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NEWS · December 3, 2008

On the Road

Talking about drawing…

I think Ben Shahn spoke for many artists and designers when he said, “I am a painter. I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my chosen role to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”

But what artist or designer can resist the chance ramble on about their work?

I can’t. In October, I gave a talk at Design Fest 2008 in Guadalajara, México. Then in November, I spoke at Northeastern University in Boston. Same talk, different language. It was a nice break from routine.

Still, trying to express ideas as words instead of images is difficult for me. In preparing (or searching for hints about what I should say), I came across this quote from Matisse: “I don’t paint things. I only paint the difference between things.”

I love this statement. Matisse was obviously not talking about type design. Nevertheless, in just a few words, he summarizes type design’s critical element: the trick of getting all the letters to appear that they belong together as a group, while remaining identifiable as themselves. This is the balancing act that runs through any typeface. How do you do it? The secret is you don’t draw the letters, you draw the differences between them. You draw what makes an ‘a’ different from a ‘b’.

So perhaps a typeface is not a collection of thousands of tiny drawings. Maybe a good typeface is, in fact, just one big drawing.

Matisse’s idea “don’t paint things” also reminds me of the importance of negative space. As any experienced typographer knows, when setting type or drawing letters, the space between is where the action’s at. I think Matisse would have appreciated this way of thinking about letter forms. Maybe I am stretching his words too far but I have often found my favorite insights about typography come from non-typographic sources.

But wait, there’s more!

In Guadalajara, I also did a short workshop called The Eleventh Digit (or El Onceavo Dígito). The basic idea for the workshop came from my old friend Chris Vermaas, a teacher and graphic designer based in Amsterdam who collaborates with his wife Chin Lien-Chen as the OfficeOfCC. They are so cool they don’t even have a website I can link to.

The workshop’s exercise is to invent a new digit. The new digit must be visually compatible with the existing ten digits (0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9) but it also must be distinct from any existing letter, number, or symbol. It is a challenge. Students often doubt that it is possible at the beginning.

The first test is to see how well the eleventh digit survives when written as part of a phone number on a bar napkin. (Does anyone even write phone numbers on bar napkins anymore?) Either way, it is good test because it forces you to think about how they way we write influences the structure of a glyph.

Then, the students dress up their basic structures as different typefaces. We might try calligraphic versions, bitmap versions, or whatever typeface I happen to be interested in looking at. Some structures work well in any style, others need to be adapted. The most successful new digits are those that can wear anything and still look good.

The goal is to get students looking at letter forms with sharper eyes, and to think about the difference between the design of a glyph as it appears in a specific typeface and the basic structure of that glyph.

I’ve done this workshop with many different groups of students. Some solutions are repeated each time. This is to be expected given the limits they have to work within. However, there’s also always something I haven’t seen before, that keeps it interesting.


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