Letterforms



This project began as an assignment for my first-year design students to get them to look more closely at the formal qualities of letters. The results were interesting and promising, so much so, I felt that it’s something I could learn from as well.

We read all day, every day, but rarely look at letters as individual forms. As a matter of fact we read words as images as researcher Maximilian Riesenhuber of Georgetown University Medical Center points out, that our neurons…respond to words' orthography—how they look—rather than their meaning1. Meaning word shapes are cataloged in a specific part of the brain and then recalled when we read.

I began to deconstruct letterforms and applied for and received a grant. My premise was that by removing letterforms from their context and recrafting them we could make them more visible. Transforming them from delivering content to content itself. However, the grant total was very small and, in the end, the project felt kind of stupid. I am not sure that other than type designers, regular people and even designers really care, but they may if presented with an abstract shape printed beautifully as a poster or experienced as a large sculpture.

Needless to say, I never finalized the grant but kept on exploring – working towards an alphabet, printing these as art prints and using 3D printers to bring them to life. Without explaining what these are viewers are responding to their formal qualities and composition and then gradually understand the source material - letters.

I am aware of Ed Fella’s fantastic mash-up of hand drawn fonts born from mechanicals and commercial art hand lettering. His work has a wild energy and is beautiful but can seem random and intuitive. There is no arguing that this work is not random or intuitive but has a different goal — not to make meaning, but to increase or initiate awareness of normally invisible characters — to render letters as form only, not to make legible figures.

I didn’t use Fella’s work as inspiration for this project, but reviewing it now points to a new direction or usefulness. To continue to deconstruct common elements of graphic communication, but keep it a more rigid assignment, and incorporate into my client work by either developing a complete font or using the forms is some meaningful graphic way.



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