Tutorial no. 4—Designing with Lettering

When I began teaching calligraphy in the evening program at the School of Visual Arts in 1980 I found my students feared and loathed type. Their attitude was shared by many designers. This stemmed from the way in which typography was taught at the time in design schools. Metal type and letterpress printing equipment had been chucked out of most American design schools in the late 1960s as part of the transformation of the profession from its roots in commercial art as well as from a belief that such material was no longer needed in the brave new world of phototypesetting and offset printing.

What replaced learning about typography by setting metal type in the stick was comping type by tracing it from specimen sheets. This meant tracing type 12 pt or smaller. Often type was simply greeked (by making marks vaguely suggesting letters but, ideally, not actually being readable as such) or just indicated by parallel lines at body height. Display type was either laboriously drawn (following the general look of Garamond, Caslon, Bodoni, Clarendon, et al) by pencil and then inked in; or rendered by transfer type (Letraset, Chartpak, Prestype, Mecanorma). The latter could be used for actual jobs but for text one had to spec type (e.g. Chelt Bold 10/12 x 20p -1 tracking FL, RR) for a type house to execute. Under such circumstances it is no wonder that designers preferred to avoid type when they became professionals.

As someone who has loved letters since childhood—in all of their glorious variety—I decided to do something about this situation by teaching a second course entitled “Designing with Letters”. The goal of the course was to convince designers that they could use letters as design elements instead of resigning themselves to balancing blocks of grey type matter against blocks of photos. The corollary was that they could learn to do this without having to become expert calligraphers or letterers. Good design was the principle goal, not good letters (at least not in the classical sense). The content of “Designing with Letters” was highly influenced by three books: Lettering as Drawing: Contour and Silhouette by Nicolete Gray (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), Letter and Image by Massin (New York: Studio Vista, 1970) and Love and Joy about Letters by Ben Shahn (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1963).

The 10-week course covered the following topics, in this order:

1. Line

2. Rhythm

3. Form (or Shape)

4. Negative Space

5. Pattern

6. Ornamentation (or Decoration)

7. Alteration

8. Color

The course was very successful—for a few years. I left SVA in 1985 and took the course with me to Parsons School of Design where it continued until 1990. But by then designers had begun to accept the computer and one of the side effects was that they had rediscovered type and its possibilities. They no longer had a need for my course. Since then I have covered the concepts from the course in several workshops in Italy (Milano and Asolo) and in the United States (San Francisco, San Diego and New York). In the next few weeks I plan to explore them in Blue Pencil tutorials.