Typography and Communication – John Patrick Hartnett

Typography is something I have never been interested by and something I dread when it comes up as a topic; probably not an ideal line of thinking if I’m going to be a graphic designer, but forcing myself into the lecture made me a lot less sceptical of the subject.

Prior to John Patrick Hartnett’s lecture, I read several pages from Robert Bringhurst’s ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’ – 1992. This book explains the coherence of type to content, stressing the importance of using relevant type to get the text’s message across. Bringhurst explains the origins and contextualises typography whilst contrasting it to other art forms. Compared to some of the other readings in this lecture series, I found this book quite repetitive, with only a couple of interesting concepts which seemed to be brought back up over and over again. Bringhurst constantly uses the analogy of typography to literature being the same as musical performance to composition, suggesting that both are “an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness”. More compelling, he recounts “Letterforms that honour and elucidate what humans say deserve to be honoured in their turn. Well-chosen words deserve  well chosen letters.” this translates as the typographer needing to respect the text, to reflect and pay attention to the context of the writing.

What is typography?
Hartnett presented us with several definitions for ‘typography’.
– “A craft that’s been practiced since Coutenberg’s invention of moveable type”
– “Concerned with determination of appearance of the printed page”
– “The art and craft / process of composing type and printing from it” – Colins English Dictionary, this definition suggests that there was no typography before the mid 15th century, and that digital letters aren’t a form of typography either.
– “Typography is writing with pre-fabricated letters” – Gerrit Noordzij, this definition doesn’t connect typography to any specific medium and therefore makes it a more accurate description.

Other definitions I have found suggest typography to be:
– “The art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable and beautiful”
– “The style and appearance of printed matter, the art or procedure of arranging type or processing data and printing from it.”
In his book, Bringhurst explains typography as “the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence.”.

Examples of where typography has followed Bringhurst’s ideas can be seen in ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, 2006. McCarthy uses a certain way of setting dialogue in this novel about a man and son hopelessly travelling after an unspecified disaster hits Earth. He believes speech marks to be superfluous and therefore eliminates them from the text, and the result is arguably much easier to read and interpret.

Extract from ‘The Road’.

We then looked at conflicts in typography, ‘righter’ and ‘wronger’ approaches.

One of the most notable conflicts was between Jan Tschichold and Max Bill. In a published debate, we see Tschichold turn his back on his previous theories about typography to become a modernist. Bill believed in and had followed Tschichold’s work and was disappointed by his actions, creating the reason for the debate.
Wim Crouwd and Jan van Toorn, in the 1970s also had an intense discussion about the role of the designer, linking back to Andrew Slatter’s lecture about designers today conveying their own message through their work rather than designing for something already thought up.

Hartnett then showed us a range of significant examples and uses of typography in the past, listed in my notes below.
Scannable Document Scannable Document 2

The one I found most interesting, was the typographic poster Lucio Fontana’s ‘Spatial Concept: Expectations.’, 1964. Fontana’s work is shown below, he was famous for slashing canvases…

The poster for this was created by AG Fronzoni, and there was a divide in its reciprocation, some argued it destroyed the piece, whilst others suggested it added to the artwork. I personally think it’s a really clever way of presenting the piece, however as a poster it possibly reveals too much as it is very literal, a typographic copy. ag-fronzoni

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