The MA Typeface Design (MATD, for short) was the first MA programme in the field, and the only one operating in a research-intensive university environment. Central to the programme is the idea that typeface design does not exist solely as an area of practice, isolated from its context, but is a quintessentially interdisciplinary field. The main activities of the typeface designer are easy to define: designing typeforms, and specifying typefaces. But these rely on a deep web or of historical, cultural, and technical understanding, as well as plain-old form-making skills. From the impact of traditional forms of writing, the developments in the technologies of type-making and typesetting, the typeface designer needs to be aware of how texts are transmitted and shared in each society, and respond to the editorial practices and conventions of each market. Some may even engage with the sprinkling of usability and human perception discourse (although, the impact of such studies on typeface design is probably minimal).
The weight of these contexts may make it a challenge to see the space where originality in form-making happens in typeface design, in contrast with many creative professions where the emphasis is often on the personal expression (however false that assumption may be). Indeed, this is a misleading interpretation. It is better to put it this way: while the typeface designer needs to be just as creative as the next professional, she also needs to show that history, technology, culture, and society are peering over her head as she sketches or nudges outlines. Furthermore, it is exactly this increased expectation of knowledge and understanding that separates typeface design from most disciplines in the creative sector. There is, in fact, a very visible way to detect this value-added aspect of typeface design: it is one of the few disciplines in the communication professions that people can use their experience to build careers spanning many decades; in contrast, most designers in related fields quickly progress to managing other – less senior – designers, or running their own companies. With few, if any, parallels in the creative professions, typeface design allows a good designer to, well, just be a designer for longer.
Students spend most of the day in studio or workshop sessions, or in seminars and tutorials. There is time with staff practically every day, both scheduled and impromptu – not least because staff offices are right next to the studio. From mid-September all the way to the following July, there are timetabled weeks with a mix of regular and visiting staff. Then, to the middle of September students work more independently on their dissertation. Research work happens in parallel to the practical work, and tends to be closely integrated with the practical project. For example, a student doing a typeface for news settings will probably do their research on newspaper-related areas; depending on her interests, this may focus on production workflows and limitations, to editorial and typographic matters. The design of bold weights of the typeface would be designed differently depending on the audience of the newspaper, and the editorial structure: long or short headings, few or many levels of hierarchy, and so on. At the same time, an informed review on how newspapers are adapting to mobile devices would feed into the planning of the family, and the testing of the typeface on screen.
It will be impossible for students to cover all the material we expose them to; even more so the material that is available to discover. But we offer sessions on research methods that will enable them to prioritise, learn how to evaluate sources, and build knowledge outside formal sessions.Above all, we try to build an understanding of context and perspective in design, and help people become thinking designers. There’s no hand-holding: we expect people to be independent learners, managing their own priorities and developing skills without much direction.
Many years back, Ben Kiel described this approach this way: “If you are used to being guided every step of the way it is scary at first. But the program is very good: you learn more than you think you will, and the way you think will be challenged and as a result change. You are expected and required to do a lot of thinking and researching on your own. No one will give you an answer without prompting, you have to do your homework and ask. This initially is a bit frightening, but it is a strength of the program, you get much more out of it being challenged this way. And help is available, you just need to ask.”
All our students are encouraged to try designing non-Latin typefaces, and most do complete such projects. Few have any knowledge of the languages these typefaces are used for to begin with – and although some rules of Latin typeface design apply, most scripts are are many that are script-specific. The success of these projects depends on the research resources available to the students, the guidance they receive towards building a systematic approach to the design of the non-Latin typefaces, and the development of a script-specific system for qualitative assessment of their work. Staff supervising such projects are world experts in their respective fields; additionally, we draw on the expertise of visitors or external people as required.
Very frequently students design for scripts they are unfamiliar with, so a lot of research goes into building a solid foundation for the design work. This may start with linguistic aspects, extend to the historical development of the written form of the script, move on to the history of typesetting the script and the development of typographic resources. A deep understanding of how type-making and type-setting technologies have influenced the forms of the script sheds light onto decisions about character sets, the simplification or modification of typographic forms, the addition or subtraction of letters or features, and so on. Then a good understanding of the market (in the broad sense) for which the typographic scripts were developed helps answer questions about variation and range within a family, while cultural knowledge contributes to an understanding of each community’s relationship with modernity and tradition. And, of course, the designer will need to be practicing writing the script herself, with a range of tools, before moving to outlines.
So far we’ve had exceptional results in scripts as wide-ranging as Armenian, Amharic, Arabic, Sub-Saharan African Latin, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Tamil, Devanagari, Tibetan, and others. Although students usually work on two scripts at a time, our approach centres on developing skills that allow them to develop other scripts later, as professionals in their own right. That we have practicing type-professionals taking time out of established careers to study for the MA here, is a recognition that skills in non-Latin typeface design are not easy to develop in a self-guided manner: access to the relevant resources and proper feedback make all the difference.
We have a core team that students work closely with, and a range of visitors and occasional speakers to enrich the viewpoints you are exposed to. Fiona Ross is in twice a week, and Gerry Leonidas sees students almost daily in weeks when there are no visitors. Gerard Unger visits six times a year for four days each time. Michael Twyman and James Mosley deliver about twenty seminars and lectures each, and other members of staff a smaller number. Victor Gaultney comes for six to eight days, and a range of visitors for one-off stints of a few days: David Březina, John Hudson, Frank Griesshammer, Erich Scheichelbauer, and others depending on the year. Wayne Hart kicks off the year with a stone-cutting workshop, followed by lettering by Ewan Clayton. Sarah Cowan introduces letterpress.
The list of visitors is extensive, and not just limited to the MATD: we have a dense programme of visiting lecturers, shared across all MAs. Titus Nemeth, Jonathan Barnbrook, Paul Barnes, Naomi Games, Richard Grasby, Will Hill, Laurence Penney and others visited the Department in 2013–14.
In addition, MA students join in the roughly fortnightly seminars by current PhD students on their research. This not only allows them to find out about research in the Department, but also to gain insights into the different strands of research in typography. Indeed, some graduates of the MATD return to Reading to complete PhDs (Jo de Baerdemaeker on Tibetan, who recently completed a post-doc studying Mongolian; Titus Nemeth on Arabic, awarded in 2013; Alice Savoie on early phototypesetting typefaces, submitted in early 2014). Current researchers include Emanuela Conidi on early Arabic printing in Europe, and graduates of our other MAs: Sallie Morris on Eric Gill, Helena Lekka on Linotype’s early Greek phototypes. And many mature professionals (e.g. Sébastien Morlighem, Andrew Barker) come to Reading for their research degrees.
The overall effect is that students work in an intellectually challenging environment, surrounded by people who can enrich their perspectives, as well as support their development.
One of the things that sets Reading apart from any other design school is our collections and archives. Recognised worldwide as a unique resource on typography and typeface design, we use them for teaching, research, exhibitions, and publications. Our collections span early printing, the development of newspapers, printed ephemera, corporate identity, British modernism, and many other areas. We are particularly strong in type-related areas, with extensive collections of type specimens, original drawings for many scripts, wood and metal letters, and letter- press as well as hot-metal equipment. Our collections have featured in exhibitions in St Bride Library and the V&A Museum, and we have recently concluded the second showing of a travelling exhibition on the topic of the translation of non-Latin scripts from metal to digital technologies. This last exhibition has so far been shown in Reykjavik and Hong-Kong, and generated a substantial publication, Non-Latin scripts: from metal to digital type.
For visitors the intensity with which we use of our collections is simply jaw-dropping. For example, when discussing Greek we examine over a hundred original editions covering the full five-and-a-half centuries of Greek printing; and when looking at Indian typefaces we have access to the original drawings of the most popular typefaces for the whole of the continent. Discussing early digital typefaces is done with a full run of Emigre and Octavo issues at hand; and so on.
We always work with original artefacts: experiencing the scale, material, and reproduction technology of designed matter is essential for understanding why this is worth discussing. For example, how does the shift to smaller print formats influence the design of newspaper headline typefaces? And how does the translation of a typographic structure developed for print to a tablet with flexible layout impact on the branding typeface?
Our Departmental collections are supplemented by a specialist library and reading room in the Department, the University’s main library (which holds substantial physical and digital resources on the full range of disciplines in the university) and our Special Collections, with central resources such as publishers’ archives. Staff on the MATD make their own, personal research collections available to students. We also help arrange for access to other collections if students’ interests are not covered by what we have locally. We have a very close relationship with the St Bride Library in London; the British Library, the Bodleian in Oxford, and Cambridge University Library are all within easy reach.
And we spend four days in Antwerp, The Hague, and Amsterdam to visit the Plantin-Moretus, the Meermanno, the Enschede Museum, and the Library of the University of Amsterdam, to examine material not readily accessible in Reading.
There is a very clear effect from this immersion in real objects: students often rediscover the joy of handling the real thing, and learn how to extract information that is opaque if one is looking at secondary sources, filtered by scale as well as the limitations of reproduction.
It is important to recognise the impact of the MATD beyond typeface design. There is a global trend in higher education for design-related studies to integrate research into practice, and to contribute actively in knowledge generation, as well as practice. Many universities are rethinking their courses, and an increasing number of institutions expect their staff to be able to conduct research and to teach their students how to think critically about their discipline, to be reflective about their practice, and to expand the understanding of design’s connection with other fields. In this process the MATD has been central: it is a recognised model for courses combining practice and research at MA level, and has provided a framework for an increasing number of courses worldwide. This model of postgraduate education in design has also been vindicated through the careers of its graduates, and the impact they, in turn, are having on the industry.