What is Typography?
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.
Is this typography? Project like this, as many others using existing digital possibilities seems not much worried about it, but use typographic principles to create autonomous work which cross boundaries of various disciplines. It seems that typography itself matured into a new creative discipline in which majority of typographers work in a way which is guided by historical understanding of the word, yet there is room for experimentation which explores the boundaries of the profession.
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.
Other Articles By Peter Biľak
- Why Not Associates?2
- The Book of Probes
- Restart: New Systems in Graphic Design
- Contemporary Dutch graphic design: an insider/outsiders view
- Dutch type design
- Martin Majoor, type designer
- Irma Boom, book designer
- Designing Type Systems
- Karel Martens, graphic designer
- Letterror, designers and programmers
- Max Kisman, graphic designer
- In search of a comprehensive type design theory
- Experimental typography. Whatever that means.
- Martin Majoor feature
- History of a new font (notes on designing Fedra Serif)
- Sandberg, Designer and Director of Stedelijk
- En busca de una teoría completa del diseño tipográfico
- Historia de una fuente nueva
- Acerca de Fedra
- Falta de diseño, exceso de diseño y volver a diseñar
- Tipografía de los noventa. La demistificación y re-mistificación
- Designing Type — book review
- Graphic Design in the White Cube
- Kyoorius DesignYatra 2006, review of a design conference
- Ways of Seeing, book review
- À la recherche d’une théorie générale du dessin de caractères
- 화이트큐브의 그래픽디자인 / Graphic Design in the White Cube
- Family planning, or how type families work
- A View of Latin Typography in Relationship to the World
- Jan van Toorn, Critical Practice
- In the Name Of the Father (or the troubles with L-caron)
- The history of History
- Methods of Distribution: Digital Fonts and the Global Market
- Méthodes de distribution : les caractères numériques sur le marché mondial
- Font hinting
- Beauty and Ugliness in Type design
- Conceptual Type?
- We don’t need new fonts…
- Julien — the making of
- Type design competitions
- Una mirada a la relación de la tipografía de origen latino con el mundo
- Métodos de distribución: Tipos digitales en el mercado global
- Irma Boom interview
- Lava — Voice of a Magazine
- Caratteri concettuali?
- About Uni Grotesk, a Central European geometric Sans
- Related Type Families
- Verwandte Schriftfamilien
- Designing Hebrew Type
- Notes on Designing and Producing the Typeface Wind
- A Brief History of Sans Serif typefaces