TEACHIng Type: A Rorschach Experience

No one  would confuse my understanding of type with that of an expert type handler. I once infuriated a major type designer by mashing up a few sizes of his most recent effort on a postcard for the AIGA. I thought it looked jaunty: He almost lost his lunch. He called me and sat, silent and fuming, on the other end of the phone until I lost my nerve and hung up.

So pushing type around a page type is not my natural talent. Nor is my type vocabulary up-to-the-moment. I can’t tell you the three must current faces, the way the type teachers at my institution can. And yet, as with so many things in life, a wide knowledge of type may not be necessary for a love of it. And love it I do. When I was four, I carefully outlined all the chapter titles in my favorite book, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, in ink. In adulthood, I found that this book is an original 1916 edition. My mother seems to have accepted destruction as a necessary part of an education in aesthetics.

So  I’ve never styled myself a type teacher. But in the strange world that is an undergraduate design program, vociferous students began to clamor for an “old-school” type class, the kind of class where people “did things with their hands.” And, since the real type teachers were busy teaching type, I found myself saying I’d teach it.

For a semester I subjected these students to the good old ago­niz­ing type-teaching ways. They traced letters on trace. They painted capitals in white Plaka. They wept over visual letterspacing. They huddled together in the far corner of the office squinting at fractional differences in the relationship between a three-inch “P” and “E” on the opposite wall. Oddly, they maintained a sort of buoyant pleasure throughout these travails, which I began to realize was the same pleasure that you see in people who learn to light a fire using two sticks, or who try their hand at Raku firing. For these students, the mastering of Plaka was similar to a crash course in surviving in the wilderness.

All this trace and tempera provoked wistful laughter from a real type teacher who stumbled in one day, but who, I noticed, kept coming around, once to proffer a stylus from his school days, and a few times just to see how things were going. I believe he missed the feeling of painting a curve in Plaka, of refining the dried letter with an X-acto knife–a satisfying art to master.

First, each student picked a typestyle from the old war­horses: Bodoni, ITC Garamond, Caslon,, Helvetica. I assigned these faces because these students were less familiar with them than they are with, say, Avenir.

As we progressed from sketch to paint, I noticed that the students tended to see things in the type that I didn’t see and assume things about a typestyle’s character that I didn’t assume. At first, I put it down to their not having had a lot of type history. But then it hit me: They were so innocent of history that the type had become similar to inkblots in a Rorschach test.

Now, I may not be a great type-use genius, but if there’s one thing I know my way around, it’s the Rorschach test. Years of personal experience make me an expert. I’ve taken it so many times that I have memorized the first three "healthy" answers. First is a butter­fly, next is a bear, the next looks like two humans—same old one, two, three. Let me just outline a few details concerning the Rorschach test, lest your experience is less extensive than mine.

Although you might associate the name with a comic-book char­acter, the original “Rorschach” is a test inven­ted by Hermann Rorschach specifically to diagnose schizophrenia. The test became popular with other psychiatrists who realized that the ten inkblots could be used  as a general test of personality and emotional functioning. Rorschach became annoyed at this adoption and wished they’d stop, but they didn’t. 

So, in the middle of all this class's Plaka-ing and tracing, I began to notice, as I said, that students who had had little or no type history projected meaning onto the type at hand, as though it were a Rorschach test. This resulted in some surprising interpretations and taught me more about my students than I had expected to ever know.

Bodoni, one of the “high contrast” typefaces, reminds me of the 1960s and of Alexey Brodovitch's Harper's Bazaar.  But the stu­dent who chose it knew little about the ways it had been used in the past. He loved it for its anomalies. He loved it for the odd negative space in the descender of its lowercase “g,” and for the huge difference between its thicks and thins, the dazzle of which made its small sizes impossible to read on a screen.

Bodoni's perceived  "problem," it's not being easily readable on screen, made this student happy. Not comfortable fitting into conventional modes himself, he found a friend in Bodoni, the face accompanied him through his last year in school, as he made a  asting peace with his own personal “dazzle.”

For another student,  Goudy Oldstyle became not the late Arts and Crafts Movement artifact I had learned about, but “a nice, cozy type with melty edges that reminds me of s’mores.” And Helvetica became not the old Swiss standby, but reminiscent of  “that movie where Tobias Frere-Jones lets Jonathan Hoefler do all the talking.”

This made me think about type choice as a Rorschach test for the culture-at-large. Perhaps there’s a reason for all those Papyrus and Comic Sans signs at the water cooler. Perhaps that reason has more to do with the average person’s projection of humanity onto a “hand-drawn” font than with that person’s lack of know­ledge about type. Is Comic Sans a cry for authentic experience from a person incarcerated in the straight-line surroundings of cubicle, plastic carpeting and fluorescent light?

Rorschach tests are scored with a system of “determinants,” factors that represent experiential-perceptual attitudes, which help the psychologist or psychiatrist figure out the way a sub­ject perceives the world. Rorschach himself used only form, color and movement to figure this stuff out. Later, oddly, shading was intro­duced as a determinant, only because someone did a bad job of printing the inkblots. And they say function doesn’t follow form.

When Inge Druckery chooses type for Tufte’s books, what stories of calm and order does she set with the type she chooses? Are these a cultural or ideological affinity, or are they a personal projection? When Ian Lynam designed Cooper Screamers, what did those screamers say about the way he viewed the world at that moment? Can we figure it out from form, color, movement and shading? Can we read the test?

The stories we choose to repeat about type give designers a cohesive platform on which to build a history. But the meanings people see in type—the ways they make their choices—may have less to do with our current beliefs about history and appropriate­ness, and more to do with the viewer’s own projections.

© 2013 Natalia Ilyin. First published in Communication Arts Magazine.