Typography: Theory and Practice

For the practicing typographer, any interest shown in theory tends to be an indulgence restricted to “spare time.” The practical process of typography is so vulnerable to the pressures of time that anyone who admits to thinking might simply be accused of not working hard enough.

The problem is that theory has no direct bearing upon efficiency, profit margins, or any other measurable means of recording its influence. Therefore, all things theoretical, in a commercial context, are seen as having no value. To those practicing typography, the unorthodox pronouncements of, for example, sociologists, linguists, or psychologists upon the subject can be galling, especially when the concluding statement is that “… typography is too important to be left to typographers.

Statements such as this occur because the practice of typography has been kept separate from the theory of typography. A statement such as “… science is too important to be left to scientists” is, after all, unthinkable. Why has the theory and practice of typography, and other areas of visual communication, not been more effectively combined to provide mutual support?


The practice of typography has, traditionally, been bound up with craft; a physical, tactile process, requiring a highly specialized range of skills that have both isolated and defended the activity of the typographer (printer and compositor) from “outsiders.” This defence crumbled with the digital revolution in the 1980s. Since then, theoretical studies relating to typography (and, in fact, all aspects of visual communication) have grown rapidly and quite separately from its practical study in the studio.

Many university art history departments renamed themselves departments of visual culture because the original title simply did not take account of the expanding syllabus. Today, visual culture includes advertising, fashion, film, photography, radio, retail, television, web sites, and the Internet (many of which require significant input from a typographer).

A concern some typographers have with theoretical analysis is that it sets out to objectify its subject. Attempting to explain the magic of esthetics, inspiration, and creativity might be viewed as being deeply antagonistic, and, perhaps, even dangerous. It is as though understanding might break the spell and allow the subject to be appropriated by the uninitiated. Bearing in mind the current democratization of typography, perhaps this is not surprising. In the circumstances, a certain amount of resentment by typographers is understandable. But with complete power over what the theorist can theorize about, the causes of this suspicion suggest something else. Especially when it is remembered that theory must always wait for the creation of the next typographic document to ruminate over before the theoretical prognosis can progress.Theory is dependent upon practice.

Perhaps it is because theory is communicated via spoken and written language, which is very different from the way typography tends to be taught in art schools which places the emphasis on visual communication. And yet, during the design process, thinking and talking are both closely bound up with practice and generally encouraged. Despite this, for many practicing typographers, the notion that design might be an intellectual process carries with it negative overtones. This may be a reflection of its craft-based roots. The term heard most often in studios is “professional,” defining the typographer as a solver of real problems and so aligning the activity of the typographer with the rational, realistic-culture of business and commercial enterprise. It is not surprising then that the growth and development of typographic theory as a subject has been led by academics in humanity departments.

There is a persistent view among typographers and other specialists in the field of visual communication, that without practical expertise it is presumptuous in the extreme for someone to expound upon the subject. And yet, when design principles and methodologies (which might have been refined over a lifetime) are to be discussed, it would be understandable if the theorist thought it appropriate to describe such work using a mode of language that reflects the complexity of the subject. And yet, practitioners then complain that the theorist is, quite purposely, making the text difficult. Baudrillard, in the 1980s, was dubbed an “intellectual terrorist” because his texts were so intimidating. (Of course, it is also possible that an impenetrable text is due entirely to confused thinking or that certain theorists make their writing difficult because they seek a reputation for profundity.)

However, typographers, are also used to working within conventional codes, and most would consider the design of accessible information their first and most important objective. Typographers, therefore, will have little patience with a verbose writing style that appears to camouflage the meaning of the text. What is also surprising to typographers is that the product itself, and the manner of its making, are often entirely subsumed by theoretical and contextual information. So much so that a text about typography will often contain no visual references whatsoever.

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