What is Typography?

Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2015

Typography has been identified in a number of ways and its definition has gone through changes throughout the history of design based on aesthetic, cultural, social and technological ideas and transformations.

Friedrich Friedl, Nicolaus Ott and Bernard Stein (1998) in their book Typography: An Encyclopedia of Type Design and Techniques Throughout History state: “the 20th century brought change to all areas of art and culture. The legacy of past centuries was consciously forgotten to make way for the new. Art saw the transformation from representational to abstract painting. Unfamiliar images were greeted with vehement enthusiasm and rejection alike before they were accepted as an expression of a society under radical change. This in turn changed ideas of harmony, form and proportion. Typography, which had changed little since Gutenberg and then only in conformity with a rigid pattern of rules, was also embraced by these new concepts. In the past it had been a steady medium which served reading and writing; now suddenly began to move.”(p. 8)

Rob Carter, Ben Day and Philip Meggs (2002) in Typographic Design: Form and Communication also highlight the changes in the function and definition of typography since the early twentieth century. They explain: “the typographic message is verbal, visual, and vocal. While typography is read and interpreted verbally, it may also be viewed and interpreted visually, heard and interpreted audibly. It is a dynamic communication medium. In this sense, early twentieth- century typography becomes a revolutionary form of communication, bringing new expressive power to written word.” (p. 74)

Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1923) in his essay titled “The New Typography” explains: “epigraphy is a tool of communication. It must be communication in its most intense form. The emphasis must be on absolute clarity since this distinguishes the character of our own writing from that of ancient pictographic forms” . In 1971 designer Herbert Bayer describes typography as “a service art, not a fine art, however pure and elemental the discipline may be.”

Later Philip Meggs (1992) clarifies that, traditionally, the word typography meant the technical process of printing writing through the use of metal types with raised letterforms that could be linked and printed in a process not unlike a rubber stamp. In our electronic age, typography encompasses the transmission and communications of alphabetical and numerical information through a variety of means, including printing, video transmission, computer display, and electric signs.  What Meggs is describing is the evolving nature of typography and its essence and meaning. In a sense typography is no longer about the metal type or typeset matter but it is as James Craig and William Bevington (1999) explain, “the art of designing with type.”

Also, Kees Broos (1982) in the essay “From De Stijl to New Typography” proposes: “let us define the word “typography” here as the deliberate use of letters, in the broadest sense of the word. The user can be printer, typographer, architect, poet or painter. The materials are not restricted to those of the type case or typesetting machine, but encompass every suitable medium from linoleum to electronic news marquees and from a tile tableau to television. It is important that the user be aware of the shape and function of each letter and consequently of the expressive potential in the design and arrangement of letters and text opened up to the reader and the viewer.”

The definition of typography and the space that it creates for layers of meaning and interpretations are continually expanding and shifting. As Rick Poynor (1991) in his essay “Type and Deconstruction in the Digital Era” explains: “contemporary typographic works embody multiple readings, encourage readers’ participation and are becoming complex.” Poynor states: “type design in the digital era is quirky, personal and unreservedly subjective. The authoritarian voices of Modernist typography, which seem to permit only a single authorized reading, are rejected as too corporate, inflexible and limiting, as though – it may be forlorn hope – typographic diversity itself might somehow re-enfranchise its readers…The aim is to promote multiple rather than fixed readings, to provoke the reader into becoming an active participant in the construction of message. Later Modernist typography sought to reduce complexity and to clarify content, but the new typographers relish ambiguity, preferring the provisional utterance, alternative take, and delayed punchline to finely honed phrase.”

Jessica Helfand (1995) in her essay “Electronic Typography” draws the attention to the performative and dramatic nature of contemporary typography and asks: “What happens when written words can speak? When they can move? When they can be imbued with sound and tone and nuance and decibel and harmony and voice? As designers probing the creative parameters of this new technology, our goal may be less to digitize than dramatize.”

Another factor that influences the evolving definition of typography is who is defining it and in what cultural context it is defined. For example the complexity and openness of the definition of typography sometimes creates anxiety and unease among artists and designers.

Currently in the Iranian design scene one of the heated topics of conversation and criticism is typography and its definition. Although typographic activities such as siyah mashq (even if they are not recognized as typography) have long been practiced in Iran, yet typography is confronted as a new phenomenon that is overpowering every aspect of the graphic design. In 2006 Ebrahim Haghighi (2006) in his essay titled “Poster Mania” puts forward several questions about “the emergence of a new form of art called typography.” He states: “it is not clear whether it is painting or sculpture, graphic design or photography, cinema or video art. It may encompass all or may be independent and self sufficient with its own set of principles and techniques. Does every work produced by calligraphy, penmanship or fonts classify as typography? How can we distinguish that it is not a work of graphic design or painting? By which rule or principle has this new labeling been defined? ”

Other Iranian designers have expressed their understanding and definition of typography as well. Morteza Momayez (2004) explained: “typography is not merely the design of the letters. In today’s world there are a number of different definitions for typography. We cannot even say that typography is design with script or letters, because in some instances in the hands of a typographer or type designer or a layout artist, it creates an atmosphere that visualizes the written concepts.”

Mohammad Ehsaei (2010) separates writing and calligraphy from typography and explains: “when we say typography, at once typing letters come to mind. You are typing the letters that have been pre-designed for specific needs and goals. Delicate letters are designs for delicate concepts and rough letters for bolder purposes…Therefore we have typography, calligraphy and writing. Each has a different function, form and aesthetics. Nowadays all of these are presented in form of what is called a font and the common mistake is to call all of them typography. Calligraphy can never become a font. A calligrapher sits down and creates a calligraphic work and if a nastaliq font is designed it is not calligraphy anymore. When a letter or a word is designed for a logo and is not going to be used for other typesetting purposes, it is not called typography. For example when you look at Herb Lubalin’s Mother and Child logo it is not typography it is graphic design…Calligraphy is the mastery and skill that is embedded in calligrapher’s hands and anything that the calligrapher creates on the paper is personal and would be for the first and last time; just like writing.”

In his essay titled “What is typography?” Saed Meshki (2004) states: “the most important, and at the same time, the most challenging function of typography is to create by letters and words an ambiance capable of conveying to the viewer something of the essential character of the subject, and also something of the graphic designer’s feelings about the subject and his or her grasp of it. Letters and characters are a set of signs that by virtue of their familiarity impart to the viewer something more than just an exercise in pure form even if they are not legible in a typographic composition. Because of their characteristic shapes, Persian letters and words are imbued with energy of their own. It is by the correct exploitation of this latent energy of Persian letters and by discovering the aesthetic criterions that apply to them that Persian typography is distinguished from Western typography.”

Reza Abedini (2010) defines typography as: “any activity by a graphic designer to give letters and writing a visual meaning beyond information…There is a major problem with trying to define typography. When you ask what is the definition of typography it is like asking what is the definition of computer, and in addition you want to know what is Iranian typography? There is no such thing. If we want to talk about computers, Iranians have no role in its creation. They may like to translate its name to Persian and call it Pardazeshgar to feel better but this does not change anything about the nature and function of the computer. Well, it is the same story with typography. Basically typographic activities are meaningful in Western visual art specifically in Western graphic design…What I mean is if I want to be seriously working on Persian calligraphy and Persian letters it is not necessarily called typography anymore. Using computer as an example again, I should create a device, which can solve my [an Iranian person] problem, because computer has solved the problem of a Western person.”

Masoud Nejabati (2004) stated: “in my view typography is giving sensitivity to letters. If we agree that every graphic design work is made of two basic elements of type and image, the quality and validity of what is written is based on typography. Which means that type has been changed from its usual form. If letters are endowed with sensitivity then a typographic work is created either in concrete form or abstract form.”

Homa Delvaray (2010) states that: “typography has a wide definition and I can not fit it in one sentence, but what comes to my mind is when we consider specific qualities of letters in a work and emphasize that aspect it becomes typography. It is in reality a graphic design style, which people choose to use and it can be objective or subjective. If they look at typography objectively, they transfer the meaning by objective means and if they chose to use is subjectively and in abstract context, they use letters as codes. It all depends on the designer’s taste…When we concentrate on each letter and position them in a space in order to create a composition, it becomes a typographic work.”

In conclusion, I believe that the most contemporary and relevant description of typography is what design critic and educator Ellen Lupton has put forward which is “the art of designing letterforms and arranging them in space and time.” Lupton (2000) explains: ” Typography is going under water as designers submerge themselves in the textures and transitions that bond letter, word, and surface. As rigid formats become open and pliant, the architectural hardware of typographic systems is melting down.”

Artworks by: Shahrzad Changalvaee, Reza Abedini, Farhad Fozouni, Homa Delvaray, Iman Raad and Mohammad Ehsaei.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2015. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

 

 

 

 

 

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Power of writing

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | June 1, 2014

In Iranian culture and folklore it is believed that besides being elements of language and narration, letters and words possess hidden meanings and powers. In the 14th century A.D. a Sufi by the name of Fazlallah Abolfazl Astarabadi Ajami (1340–1394), who is known as Fazlallah Hurufi, and his followers who were called Hurufis, claimed that they had discovered “the secret of the words of divinity.”[i] They believed that “God is embodied in words and letters, and his words appear in the existence of human kind. Words of divinity are embodied within Man and he is therefore, the supreme manifestation of God himself.” Therefore, the human body as well as words and letters became symbols that carried scared meanings.

In Islamic tradition writing as a sacred practice also manifests itself in various forms such as Hilya which is a verbal portrait. According to Priscilla Soucek[ii] (2000), Muhammad b. Isa al-Tirmidi in Shama’il al-Mustafauiyah stated: “[A Hilya describes]the Prophet from head to foot and comments on the manner in which he moved, spoke, and behaved. The wealth of concrete detail in this text about his height, hair, eyes, complexion, torso, and limbs would permit a person to imagine the Prophet in his “mind’s eye” or by using what al-Ghazali calls “inner perception.”Hilyes became sacred objects, which were also considered to have protective powers and desirable items to carry in pockets or keep in homes.

Sacred writings were also used on pieces of protective garments worn by children or soldiers under their battlefield armors.These pieces of talismanic clothing covered with symbols and signs or verses of Quran were meant to protect the wearer from harm, evil eye and injuries. As Yasmine Al-Saleh states: “Talismans that contain inscriptions with the names of prophets and religious heroes have the power to protect an individual from hardship and danger by acting as a conduit between the two.”[iii]

Besides its supernatural powers, the visiual power of writing can be seen in exquisite late 10th and 11th century Iranian ceramic wares from Nishapur. Although the writings on the Nishapur plates and bowls related to their function as vessels for serving food yet the words also provided nourishment for the soul and spirit. Examples of such writings are “Eat with appetite” or “The thankful eater is comparable to the one who fasts patiently” and “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness.”[iv]

In contemporary time writing still holds its undeniable power and has become a dominant element in many of Iranian artists’ works. Mohammad Ehsaei, Mansoureh Hoseini, Siah Armajani, Hosein Zenderoudi, Parviz Tanavoli, Reza Abedini, Saed Meshki, Maryam Shirinlou, Mahmoud Bakhshi, Iman Raad and Shahrzad Changalvaee are among the artists that have marvelously explored semiotic, aesthetic and magical properties of letters, words and writing.

Images from the top:

  1. Talismanic shirt. Ink on stiffened cotton. Worn in battle contains prayers to Ali as well as Quran verses. Topkapi Palace Museum.
  1. Hilya. Calligraphic Portrait of the Prophet Muhammad. 18th century, Ottoman Empire, Harvard Art Museums.
  1. Nishapur Bowl with Arabic inscription “Blessing, prosperity, goodwill, peace, and happiness”. Iran, Tepe Madrasa. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014. This essay cannot be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

 

[i] Shahidi, Z. (2009) Dabireh Journal.

[ii] Soucek, P. (2000) The theory and practice of portraiture in the Persian tradition.

[iii] Al-Saleh, Y. (2010) Amulets and Talismans from the Islamic World. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[iv] Bowl with Arabic inscription [Found at Iran, Nishapur, Tepe Madrasa]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011.

 

Intermediate world of Lailee and Majnoon: The three-dimensional painting of Farshid Mesghali

By: Roshanak Keyghobadi | January 2, 2014

در ره منزل لیلی که خطرهاست درآن
شرط اول قدم ان است که مجنون باشی
حافظ

In the path to reach Lailee there are many dangers
The first step and condition is to be Majnoon
Hafez

Most Iranians know Lailee and Majnoon’s love story through Nezami Ganjavi’s book of poetry titled Khamseh ye Nezami (1192). In this story young Lailee and Qays (Majnoon) get to know each other and fall in love while studying at the same school. Qays asks Lailee to marry him but her father refuses and forces her to marry another man. The grief of separation from Lailee transforms Qays to a mad man (Majnoon) and he wanders in wilderness. Still in love with Qays (Majnoon), Lailee becomes ill and dies of heartbreak. Finally Majnoon finds Lailee’s grave and dies next to her.

In 2006 Farshid Mesghali was commissioned by KIT Museum in Amsterdam to create a sculpture portraying the final scene of Lailee and Majnoon’s story, in which Majnoon visits Lailee’s grave. Mesghali is one of the most eminent artists in Iran with an international reputation and remarkably innovative and influential artworks that remain unmatched specifically in the history of Iranian illustration. Saed Meshki, in an introduction to his interview with Mesghali in 2007[i], recalls his illustrations and states:  “When my generation was spending childhood and adolescent years, Farshid Mesghali imbued the realities of our life with dreams and brought our dreams into reality. The stories of the Little Black Fish, Little Wizard of My Room, Blue Eyed Boy, Arash the Bower, Champion, and Moonlight Secretes were the frontiers of our dreams and realities.”

“Mesghali was born in Isfahan in July 1943. While studying painting at Tehran University, he began his professional career as a graphic designer and illustrator in 1964. After his graduation, he joined The Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, in 1968. During years 1970-1978 he made many of his award winning animated films, posters for films and illustrations for children books for this institute. In 1979 Mesghali moved to Paris and for next four years produced paintings and sculptures, which were presented at Sammy King Gallery in Pairs. In 1986 he moved to Southern California, USA and established his graphic design studio, Desktop Studio in Los Angeles. During 1990-1994 he created a series of digital artworks based on snapshot photos, which were exhibited in a number of galleries and later in L.A. County Museum of Modern Arts. At present time he is creating sculptures and installation projects in his studio in Tehran.[ii]

Mesghali describes a specific series of his sculptures[iii] as “three-dimensional miniatures.” His reference to the traditional Persian miniature painting facilitates multiple ways of understanding his approach and style. To begin with, the term “three-dimensional miniature” is contradictory since Persian miniature is known for its two-dimensionality and the spiritual meaning of its depiction of space. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987) in his essay ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature explains:

“The Persian miniature succeeded in transforming the plane surface of miniature to a canvas depicting grades of reality, and was able to guide man from the horizon of material existence, and also profane and mundane consciousness, to a higher state of being and of consciousness, an intermediate world with its own space, time, movement, colours and forms, where events occur in a real but not necessarily physical manner. This world the Muslim philosophers of Persia have called the “imaginal world’ (mundus imaginalis) or the alam al-khayal [or alam al-mithal][iv]…The space of the Persian miniature is a recapitulation of this space and its forms and colours a replica of this world. The colours, especially the gold and lapis lazuli, are not just subjective whims of the imagination of the artist. Rather, they are the fruit of vision of an ‘objective’ which is that of the imaginal world. The space is depicted in such a way that the eye roves from one plane to another, moving always between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. But the miniature does not allow the eye to ‘fall’ into the three-dimensional pure and simple.”

Farshid Mesghali’s artwork resides in this visual intermediate world. This is a space that is neither completely two dimensionally painted nor three dimensionally sculpted. It possesses many qualities of a Persian miniature painting with its subject matter, atmosphere, linearity, framing and colors (gold, lapis lazuli, green, and red). On the other hand it is composed of many separate components, forms and solid elements that occupy their own place in the space and also in relationship to one another. This space invites the viewer to experience the artwork from many subjective and objective perspectives and imbues the figures with spirits.

The subtle physicality of figures is similar to forms of the characters in a rudimentary pop-up book which although seem two-dimensional yet they occupy actual space and the eye can roam around them. Mesghali’s Lailee and Majnoon are surrounded by red trees, which create an enclosed and private space for the lovers. Shapes of the trees are similar to drops of tears or blood (matching Majnoon’s feelings). He is standing above Lailee’s lifeless body that is floating slighting above the ground. She is peacefully resting with her hand on her chest with a black face and red headdress.  A bird is perching on the step behind Majnoon, a deer is standing close by and a butterfly is next to Lailee.

Mesghali (2006)[v] explains the process of creating Lailee and Majnoon’s sculpture,  “First I went to my favorite sources, the miniatures. What did they [painters] do with this subject? There aren’t a lot. There are a couple of Majnuns [Majnoons] at the grave of Layla [Lailee] mourning and also Majnun [Majnoon] in the desert sitting with the animals. So I decided to show them together. It is the only time that these two are together. It is the time that Layla [Lailee] is dead and he is at her tomb. The whole time they are separated, the whole story… I didn’t like to do the sad part, but the whole story is sad. Majnun [Majnoon] is suffering the whole time. Still I didn’t make the tomb. I didn’t put Layla [Lailee] in the tomb…She is in the air. I tried to give it a kind of transcendence feeling—she is raised… Just the hands of Majnun [Majnoon] are black and cover his face. He cannot look at the tomb, but he has to be present. It is a difficult situation. I made the steps: green and dark blue and then Layla [Lailee]… It is from life to death. Majnun [Majnoon] is in the middle step, between life and death, the moment and location that they could be together. The bird is a symbol of life and the trees. Later I added the deer, because Majnun [Majnoon] was all the time with the deer or the lions… The butterfly is connected with Layla [Lailee]. It is a kind of homage to Majnun’s [Majnoon’s] life with Layla [Lailee].”

In Mesghali’s sculpture sorrow and peace coexist in this moment and intermediate world, which floats between the physical world (mulk) and the world of imagination (khiyal).

©Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2014.  This essay can not be quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

Image: Farshid Mesghali, Leili & Majnoon, 2006, Installation at KIT Museum Amsterdam, Height: 200 cm.

Farshid Mesghali: http://www.farshidmesghali.com


[i] Neshan Magazine #13, Spring 2007

[ii] http://www.farshidmesghali.com/bio.htm

[iii] Sculptures such as Farhad, Rostam and Div, River and Horse rider. http://www.farshidmesghali.com

[iv] The multiple states of being can be summarized in five principal states which the Sufis call the five ‘Divine Presences’ (hadarat al-ilahiyat), and which Islamic philosophers from Suhrawardi onward have accepted fully as the ground pattern and ‘plan’ of reality, although they have used other terminology to describe it. These worlds or presences include the physical world (mulk), the intermediate world (malakut), the archangelic world (jabarut), the world of the Devine Names and Qualities (lahut), and the divine Essence or Ipseity itself (dhat), which is sometimes called hahut. The jabrut and the states beyond it are above forms and formal manifestation, whereas the malakut, which corresponds to the world of imagination (alam al-khayal or mithal), possesses form but not matter in ordinary Peripatetic sense. That is why in fact this world is also called the world of ‘hanging forms’ (suwar al-mu’allaqh), … Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘The world of imagination’ and the concept of space in the Persian miniature in Islamic Art and Spirituality, 1987, State University of New York Press, Albany.

[v] Farshid Mesghali, Interview 8.5.2006, Tropenmuseum by Sadiah Boonstra & Mohammad Babazadeh
http://collectie.tropenmuseum.nl/othermedia/Document/TXT001667.pdf