Pictures of things: context in the time of global design


As type design expands into developing markets, as well as new platforms of communication, its rapid progress continues to highlight some key issues and limitations in both educational frameworks and professional practices. Designers embarking on projects in multiple scripts have new challenges to face and few reliable resources to turn to. In the absence of an active professional engagement in creating, archiving and reflecting on possible resources designers often rely on critically unexamined precedents. Often design decisions are based on a purely graphic logic of the designer's own making, or they derive from a direct transposition of typographic principles that may apply to one script but may be irrelevant to another. On the other hand an equally unsatisfactory, and problematic, approach seeks validation by introducing a crude division between 'native' and 'non-native' designers. This shifts the understanding of type design from something that is an acquired skill – based on levels of interest, exposure, practice, and cultivation of visual judgement – to something that is, as it were, simply a territorial ability. 

In this scenario, the old dictum 'Letters are things, not pictures of things' may have a new meaning and relevance. Looking at type merely as 'pictures of things' not only ignores contextual relevance but also devalues the process of knowledge-creation. Letters are indeed 'things' to be read, things that convey meaning – and as the vital constituent of textual communication, the design of type cannot be considered an insular practice, oblivious to strands of development in the world at large. This talk will argue against the reductive view of type design as an intellectually undemanding formal exercise and will expand on the possibilities of wider connections in the formation of a knowledge base.