This past March, I took over the old Kickstarter office in the Lower East Side. Since then, I’ve been primarily focused on cleaning it up, learning to become much more handy, and thinking of ways to use the space to fund the space.
The space is called Orbital, and my goal is to make it a…
The traditional understanding of readability has been inherited from print and is informed by studies of human perception and typographic form. The form is altered by the typographer to enhance perception with the goal of an optimized reading experience that elucidates content. The values that form the foundation of readable text type, typeface choice, type size, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing, line measure, and text alignment are refined for an audience defined as “the average reader.”
A divergence in practice ocurrs between the writer and the typographer when creating content and designing content. During the creative process writer chooses language and phrasing that’s appropriate for a specific audience. To some degrees the typographer does the same, but with less specificity. The quintessential readable block of text that is set with even type color*, in small text type, with an optimum character count of 66 characters per line is readable to 85% of the population, but overwhelming to the dyslexic reader. How can typography adapt to address the needs of its wider audience?
The answer comes with a wider definition of readability that includes usability. With this broader definition comes a new role for the typographer that includes optimizing the usability of type. To understand usability, the typographer needs to understand the behaviors and abilities of their users. To better address the needs of their users typographers need to utilize an expanding tool kit of new technologies.
Typography for digital media does not only inherit qualities from print. There are new rules and grammars that can serve communities who are, for whatever reason, locked out of the culture of the book…and, it’s exciting.
Jan Tschichold’s youthful manifesto for the future of typography. (circa 1928) He advocates passionately for typography to be designed with utility and clarity for the public good.
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.
— Buckminster Fuller (via tashwong)
Excuse this anecdotal beginning. I have a very clear memory of learning to ski a few years ago. I have had many lessons and am a terrible skier, but, this ski-instructor-guy was great and I learned more from him than any other. The way he taught was truly incremental. He would only move to the next lesson when someone asked a question. So there we were, doing snow plow turns back and forth across the mountain and it was boring as all get out, until someone asked him how to go faster. “If you’re ready to go fast, then point your skis downhill,” he said.
We know when we’re ready to go fast; the moment happens at different times for each us. I’ve been learning to code over the past nearly two years. It has been a slow, and at times, excruciating process. I’ve had some fun moments thrown into mix, like learning Processing from Amit Pitaru. He’s by nature a very attuned and patient teacher. When he taught a big important topic, like mapping values, he would jump and wave his hands, to let us know how large the concept was and insist we take a break to walk around the block or eat or drink something to let the lesson sink in. He didn’t want to turn us into hackers, but instead, taking a cue from the slow food movement, into slow coders.
If you can’t be a writer until you have something to say, wouldn’t it also be true that you can’t learn to code until you have something you want to build?
— thesis musings from b. deWilde
I teach Typography every Tuesday morning from 9 am. to noon. I have nineteen wonderful students and we meet in a classroom within the Interaction Design graduate studio on 21st Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in New York City. In the morning, we rearrange the chairs and desks and transform the room into our space for talking about history, form, reading, and design. I love it; it’s sacred.
So, as I research online learning platforms for my thesis, and try to frame a narrative for each one, the obvious question is: Where is our classroom? When I’m at Kahn Academy, I’m in a chair in my house with a seat near the blackboard. When I’m on Treehouse, I’m in a weird, fake room with odd architectural windows, obviously a set that has been erected just for filming. In Code Academy, I’m on the internet, no gravity anywhere. At Lynda.com, I’m in some cheesy conference room. But, when I visit The Smitten Kitchen, I’m in her kitchen. It’s brilliant.
Whether, as students, we feel close to our teachers must have an impact on our learning. If I understand my teacher, know her passions, witness her quirks or her humor when she’s off script, am more likely to trust her? In my life, the big shift in teacher/student relationships began in college when we started to go out for drinks with our professors after class. There were some downsides to watching my mentors step off their pedestals, but visiting their homes and knowing that they trusted a few of us to be respectful of their personal lives enough to share them made me feel like a peer in the making.
So, as I watched Doyald Young, a video about the life and philosophy of the hand-lettering maestro created for Lynda.com, I really focused on how I felt to learn about typography while at the same time looking around his studio at the color of the walls and the books on the shelves. He tells a wonderful story about a dictionary that he cherished and how he had it carefully rebound only to discover a missing signature. Priceless. His voice, his humility, his earnestness, combined with his humble yet lovely studio convinced me that he was a great teacher as well. I trusted him.
And like any piece of writing, or design, or film that I find so moving that my thoughts return to it again and again, I kept wondering why I loved this film so much. At one point, when Doyald is seated next to a student at Arts Center and he is critiquing her work, he finishes by saying, “I’m particularly pleased with what you have done.” Praise.
Praise that is formed into a heartfelt and well-crafted sentence is like love. All the badges in the world from Code Academy can’t feel like that. How do we deliver praise to online students? How do we add the loving praise of a master teacher? In an online questionnaire that I crafted as a means of researching my thesis, everyone could recall a moment when they received praise that they cherished. Everyone. Praise is a powerful and memorable tool.
And my last observation, in a scene that illustrates Young’s formative years as a letterer, he describes the moment a teacher took personal interest in his skill. His professor, noticing that the class would often turn to Doyald for help, asked him if he would like to teach. Certainly, the invitation was a form of praise, but to me this scene answers a more important question on learning: When do we achieve mastery? So much of online education seems endless, like an infinite loop of lesson upon lesson that has no conclusion. I believe, in that moment, Doyald helped me define mastery. Mastery is when you can teach. Bravo.
Mark Ruffalo and Sesame Street explain empathy.
Last summer, specifically late July, I discovered that I had a full roster for my upcoming Type 1 class at the School of Visual Arts. I haven’t taught this particular course and, ever practical, decided not to write the syllabus until the moment I knew that there would be people showing up.
The class fits into the requisite coursework of Graphic Design majors and is intended for juniors and seniors. Now, I had a month to decide the answer to the question that had been troubling me since I agreed to teach again: what do designers really need to know about typography? Certainly many of the “rules” that relate to setting type for print aren’t really important. No one fixes rags on the Internet. (“Rags”, for those who don’t know, are the uneven lines of flush left/ragged right type. Print designers spend lovely afternoons refining the lengths of lines to create beautifully structural and readable rags.) MVP design (Minimum Viable Prototyping for interactive products) doesn’t require kerning. How widely supported is the “word-spacing" property of CSS?
Before editing the lessons, I decided to re-read Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. I studied graphic designer in college, but I’m a self-taught typographer. My design professors, Lanny Sommese (samples of his poster work below) and Bill Kinser, were illustrators and thinkers, but text type
What the Book exhibition movie created by B deWilde and T Chu.