The Education of a Typographer

Typography is the single most important design element, and, therefore, the most consequential course that an undergraduate student can take. Then why do so many student portfolios reflect poor typographic skill? In a singular effort to raise the bar on type education, designer and teacher Steven Heller reached out to type-devoted educators across the United States and Europe. Drawing from hundreds of hours of collective teaching experience, they distilled proposals and working concepts that make for challenging courses without inflating the students’ schedules. In The Education of a Typographer, editor Heller presents forty-one approaches to laying the foundation for typographic fluency.

“If students do not receive rigorous instruction before they earn their undergraduate diploma, they will rarely improve on the job except when placed under the tutelage of a real type maven,” Heller observes.

The texts compiled in The Education of a Typographer consist of essays and course syllabi from a diverse and prominent roster of contributors, including Art Chantry, Allan Haley, Terry Irwin, Huub Koch, Stefan Sagmeister, and Teal Triggs. Their comments on core concerns of typography, rules and regulations, typographic history, and digital literacy illuminate the integral relationship between sound typographic education and high-level design work.

True knowledge derives from knowing how to see … – Essay by Huub Koch

Typography is a craft with its own set of rules, limits and values, which belong to tradition, to the present and … to the future.

Typography is not art, but it certainly is an art. Once you understand the difference you are ready to practice the discipline as a philosophy in action.

A knowledge of good design principles, history and its implications, contributes to your appetite. Such knowledge serves as a starter, not as the main menu.

True knowledge is derived from knowing how to see, learn, love, play, act and share. It can transform serious business into joyous business.

Typography is used to communicate with others, but in order to do so we first have to learn to communicate with ourselves. This ability becomes an attitude by learning how to ask questions. If such questions are absent there will be no progression.

To be an allround human being is more important than to be a designer, but sometimes it helps.

As long as your client asks you ‘What does this seduction scene on the cover has to do with the fine art of fondue cooking?’ you might have missed the point, or need another client.

Graphic design is a path that unfolds by making decisions on a white sheet of paper. Don’t think too much, it’s all about gut feeling.

We need exercise as an experience, because it teaches us in a natural way. We do things, make mistakes and improve by adjusting to reality and its demands. Please, relax and take your time. The deadline is only twenty minutes ahead.

It will take you three weeks to learn the art of optical letterspacing and get THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG just right. Tough lessons are always blessings in disguise. When the going gets tough, the tough get going and ready for surprise!

Practice does not leave much room for illusions.

Desktop publishing made designers aware that they need a basic understanding of typography … and … of projectmanagement, use of technology, collaboration and do business with real clients. Hmmm, You thought design was art?

New media gives you the power over all the tools of production. Designers had an advantage until now because they are visual and typographic literates. But the language of new media is rapidly becoming the territory of architects, artists, gamers, filmmakers, musicians and scientists. While growing out of its infancy it will become a whole new language. So where is the dictionary?

Education has its limits. It can never give you all the tools you need. Be open minded! Read books, meet people that seem to matter to you, go practice and take your chances!

The most mysterious part of design is ‘the interesting’. The interesting is hard to describe, but we know that if something has meaning for us it will also have meaning for others. That is why only the best is good enough, but what is best is dependant on goals and budget.

Styling is the use of a tone of voice that relates to people that live today in the language of today. Which does not mean that a designer should be fashionable or make l’art pour l’art.

Respect is the basic ingredient of collaboration, but it needs to be shared. In print you have to rely on the craftsmen you work with. Without a relationship they will only do ‘exactly’ what you want. That’s where most things go wrong. If they like you, and notice a mistake you made, they will help you out. Make friends by being one.

All disciplines of typography hold a challenge and their own rewards. Every challenge makes you perceive yourself and your expertise in a new way. It is better to regret to have taken a chance than to regret letting the opportunity go by.

98% of graphic design is trash. The other 2% is sanctioned into designersheaven. Ever talked about trash with your local trash collector? There is much more value in trash than you ever imagined. Trash is our natural environment. Be aware of that and once in a while: Go out and collect some trash! Get rich by becoming inspired and humane!

Nothing is fixed, everything must change, such is life. To be honest: There are no rules or prescriptions. The secret of typography is a question of manners. A way to behave yourself, to act proper and decent. Once learned it gives you access to all areas.

Duke Ellington was once asked if he rejected certain types of music. His response: Oh No, … its all music. I guess the same counts for type.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot improve the latter take up the first. Some people are specialists, while other are generalists. If you can join these forces nothing will stop you! If you can’t, nothing can stop you either! Just be who you are until the end.

Teaching typographic literacy is not an end in itself. There will always be a difference between theory and practice. In theory you develop a method, in practice you go beyond.

This essay is published as a contribution in the New Anthology of Steve Heller: The Education of a Typographer, published by Allworth Press May 2004. More information about the book!


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  1. Mijn werkdag begint met het vastleggen van de morgenstond zoals ik die verwelkom vanuit mijn kantoor.
    Vervolgens ga ik op zoek naar inspiratie. En die inspiratie is iedere dag weer anders. Vandaag is het deze zin. Een zin die zin geeft, zinnig is. Een heerlijke zin.

    True knowledge is derived from knowing how to see, learn, love, play, act and share. It can transform serious business into joyous business.

    De zin komt uit The Education of a Typographer, geschreven door Huub Koch.


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