Influential designer and teacher at Switzerland’s Basel School of Design, Wolfgang Weingart, challenged the discourse of typography. Established philosophies and understandings of typography entrenched in language and antiquity entered a new era as postmodernist design examined the veracity of typography. Weingart studied under typography masters Armin Hofman and Emil Ruder, pioneers of the International Typographic Style. Ruder taught a rigorous mathematical logic in graphic design and in 1959 published The Typography of Order, the underlying principles of the International Typographic Style. This movement involved avoidance of the decorative, a strict adherence to ‘objectivity and impersonality’ and a restriction of typefaces (Identifont). Weingart responded to his schooling with an examination of existing typography. Weingart reacted to those constraints in his essay My Way to Typography, published in 2000. He writes, “Its development [referring to Swiss typography of the 50s and 60s], however, was on the threshold of stagnation; it became sterile and anonymous.” Weingart exhibits his intentions without guilt as he explains, “My vision, fundamentally compatible with our school’s philosophy, was to breathe new life into the teaching of typography by reexamining the assumed principles of its current practice.”
I would like to define two areas of study, discourse and semiotics. The mode of orderly thought, ideas, or experience that is rooted in language as history is described as discourse. Semiotics is the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. I would like to suggest the theories of discourse and semiotics fostering a profound influence into the investigations in typography during the postmodern era. To appreciate typographic discourse, suggestions of postmodernist typography, and the teachings of Weingart, one must have an elevated appreciation for the rules of typography and semiotics of typography. Semiotics is typically separated into three divisions. 1] Semantics: the relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their meaning, 2] Syntactics: the relations among signs in formal structures, and 3] Pragmatics: the relation between signs and the effects they have on the people who use them. As students of Weingart studied the traditional methods of letterpress printing, gathering a formal appreciation for typographic rules, they were able to experiment with typesetting. Their studies revealed that the message was less dependent upon reading than originally expected and more so on semiotic understanding.
When focusing on semantics or the study of meaning; we can focus on the relation between signifiers, such as words, phrases, signs and symbols. In a 2001 proposal for experimental typography from the Parsons School of Design, Communications Design Department, Takaaki Okada explains typographic semantics;
“For example a certain word, say “dog”, can be represented visually in almost endless possibilities. Metaphorically, in speech, a person could shout the word “dog” really loud or could whisper the word “dog” to you. The context that these two instances convey is the same, but the physical expression is not. The expression could vary from person to person. Someone could have an accent or a dialect. The person speaking could be a man or a woman. Typography works and functions in the same way. It conveys different expressions from one typeface, arrangement et cetra from one to another.”
To reflect on this suggestion review an excerpt Weingart shares from a manifesto by Emil Ruder;
“Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing. No argument or consideration can absolve typography from this duty. A printed work that cannot be read becomes a product without purpose. More than graphic design, typography is an expression of technology, precision, and good order.”
There is an underlying implication in Ruler’s manifesto that is still relevant in postmodern style as well as today’s movements through the study of meaning. Many prominent designers such as Katherine McCoy, April Greiman, David Carson, and Paula Scher—to name a few—followed the principals of Weingarts experiments and applied theories of semiotics in their experimentations. Stepping beyond the semantics of typography, Katherine McCoy explored the relationships between type and image. The postmodern movement set the stage for McCoy to express her opinions of communication and experimentation in design. McCoy informs designers that authorship is not more important than the message and typography can assist us in that venture. She expresses her fulfillment in her 1988 essay Typography as Discourse, “Shattering the constraints of minimalism was exhilarating and far more fun than the antiseptic discipline of the classical Swiss school.”
Modernist argued the discourse of new wave investigation through postmodernism as ugly and impractical. Steven Heller gives some insight into the legibility wars of the time via an interpretation to the question what is beauty. In his 2004 essay, Cult of Ugly, Heller writes, “‘Ask a toad what is beauty… He will answer that it is a female with two great round eyes coming out of her little head, a large flat mouth, a yellow belly and a brown back.’ (Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1794). Ask Paul Rand what is beauty and he will answer that ‘the separation of form and function, of concept and execution, is not likely to produce objects of aesthetic value.’ (Paul Rand, A Designer’s Art, 1985). Then ask the same question to the Cranbrook Academy of Art students who created the ad hoc desktop publication Output (1992), and judge by the evidence they might answer that beauty is chaos born of found letters layered on top of random patterns and shapes.”
Heller best describes in his writing, “For a new generation’s ideas of good design—and beauty—to be challenged by its forerunners is, of course, a familiar pattern.” A scale of beauty nor successfulness cannot measure the experimental style of postmodernist design. It needs to be understood that the experimentations—whether failure or success, ugly or beauty—are stages toward newfound solutions. Although the chance of failure is present, promoting graphic design experimentation is crucial. Investigation in typography and graphic design as a whole can lead to hopeful solutions to present-day societal problems. McCoy’s explanation draws upon the earlier mentioned semantics, she writes, “The focus now is on expression through semantic content, utilizing the intellectual software of visual language as well as the structural hardware and graphic grammar… It is an interactive process that—as art always anticipates social evolution—heralds our emerging information economy, in which meanings are as important as materials.”
There is no better, nor more important, time for us as designers to act upon the lessons learned from postmodernist design. The current social and cultural conditions we are facing beckons for change, transformation and direction. The examination of visual communications through semiotics can allow for an in-depth look into how we might tackle these profound difficulties.
As the study of typographic experimentations of the new wave movement elevated our understanding, discourse again can become a dominant instrument of change and open the door to discovery.