Believe type, not hype

Why have we neglected type in a furore of technological ‘progress’, where skilled typesetters have been traded in for Mac operators? Janice Kirkpatrick laments this self-destructive behaviour, and predicts designers will regret throwing out the baby with

Have you ever thought that the world has forgotten everything it was ever taught? Or is the universe actually cyclical, so that we travel around in circles, forever destined to re-invent the wheel?

Déscartes reasoned that written, not spoken, language was the civilising factor separating man from animals. Mark-making, handwriting and therefore typography in all its forms was the mark of civilisation.

In ancient Egypt the scribe had huge powers. Throughout history women were forbidden to write because typography conferred the power to cast spells and made witches of us all. To be able to name and write was to control. To be able to control language on page and screen, at News International and on the Internet, still is the mark of power.

China, Japan and the Islamic countries have an enduring sense of the coverture written languages afford. Typography is a “container” for language, changing its values and meanings – a “meta” language, a language within a language. These countries, with their ancient typographic traditions, are growing in power while we grow complacent. China and Japan take their typographic heritage seriously while we fumble with our electronically liberated pages.

A college has thrown out, into a skip, wooden type, hot and cold metal and its entire phototypesetting kit. In short, enough hardware to provoke many revolutions. I know that many other colleges will follow suit. It simply isn’t good enough to throw up economics and stupid cost-cutting arguments. It is stupid to chuck out the civilising tools of a 5000- year-pedigree in favour of a new technology, where we hardly even own the rights to control its future development.

Global illiteracy has risen in direct proportion to the development of typographic technology ever since the invention of the typewriter. Think about it. The more we are encouraged by technology to take a passive role in this Information Era, the more illiterate and powerless we will become. Scribes, Herbert Spence and Rupert Murdoch didn’t get where they are today by taking a passive attitude to type.

The designers of the future are in danger of being duped into deluding themselves that they are in control of their craft. Being fluent in QuarkXPress does not constitute a thorough grounding in typography (or even English) and is most definitely not an education in graphic design. We already have a nation of visually and sensorially illiterate. How much more inadequate can our communication skills become before society completely breaks down?

New digital technologies use many of the characteristics and terminologies of old typographic technologies. Unfortunately, digitally produced type cannot always reproduce the nuance and feel of the old and it cannot best explain thicks, thins, em and en dashes and leading.

I know this is not all the fault of designers, but we have a duty to maintain standards and insist that the graduates we employ understand the value of well-crafted typography. Written language will continue to be king for a long time to come. If graphic designers don’t maintain standards, don’t know or care how to deal with indents, paragraph spacing, type that communicates, don’t know the rules, how on earth can they break them?

Many graphic designers are mere Apple Mac operators, passive pawns in someone else’s game. A thorough graphic design education requires a firm grasp of history and philosophy as well as skill and talent.

In my home town there are almost no phototypesetters left, except in the newspaper industry. The time-served apprentices, the craftspeople who helped us make sure that our type communicated well and worked hard are disappearing. The graphic designers are the last guardians of the scribes’ heritage. We have a burden of duty to fulfill.

The Apple Mac is merely today’s solution to yesterday’s problem. There will be many other solutions in my lifetime. In chucking out our old fashioned case-rooms will we find ourselves forgetting our past? Will we need to relearn old, forgotten skills in order to move forwards when the Mac is yesterday’s news? Will we have to re-invent the wheel?

And in the meantime, how many more rivers and widows must we endure before we have no choice but to travel back in time?

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