Specimens beyond the ABCs

Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit letterforms

One of my long-term research and writing projects is a history of the type specimen as a visual form and professional practice. Written (and illustrated!) for design educators, students, and practitioners, it contextualizes this long-lasting and still-present form of typographic expression. It’s difficult to find historical context for images like these, because historical information about type specimens tends to be hidden away in highly specialized journals and limited-run small press books. As a design educator, it’s important for me to offer my students access to historical and critical context for the projects we undertake in the studio. This book project is all about sharing that kind of access with a wider public audience. One of my priorities right now is expanding the image library to include global examples of specimens of non-Latin alphabets. It’s difficult but very rewarding to look for specimens which were produced locally, for and by audiences who used these languages for everyday communication. The process is ongoing and the details in the image above are snippets from my digital archives research process: a 1732 treatise on magnetism published by Ibrahim Müteferriqa in Istanbul, a stop along the way in my search for a locally-produced Arabic alphabet specimen; a page from Berthold’s 1924 specimen of Hebrew types, designed for the then-flourishing local Jewish community in Germany; and a page from a 1930 Gujarati Type Foundry specimen, printed in Bombay around 1930. It’s exciting to connect the visual research taking place in today’s graphic design studios with a diverse and (for most novice designers) as-yet unknown global history of typographic practice.

The photo details in this post show less than 10% of the following publicly available images: Nick Sherman’s Creative Commons image shared under this license, a detail of this Wikimedia Commons image, and a detail from this Pinterest post.

Teaching Design History

Cubism applied to jazz (1926) and the Hip Hop aesthetic (21st century).

One of the graphic design projects I most enjoy teaching is a book design project where students collaborate to write brief introductory texts for assigned time periods in the history of graphic design, then source images to illustrate the texts and create an editorial slant of their own. Naturally, they also design the book itself, and we use a print-on-demand service to produce the 36-page books. Otherwise generic texts can be curated to show how graphic design and fashion design overlap, how women have been active in graphic design, how astronomers have used graphic design strategies to visualize the universe, or how restrictive the history of Euro-American design really is when contextualized globally. I recently presented this project and a cross-section of its results as a case study at a conference, so I’ve been looking back over past iterations and reflecting on what I learned from them. One of my all-time favorite results is a recent student book showing how Black designers are creating dialogues with the history of graphic styles through the work they do for contemporary hip-hop albums and posters. Teaching is a learning experience, and that’s why I love it. I constantly seek ways to diversify the projects I assign and the examples I show to be reflective of my students, their experiences, and the global community in which we live. But though my introductory lecture asked students to reflect (among many other things) on why images by Black designers don’t show up in generic histories of design, I never would have imagined this specific concept as a potential example of the “graphic histories” book project and I’ve learned so much from the student who did.

About the images: 1926 New Yorker cover deploys the Cubist style. DJ Spinna fan art poster is by prop4g4nd4 on DeviantArt. Omar Musa’s World Goes to Pieces album was released by OBM Music in Australia, 2010.

See Japan

Montage of image details from JTB guidebook covers of the 1930s.

It’s thrilling to share this link to the abstract for my article “How to See Japan” in the Journal of Design History. Fellow academics (and any other interested readers) are welcome to get in touch for a PDF of the article itself, which I’m allowed to share on an individual basis but not through online links or social media posts.

Visualizing Eco-dystopia

Montage of details from eco-dystopian novel covers of the 1960s-70s.

“Visualizing Eco-dystopia” is forthcoming (October 2018) in the journal Design & Culture. Here’s the abstract: “This study examines the cover designs of popular works of eco-dystopian speculative fiction, documenting how graphic designers and commercial illustrators have conceptualized the impact of human behaviors on the near-future environment. The sample includes 105 covers for ten high-impact, mass-market novels written between 1962 and 2013. Coded for thematic similarities, the sample reveals visual strategies and narrative tropes that have recurred since the advent of contemporary eco-dystopian fiction in the 1960s. Yet evolving social and environmental conditions render the specific visual motifs more journalistic than anticipatory. Re-conceptualizing eco-dystopia through the meta-language of design failure, however, can be a way to suggest both genre-specific continuity and emergent concerns.”

Editorial Adventures

Berthold Hebrew type specimen book, 1924 (source)

I’m currently guest editing a special issue of the visual communication design journal Visible Language and this work has been ongoing for quite a while. The issue centers the histories of designers, artifacts, practices, and global design communities that have been relegated to the periphery of disciplinary dialogues in western Europe and North America for far too long. During this process, I’ve discovered that I love editing for one of the same reasons I love teaching: it’s a chance to learn something entirely new about the practice and history of design. I’ve been an eager student of the authors I’m working with. Through this editorial adventure, I’ve learned about the history of typography and design in places where the local languages are Arabic, Danish, Hebrew (pictured), and Māori. The remaining details will have to wait for 2019, when the issue will be published.

The photo in this post is a detail of Nick Sherman’s Creative Commons image shared under this license.

How to See Japan

Japan Imperial Government Railways guidebook, 1915

“How to See Japan” is forthcoming in the Journal of Design History. Here’s its official abstract: The interwar English-language guidebooks published by the Japan Tourist Bureau utilized a diverse set of graphic design strategies on their front covers to communicate the cultural identity of Japan to anglophone tourists. Many of the covers borrowed the aesthetic conventions of European Modernism, rendering the Japanese landscape and its inhabitants familiar to the western tourist gaze. Conversely, others evoked the visual conventions of traditional Japanese painting and printmaking, signifying the exotic nature of Japanese tourism destinations. Adapted from both indigenous and imported visual languages, the JTB’s combination of graphic communication strategies functioned to construct a visual identity diverse in its component parts but cohesive in its over-arching received narrative. For anglophone viewers, the images depicted Japan as a destination simultaneously historical and modern, familiar yet exotic.

Teaching with Archives

A Fashionable Melange of English Words, Kamekichi Tsunajima, 1887 (source).

At the AIGA Design Educators Community conference this June, I’m facilitating a workshop on using digital humanities resources to teach global design history. It can be tricky to find English-language, open-access sources that offer both high-quality reproductions and useful context for images that aren’t in your typical survey textbook. Though it’s not usually what I post about here, I’d like to share a few of the resources I use in both the studio and the design history classroom. Many sources mentioned here have decent-to-excellent coverage of the usual kinds of images from western Europe and North America that get covered in design history surveys; I make note of which additional global locations I’ve had good luck with at each source, if the archive’s name doesn’t make this information evident.

The Public Domain Review is a not-for-profit Open Knowledge project that collects and reviews (among other things) images that are in the public domain. In addition to showing images and providing introductory information about their production and meaning, the site links to the organizations and archives that house the originals and/or host the digital copies. I’ve found some unusual Chinese and Japanese sources here, and this is an excellent site for sourcing images to use in studio design projects that explore historical subject matter, since everything is in the public domain.

Monoskop is a collaborative wiki that focuses on arts and humanities. Their digital collection of Avant Garde magazines is especially fabulous, and it includes full runs of early Modernist publications from Japan, eastern Europe, and Central/South America, as well as all of the familiar publications from France, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and Italy. Some scans are housed on-site, like the amazing Mavo from Japan; other publications are viewed via links to repositories like the Asia Art Archive or Biblioteca Brasiliana.

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has thousands of very high-resolution, mostly public-domain geographical images. In addition to maps, this vast collection includes a surprising number of images graphic designers would call “infographics,” mostly from atlases. The collection is highly searchable (by maker, date, location, printing method) and the metadata is generally excellent. Though the collection is heavy on western European and North American cartographers, there’s growing representation for other geographical regions, particularly in the twentieth century.

The Qatar Digital Library is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, and it includes not only images but also audio, video, and featured articles. While most of the digital images can also been seen on the BL site, the QDL site makes it much easier to focus a search on the Persian Gulf region. The object descriptions are sometimes longer and more useful than those you’d get through a typical BL catalog search; they’re also often written by librarians and curators at the QNL. There’s good representation for illuminated manuscripts and maps, and some coverage for commercial illustration, newspapers, and printed books.

The Endangered Archives project at the British Library provides online access to physically endangered archival material from around the world. The interface sorts the materials into geographic regions: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Item descriptions for the contents within individual projects are concise and easy to locate; there aren’t image thumbnails, which makes it time-consuming to browse visually. It’s worth the effort, though. The collection is incredibly diverse, ranging from seventeenth century Islamic manuscripts made in Ethiopia to magazines from Mongolia in the 1990s.

50 Watts is an excellent blog about book design and illustration. It’s browsable by location, date, and subject. Subjects range from textbook covers in 1920s Japan to mid-century Guatemalan illustration for children and information about each source is (usually) very specific and complete.

Japan’s National Diet Library digital collection includes books, periodicals, rare books and manuscripts, and various multi-media items (films, sound recordings). It’s searchable in English, though sometimes it can be difficult to find information beyond the basics of title/maker/date.