' stuff is fun but doesn't have a lot of educational content, I think.

One could do a similar thing by taking, say a Baskerville n and asking the student to make an m and u in the same style, then compare it to a few pro versions of Baskerville. Then give them the ho and ask to design the bd. This would have to be in Illustrator or Fontlab, though. If you did the same thing for four or five diverse classics, it would be incredibly educational, I think.

Nicole Dotin's picture

> Look for the “Typography Edumacators” topic area to come alive again.

I am all for this, esp. as I am currently wrestling with content for the upcoming semester right now...

andi emery's picture

Nicole, who are you teaching and what are you teaching - send me a note (andrea@archipath.com) and we can compare notes!


andi emery's picture

William - I really like that idea a lot. I think if the students had a bit of background first (of course), maybe use Tracy's Letters of Credit as a primer, and then attempted to build the other letters - and compare them to existing characters, they would really benefit from the hands-on learning. Great idea.

Norbert Florendo's picture


The "building a character" exercise would be a much better approach than the old obligatory "comping headlines" that many primers have. My students (and I) found no value other than becoming familiar with the character forms.

Developing additional characters from existing ones is much more engaging, challenging and in the long run can add to the student's understanding of letterform structure.

we (plus others interested memebers) should start compiling key suggestions. (More than likely offline). So far the ideas are sprinkled in several topics going on lately. I would be terrible to see a single good contribution get lost.

Yes, I'm old, but I'm back in style!

matteson's picture

Hmmm. I guess I should apologize to those whom my 'Edumacators' offended. 'Twas meant to be light-hearted and such, but those things are wont to back-fire on occassion. Feel free to change the name of the Special Interest Group and I promise I won't be offended.

In any case, it's heartening that the whole dialogue among teacher-types is thriving on Typophile these days. More so that the days of yore anyway. I haven't been as active of a participant as I used to be -- teaching's been taking up more and more of my time -- but I hope to make some more time to participate in this sort of discussion.

Although, quite frankly, I'm conflicted as to the idea of turning typography too much into a 'game'. Students today seem completely different than when I was in college (a mere 10 years ago), but I buck at the thought of 'coddling' them. I'm sure it's not coddling, it's just change, but so much of what I hear about typography classes (not on this board, mind you) sounds like either (1) teachers obsfucate things to make their practice seem overly esoteric/important, or (2) the classroom becomes a playpen that panders to students' lack of attention.

Unfortunately, in the meantime I have to prepare for class :-P so ta-ta-for-now.

John Hudson's picture

If typography were a video game.

This message brought to you by the World Health Organisation Taskforce Against Subjunctivitis (WHOTAS).

andi emery's picture

Norbert, I'm taking notes and getting lots of ideas to add to my own. Unfortunately, I'll be in the throws of school in a weeks' time but I can check in here periodically and maybe add something to the Edumacator's section when it is up.

Would it be worthwhile to list the tried and true exercises that type teachers currently use/try? Any projects or exercises that anyone has tried that they have benefitted from?

Norbert Florendo's picture

> If typography "were" a video game.

John, I kept repeating "were" in my mind and did not have a full understanding of why. Thanks.

my take on exploring this area is slightly different than many of the design curriculums I am aware of. My personal intent is to find methods, tools, or exercises that MIGHT aid students of general graphic design programs to step through the portal of typographic awareness.

In other words, my own personal interest is to help "wake up" and heighten those mysterious powers of super type awareness which lay dormant in only a handful of students.

I have asked myself many times, why can some people look at a full page of straight text and see the continuity or irregularities of type color, the dazzle or spikeyness, the need for an addition point of line spacing, or understand why the column should be extended by 4 picas, and finally decide that one vendor's version of Cheltenham should be replaced by a slightly different version to feel right.

These are abilities I have seen in very few graphic designers. If playing Tangram or Tetris during lunch helps to build these awarenesses, then I'm all for them.

Again, I don't want to build "games." I want to find out if there is any sort of activity, on screen or off, which can help raise that awareness. It seems a dumb analogy, but I keep remembering the scenes in Karate Kid where the student develops exceptional blocking abilities by waxing cars using only two specific movements of Wax on and Wax off.

I immensely respect the expertise and efforts of the many qualified and fully trained educators who build knowledge and train their students in design and typography.

matteson's picture

I didn't mean to poo-poo on what you're doing at all Norbert. I actually think it's a great idea. I dig the idea of building tangrams because they might help students develop the visual/spatial acuity needed for typography, through a non-typographic method. Because I certainly know that college freshman & sophomore can only look at type for so long before they're gone.

I think I'm just wary of the term 'game'. That's all. For instance, like William, I'm not a huge fan of the 'shoot the fake quotes' game. As much as I hate improper quotation marks ;-)

Norbert Florendo's picture

Yes, I agree, and do not want games to be the focus or issue.

To be honest, the (very) few people I've helped to "see" was done through continual and diligent one-on-one work. Maybe I watch too many Kung Fu movies and have become enamored with the myth of the "Master." Anyway, what's wrong with having your students wash and wax your car?

matteson's picture

> the (very) few people I’ve helped to “see” was done through continual and diligent one-on-one work.

I think this is likely the case across the board. It's how I feel about my past students. But I think the challenge (which is partially what we're addressing I think?) is how to impart a knowledge or love or understanding of typography to the rest of the kids in the classroom who don't engage themselves in that long-term one-and-one work.

That's obvious innit. It's been a long day at school. I think I need to sleep.

But there's nothing at all wrong with kids washing your car. One of mine just gave me a bottle of Ardbeg. Sweet!

andi emery's picture

Ardbeg?! Now, only a true single malt lover would even know what that was - there's one great student!

dberlow's picture

Hmm. great Thread N: http://www.fontbureau.com/fonts/AlphaGeometrique, get you to Clotilde Olyff, all of the fonts she made with us are based on board games she made for her students...Also, the development of digital tools for font design, (ones that worked), cured me of all for video games...it is the best game. :-@

Norbert Florendo's picture

Thanks for the great link, David.
In fact, Typophile has cured me of video games. I haven't turned on the X-box in two months!

Yes, I'm old, but my Halo is fading!

andi emery's picture

Wow, that Clotilde Olyff is a real find! I'm searching for her book...

dberlow's picture

If this is the book I'm thinking of, she also shows her extensive collection of beach stone type, which this special person has collected over the years from beaches all over the world, but primarily in Belgium, where the slate is soft, beaches rough and no one else seems to collect. She gave me two quote stones that proudly sit in my solid type collection waiting for the proper marketing moment. And yes, she'll get a royalty...

Syndicate content Syndicate content