Teaching Typography

Feelingrandy's picture

I am curious if there are any other teachers out there who teach typography?
It's an odd fact that most students don't get it. There are not really ample tools available (Helvetica, the film, was a great start) to help with creating interest in the subject. There are some great websites (here, for instance) and youtube has some wonderful videos, but are there any other films about typography? Tools? If there are any typographers in the Los Angeles area, please drop by our class.

nancy sharon collins's picture

I have taught typography for four years now and participated in the TypeCon education forum last year. Most of what I personally observed is a common frustration due to the fact that reading skills are no longer emphasized, especially in art schools, and that there are few great models for typographic inspiration.

Here's what I mean; growing up I was surrounded by the American Heritage series of literature. Judging from how worn the books are I would have to say that I spent a long, long time looking at these beautifully crafted books. Typographically, I now know, I got my "style" from these sensitively designed volumes. So, I never had to "learn" how to set type. I had so much good typographic form memorized that by the time I got out of school it just came naturally. I am not sure that these great type models are common anymore–students grow up with the internet and video games, not gorgeous text.

Go to Typecon, the education forum is great.

charles ellertson's picture

I have a bit of trouble juxtaposing the wonderful typography Randy finds on youtube with the wonderful typography Nancy remembers from books. Could it be that typography isn't subject to a single vision? I've always felt that the best designs came from people who enjoyed reading, but perhaps that doesn't leave enough room for the people who prefer "just looking."

dezcom's picture

You have to include more uses than books. Typgraphy in ads in magazines is way more playful. Packaging has a crammed set of criteria and too many cooks but a real opportunity as well. Motion typography or new media brings a whole nother thing. We cannot keep teaching typography as if we were still doing early 20th Century books only. If typography teachers don't open their eyes to todays world, today's young students will close their eyes completely to typography.

ChrisL

Feelingrandy's picture

Charles, let's pray thats not true, that the best designs come from people who read. To clarify the youtube reference, there are a few videos that deal with the subject of typopgraphy. It's not easy subject to teach. Most people and students think of it as picking a font and it is hopefully way beyond that concept. I agree with the totally mesmerizing Nancy Sharon Collins (whose work is amazing) that it might be generational. I too grew up with literature, books, magazines and films that revealed some great hint of the power of typography. Teaching such an esoteric subject to students today, I am always searching for media, books, websites, etc., that will inform, entertain and educate students. Ironically, the book that we provide students with is a history of typography, and frankly, not easy to read. I am often doubtful that knowing what a rebus is will help students better understand typography.
Searching our own past for the sources of inspiration while enjoyable is unfortunately not always pertinent to methods required and needed today. You are right, these students have been raised to "look", especially at computer monitors, television and movies. We need to speak a common language, find inspiration in the work of others anywhere, anyway we can.

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Looks like you are going to pray a lot, Randy, maybe you can start telling your students why writing matters to you.

charles ellertson's picture

I think I've been misunderstood. At a very basic level, typography is the visually aesthetic portion of communicating with the written word; though some would say, handwriting should be ignored. But the machines we use to form the written word have moved in so many diverse ways I'd be prone to include handwriting as well -- why not? Letters generated by machine can now rival letters generated by hand, for good & ill.

However, handwriting is just a wrinkle. The problem is one of *good* typography, and I think what's at play here is books are no longer the gold standard. We're letting all our currencies float. But that's hard to teach. If we generally let any form of written word in the door, what's *good* will depend on context; on purpose. Grunge is good only if your purpose is to shake people up, not if your purpose is to communicate any other idea. Are typographers then required to defend their purposes? I'd think so. Perhaps that is the other part of the teaching problem.

David Rault's picture

I taught typography for 4 years in a masters class in a very well ranked french school. I thought masters student in graphic design, aged 20-24, would be interested in type and carry a good knowledge. No. They just don't give a damn at, say, 90%. And the most amazing is that the last 10% are absolutely crazy about it. It's like, there is no middle class there, all or nothing. When I remember myself, I actually have to say that in art school I wasn't very much interested in it either. It came later, with experience. I think that the love and interest in typography does not come early, unless specific cases. I think it mainly comes late, and grows with experience. But it might come from the teachers too: maybe, just as Chris said above, I would have been much more crazy about type if our teachers showed us nice uses of type in magazine ads... For a sadly big amount of art students, type is just a very small detail in the job as they see it, something they have to use, like a burden. They guess they will find the right font quickly with the use of Fontbook or Typophile.com... Well, anyway, I suppose you can not ask from every student to recognize Helvetica's advantages over Univers, but that's a shame because that's how it should actually be.

dr

Alessandro Segalini's picture

You have to open your students's eyes, if not their hands to hold a pencil.
My students come to class with their clothes on, but they (95%) forget the tools.

nora g's picture

Teaching typography is teaching to think. In my opinion you'll have to reach their hearts and minds by showing examples that makes clear what a powerful tool typography can be. All the other things they learn by doing and doing and doing again and again and again ... it's all about your own enthusiasm and a sort of uncompromising honesty by talking about their work, The times of simple typesetting are over. They have to know what they do and why they do it this way they do. Knowledge in typography can save their professional lives ;-) Know how to think and to visualize and verbalize the results is an advantage in times, the tools get democratic, and every bakery can set and print out their handmade stationery themselves.

David Rault's picture

"Knowledge in typography can save their professional lives"

that is so true... but they realize this when they reach the professional life.

dr

Alessandro Segalini's picture

The difference between the novice and the master is simply that the novice has not learnt, yet, how to do things in such a way that he can afford to make small mistakes. The master knows that the sequence of his actions will always allow him to cover his mistakes a little further down the line. It is this simple but essential knowledge which gives the work of a master carpenter its wonderful, smooth, relaxed, and almost unconcerned simplicity.

Irene's picture

I have been teaching typography and advanced typography for 24 years. If you love type and are able to pry open the minds of your students you can fill them with excitement and a new found appreciation for this subject. You have to make it an exciting journey of exploration in each class. It really challenges you as an instructor to keep their interest. Imagine being a student and the subject for the day is kerning... As an instructor I have to train them to really look at everything and this is usually something completely new for them. Ask them to bring in examples of what they like and then retrain them with good examples so they can see quality design with a great use of type. I actually make students hand trace type so they can learn an appreciation for the subtle nuances in different fonts. They have to learn that type is one of the most important tools. Instructors have to teach students what small details in their work will set them apart in their professional life.

As an instructor I have a responsibility to teach about quality, copyrights, usage, and paying for fonts. I start them early with an understanding of these concepts.

Feelinggrandy - There is an amazing instructor in Los Angeles who teaches at Otis/Parsons (I think) named Joe Molloy/Mondo Typo. He is a graphic designer who opened a type service setting amazing Berthold type (back in the day). I miss his type, I still can't get my Mac to produce quality type that is as good as my photo typeset projects. Maybe that is because I am a designer and was never supposed to be a typesetter!?

Honor the past, embrace the present, teach the future.

kentlew's picture

Nancy said it above: Come join your colleagues at the Type and Education Forum at TypeCon this year.

The complete Forum info is now posted and registration is open: http://www.typecon.com/education.php

Come for the Ed. Forum. Stay for the TypeCon. Leave totally stoked.

[Disclosure: I'm on the board of SoTA, so this could be construed as shameless promotion.]

-- K.

innovati's picture

in design school here there might be a handful of students in a class full of 40 who actually care about typography, and no I'm not talking big things like making their own typefaces, I mean only ahandful bother to *ever* open up the glyphs palette and even see what's there.

I think the sad reality is there used to be printers that dealt with type only, and designers who didn't deal much with type at all, now both have morphed into one person and most of the time that person doesn't care.

What got my excited about typography wasn't typography class (which was more type layout than anything, redundant because we had a design layout class) but rather walking around and spotting typefaces around town. Knowing the name of the designer, the year. What fonts were influenced by it.

Maybe you'd call that a knowledge of type history that turned me on to it, but now that I can confidently name typefaces similar to 'x' or know what classic typeface that new one that just came out is inspired by, that's getting me excited to think more about type!

My college *did* show the Helvetica movie, with a massive turnout (people from outside of our program came because of the interest) but there was no way to channel that interest into a project or a study so it faded.

FeeltheKern's picture

Teaching typography is a long-term goal for me. For those of you that teach, how did you move into teaching? Do you teach a few classes and maintain a large design workload, or primarily teach and do a few design projects on the side?

Alessandro Segalini's picture

I received an invitation to teach in Turkey when freelancing in expensive Rome.

David Rault's picture

Alessandro: do you teach in turkish?

Alessandro Segalini's picture

Hayir David, Türkçe ög(reniyorum, I teach in English.

dezcom's picture

I have always dreamed of visiting Milan to see the city and study the typography and see a Puccini opera at La Scala. I can't afford the trip to Italy or Turkey! Ciao Alessandro!

ChrisL

Irene's picture

When I first began teaching I was invited to teach by a few schools after finishing Art Center College of Design in California. I was referred by senior designers in the design community. I do maintain a full design studio while teaching. If you want to teach in full time design degree programs in the US you need at least a BFA if not an MFA but you can teach in continuing education programs without a degree. You can usually teach at night while doing design work during the day. I am looking to teach outside of the US soon. It would be wonderful to experience teaching in other countries.

I can't make it to TypeCon this year (teaching commitments) but it sounds great. What are the dates for next year?

kentlew's picture

The dates for next year aren't finalized yet.

We're aiming to keep it in mid- to late-July. It all depends upon the availability and negotiations with the conference hotel and venues.

We will have the dates settled in time for the announcement of both location and dates of next year's conference during this summer's TypeCon. And then, of course, the dates will show up on the TypeCon website, post-con.

-- K.

Feelingrandy's picture

Thanks for the great responses.
I have thought a lot about this subject recently. I believe in many ways it is the computer, that best and worst of tools that has pushed typography to the backburner.
Many of us, of an age, grew up with Letraset and phototypositors. We had an intimate relationship with type. We rubbed it (literally) on paper, we xeroxed pages and pages of type, concepts which now must seem archaic and they are.
The computer is not just another typewriter.
It's the new television. Students are visual, they have grown up with computer monitors like many of us grew up with televisions.
I also teach first year students, which i think explains why many simply don't get it (yet). Some will. I agree Innovati: the first day of class we look out the windows and see all kinds of typography (unfortunately it's Washington Mutual, not the most fascinating font).
What is extraordinary is this site. It's a bit like joining the crazy farm. How delightful that so many people share this curious and interesting passion.

blank's picture

I just graduated from a school whose faculty are often obsessed with typography, and I often felt like the biggest problem was that postmodern typography and digital type created too much for many students to grasp in four years. Learning all of the little details is a year of study, figuring out what matters in the real world and whats just a quirky academic notion can suck the life out of internships. Then there’s the layer of grid knowledge, made messy by the tendency of designers to stink at math. Get that right and then comes expressive and experimental typography. Now that web/Flash experience has become a common requirement for entry-level design jobs students must also learn to make type work onscreen, both static and animated. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that many students minds aren’t elastic enough to take it all in—it literally pushed me and other students in the program to the limits of sanity.

Looking back at it all, and knowing that there’s stuff I wish my school hadn’t had to leave out of the curriculum, I can’t really imagine a good solution to teaching typography in the twenty-first century. I think it likely that great design schools will become crucibles in the manner of graduate programs in law or medicine, in which the students who can’t take it all in will just crack.

Alento's picture

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PublishingMojo's picture

I taught a book design class for 10 years. When I started, there was no such thing as desktop publishing. By the time I stopped, there was almost nothing else.
I was teaching people to be graphic designers, not type designers, so I wasn't teaching typography per se. I taught my students that if you expect people to pay you to select type for them, you have to be able to do more than look at a list and say "Papyrus looks cool, I think I'll use that," because your client/employer can do that for herself.
To help my students learn the factors that distinguish one face from another, and make one face more suitable than another for a specific purpose (weight, contrast, x-height, etc.), I had them draw a layout and render the display type by hand. "No one will ever pay you to do this, ever," I told them, "but I'm making you do this because I can show you slides and talk about bracketing all night, but it won't teach you half as much as if draw a word in Palatino and then draw the same word in Century."

DrDoc's picture

I'm just finishing up my first quarter of teaching a 10-week intensive introductory typography course to art direction students at an advertising portfolio school. My goals for the class are for the students to explore the expressive potential of letterforms, to understand some of the historical forces that have shaped them, and to learn how to use type as a conceptual tool. I also teach a bit of Bringhurstian textcraft, but it's honestly secondary to concept. I figure if I can get them excited about type then they'll pick up the details along the way.

The curriculum's going to be ironed out more next quarter, but I realized that I unconsciously divided the class into three sections — letters, words, and text — each of which has a major multi-week project corresponding to it, in addition to several smaller exercises.

Here are my major assignments, more or less:
Letters: Pick a location or a category (i.e. Home Depot, Central Park, patterns in the soles of shoes) and create a photographic found alphabet using non-alphabetic objects. Trace each letter (BY HAND!) in black-and-white. Pick one of those letters and extrapolate an entire alphabet, A-Z from that letter. Design a magazine cover that would use that typeface for its logo.

Words: Design a cover for your favorite book. [This assignment was stretched out over three weeks — first they had to bring in ten rough conceptual sketches in Sharpie, followed by 10 tighter comps, followed by three very tight comps including spine & back cover, followed by a final cover]

Text: Pick an piece of writing with at least 1,000 words. READ THE TEXT and then design a multi-page layout (magazine, iPad, website) for it, including an introductory feature spread, pull quotes, supporting images, etc. [Like the book cover assignment this one is stretched out over several weeks]

I've been really impressed with my students' work so far.

DrDoc's picture

Oh, also, the very first thing I did in class was had them go out into the neighborhood for an hour and bring back ten examples of what they thought was good type, and ten examples of what they thought was bad type. I certainly didn't agree with all of their picks, but it helped get the students engaged and discussing from the outset and also taught them that type is so very rarely objectively good or objectively bad, and the real question is, what does this type set out to accomplish, and does it do that effectively?

This exercise would not have been possible in the days before ubiquitous cell phone cameras.

PublishingMojo's picture

Eric, your typography-trouvé exercise reminds me of a similar assignment I used to give my book-design students. I had them bring in a book they thought was especially well-designed, or especially badly-designed, and tell the class what they thought was good or bad about it.
After I had been teaching the course for about six years, the law of averages caught up with me, and a student brought in an example of bad design which (although she didn't know it) I had designed.
To be fair, she was right. If I had that book to design over again, I would have done it differently. In the end, it was a teachable moment.

DrDoc's picture

Haha, Victor, that's a great story. But was it *especially* badly designed?

PublishingMojo's picture

The chapter-opening pages were heinous. Everything else was just meh.

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