Tuesday, March 1

Electric speech

"...woven entirely with citations, references, echos, cultural languages (what language is not?), antecedent and contemporary, which cut across and through in a vast stereophony..."
~Roland Barthes, Image/Music/Text

I've been revisiting typography (partly out of my own never-realised study of it in grad school and partly out of teaching it to one enthusiastic student) by reading Thinking with Type, a lovely book that examines the history of; critical thinking about; and proper usage of typography and text. I should apologize now to those who are already typophiles; my interest in language has been more in its sonic representation, its cultural use and its linguistic characteristics.

There is an unrecognized poetry in the design of words and the organization of text.  Handwriting originally extended from the physical form of the human body, a direct act of the physical form that referenced it. With mechanization, typography earned the freedom to explore visually the relationships of spaces, silences, pauses and breaths in spoken language. Poetry has usually been allowed the freedom to play outside the box of MLA guidelines, and has rightfully considered the relationship between the language we use and the body that utters it. Designers and typographers have, in the meantime, worked to visually represent the richness of representation of words.

Our initial experience with language is as a utility. We speak or write to communicate our needs, to share our thoughts, to express our emotions.  All of these communications are necessary for us to survive as a socially interdependent species. Yet over time, we see that this communication is more than utility. The creative or unorthodox arrangement of one (or more) typefaces, styles, sizes, et al, guide the reader (or should I say "user of words") in a way that is subtle yet represents the secondary reading, the connotation of this set of words. This visual is not a primary as, say, an artwork; it nevertheless informs and steers the meaning of the content for the reader. Ultimately, language is never simply utilitarian. To understand the meaning, we often speak of context and intonation. Silence or absence of language leaves a space loaded with as much meaning as an intimate conversation. I recently saw this post on how the Kindle, by default, justifies the type of a book to fit the screen, obliterating any of the visual alignment usually made to make the page appear even (as well as eliminating "typographic agoraphobia" in the reader.)

The experience of the thoughtful arrangement and design of type is ambient and does not demand our attention at first glance.  Like other ambient experiences (the soundscape of a city, the movement through a building), this visual presentation of what we say connotes more about beliefs and values than we initially, consciously perceive.

(The vertical ribbons of white space are called "rivers." Image above is from Céline's Death on the Installment Plan, which would not read with any of the same verbal hesitation without this intentional visual cue.)

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