Electronic Typography: The New Visual Language

Essays by Jessica Helfand
2 104 words11 min read

As advances in technology introduce more complex creative challenges, screen-based typography must be reconsidered as a new language with its own grammar, its own syntax, and its own rules. What we need are better models which go beyond language or typography to reinforce—rather than restrict—our understanding of what it is to design with electronic media. This essay traces some of the experimental precursors to contemporary electronic typography—from Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà to George Maciunas Fluxus happenings—and looks at language as part of a more comprehensive communication platform: time-sensitive, interactive, and highly visual.

In 1968, Mattel introduced Talking Barbie. I like to think of this as my first computer. I remember saving up my allowance for what seemed an eternity to buy one. To make her talk, you pulled a little string; upon its release, slave-to-fashion Barbie would utter delightful little conversational quips like “I think mini-skirts are smashing” and “Let’s have a costume party.”

If you held the string back slightly as she was talking, her voice would drop a few octaves, transforming her from a chirpy soprano into a slurpy baritone. What came out then sounded a lot more like “Let’s have a cocktail party.”

I loved that part.

What I loved was playing director—casting her in a new role, assigning her a new (albeit ludicrous) personality. I loved controlling the tone of her voice, altering the rhythm of her words, modulating her oh-so-minimal (and moronic) vocabulary. I loved having the power to shape her language—something I would later investigate typographically, as I struggled to understand the role of the printed word as an emissary of spoken communication.

Today, my Macintosh sounds a lot like my Barbie did then—the same monotone, genderless, robotic drawl. But here in the digital age, the relationship between design and sound—and in particular, between the spoken word and the written word—goes far beyond pulling a string. The truth is that the computer’s internal sound capabilities enable us to design with sound, not just in imitation of it. Like it or not, the changes brought about by recent advances in technology indicate the need for designers to broaden their understanding of what it is to work effectively with typography. It is no longer enough to design for readability, to suggest a sentiment or reinforce a concept through the selection of a particular font. Today, we can make type talk: in any language, at any volume, with musical underscoring or sci-fi sound effects or overlapping violins. We can sequence and dissolve, pan and tilt, fade to black, and specify type in Sensurround. As we “set” type, we encounter a decision-making process unprecedented in two-dimensional design: unlike the kinetic experience of turning a printed page to sequence information, time now becomes an unusually powerful and persuasive design element.

Today, we can visualise concepts in four action-packed, digital dimensions. Interactive media have introduced a new visual language, one that is no longer bound to traditional definitions of word and image, form and place. Typography, in an environment that offers such diverse riches, must redefine its goals, its purpose, its very identity. It must reinvent itself. And soon.

Visual language, or the interpretation of spoken words through typographic expression, has long been a source of inspiration to artists and writers. Examples abound, dating as far back as the incunabula and extending upwards from concrete poetry in the 1920s to “happenings” in the 1960s to today’s multicultural morass of pop culture. Visual wordplay proliferates, in this century in particular, from Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà to George Maciunas’ Fluxxus installations to the latest MTA posters adorning New York subway walls. Kurt Schwitters, Guillaume Apollinaire, Piet Zwart, Robert Brownjohn—the list is long, the examples inexhaustible.

For designers there has always been an overwhelming interest in formalism, in analysing the role of type as medium (structure), message (syntax), and muse (sensibility). Throughout, there has been an attempt to reconcile the relationship between words both spoken and seen—a source of exhilaration to some and ennui to others. Lamenting the expressive limitations of the western alphabet, Adolf Loos explained it simply: “One cannot speak a capital letter.” Denouncing its structural failings, Stanley Morrison was equally at odds with a tradition that designated hierarchies in the form of upper and lowercase letterforms. Preferring to shape language as he deemed appropriate, Morrison referred to caps as “a necessary evil.”


Academic debate over the relationship between language and form has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years as designers borrow from linguistic models in an attempt to codify—and clarify—their own typographic explorations. Deconstruction’s design devotées have eagerly appropriated its terminology and theory, hoping to introduce a new vocabulary for design: it is the vocabulary of signifiers and signifieds, of Jacques Derrida and Ferdinand de Saussure, of Michel Foucault and Umberto Eco.

As a comprehensive model for evaluating typographic expression, deconstruction has ultimately proved both heady and limited. Today, as advances in technology introduce greater and more complex creative challenges, it is simply arcane. We need to look at screen-based typography as a new language, with its own grammar, its own syntax, and its own rules. What we need are new and better models, models that go beyond language or typography per se, and that reinforce rather than restrict our understanding of what it is to design with electronic media.

Of course, learning a new language is one thing, fluency quite another. Yet we have come to equate fluency with literacy—another outdated model for evaluation. “Literacy should not mean the ability to decode strings of alphabetic letters,” says Seymour Papert, Director of the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab, who refers to such a definition as “letteracy.” And language, even to linguists, proves creatively limiting as a paradigm. “New media promise the opportunity to offer a smoother transition to what really deserves to be called literacy,” says Papert. Typography, as the physical embodiment of such thinking, has quite a way to go.

The will to decipher the formal properties of language, a topic of great consequence for communication designers in general, has its philosophical antecedents in ancient Greece. “Spoken words,” wrote Aristotle in Logic, “are the symbols of mental experience. Written words are the symbols of spoken words.” Today, centuries later, the equation has added a new link: what happens when written words can speak? When they can move? When they can be imbued with sound and tone and nuance, with decibel and harmony and voice? As designers probing the creative parameters of this new technology, our goal may be less to digitise than to dramatise. Indeed, there is a theatrical component that I am convinced is essential to this new thinking. Of what value are typographic choices—bold and italics, for example—when words can dance across the screen, dissolve, or disappear altogether?

In this dynamic landscape, our static definitions of typography appear increasingly imperilled. Will the beauty of traditional letterforms be compromised by the evils of this new technology? Will punctuation be stripped of its functional contributions, or ligatures their aesthetic ones? Will type really matter?

Of course it will. In the meantime, however, typography’s early appearance on the digital frontier does not bode well for design. Take email, for example. Gone are the days of good handwriting, of the Palmer Method and the penmanship primer. In its place, electronic mail which, despite its futuristic tone, has paradoxically revived the antiquated art of letter writing. Sending email is easy and effortless and quick. It offers a welcome respite from talking, and, consequently, bears a closer stylistic resemblance to conversational speech than to written language. However, for those of us with even the most modest design sense, it eliminates the distinctiveness that typography has traditionally brought to our written communiqués. Though its supporters endorse the democratic nature of such homogeneity, the truth is, it is boring. In the land of email, we all “sound” alike: everyone writes in system fonts.


Email is laden with many such contradictions: ubiquitous in form yet highly diverse in content, at once ephemeral and archival, transmitted in real time yet physically intangible, it is a kind of aesthetic flatland—informationally dense and visually unimaginative. Here, hierarchies are preordained and nonnegotiable: passwords, menus, commands, help. Software protocols require that we title our mail, a leftover model from the days of interoffice correspondence, which makes even the most casual letter sound like a corporate memo. As a result, electronic missives all have headlines. (Titling our letters makes us better editors, not better designers.) As a fitting metaphor for the distilled quality of things digital, the focus in email is on the abridged, the acronym, the quick read. Email is functionally serviceable and visually forgettable, not unlike fast food. It is drive-through design: get in, get out, move on.

And it is everywhere. Here is the biggest contribution to communication technology to come out of the last decade, a global network linking millions of people worldwide, and designers—communication designers, no less—are nowhere in sight. Typography, in this environment, desperately needs direction. Where to start? Comparisons with printed matter inevitably fail, as words in the digital domain are processed with a speed unprecedented in the world of paper. Here, they are incorporated into databases or interactive programs, where they are transmitted and accessed in random, non-hierarchical sequences. “Hypertext,” or the ability to program text with interactivity—meaning that a word, when clicked upon or pointed to will, in fact, do something—takes it all a step further: here, by introducing alternate paths, information lacks the closure of the traditional printed narrative. “Hypertextual story space is now multidimensional,” explains Robert Coover in the magazine Artforum, “and theoretically infinite.”

If graphic design can be largely characterised by its attention to understanding the hierarchy of information (and using type in accordance with such understanding), then how are we to determine its use in a non-linear context such as this? On a purely visual level, we are limited by what the pixel will render: the screen matrix simulates curves with surprising sophistication, but hairlines and serifs will, to the serious typophile, appear inevitably compromised. On a more objective level, type in this context is both silent and static, and must compete with sound and motion—not an easy task. Conversely, in the era of the handheld television remote, where the user can—and does—mute at will, the visual impact of written typography is not to be discounted.

To better analyse the role(s) of electronic typography, we might begin by looking outside: not to remote classifications imported from linguistic textbooks, or even to traditional design theories conveniently repackaged, but to our own innate intelligence and distinctive powers of creative thought. To cultivate and adequately develop this new typography (because if we don’t, no one else will), we might do well to rethink visual language altogether, to consider new and alternative perspectives. “If language is indeed the limit of our world,” writes literary critic William Gass in Habitations of the Word, “then we must find another, larger, stronger, more inventive language which will burst those limits.”

In his book Seeing Voices, author and neurologist Oliver Sacks reflects on the complexity of sign language, and describes the cognitive understanding of spatial grammar in a language that exists without sound. He cites the example of a deaf child learning to sign, and details the remarkable quality of her visual awareness and descriptive, spatial capabilities. “By the age of four, indeed, Charlotte had advanced so far into visual thinking and language that she was able to provide new ways of thinking—revelations—to her parents.” As a consequence of learning sign language as adults, this particular child’s parents not only learned a new language, but discovered new ways of thinking as well—visual thinking. Imagine the potential for interactive media if designers were to approach electronic typography with this kind of ingenuity and openmindedness.

William Stokoe, a Chaucer scholar who taught Shakespeare at Gallaudet College in the 1950s, summarised it this way: “In a signed language, narrative is no longer linear and prosaic. Instead, the essence of sign language is to cut from a normal view to a close-up to a distant shot to a close-up again, and so on, even including flashback and fast-forward scenes, exactly as a movie editor works.” Here, perhaps, is another model for visual thinking: a new way of shaping meaning based on multiple points of view, which sees language as part of a more comprehensive communication platform—time-sensitive, interactive, and highly visual. Much like multimedia.

© 2001 Jessica Helfand. All rights reserved.