Drawing Type, Drawing Connections

Joel Mason
Professor Emeritus
Department of Communication Design
New York City College of Technology, CUNY

In 1979, as a full-time member of the Communication Design department at NYC College of Technology, I was assigned Lettering and Typography, a first semester course teaching students to draw three basic alphabets: Caslon, Bodoni and Helvetica using the “built-up” method with broad sketching pencils. Reviewing the course outline and required textbook, David Gates’ Lettering for Reproduction I realized there were gaps in my education.

When I was a student, classes in graphic design history/theory didn’t exist. Gates briefly covered design history and theory but also explained the role of geometry, visual perception, printing technology, history and
aesthetics in the design and evolution of letterforms. Now, I understood that while demonstrating lettering techniques, I would also need to relate them to these other disciplines. As a result, my thinking about teaching typography changed, seeing its potential as a multidisciplinary subject with links to the liberal arts and sciences.

Lectures included the role of geometry in shaping the proportional systems underlying Old Style and Modern Style typefaces, along with discussions and demonstrations of the role of visual perception and illusion in adjusting shapes to create harmonious optical relationships among letterforms. Examples of how Caslon and Bodoni appeared when first printed in the 18th century and how paper, ink and presswork affected their appearance were integrated into the narrative. History could also be introduced in surprising ways, by explaining for example, that the first copies of the American Declaration of Independence were printed using Caslon, which was imported from England prior to the Revolution. Drawing and constructing letterforms also demonstrated how fundamental design principles (also being taught in other first year design classes) such as contrast, balance, proportion and rhythm contributed to an aesthetically pleasing result. The class was also showed thow organic forms in nature served as a source of inspiration.

Taken together, students not only learned to draw letterforms, but saw how the broad web of connections with other disciplines could enrich their learning experience. I taught the course for five years, but by the early 90’s digital technology replaced hand-lettering. Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in calligraphy and hand-lettering. Regardless of the technology used, teaching typography, particularly at the introductory level, can be transformed by the multidisciplinary approach.