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    Teaching Type in the Digital World

    Posted: 03/08/2012 Author kb

    In Fall 2012 I will be teaching the “Fundamentals of Typography” course in Valencia College’s graphics program. This is the same course that Glenn Bowman taught for several semesters before becoming a dad—which seems to take up a lot of his time and energy now. Thanks to Glenn, I already have a lot of insight into the class and a folder full of course materials that I won’t have to create from scratch.

    The technical aspects of typography have changed greatly from when I started in this professional about a million years ago, but the principles that have been discovered and evolved over centuries of lettering and typography have remained virtually unchanged. Whether type is set with metal, developed on photo paper and pasted to a board or digitally displayed and printed, the same issues of optics, legibility, layout and design are going to vex my students just as much as they did me when I was in school. The difference, however, is that my students will have available to them an arsenal of technology and a catalogue of fonts that were beyond my wildest dreams at the beginning of my career.

    When I started working with type it was almost entirely for printing on paper—or environmental graphics and displays. Once in a blue moon I had to deal with the transmission of type via the television screen but that was not often and usually for only a couple of seconds at the end of a commercial. Now, type appears electronically almost everywhere. Computer displays, HD televisions, smart phones, tablets, kiosks—even digital outdoor boards. So adding to the issues concerning design and legibility that challenge print designers we must now add the technical aspects of the light emitting display. Will certain type sizes and shapes—or various color schemes and textures—exhibited on these devices cause excessive eye strain for the reader? Will this written information be retained by the reader in the same way as from a printed piece. Or will the technology itself add a level of complexity to the written information that would not pose a problem for a simple book?

    For typophiles like myself the digital age poses an even greater problem—lack of control. In the digital realm of hypertext markup languages I have little, if any, control about the way my type will appear at the other end of the electronic pipeline. Web browsers have default settings for exhibiting type established not by the designer but by the end user (although most apparently leave the selection on the default setting). Web-based font solutions only work under certain circumstances and not with every browser. Some browsers might be tricked by CSS or other codes but the font choices are often limited by what the user has installed on their computer. (This is exacerbated by current copyright laws that will not allow for most type fonts to be embedded in the delivered code.)

    Now, with the huge popularity of the tablet device such as the Apple iPad® we are once again seeing a paradigm shift in the way type is displayed. Just like web browsers, epub readers use default type fonts to display text and the publication designer is unable to affect what is shown. In fact, due to the epub reader’s ability to change screen orientation from page to landscape display whenever the tablet is moved means that the text—set in who knows what typeface—will now shift its layout as well. Unless care has been taken by the designer to nest any images with related blocks of text, art and photos will also move about freely with no sense of the proportion and design that is the hallmark of a good print layout.

    An entire generation now actually prefers reading on a tablet rather than a heavy, smelly old book. As the text reorients itself on their screens they give little regard to the type they are seeing displayed there. Their aesthetic is based as much on the convenience of the device—as well as its “coolness” factor—than any other consideration. I am not saying that the average book or brochure reader has any better understanding of typography—or really cares either—but at least the print designer has the ability to direct the reader to the information in various subtle ways: the use of negative space, hierarchical emphasis, the column widths and lengths and the typeface choice itself all contribute to the overall message. That contribution is made all the more difficult in the ultra-flexible space of the digital word.

    I will help my students to learn and use the rules and traditions of fine typography. Beautiful print designs will be used as exhibits and most of the class projects will be oriented to the printed word. But beyond the classroom walls, the world of type is being swept by a storm of digital code. I will have to find the right way to prepare them for that as well.