Princeton University
Visual Arts Program
VIS 215, T-y-p-o-g-r-a-p-h-y
Mondays, 1:30–4:20 pm
Fall 2023
This studio course introduces students to graphic design with a particular emphasis on typography. Students learn typographic history through lectures that highlight major shifts in print technologies. Class readings provide the raw material for a sequence of hands-on typesetting exercises which punctuate the class weekly. Metal letterpess typesetting, photo-typesetting, and digital typesetting will be covered through online demonstration sessions. This semester online, the class will also further explore the typographic future by engaging and designing novel electronic text entry interfaces and decoding a fictional alien typography.
Print syllabus / Download readings
Let's start in the middle:
"I have an idea as to how we can make faster progress," I said. "But you'll have to approve the use of more equipment."
"What more do you need?"
"A digital camera, and a big video screen." I showed him a drawing of the setup I imagined. "I want to try conducting the discovery procedure using writing; I'd display words on the screen, and use the camera to record the words they write. I'm hoping the heptapods will do the same."
Digital camera and a big video screen — reminds me of Zoom times and makes me happy we don’t meet each other that way. It’s actually science fiction: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. It’s brief and complicated. It’s visual. It’s even typographical. You might already know the plot from its film adaptation in 2016 starring Amy Adams and Forest Whitaker, Arrival. Meanwhile, our story continues.
Weber looked at the drawing dubiously. "What would be the advantage of that?"
"So far I've been proceeding the way I would with speakers of an unwritten language. Then it occurred to me that the heptapods must have writing, too."
"If the heptapods have a mechanical way of producing writing, then their writing ought to be very regular, very consistent. That would make it easier for us to identify graphemes instead of phonemes. It's like picking out the letters in a printed sentence instead of trying to hear them when the sentence is spoken aloud."
"I take your point," he admitted. "And how would you respond to them? Show them the words they displayed to you?"
“Graphemes”? “Phonemes”? Sounds like typography to me. And in fact it is—the story proceeds as a kind of typographic detective story, but instead of whodunnit, this one’s a howdtheydoit. We find out quickly enough that the Heptapods do indeed have a writing system and they also have a spoken language. Here’s a scene from early in the film version when Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) first witnesses the strange handwriting:

She also records their extraterrestrial voices, and deduces a way to proceed based on a correlation between the two.
"Basically. And if they put spaces between words, any sentences we write would be a lot more intelligible than any spoken sentence we might splice together from recordings."
He leaned back in his chair. "You know we want to show as little of our technology as possible."
"I understand, but we're using machines as intermediaries already. If we can get them to use writing, I believe progress will go much faster than if we're restricted to the sound spectrographs."
The colonel turned to Gary. "Your opinion?"
"It sounds like a good idea to me. I'm curious whether the heptapods might have difficulty reading our monitors. Their looking glasses are based on a completely different technology than our video screens. As far as we can tell, they don't use pixels or scan lines, and they don't refresh on a frame-by-frame basis."
This is an imaginary, or anyway, *conjured* set of digits produced by harnessing a neural network to a large database of handwritten numbers.

The glyphs above were never written, but rather they’ve been inferred by a computer program trained to the task. This is also typography. It is also almost science-fiction, though of course its already ready now. Some of you may even know how to do it. You can read a bit more about this project here. And meanwhile, back to the story.
"You think the scan lines on our video screens might render them unreadable to the heptapods?"
"It's possible," said Gary. "We'll just have to try it and see."
Continues in class . . .
September 18, 2023

A-Man-of-Letters.pdf (Oliver Sacks)
Charlottes-Web.pdf (E.B. White)

Type Rubric
Music for to Set Type By
More Music to Set Type By

Peter Kazantsev
Typography has something of a split personality—it’s both the technical act of writing words into the world by giving them form, and it’s also a way of understanding the world through the forms of its writing. Designer Paul Elliman describes this two-way street concisely:
Writing gives the impression of things. Conversely, things can give the impression of writing.
I’d suggest this reading and writing at the same time, or typography, is the root level skill of graphic design, and I’d like to talk about typography as something that joins reading and writing. Three modes of production will be presented in chronological order as a compressed reenactment of 500 years of typographic tradition, each one revolving around a particular technology: metal typesetting, phototypesetting, and digital typesetting. 
The idea is to learn something about typography and therefore graphic design by practicing it, and along the way to understand how typographic techniques have changed over time in order to develop a nuanced facility in using the current digital tools. 
We’re going to start with Albrecht Dürer: painter, engraver, mathematician, goldsmith. He lived in Nuremberg and was a leading protagonist of the Northern Renaissance. I would also certainly call him a designer. This is Melancholia I, a print from 1514.

Movable-type printing had been introduced in Germany only 75 years earlier. It had already existed in China for 400 years, invented by Bi Sheng in the Northern Song Dynasty around 1040 A.D. In Dürer's Europe, the production of typeset pages in multiple copies was still new, but as an engraver of metal printing plates Dürer was familiar with the process. This image has been reproduced many times and discussed, dissected, and deconstructed. What I like about it is something simple—it depicts a figure sitting still, kind of stymied. 
September 25, 2023
A Pair of Postmasters

Apology-for-Printers.pdf (Benjamin Franklin)
The-Crystal-Goblet.pdf (Beatrice Warde)

Mechanick Exercises
Several Fonts of Type
Beatrice Warde on Type Radio

Peter Kazantsev
As it turns out, the day I wrote this was Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday. Writer, typographer, printer, publisher, politician, inventor, statesman, gentleman scientist, linguist, librarian, and the first Postmaster General of the United States, Franklin was the consummate networker. Distributing his ideas far and wide through a dizzying range of practices, he established a network of printing franchises by sending former apprentices to set up shop in new towns and collecting dues. He traveled extensively to London and to the courts of France, fostering alliances that helped form a nation. He wrote incisive arguments and entertainments under a  constellation of pseudonyms including the Casuist, Silence Dogood, Busy-Body, Poor Richard, and J. T. to suit the purpose at hand. He advocated for a paper currency to facilitate the liberal distribution of goods and services while he was also a printer and so stood to make money by printing the paper currency which he lobbied for! He was often working both sides of the equation and I think this compromised quality is what I like about this familiar engraving—his almost-smirk.

He published a weekly newspaper, an occasional magazine, and the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack. Along the way, Franklin pursued his polymathic interests, inventing (a partial list): the medical catheter, the armonica (a musical instrument), a phonetic alphabet, the circulating stove, swim fins, binoculars, and the lightning rod. He founded the first public lending library, a volunteer fire department, the American Philosophical Society, a university, and was the first Postmaster General of the United States. He was a committed generalist.
. . .
Beatrice Warde also used her frontline position in typography as a gateway to injecting her voice into a wider conversation through her writing. 

Warde was born in New York City in 1900. Her father was an experimental musician from Germany who developed a chromatic alphabet. Her mother was May Lamberton Becker, a columnist at the New York Herald Tribune at the turn of the 20th century. Beatrice was often involved in  her mother’s work at the Herald Tribune, so she had an early appreciation for letters, for typography, for writing, and for editing. 
After homeschooling until age twelve, Warde was sent to Horace Mann School, a progressive academy in New York City. She whizzed through her classes in Greek and Latin, everyday skills, and public service. She graduated in two years. From Horace Mann she went to Barnard College, which was a part of Columbia University. There she studied English, French, Latin, writing, and philosophy, among other subjects. Warde was something of a prodigy. 
Continues in class . . .
October 2, 2023
Farewell Etoin Shrdlu

Elements-of-Typographic-Style.pdf (Robert Bringhurst)


Peter Kazantsev
Phototypesetting was always a transitional technology between metal and digital typesetting. It evolved through several stages, none of which ever really stuck. Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu, a film directed by David Loeb Weiss, captures one moment in this transition by chronicling the last day of metal typesetting at the New York Times on July 2, 1978. The Times was moving away from Linotype machines and on to the next level of typographic automation, where a new system used a hybrid of computerized storage and photographic reproduction techniques to set all the words in the daily newspaper. 

The film was shot entirely in the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan, where production was vertically integrated, in this case lit­erally, as a series of stacked basements and sub-basements where type­setting, printing, bundling, and even distribution were handled. 
Daily production started from the editorial staff on the top floor and proceeded from one level down to the next, ending with delivery trucks pulling up to a loading dock and carting away bound papers for distribution. 

It’s useful to think about what these technical changes allowed for the distribution of news. What resulted from being able to set the paper so much more quickly? More editions per day? More money for reporting? Perhaps a rearrangement of physical space? Or more resources for long articles and also a broader range of quick-hit stories? Shifts in typographic technology inevitably provoke deep changes in what can be said, how it is printed, and what effects these printed words have in the world.

The film is approximately 30 minutes. It is narrated by veteran Linotype operator Carl Schlesinger. 
Continues in class . . .
October 9, 2023
Raytracing, or Alphabets of Light

The-New-Typography.pdf (László Moholy-Nagy)

László Moholy-Nagy was a Hungarian artist, designer, writer, and teacher. He worked in Germany, England, and the United States. This portrait from 1926 maybe reveals something of Moholy’s disposition. He’s wearing a workman’s jumpsuit over a dress shirt and tie, looking like a hybrid worker-technocrat. He oriented himself more as a designer than an artist, although the distinction was fuzzy. He looks rather austere, but wasn’t—his friends called him “Holy Mahogany.” 
Moholy was interested in photography. It was relatively new at the time and he recognized it as a contemporary way to make images. His photographic experiments often pushed at the edges of the medium. He exaggerated perspective and used unexpected vantage points to abstract the subjects he shot. He cut up prints and assembled collages. He gathered images into composites. And he made photograms. Here are two: 

Photograms are images made directly from, or, in fact, by, an object. The object is placed directly on photo-sensitive paper and then the paper is exposed to light. The result is a contact print, a kind of light tracing. You might think of a photogram as seeing through an object to its essence. There’s a one-to-one directness to the print, where the object is reproduced at the same scale as the image made of it. The process is immediate and the result has an equally urgent quality. It is not dissimilar from printing. 
American artist Man Ray developed the technique around the same time and he called them “rayographs.” Man Ray was born as Emmanuel Radnitzky, a Russian Jewish boy from South Philadelphia. He found his way to Paris, and made art. Lots of it. So, for example this is one of his photograms on the left. But he made many things other than rayographs, including poetry and even typography. I love this poster on the right which Man Ray designed for The London Underground in 1932, which seems to pick up a sentence mid-thought. It’s not a photogram, but who cares, it has something of that quality.

And even a good century before, British botanist Anna Atkins produced an extraordinary collection of photograms made with sunlight as cyanotypes of the different types of algae. These pictures were meant as an inventory of algae varieties found in England where they accompanied a text in what has been claimed as the first photographic book, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843).

Continues in class . . .
October 23, 2023
The repetition problem

Handbook-of-Regular-Patterns.pdf (Peter S. Stevens)

Philip Ording
Anna Osler Shepard (1903–1973) was a sociology and anthropology major with a minor in philosophy. After she graduated from the University of Nebraska, she worked as curator of ethnography at the San Diego Museum of Man. Between 1930 and 1965 she studied optical crystallography, chemistry, physics, mathematics, micro chemical spectroscopy at Claremont College, NYU, MIT, Univ. of Kansas, and Univ. of Colorado. Her most lasting work, on “the petrographic analysis of pottery,” was conducted as geologist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. 

She brought her unconventional training to bear on one of the first applications of crystallographic ideas to anthropology in The Symmetry of Abstract Design with Special Reference to Ceramic Decoration (1948). She asked,
What, if any, characteristics are common to all decorative art, what features are most subject to change, how are new elements assimilated and decorative ideas evolved, and in what ways do artistic standards vary from time to time.
Anthropologist Dorothy Washburn and mathematician Donald Crowe explain the role of symmetry in Shepard’s analysis in “Symmetries of Culture”:
Shepard presents the seven classes of one-dimensional infinite design, describes how to classify patterns with alternating motifs, and discusses at length situations where symmetries may be irregular. Her discussion of pattern design from different cultures highlights how certain symmetries predominate, and how changes within a culture can be pinpointed by symmetry analysis.

Peter S. Stevens, a working architect at Harvard University, prepared a combination of his own in Handbook of Regular Patterns: An Introduction to Symmetry in Two Dimensions published with MIT Press in 1980. 

In the preface, he described the problem as a disconnect between the elegant mathematical pattern identification system used by chemists and crystallographers, and the repetitive designs collected in visual sourcebooks for artists and designers. He writes,
This work attempts a synthesIs of the two perspectives. It Is an encyclopedia, a reference handbook, of repetitive designs organized in accord with established crystallographic notions of symmetry and symmetry operations.
We are happy to be joined by Phillip Ording, professor of mathematics at Sarah Lawrence College, who will lead us through this fascinating, if a bit repetitive, material.
Continues in class . . . 
October 30, 2023
This stands as a sketch for the future.

Visible-Wisdom.pdf (Janet Abrams)

The New Graphic Languages.txt
What follows is a work in progress, the product of one year at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies tracing the legacy of graphic designer Muriel Cooper. It’s organized as a guided tour of various sites on the campus of MIT, attempting to track 40 years of Cooper’s work across different departments within the university. 

Muriel Cooper always sought more responsive systems of design and production, emphasizing quicker feedback loops between thinking and making, often blurring the distinction between the two. OK, let’s go ahead and get started. 
1. An accidental archive at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies 
We begin in a locked closet housing a collection of posters, documents, videotapes, and related printed matter which forms a de facto archive of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Embarking on a client-design relationship with the Center, I arrived in Cambridge to spend a few days going through the archive and examining its contents.
The Center for Advanced Visual studies was set up in 1967 by György Kepes as a fellowship program for artists. Initiated with considerable institutional and financial support, the Center produced artworks, exhibitions, and public programs that were often accompanied by a poster or publication. These posters provide an immediate, condensed, and visually legible accidental archive of its almost four-decade history.

While working my way through the contents of the closet, I was struck immediately by the surface qualities of this extraordinary set of posters. It was not simply the graphic design nor the typography that caught me—rather it was their mode of production. The design of the posters changed sporadically as new designers or administrators appeared, but what remains the same is the way each self-consciously incorporates its production method into the design. 
Continues in class . . . 
At the American Institute of Architects national conference in 1973, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville described her search:
I have begun to try to find an answer for myself as a woman designer. Designers must work in two ways. We must create visual and physical designs which project social forms but simultaneously we must create the social forms which will demand new visual and physical manifestations.
A printed version of her talk soon appeared under the title A Reexamination of Some Aspects of the Design Arts from the Perspective of a Woman Designer, published together with her students’ [↓] work in British design journal Icographic 6.

These were students in The Women’s Design Program at the California Institute of the Arts, a newly established program in a newly established art school which de Bretteville was instrumental in founding. The Women’s Design Program was meant to foster collective investigation between students and faculty. It was non-hierarchical, exploratory, participatory — a clearly distinct approach from the top-down knowledge transfer of more conventional teaching. And one that is neatly inline with de Bretteville’s call above. The two-sided model she suggests is powerful, recognizing that *how* design work gets done can carry as much meaning as *what* results.
On returning from Italy in 1969 after working with Olivetti, de Bretteville moved to Los Angeles to be involved in the formation of the new school. She was hired to design the printed materials to attract a new kind of student. She also edited an issue of Arts in Society. The issue has a wonderfully predictive subtitle, setting the stage for what’s to come. Again, the community, the setup, is as important as whatever teaching might happen there.
Not long after beginning to teach at CalArts, de Bretteville joined with fellow art faculty Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven to form a new offshoot, independent program they named the Feminist Studio Workshop. The initial brochure usefully repeats a picture of the three founding women together, each taking turns facing the camera. Here is the one with Sheila facing forward [↓].

The Feminist Studio Workshop met first in de Bretteville’s home, and soon was housed in the the Woman's Building, a collective site west of downtown Los Angeles. Here is a “video letter” from a participant who describes the setup. Again, the way the work gets done is what matters. 
Continues in class . . .
The message came from about halfway around the world, from some friends I met last summer who were now busy organizing a large group of people. They use, almost exclusively, secure messaging. Telegram specifically.

Telegram was introduced as a simple messaging service and as an alternative to the standard iOS or android messaging apps. It is not owned by any social network, though it is in direct competition with WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. It’s encrypted. Every message along its entire route is unreadable, by both the servers that touch it, and also by any of the intermediate software that routes the message from one place to the other. Public-private secure key pairs at either side of the transmission between trusted users encode and then decode the message only at the sender and receiver end so there's no data capture possible en route.
I tapped the first three letters into the omnipresent search bar on my Team 6AC:
“w-a-t . . . ”
Software took over and finished my thought, soon searching the Internet for "water": 
Water, a substance composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen and existing in gaseous, liquid, and solid states. It is one of the most plentiful and essential of compounds. A tasteless and odorless liquid at room temperature, it has the important ability to dissolve many other substances. Density: 997 kg/m³ Boiling point: 212°tF (100°C) Molar mass: 18.01528 g/mol Melting point: 32°F (0°C) Formula: H2O
I recalled the water writers I'd seen about eight years ago in Jingshan Park in Beijing, right next to the Forbidden City. They were mostly older men but not exclusively. One woman I remembered in particular because she held brushes in both hands and wrote two columns of mirrored calligraphy at the same time.
Water calligraphy, better known as Ground Writing or 地书 (Pinyin “Dishu”) in Chinese, appeared at the start of the 1980s in Beijing. This was around the time of the “Reform and Opening Up” policy and since then ground writing has spread to public parks all over China. The calligraphers write poetry, mostly short traditional verse. Most of them are retired. One 79-year-old described to me,
“This is just for fun! You have to do something when you get old right?” 
They use homemade brushes fashioned from broomsticks and hand-cut brushes made from sponges, rags, mops, whatever they can find. They write directly on the ground, in public space. Since it is written in water not ink, it is explicitly ephemeral.

On this day in Jingshan Park, there were about five writers positioned with a graceful distance between them. I was fascinated by the ritualized order in which the strokes that define any character were drawn. I later understood that stroke order is essential in Chinese writing—a different order would suggest a different character. Nearby, newspapers hung for public reading. The proximity, even overlap, of reading and writing in this public space made a strong impression on me and I recalled the story of British Romantic poet John Keats who died young and asked to be buried in an unidentified grave marked only by the epitaph:
Here lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water. 
All writing should be done like that. Carefully. Temporarily. In public.
Continues in class . . .
Neeta Patel wrote this around the end of her senior year for a day in the near future:
you are about to begin listening to the annual class day speech. relax. concentrate. you are graduating from princeton university tomorrow, eleven am. dispel every other thought. let the world around you fade. best to close your eyes. for once this long weekend, allow yourself to see absolutely nothing but the after image of the back of that kid’s head in front of you. just listen now. are your eyes closed yet?
The text marks more than a passing resemblance to one written by Italo Calvino. Published in English with a stunningly self-aware cover in 1982, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a book of beginnings.

Wikipedia calls it a “frame story”—frankly a new term for me where the narrative is about the reader trying to read the story. It’s no surprise that Neeta's text finds that form as she had spent the previous summer trsanscribing Calvino's novel into a series of notebooks in her own, rather specific, handwriting. Her pages were eventually scanned and reprinted in a series of facsimile editions. A page of her book looked like this:

Anyway, back to her speech, which continues:
find the most comfortable position: seated with your feet firmly on the ground, or maybe you prefer them crossed. left over right or right over left? arms folded across your chest. or maybe you’d rather your hands folded in your lap. put them on your head if you like. careful, don’t hit your neighbors with your elbows. apologize if you do. there. maybe scoot down in your chair, lean back a slight bit. is that better? alright, you know best. of course, the ideal position for the next five minutes is somethingyou may never find. take off your shoes, if that helps. 
it’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular speech. you’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. there are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from college. 
She (finally) reveals a bit more context:
you cast a perplexed look to the person sitting next to you (or, rather: it was she who looked at you, with the amused expression of someone who cannot believe that this is the chosen class day speech she’s being forced to listen to, only to forget the words in a few minutes’ time). 
are you disappointed? let’s see. perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work. but then you goon and you realize that the speech is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the unexpected speaker, it’s the work in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is. because the truth of the matter is that when you know where you’re going, you turn into a piece of stupid concrete. 
Reading here, you are getting only a slim portion of the actual effect. The text was typeset in Neeta's handwriting, like so.

A point she unpacks next.
allow me to recount to you a brief story of an alphabet that might help make this right now a little more concrete. this speech is brought to you by a font i designed during my time as a visual arts major here. it’s a font based on my handwriting. maybe you’ve seen it around campus, via posters i designed or in the halls of one eighty five nassau street. designing this font took the better part of two years. it’s actually kind of absurd because this typeface, if you could see it, does not look so sophisticated (it’s actually pretty wonky and awkward), and it’s a wonder that it took anything more than a few hours to create, let alone two years.

Continues in class . . .
Computer scientist and Stanford professor emeritus Donald Knuth’s early digital typesetting experiments had a big impact on how we set type today. He also suggested a typographic path not taken. This was how he began his Josiah Willard Gibbs lecture at the American Mathematical Society on July 4, 1978:
I will be speaking today about work-in-progress instead of completed research. This was not my original intention when I chose the subject of this lecture, but the fact is I couldn’t get my computer programs working in time. Fortunately, it is just as well that I don’t have a finished product to describe to you today because research in mathematics is generally much more interesting while you’re doing it then after it’s all done.
It’s a prestigious lecture awarded annually for individual contributions to applied mathematics and when Knuth faced the room of mathematicians assembled in Providence, Rhode Island, he proceeded to talk not about math, but instead about typography. He began by showing slides, one after the other, pages from Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society illustrating how its composition and typography has changed over the last 100 years. For example, he showed this page from 1922 and pointed to its sharp modern serif type.

These were typographic fine points likely lost on his audience. But he had a reason, or an agenda anyway. He was showing these because he was upset by how the journal looked now. The Bulletin had switched to phototypesetting and Knuth found the result so (typographically) poor, that he refused to publish his work in it. 

Knuth talked not just about the typography in the journals, but also about a project he was working on to improve the prospects for digital typesetting. The “work-in-progress” he alluded to at the start of the talk, a new digital typesetting system, continued for the next 10 years. He discussed a few specific problems along the way in precisely describing subtle curves in the shapes of letters.
Continues in class . . . 
December 4, 2023

Habit.pdf (William James)

Here’s a diagram from William James’ 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology:

The drawing makes concrete what has been implied all semester: reading and writing are intimately connected through the *specific* shapes of the letters. Your brain decodes the shapes and corresponds the marks across a learned dictionary look-up table to produce words which produce sentences which convey and record ideas.
It is or will have been an abbreviated semester. We moved from alien writing to metal letters, photography to cellphone typography. We saw lots of other people make typography. We tried our own hands at it. We read around some previous attempts at rationalizing the alphabet. We even visited an online show of “wrecked alphabets.” Now it’s time to take stock.
You will have your complete Ground Writing / Chinese text entry interface assignments ready for review. We will proceed, student by student, Zoom grid square to Zoom grid square taking turns running the online show. We will have a surprise guest critic to give some fresh eyes on your work.
When it is your time to present, you take control. And for the following 15 minutes you may lead us through the work that you have made in any way that you find best helps us to understand what you have done and why you have done it. Then you will listen.
The group of us—the other students, a critic, me—will then let you know what we see in the work. This is what matters, remember. You may have great intentions, brilliant concepts, and even an articulated aesthetic position, but all of this must eventually be legible in the constellation of glyphs that you have arranged on so many pages. Recall from the semester that typography is most definitely a finite circuit: Writing *is* reading *is* writing *is* . . . 
OK. Let’s get started. Who’s first?