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typo.graphic.beirut, one more time

What is a blog without blogtent? Here's an attempt to post some real content on my new, super-spiffy Typophlog. I would post this on my own blog, but TypeOff is taking some time to build. And by the time it is finished this content will be even less newsworthy (it has already been a few weeks since the conference). I swear that this is the last thing that I will post about Beirut, though.

Below is the text of the paper that I presented. I will not be posting the images. Most of them can be seen in some form or another over at TypeOff anyway (if you snoop around long enough). I have a review of the conference over at Typographica. Here is the direct link.

Zurück in die Zukunft?

This paper is not about the current situation of design education. I am not an educator, although I am gleefully inspired by educators daily. For the past year and a half, I have been a graduate student of typography at the Offenbach Academy of Art and Design in Germany. If this time has taught me anything, it is that design students in Germany face the same problems as students everywhere. Certainly, I see few large differences between my experiences as student there, and my undergraduate years in the United States.

However, I believe that German students react more proactively to these problems than do their contemporaries in other countries. Specifically, German students seem to have a propensity to organize. This paper will analyze possible solutions to common student problems proposed by the experiences of the TypeOff collective. Like many similar groups throughout the country, TypeOff is a collection of students formed outside of the classroom to tackle what it sees as lacking in the immediate educational environment. Of primary importance to TypeOff is dialog. Specifically dialog with other students and designers from our surrounding part of Germany. This sort of dialog not only broadens horizons and perspectives, but it also brings about better work.

TypeOff sees itself as a collective of forwardly thinking yet historically minded typography students from Offenbach. Offenbach is a little city in Germany with a big typographic tradition. Aside from playing host to the invention of lithography, Offenbach was home to one of Germany’s most creative type foundries in the pre-World War II era, the Klingspor Brothers. During the early 20th Century, world-renowned type designers worked in Offenbach, including Peter Behrens, Rudolf Koch, and Karlgeorg Hoefer. Quite nearby Frankfurt and Mainz, Offenbach has retained the benefit of location. Located in the middle of the cradle of printing history, Offenbach is less than 50 km away from both the Gutenberg Museum, representing the typographic past with its three Gutenberg Bibles, and the Linotype Library, a digital font foundry and distributor representing the typographic future.

German students are vigorous organizers, and we at TypeOff are no exception. Yet while German students in general tend to organize themselves behind various social causes, such as the current nation-wide protests against the introduction of university tuition, we have decided to organize ourselves around topics of a more intimate nature. We hope to help preserve Offenbach’s typographic past, and to keep its memory alive in the present. The Offenbach tradition does indeed need remembering, as far as we are concerned: as both graphic design and design education become more technical, an appreciation for craft, and even for the pleasures of typography, seems to slowly slip out of general curriculums and the work habits of professionals. Even our Academy, which once boasted Hermann Zapf and David Quay among its list of instructors, no longer teaches type design.

The largest problem facing design students today is one of time management and priorities. It remains the prerogative of institutions of higher learning in our society to perform two functions for their students. First, institutions of higher learning are just what their names imply: the university bears a social responsibility to educate its students to be life-long learners so that they learn to appreciate knowledge for its own sake. On the other hand, as fields like graphic design becomes more complex, requiring that young professionals exhibit a dizzying array of technical capabilities, the university is increasingly asked to perform job training and route preparation. One can only teach so much in four years, as American professors will often tell you, and this is certainly a hard truth for anyone—teacher or student—planning out a curriculum. Until recently, before the introduction of university tuition fees, German students simply solved this problem by studying longer; sometimes as long as ten years.

By the 1990s, graphic design had grown into a largely diverse and complex field, and the number of university design programs swelled along with its growth. As the Internet economy boomed, and subsequently bust, changing business practices altered the expectations for recent generations of students. With the global economic situation first expanding and then atrophying, it began to seem as if the quality of one’s work or education alone was no longer of primary importance, but rather the length or impressiveness of one’s resume.

And students packed their resumes as best they could. It became clear that in order to get ahead, it was not only necessary to spend the days in class, but the evenings learning new software, and all other free time working in internships. And TypeOff predicts that the bar is being raised again. If even this level of complexity is not enough for success in today’s economy, how will students market themselves tomorrow, when not only professors, but also many design firm proprietors will expect that advanced-level students take their own initiative, and define their own roles and identities?

TypeOff proposes that we get back to our futures. As designers—and I speak here to all practitioners of a craft and not necessarily students or professionals alone—what are we to do? Will we allow others to define our objectives for us? The five of us in Offenbach have decided to take a step back in order to refocus on what we want to be as designers.

What is TypeOff exactly? Literarily, it is a conjunction of the words “typography” and “Offenbach.” Theoretically, it is a union of four students and one alumnus who chose to be in Offenbach because of its typographic tradition and potential. Other students could just as easily pick another location and achieve the same goals; it is the acts of decision and process that we find important. We are foreigners and locals: three Germans, and two Americans. Three of us have studied elsewhere, two of us completed other degrees before coming to Offenbach, and all of us travel to meet with other designers and design communities. We actively seek out opportunities for dialog, and we work on our own projects together and independently.

In addition to our actual projects, our collective rests on two pillars; one physical, and the other virtual. Aside from our website, which virtually houses our articles and our proto-typeface sketches, we organize a physical gathering of students and designers from our region once a month at a bar in Frankfurt. This gathering, called a TypoStammtisch in German—a word that translates in to English very poorly, but which basically means, “regular meeting in a bar in which typography is discussed”—is attended by an ever-changing group of about ten individuals. These evenings allow students from Offenbach and other local universities to meet informally with type and graphic designers, and talk about the business for several hours at a time.

We also talk about our current projects there, some of which I will elaborate upon over the next few pages. Core to the following six projects are the themes of type design, process, collaboration, exploration, and growth.

Till Hopstock and David Borchers, two German students, often work together on commercial logo and corporate identity projects. One of their favorites is a logo they produced for a documentary film about a miniature golf course in Landstuhl, Germany, entitled Ball of Fame. The letterforms that make up the Ball of Fame logo are actually Katakana characters from a Japanese font named Coil. Till and David sifted through the font’s characters, none of which they could understand, and selected forms that, when flipped or rotated and placed together in the right combination, looked like Latin letters that spell out the words “ball of fame.” These marks could not read as Latin characters if separated from the overall logotype. Anyone who has ever played miniature golf will immediately understand the relevancy of the forms within this design.

In November, Lara Glück—another American—and I participated in a small group exhibition at Offenbach’s Klingspor Museum. Lara created a book object, a narrative comparing the Greek myth of Zeus and Io with modern surveillance technology. The text in this book was all set in an elementary typeface that she designed specifically for the piece, which she named Argos.

Argos is rudimentary and geometrically inspired. It runs condensed, and its boxed-in quality helps to convey the message of oppressive isolation expressed in Lara’s writing. A formal side benefit of the font’s design is that text set in Argos also takes on ornamental grid-like appearance. Argos’ letterforms can also be removed from their verbal context, and used as pattern-making elements to good effect.

In the same Klingspor showcase, I exhibited a lettered wall hanging, which was, in essence, an oversized book page containing a passage of text from Eric Gill’s essay “On Lettering.” To set the text for this piece, I also set out to create a new, project-specific typeface. This would be loosely inspired by letter drawings from John Howard Benson, a mid-20th Century American calligrapher who was clearly influenced by Gill’s ideas. I found the idea to bring Benson’s forms back to the side of the Atlantic where their inspiration originated both amusing and inspiring. I named the resulting typeface Farewell Street, after the street in which the cemetery where Benson is buried is located. Farewell Street consists of an ultra thin and an ultra thin italic weight. Its letterforms are quite thin, which created an appropriate grey color when place in their final setting on the final wall hanging; their x-height was about an inch and a half high.

To create the exhibition piece, I set and output Gill’s text in the Farewell Street fonts, and then transferred all of these letters—there were about 9,000 of them—by hand via graphite paper onto the sheet that would make up the wall hanging. This oversized piece of paper about one a half meters wide by three and a third meters high. I then inked in all of the sheet’s graphite letter outlines, creating their final imperfect impression.

The Frankfurt Book Fair is one of Germany’s most significant annual trade fairs. Last year, a group of Academy students from Offenbach were invited by the fair’s organizers to create a series of site-specific installations within the hall that would host the fair’s art and design book publishers. Till Hopstock, who was one of the students invited, took advantage of this opportunity to create two large typographic murals. For both of these, he designed unique own custom lettering and type solutions.

Like most convention centers, Frankfurt’s exhibition halls are large cavernous interiors, laid out with more precision than most small cities. Because of the exact positioning of the various stands, there are curiously placed “dead spaces” scattered throughout the halls. For various reasons, these are spaces that no customer would be willing to rent, but which all visitors must walk through to get from one section of the hall to another. The fair’s interior designers assume that customers will pass through these spaces rather quickly. However, by observing a previous exhibition, Till noticed that these dead spaces had some life to them after all. Like the white spaces between words, or the pauses in musical scores, these areas offer a moment’s rest—or distraction—from the hustle of the fair’s business. Visitors congregate in these areas for private conversations, use them to make cell phone calls, or to lean against the walls for short breaks.

Till based his first installation on these observations. His space was comprised of a long, white wall, which was punctuated by steel fire-safe doors. He filled this wall with script lettering making up the four-word phrase, “Die Dichte der Einsamkeit.” This means something like “the weight of isolation.” The letters that Till designed for this phrase could be described as mechanically cursive; all of their forms were made up of two stroke weights, thick and thin. Their design was first created digitally, and was then later applied onto the site’s walls using a sort of black industrial tape. The thin strokes in the letters were the width of one piece of this tape, the thick strokes were two pieces next to one another.

The second piece that Till created for the book fair was on a wall that proved to be a more difficult setting. This wall was less of a blank canvas than the first, and had among other things an office-like telephone installed in the middle of it. The first mural that Till had created was large, and the whole phrase could only be seen properly from a distance. In contrast to that design, Till envisioned a more intimate solution for his second mural, creating a design that worked around the given elements already on the wall. Across the wall, Till set a passage of text in one long running, zigzag line. The unicase letters were each about one inch high. The typeface that he produced for this text was geometrically complex, and he named it Technology.

Till assumed that visitors to the exhibition would not take the time to read his entire line, which was several meters long. Instead, he realized that no matter how legible the text, visitors would probably only take the time to look at a few words. In essence, the text would have to function more as image than as a conveyor of meaning. Knowing that his letters and words would be observed from a distance of about half a meter influenced the curious complexity that Till brought to the final design of his Technology face. Till further distanced the letterforms from their contextual meaning by adding a word space character to the font. Normally, the space between words is white—an extra pause between black shapes to help differentiate them from one another. All letters in Technology have white, empty space between them; yet the word spaces in the font are black rectangles, drawn as if they were suddenly an actual character in their own right.

Like Farewell Street, which referenced English and American lettering of the 20s and 30s in a setting dedicated to German typography of the same period, the Pater Noster typeface is another mix of cross-cultural dialogs. Unlike the previous projects, however, Pater Noster was not designed for use in a specific application. I began working on Pater Noster last year after studying uncial scripts drawn by 20th Century German calligraphers. Uncial is an alphabetic style most commonly associated with early medieval Ireland, and it is not readily associable with contemporary German design. Yet many German designers throughout history have been intrigued by uncial’s qualities anyway, perhaps because of its foreign and historical form. Therefore, German uncial designs rather than traditional Irish sources inspired most of the design decisions I made while sketching out Pater Noster. If my German influences were one step away from history, then my interpretation on their themes is two steps away.

This contextual dialog within the design makes Pater Noster an essay about formal experimentation and growth; mine as much as the alphabet’s itself. In a feeble attempt to try to placate the spirits of my Irish ancestors, I have also made some attempts to properly set Gaelic with the typeface. While the design may not be the best choice to set Gaelic text with, I certainly attempted to make it possible, at the very least.

Pater Noster, unlike the other typefaces described in this essay, began as a series of sketches on paper. It was only after several months of drawing, and a few small lettering experiments, that the letterforms were digitized and refined.

TypeOff is just one of several think tanks of young designers in Germany. All of the work on differing sorts of projects, and have different motivations. Some of them are more academic in focus, in that their members create all of their work in closer concert with their professors. Others are more commercial, creating all of their projects as commissions for paying clients. There are collectives who take better advantage of the internet than TypeOff does, with real weblogs and discussion forums, and potentially larger audiences.

The members of the TypeOff collective believe that the direction being taken by young designers is Germany on the whole is indicative of the future, more communal nature of graphic design. Of course, we could be accused of being naïve, and overlooking the corporate design path to our detriment. Certainly, no one has accused us of being capable type designers. However, we believe that our time as students is short, and that this time should be best devoted to process, dialog, and personal development.

Every corner of the world has its own typographic hotspots as well as its own forgotten memories. Today’s designers are often faced with the decision of working either in a internationally generic style—made so easy by the fact that we all work with the same basic computer programs—, or with taking advantage of the language and style of their own geographic roots and locations. Recent exhibitions such as the traveling Experiment and Typography, currently on display in Bratislava, and this conference show that even areas such as Slovakia and Lebanon, which were previously not on the radar of most typographers, have tremendously vibrant activity to offer. In an age of global study and information exchange, students are above all required to consider the balance of local and global, not just in order to be successful, but also to be able to communicate anything at all.


I think organizations like TypeOff are a really good idea. It's too easy to just take what school offers you and not challenge yourself to do more, but as we all know, what you get out of education is what you put into it. Also, I think collaboration and cooperation are excellent things to foster early in your career. Working with others makes it a lot easier to get things done, assuming everybody contributes (which has almost inevitably been an issue in the collaborative ventures I've participated in -- I'm as much a flake as anyone else, too).

Speaking of collaboration, thanks for adding to my Rudolf Koch entry! My current icon is even Koch-related -- it's scanned from an image of his calligraphic illustration of The Sermon of the Mount. I'm glad you put his nationalism in "context" -- I intend to write a fair bit on German nationalism in type, with which I'm sure you'll be able to help, because I think it's important to address that issue head-on if we're going to be talking about Blackletter and the tradition that produced designers like Hermann Zapf. Everyone has to remember that artists used to consider patriotism a good thing, and even now, people approve of, say, Vojtech Preissig's work to fight fascism in Czechoslovakia, but seem a little weirded out by the German nationalism of people like Koch. Not all German patriots were Nazis, or anti-Semites -- which you know, and most of the Germans here know, but I'm not sure much of the rest of the world knows. Anyway, this is fun! More later!

Hi Forrest,

I made an attempt to bang something out for your German nationalism. Glad to hear that you like TypeOff. Like every collaborative group, it is sometimes more "collaborative" than others. We have seven members at the moment, and it is always fun to see what happens.