What is Typography?

Essays by Peter Biľak
602 words4 min read
caslon specimen detail

What do we mean by the term typography? Before starting any discussion it is useful to clarify the terminology and definition of the word. This is a first from the regular columns that Peter Bilak writes for online version of the Swedish magazine CAP & Design.

Before starting any discussion or argument it is useful to define the terminology and to make sure that the words which are used are generally understood. Typography is a craft has been practiced since the Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type. According to the latest Encyclopedia Britannica core definition of typography is that ‘typography is concerned with the determination of the appearance of the printed page’. Other dictionaries, such as Collins English Dictionary from 2004 define the typography as ‘the art, craft or process of composing type and printing from it’. Understood this way, no typography was made before mid-15 century, as it is strictly linked to the invention of the printing type. Understood this way, digitally created letters that appear on an electronic screen also escapes this definition.

That is of course problem of definitions, which are not as flexible as the activities which they define. In the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, where I teach part time, most useful definition of typography comes from the long term teacher Gerrit Noordzij, saying that ‘typography is writing with prefabricated letters’. Unlike the dictionary definitions, this one is deliberately avoiding connecting typography to any specific medium, as they tend to change, yet the discipline continues evolving. Noordzij’s definition also implies a complete distinction from lettering, handwriting or graffiti, which are also concerned with creating letter-shapes, but don’t offer a repeatable system of setting these letters.

Digital technologies stimulated unprecedented possibilities which blur even most open definitions of typography. If repetition of shapes was the central concept of typography, many designers are working in ways that challenge this concept. OpenType fonts can include random features, which can simulate unpredictable behavior of handwriting, or simply present seemingly incoherent library shapes.

For the past year, I’ve been working with dancers from Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague on creating a tool which translates text into simple choreographies. User types a word in a typesetting-like application which plays back this word as an uninterrupted dance sequence where dancer’s body temporarily makes positions recognizable as letters.

In other disciplines, such debate is in fact a sign of new self-consciousness. Novelist Milan Kundera argues that a contemporary novel is no longer defined as a fictional narrative in prose, but can include various forms of writing: poetry, short-story, or interview. Kundera’s books include parts which are philosophical, political, comical, while still being firmly part of a novel. The ability to absorb these various forms is Kundera’s definition of novel. Similarly, larger understanding of typography, which is no longer defined by technology, but evolves with it, may open this discipline to new create endeavors.