Just saw this on Jonathan Barnbrook’s twitter last night:

Typography is never just about legibility or aesthetics for that matter. It is first and foremost the expression of language and contains everything; seduction, violence, beauty, ugliness, the conceptual and the aesthetic. Drawing a typeface is a collage all of things in a visual form.

It is intimately connected with ‘truth’; with religion, government, protest, gender and race identity. To not acknowledge these is to not understand its true role in society: the unconscious messages your work gives out and what a complex task it is to draw a typeface.

In the Fuse lecture last week we talked of moving away from legible letterforms but it’s that tension to the legible model that is exciting. We can play with history, recognition and bring in other visual forms like architecture, abstraction or common symbolism in relation to it.

Many typographers talk about loving letterforms but never mention language. You have to ‘feel’ the nuances, double meanings, contradictions of language to be able to draw mature letterforms which can be used for the many voices of thought expressed as written text.

For typography and typeface design, illegibility is as much a technique as legibility. To whisper is as important as to shout and to leave things open for meaning to be created is as important as stating things explicitly. It is a more realistic and honest way to work.

Gill once said “Letters are things, not pictures of things”. For me nowadays they are both, objects themselves connected with the world but also a complex collage of historical, social and wide ranging visual references which I believe people in today’s society absolutely understand.

It’s a really interesting viewpoint, and not one that we hear often enough. ‘Serious’ type designers always go on about legibility, but not everything needs to be explicit all the time, especially when trying to engage the viewer/reader. What’s wrong with a bit of struggle, some pushing and pulling between the viewer and maker? Why does everything have to be handed over on a platter? And why doesn’t ANYONE talk about language? It’s the gel that holds all that we do together, whether written, visual or other.

Letters are usually invisible to whoever is reading them, but the fact that they are around is a comfort. What if all the letters disappeared? What if you were in a place with no typography around you? Imagine the discomfort, disorientation and alienation this would cause most people.

Letters are a huge deal. They make our lives easier. BUT, they could also be used to force us to spend more time engaging with things that matter. Nobody is ever really conscious of what they are doing anymore, they simply do it and it’s done. What if we paid more attention? What if we slowed down? Typography has that power, unfortunately it’s rarely put to use.


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