Just Your Type: SVA Explores the Language of Letters

SVA's special Typography of Language summer program runs June 30–July 24.

SVA’s special Typography As Language summer program runs June 30–July 24.

In June, the School of Visual Arts will launch Typography As Language: Design, History and Practice, a special summer program created to teach designers across a range of disciplines about the powerful language of typography. At Superscript, we are fascinated by the written word—not only by its meaning, but also what its physical form can convey (anyone who’s ever gotten a letter written in Comic Sans MS knows what we mean). So we caught up with program coordinator and Superscript friend Angela Riechers to learn more about the course (@SVATypeLab), which is still accepting applications to fill a few final spots:

Superscript: What are the goals of the class? 

Angela Riechers: Over the course of the summer, each student will have designed a typeface (either from scratch or by adapting a historical face) and planned a specific end use for it. For instance, someone interested in movie titles will figure out what his or her typeface needs to look like, and how it needs to perform, and then present it as an animated opening sequence for a real or imagined film. Someone else might want to develop a hand-lettered font for websites, or environmental signage.

The program will develop skills in digital type design and hand lettering, examine the history of type, and address the need for new kinds of typographies as elements of contemporary language and narrative. Each week will have a different (amazing) instructor who will bring a slightly new shift in focus and information. Research, sketching, hand lettering, letterpress, and digital font construction will all be part of the broader mix.

SS: Tell us about the idea of using typography in contemporary storytelling. What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned in this field?

AR: The way a typeface looks communicates its own narrative independent of the words it is used to create and the meaning they impart. The letters are a set of coded ciphers that carry emotion and subtext, providing subtle hints to context and tone. In other words: we notice how the letters and words look, and draw inferences about the message they are conveying, long before we read and grasp the actual content. In the hands of a skilled typographer, someone who knows how to select and combine typefaces with wit and intelligence and understanding, a design becomes far more alluring and powerful. Good typography exponentially increases the ability to communicate content.

SS: What is the current state of typography? Are there certain themes that have come to light recently, and what are the major historical influences for typography today?

AR: The current state of type is extremely robust! Part of the reason this course is so well timed is that typography as a discipline/art /science is no longer contained in the specialized world of designers—it has entered the larger pop culture as a desirable and covetable attribute of taste and sophistication. People who are not designers now appreciate and notice typography, are conscious of typefaces, and want to have beautifully typeset things in their lives: their websites, blogs, business cards, wedding invitations. Imagine the movie Helvetica finding an appreciative general audience 15 years ago!

The main themes I’ve noticed are an amazing resurgence of handwritten lettering in commercial contexts, adaptations of beautiful historical fonts that modernize and streamline them for contemporary uses, and the availability of dimensional vector typefaces made up of layers that can be turned on and off and colored individually for extra inline or drop shadow effects. Redrawing fonts to deliver the same appearance on the web or screen device as they do in their print versions, with all the tweaks that entails, has become a really important part of typographic practice. From a historical point of view, I’d say a renewed appreciation of the vernacular (boxing posters, chalkboards, ghost signs) is very popular at the moment: suddenly we all crave letterforms that convey some sense of time passing and of history, of human hand and craft, not just alphabets made up solely of vector lines and points.

SS: You have to design and name a new typeface right now: what is it called, and why?

AR: I would name it Influence, because the best new typefaces I see lately draw upon such a wide pool of visual references, throw them in the blender and come up with something entirely new and fabulous that still has a firm grounding in history. I like that idea very much.