Crashing Typography

Today, for the first time I shared a project that I had personally worked on as part of a team; in class with my students. It was a really spontaneous decision. I hadn't planned on it. But I kind of spoke myself into a corner. I had to demonstrate something from a personal experience and knowledge.

So I had to give a Typography crash course to some new cohorts I have been teaching design basics to. This module is a refresher-cum-introductory crash course which aims to brings you up to speed with maximum possible concepts in art and design in two months. And it's a crazy idea. So I have been teaching subjects like elements and principles of design. Form, space and gestalt. Composition.

And I'll confess it's been challenging. Like gestalt theory goes into the psychology and science of perception. While golden ratio goes into math and geometry with it's context going into history. All this in four weeks, one six hours long marathon (with breaks, of course) every Thursday. People were surprised when they had heard of this plan. Are you sure you want to do this? I was convinced that the way I had divided up the contents of the course, the sections had to be covered in one go in order to comprehend the essential relationship between all the concepts covered in one day before we moved on to the next topic, next week.

Today (Saturday) we had an extra class because we missed one Thursday, so we had to catch up. And just day before, the students had that crazy math-science-history crash course. Everyone paid full attention and as far as I could understand they loved it because the "hardcore" theory was for the first three hours. And next three was practical application. They could have easily bunked second half or worse, stay and disrupt the class. But every single student was there and kept going at the task that was assigned to them. It was overwhelming, but also deeply satisfying. For both them, and me. But by today, just two days later, we could both mutually feel that we were all a bit saturated. They thought they were going to start on color today, so most of them turned up. Even on a Saturday.

When I announced that we are going to do an introduction to typography today, faces just dropped. And the problem was typography crash courses are the worst. Because it can be a bit difficult to see text just visually as graphic elements, without reading it. Also what I had planned was, I'll skim through and cover all the basics alongwith some tid bids of relevant details, thumb rules, trivia and good practices. The idea was after doing this, they should be able to begin to use fonts more intelligently and deliberately.

Once the energy levels were down I realized I can't just give them facts in an "Its true, because I am saying so manner", because I was sure I would have a rebellion on hand. I had to generate interest. So I had to tell a story. I started with how the roman letter "A" that we see, was actually an inverted rotation of a pictogram found in the prehistoric times, which is supposed to represent the head of a bull with it's horns. I went ahead with how language evolved and today has somewhat come back full circle with the advent of emoticons. That did it. I got their attention.

So I had to maintain the story mode of the class, in order to keep them interested through growing saturation. A lot of background contexts were from analog printing days, which established the terminology we used today. Why do we call adjustment of line space, "leading"? What decides the font size of a particular letter? Why did we need to move on from serif to sans serif? I had to keep generating "Aha!" moments to keep their focus by filling in the blanks for all the knowledge they already had which they had taken for granted all this while and never bothered to question: “But why?” So the whole lecture inadvertently ended up becoming "hardcore" (as one student commented), which I hadn’t planned on and had really hoped against till this morning.

This did two things. One, it made the information load dense. It was obviously too much. Knowing all the facts, and knowing why they are facts to begin with, there's a lot of difference. My personal objective was, that even if they never take up professional typography, at least when they open Microsoft Word, they should know what is the right way to do it. While associative learning was the only way they would retain facts using their memories and learn on a day they just didn't want to learn. It was a fucking Saturday! The photography students were the least interested. When I said, 'What are you gonna do when you have to design your own business cards?', that's when the light bulbs turned on. They hated it, but they were like, okay, we need to understand how this stuff works. And they all kept filling pages and pages of notes.

Secondly, it massively extended my planned theory time by two hours. I taught a continuous theory marathon for five hours. The only saving grace was it was like a battleground. Like a do or die situation. Everyone was thoroughly tuned in while desperately waiting to finish the entire story. It was like watching an epic movie and waiting to see the climax. In the end when I finally thought it was over, everyone sighed a vocal relief. Just when I realized, I missed out on the concept of weightage. The moment I said it and facepalmed, the entire class unanimously yelled Noooo!!!

I was like okay, you will learn it anyway later on so we can leave it. The design and fashion communication students were like, No, just finish this goddamned thing. We want to know the whole thing. Hearing that, the photography students groaned. I couldn't help but express my utmost sympathy with them, because I did really feel bad for them. I told them, that two weeks back when they were least interested in elements and principles of art and design, I didn't give a rat's ass, because these are universally important in any visual medium, they pretty damn well get it right. (Most of them definitely did) But for this, I admitted that it is a bit much. They started laughing and the whole class broke into laughter. In solidarity. Everyone was still on board. I even offered them a ten minute break. They were like, No! Just. Finish. It.

Once it was actually over, I was wrapping up as quickly as possible by giving them some tips on good practices that are universally adopted in typography. At the same time, I was feeling I can't just end it like that. I have to give them a good visual example that covered most of what I had explained in last five hours. They had been seeing everything on the glass board or projection of live demos of half of the concepts on Illustrator. Black text on white background. I didn't want that to be the lasting visual memory of this subject. It would be so limiting.

So when I was giving them the last tip which is observed more as a rule, that you can't use more than two typefaces in a layout; I had to give them a disclaimer. Well it's not a definite rule, but it is what is most commonly followed. They asked, what do you mean? (I thought, dammit!) See, this is the amazing thing about design. There are no rules. Rules are created mostly as guidelines for you to be able to get a hang of design. When you practice design over and over again, you master these rules. Once you instinctively understand a design rule at the back of your hand, that's when you know how to break it without creating a disturbance in your composition. Bas, that was it. I think that's what broke their brains. I had gone meta.

That's when a light bulb went on in my head. Back in 2012 I had conceptualized a massive infographic, designed and executed with one of the most awesome design teams I have worked with; put up as a wall installation, talking about wine. I decided to show them the design, because the layout contained multiple typefaces in the composition. It was a crazy project. I and my colleague were stuck on the design for over a month. And the night before the deadline, we had scrapped the first concept altogether and hatched a completely new one overnight which we were finally satisfied with.

It was a 6ft x 5ft format, with a symmetric layout. We calculatedly divided up the sections into segregated areas that could have individual typographic sub-compositions, yet everything ties together as one unified layout. I’m not saying it was my best design (I prefer to believe I have not done my best yet. But I am proud of the ones I have done with a lot of effort). So it would have been the perfect example as I could point out most of the things they had learned today. But very honestly, I really thought they would be like, okay, whatever, we're done. Bye Felicia.

With KV Aniruddha, at Mixed Juice Design for House of Spirits

To my surprise, the moment I flashed the design on the projector, there was pin drop silence. They were actually staring at it. The moment the moment passed, I started getting bombarded with questions from all directions. Is this a vintage style or a modern style? Ohhh you combined both of them? Is that extended tracking? Is that a slab serif? Is that style Art Deco? Did you create that vector? No the client wanted to see it and the boss had some last minute critiques, so we had to quickly find a stock vector and purchase it. Ohhh what is it like to work in a design studio? It went on. I didn't even remember half the details. It was done four years ago. And honestly I was just too tired by now to even try. So I answered as much as I could and gave them their assignment that they can do at home and leave now. They have to write whatever they have learned in typography today and use it to create a typographic poster. Sir, does it have to be a poster or can we make it a booklet?

To be honest, I don't really know how much they have learned and how much they are going to retain. I have never done this before. But judging by the way the class ended, I think I saw content faces lingering around well after the class was over. Next week is color. One of my students has a hearing deficiency. I realized I can't rely on vocal explanation alone. There has to be a visual element to it. So I keep writing or typing every term I say or use. For this I asked all the students to wear any one of eight colors (actually six primaries + B + W) I prescribed them. And they need to discuss as a team who is wearing what to make sure I have all my colors. I have no clue what I plan to do next. Jitters

PS: If you’re still reading this, thank you for staying with me till here. I started this as a status update but turned it into a potha. Its 3AM, I should be sleeping like a dead body by now. But I'm so excruciatingly saturated. I needed to get all this out of my system. I guess I’ll get used to it. For now, blessed be the one who thought up of “Sunday”.

28th August, 2016

30 something, trans* graphic designer from Delhi with many a things to be said, though much ado 'bout nothing