|From a very early age we are introduced to a specific Visual code,
a set of signs that is fundamental to our way of life and our ability to
communicate with each other.
We quickly learn to recognise the individual signs within this code
– a series of abstract shapes we call letters, the building blocks of
written language, that once learned, are never forgotten. Like so
many things that are essential elements within our daily life, we do
not often stop to consider the remarkable nature of these graphic
marks and the way they function. We do not notice that they are, in
effect, a sort of symbolic translation, a language of communication
between receptive senses – the auditory and the visual. The
existence of letters, and the written language that succeeds them,
is testimony to the unique human capacity to devise codified
systems that convert signals detectable through one sense into signs
detectable through another. Turning sounds into visual signs. It is
in this sense that letters are abstract as their visual form bears no
relation to the sounds they represent – the sound of an ‘A’ has no
visual form other than the constructed one we have chosen to give it.
Although we first learn these signs as individual line combinations,
we also learn to recognise them as shapes, which is why we are
able to look at a twisted piece of wood or a common household
object and see an ‘S’ or a ‘B’. In a formal visual sense, letters are
remarkably simple but like any commonly shared system of signs,
there has to be a set of agreed rules governing their structure.
Without these rules of course, shared recognition and understanding
would be impossible and the code would not function.
Over the years experiments have been made by typographers,
both playfully and academically, that test the relationship between
the visual construction of letterforms and our ability to recognise
them. Some of these experiments have involved eliminating different
parts of letters in order to discover at what point recognition fails.
A capital ‘A’ for example, consists of two diagonal lines of equal
length that are connected at the top, together with a horizontal
line that intersects both of these lines halfway down their height.
Recognition of the capital ‘A’ for example, can survive the
absence of the crossbar within the system as a whole but if the
two diagonal lines do not connect at the top, the understanding
is lost. Even with the crossbar present, the absence of the
connecting lines immediately suggests another letter, the ‘H’. In
comparison, the distance between the two vertical lines on the
‘H’ is quite flexible, it can be narrow or wide, but the removal
of the crossbar destroys its recognition factor completely.
In 1991 the English designer Phil Baines created a typeface entitled
Can You (Read Me), for the experimental type project Fuse, in
which he showed that it is possible for modified letterforms to
retain varying degrees of legibility. But because letters are already
simplified marks, attempts at further simplification, making the
differences between them even more subtle, make the work of
distinction between them harder. The principle problem however,
with reading such modified letters is our lack of familiarity with
them. There is no reason why an alternative set of graphic signs
could not function as letters – all we have to do is learn them.
Ultimately, what experiments like Can You (Read Me) demonstrate
is how good we are at accounting for missing parts, how the eye
learns to fill in the gaps and how our brain connects points in space
to form shapes, in the way we connect stars in the night sky.
Letters themselves though, are only a part of the system. The
creation of meaning in language does not reside in the sign alone
but more acutely in the arrangement of the signs and the context in
which they appear. Despite the simplicity of letter forms and the very
small degree of visual modification possible in their basic structure,
the diversity of visual treatment to which they are subjected is truly
remarkable. In our normal everyday encounters with letters we find
them reproduced in hundreds, probably thousands of different
ways; in two and three dimensions, static or in motion, in film titles
and computer screens, in every possible colour, on paper, in wood,
metal, stone, plastic, fabric, neon tube, in short, every material one
can think of. They come thin and fat, angular and rounded, with and
without ornaments, with stroke endings (serifs) or plain, full-bodied
or in outline, in ancient script or modern digital style, as handwriting
or stencil form. And all of these visual styles, materials and contexts
in which they are reproduced affect the way we relate to them. They
affect what meaning and significance we give to the words they spell
out, to the sentiments they illicit and the responses they provoke.
The same word using the same letters reproduced in different
styles can change our interpretation of what is being signified.
The visual style and formal characteristics of the written word are what
intonation, tone of voice and regional accent are to the spoken word. They allow
letter forms to express physical and emotional qualities, making it possible
to choose letter styles to reinforce certain meanings and feelings... Or not.
Adjectives are easily understood words whose meaning is usually
straightforward. Titles and names on the other hand often contain more complex
meanings and associations related to their subjects. As a consequence, some
letter styles seem strangely inappropriate, failing to match content to form.
An ordinary traffic sign such as a ‘STOP’ sign has certain
characteristics that we are familiar with. The red background uses
the common Western colour association with danger but the style of
lettering is also significant. The ‘STOP’ sign is an instruction and the
letter form, reflecting this, is in a plain, bold, strong style. Were the
regulating authority (in a moment of aberration perhaps) to suddenly
adopt a florid script style instead, we would be surprised not simply
because it would be unfamiliar but also because we might be led
to believe that the instruction had now become a polite request.
A name plate outside a building displaying the engraved words
‘B. A. Robinson D.D.S, Dental Surgeon’, supplies us with information
in a way that fails to disturb our expectations. However, the exact
same words hand-painted on a crude wooden board fixed to the
wall would undoubtedly catch our attention, raising doubts about
the professionalism we might encounter inside. If the same words
were displayed in flashing neon lettering above the door, our
expectations would again be challenged, albeit in a different way.
If the handmade dentist sign makes us doubt the professionalism of the dentsist,
in the example below the situation is reversed as we are unlikely to believe that
the hands that make the cakes are the hands that made the top sign.
For graphic designers, this rich and diverse lexicon of styles
and treatments opens up a wonderful world of opportunities.
It is also proof of the collective ability to navigate and decipher
extremely varied visual representations of a common sign
system, and evidence that ‘the audience’ is often far more
versatile in it’s reading capabilities than some design clients
seem to believe. In addition to the creative visual possibilities
that letter forms allow it also means that conceptually, designers
can play with the meanings associated with certain letter
styles and treatments, reinforcing or subverting messages.
However, it’s important to recognise that the use of letters in our day
to day is not confined to the institutional or the commercial (nor to
the often referenced example of graffiti). Everybody uses letters, not
just professional designers, and that’s where the richness and variety
of their forms and contexts comes from. It’s with a touch of sadness
perhaps, to notice that with the spread of personal computers,
it becomes harder and harder to find the individual, hand-made,
‘vernacular’ examples of applied letters such as shop signs and
street notices. Shop-keepers who may have once employed craftbased
sign painters now order digitally printed signs and sellers
who may have once made their own notices mostly use A4 sheets
of paper printed on the domestic inkjet printer using standardised
fonts (often of a ‘happy’ variety) and ‘cute’ easily available clip-art
drawings and cartoons. But although the hand-made examples, with
all their idiosyncrasies, may be fewer, the quantity and variety that
surrounds us and their potential for expression is still enormous.
This exhibition is a celebration of that rich and plentiful diversity. The
photographs displayed on the panels are the work of communication
design students at the Escola Superior de Artes e Design (ESAD)
resulting from an Introduction to Typography project that I initiated
there as a teacher and that my colleague João Martino has
since continued. The invitation that is made to the students, and
that is now made here, is to look around and take stock of an
extraordinary visual vocabulary in our daily lives which is both a
creative tool and an invaluable contribution to our cultural heritage.
Andrew Howard, curator.