Spending six days in New Orleans attending the nerdiest conference in the design world can teach you a couple things.
For one, New Orleans in July is freakin’ hot. For another, the food is fantastic.
But most importantly, that most people there have forgotten more about the intricacies, nuances and effective uses of type than most can ever hope to learn.
The breadth of workshops and lectures belied the depth of each one. From inspirational lectures from legend Ed Benguiat and rising star Jessiche Hische; to in-depth workshops on web typography; to thought-provoking presentations on developing typefaces for the Cherokee language, the conference offered stimulating thought and discussion at every turn.
The main success of the conference, though, was that it forced the audience to consider typography in ways few do on a daily basis. This pleasantly-forced opening of the mind is what sets apart a successful conference such as TypeCon 2011.
Typography on the Web: A Hell Of A Lot More Than WebFonts
Marcin Wichary is a senior UX designer at Google, and he gave a compelling workshop on the creative use of emerging web technologies from a typographic perspective.
Demonstrating (mostly) native tips and tricks, Wichary presented a huge variety of typographic experiments, from subtle experiments in tracking, kerning and leading; straight through to the bold and brave world of word rotation, blurs, columns, scale, clipping masks and programmable variety for extra randomization.
Further lectures from Will Hill of Anglia Polytechnic, Nick Sherman of Font Bureau and Bill Davis of Monotype expanded upon interactive typography. Hill focused on the role of touch in confirming understanding, saying that as devices became digital and typography became “cold,” simulation of the human touch by creating distressed fonts marked the first salvo in faking “touch” on devices.
Sherman, meanwhile, made the very strong point that the key word in “web typography” isn’t “web,” it’s “typography.” The practical emergence of webfonts in recent years doesn’t mark a fundamental shift in anything; it’s simply another specific use of type, similar to phonebooks, newspaper fonts, etc. Part of his talk also overlapped with Bill Davis‘ — both went into the nitty-gritty details about how type designers are intelligently re-drawing their typefaces for the web, compensating for lower resolutions and different rendering engines between browsers with various modifications to the letterforms themselves.
The Wider World of Type
For many art directions and designers, at least in Canada, dealing with French copy is about as far as practical “internationalization” goes. Which is what made lectures from Joseph Erb and Roy Boney of the Cherokee Nation, Ian Lynam of Temple University in Japan and Onur Yazicgil of Istanbul’s Sabanci University so interesting.
For example, as Lynam explains, the different forms of the Japanese language account for everyday or formal writing, a base character set, special characters which augment those around it, and other nuances completely foreign to native English speakers. Yazicgil, meanwhile, gave a compelling talk on the lack of typographic heritage in Turkey (due to its switch from Arabic script to Latin letterforms in 1928) and how it’s created a completely different approach to type than more traditionally Western nations.
The most compelling lecture in this area, however, was from Erb and Boney of the Cherokee Nation on the various issues facing them in the development of their own typographic heritage.
In essence, there wasn’t a written form of the Cherokee language until the mid-18th century, at which point a rough script gave way to a formalized typeface. However, where the Romantic languages continued evolving at this point to include the lowercase alphabet, script forms, etc, the Cherokee language effectively stopped, locking in one typeface as the written form of the language. This caused issues with the elders generations later when they tried to introduce, say, a sans-serif version, illustrating just how closely tied the visual letterform is to the meaning behind it.
Use of the Cherokee language has also been falling in recent generations, primarily due to the lack of the Cherokee language on newer devices such as the iPad, iPhone, etc. However, Erb, Boney and several other forward-thinking individuals have taken on the task of incorporating new technologies such as the iPad, iPhone, etc into daily Cherokee life, to great success.
On a bittersweet note, Richard Kegler’s excellent documentary of Jim Rimmer, Making Faces, also screened at TypeCon. Rimmer was an icon within the typographic and Canadian design communities, and seeing the finished documentary after his death in early 2010 was a nice, if bittersweet, homage to a master of the craft.
Coming from a typographic heritage consisting of thousands upon thousands of fonts and 500+ years of evolution, thinking of a written language as constricted to one font, or to within one century, certainly makes you re-evaluate the relative importance of typography in expressing a culture.
Sitting in the comfortably chaotic world of interactive advertising in Toronto, it’s easy to gloss over these finer points. At the least, a conference should stimulate thinking; at best, it stimulates action. For this TypeCon attendee, it managed to achieve both.
And the food and nightlife in the heart of the French Quarter on a sunny week in July wasn’t half bad either.