Just my type

A lot of the experimentation I do with my work involves design with the occasional use of type and, because I was writing about semiotics recently, it got me thinking about the symbolism of symbols. Semiotics being the study of signs and symbols, I have been thinking a little more literally about what we call symbols, in terms of written communication, as well as the juxtaposition of image and text.

The story starts with very early examples of what we now call graphic design. The origins of the subject begin many thousands of years ago, so today I aim to highlight the key stages in the life of this modern day graphic design in a whirlwind timeline.

To start right at the very beginning, we can consider images of cave paintings from around 40,000 years ago. No one seems to have found out who put these images in the caves, or why, but it is thought that they may have been created by Shamans, painting images of their visions.

A few years later, we find petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are symbols and drawings created by neolithic man around 10,000 BC, which are thought to be the first signs of a written language. Geoglyphs take the same form as Petroglyphs but on a much larger scale. Many of these images are so large that it would have been impossible to view these in their full glory from ground level at the time of their creation. Geoglyphs could be compared to the present day crop circle. We don’t know why they were created but perhaps it could have been a symbol of a tribe marking their territory? (Or aliens).

Moving on to a more recognisable language, we have the Western alphabets in comparison to the Chinese written language. The Chinese language, from ancient times and today, is pictorial with many thousands of different symbols to represent a meaning. Alternately, the Western alphabets are constructed with a minute amount of letters that are used in combination with each other to achieve a meaning. Where Western alphabets are standardised, the Chinese alphabet can be transformed into a visual art with the addition of a Calligrapher’s touch.

Cuneiform is thought to be the first supposed written language written in the (Western) standard way from left to right across the page from around 34 centuries BC. The cuneiform script was, in principle, capable of distinguishing 14 consonants, transliterated as b, d, g, ḫ, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, š, t, z as well as four vowel qualities, a, e, i, u.

The Rosetta Stone, carved around 196 BC, bears three different types of script being used in Egypt at the time: Hieroglyphic Egyptian, Demotic Egyptian and Ancient Greek to ensure that the priests, government officials and rulers of Egypt could read what it said. There’s been talk of a global language for a while now, to think that not so long ago they needed three types of script for everyone in one place to understand it is fascinating. The closest I’ve got to this recently is a trip to Wales. Can you think of other examples that intertwine two languages?

The Romans were the crew that visually organised typography by introducing a ‘base line’ to the characters used in the alphabet. The base line is a line on which the letters ‘sit’ and which the descenders of certain letters hang below. (Descender = the dangly bit of a y, p, g)

Moving very swiftly into modern times, we can see that typography was not something that everyone would experience. For example, in the medieval period, books were hand-written by a scribe, long before the arrival of the printing press. This made sure that books were only available to the very rich or religious groups as they were so expensive to produce. Manuscripts (just text) and illuminated manuscripts (with nice pictures) were produced individually by hand and could take years to complete. Upon the arrival of the printing press, around the 15th century, books would become more widely available and affordable due to the new and exciting capability to produce multiple copies of the same book as opposed to individually scribed artifacts.

Side note: This is a particularly westernised and simple view of the timeline of type. There are many other records of hand written books, such as the ‘first-book ever written’ around 2500 BC, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. I can go into more detail some other time, or you can Google it.

This began the transition from medieval times to modern times – The Renaissance period. Leonardo Da Vinci was typical of the era as he used both image and drawing encompassed within text in his work.

Until Lithography was introduced in the mid 1800’s, typography was very much restricted to a grid when used in the printing press. So, really the way of forming type has gone from being unrestricted in the way it is laid out, to being very organised by the Romans, to now, when we can do whatever we like. The Industrial revolution opened up ways in which creativity could be reproduced on a mass scale, much to the disdain of the bona fide art circles of the time. This is a good point to mention Walker Benjamin’s ‘aura’, because this was the moment that the aura of an artwork, written or otherwise, could be dissipated throughout the many, not just the few.

An example of the use of text with image in art comes from The Constructivists (born circa 1913, courtesy of Vladimir Tatlin, Russia). They were a group against the idea of mass produced, kitsch imagery that was being widely used and instead went against the grain by using bold graphics and images as a way of communicating, by rejecting the pure form of an image and the dominant western development. They instead focused on Russian development and their desire to influence people’s thinking processes. This art was used as political strategy to communicate their ideologies. El Lissitsky was a central figure in the change of how art was presented and was fundamental to the change of society in the 1930’s. Emerging after the Russian Revolution was Alexander Rudchenko, very much part of the constructivists, who started to put photography with graphics to produce revolutionary collages that were politically radical. The Futurists were another group at this time that challenged the idea of art by introducing technology into art and design. These were groups that were seen as avant-garde, ahead of their time and the first to take risks into the unknown. (If we think about the definition of post-modernism, utilising that which already exists and improving it, this is precisely what they were doing. At the time the work was avant-garde, but we can see it as post-modern before they knew it). Between the World Wars, Fortune magazine and Alexander Brodovitch (Russian, again), art directing for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, were very influential on public art consumption. And then there’s the Dada artist Raoul Hausmann, also considered Modernist. The popularity of using text and image particularly in collage crossed boundaries of art movement categorisations. It’s all adding up. Modernism was not seen as avant-garde and was embraced by all. Swiss style, minimalism and Piet Mondrian reflected what society believed to be important at that time.

So with this incredibly quick run through of factors that have influenced art, design, and type, and how we have reached what we now call Graphic design, it is clear that Graphic Design has a hugely social role to play internationally. It is often used to sell products and information (the word Propaganda springs to mind) and it is aesthetically pleasing, focusing on visual style. The better the quality of the piece, the more likely it is to influence the audience and hopefully, the message will be put across as intended. Did somebody say ‘quick, use it for advertising?’


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