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.