Rainy Day Activity: Exploring Typography

In continuing with our perennial “Rainy Day” series, we bring you this post by CTD Creative Studies developer/instructor Anne Stevens. Anne is a visual artist who specializes in painting and printmaking, as well as teaching gifted children to process the visual world around them. In this activity, you and your child will explore the fascinating history and techniques of typography.

Typography is a form of design that has paralleled the significant developments of the modern age. When elementary school kids know the names of fonts like Times or Verdana, it only follows that they should be exposed to the beautiful world of the designed letter and how it works. Each typeface develops, like a piece of clothing or furniture, in a specific historical context for a definite purpose. Learning about those developments opens the door to history and a deeper appreciation of the everyday choices we make with typography. This project can be adapted for any grade student, from K-12.  Students in grades K-4 may find the copying challenging, but experimenting with handling the brush and making large letters will lead into some interesting letter form making. Follow their lead, encourage them to develop their own alphabet, asking questions like, “If that is the A, what will the R look like?” Punctuation is fun too! Bonus trivia question: What world famous entrepreneur links some of his success to a typography class? (answer at the end of the lesson!) Materials Needed:

  •  A large paper surface, like newsprint, 18×24” drawing pad, rolls of white drawing paper, butcher paper, or newspaper. You want a surface where the child can iterate and practice and try again easily.
  • Square brushes (Foam brushes from the hardware store of any size work great for this!)
  • Watercolor, acrylic or tempera, diluted to a runny consistency like drawing ink in an open jar.
  •  Paper towel for blotting the brush.

Time needed: this is a 20-30 min activity, including cleanup. Working with your child is recommended. Instructions: Blackletter and Moveable Type

 The first moveable typefaces were based on blacklettering, which were used by European monks to manually copy important texts. Look at the sample: Do you see some common elements? I have isolated some in red. Can you find the Latin word for family? Great! You can you read blackletter. Blackletter is only used now as a Display face but there are some fun digitized versions that you can use for reference in any writing software. It is an interesting letter form to study because once you start writing with it, you can see it is made up of a very basic ‘kit of parts’ that is re-combined to make new letter forms. This uniformity makes it difficult to read but easy to understand as a system used for copying texts. This mechanical structure sets the stage for the development of moveable type (hey, why am I writing this a million times when it comes out looking exactly the same? Isn’t there a better way?) The history of Gutenberg and moveable type is an interesting destination to take your child from here. 1.  Start by drawing the ‘anchors’ for the letter or letters: 2. Connect the anchors with the verticals: 3. Make a fully-formed letter:

Getting fancy with an "a".

After years of teaching this kind of material, I believe that developing the product that the student begins can be a productive path, rather than re-directing them towards a specific end. This can be informative for parent, teacher and student because the student starts to evolve a new vocabulary for themselves and the exercise at hand. In the case of lettering and type, the awareness is kinesthetic ; holding the brush with lightness and intention, and paying attention to angles and shapes being made. The product is less important than the awareness of the intent and complexity of lettering and typographic design. The Modern Period

Futura used on the placard left on the moon in 1969 by American Astronauts.

Modernist typefaces like Futura or Helvetica reflected their designers’ desire to create a typeface that was spare and only contained essential elements, with a more mechanistic purity of form. This can be duplicated by using the square brush to produce letterforms that are uniform in their width all the way around. Making O W with the square brush.At this point, your child will want to write their names and interesting words with their brush in their preferred form. Suggest words with letters that are interesting to try to figure out, like K or Q. Encourage them to continue developing their own alphabet. Consider directing them to graph paper and using the idea of an underlying grid to build their alphabet. Or, check out a book or class on Calligraphy, or look at graffiti artists and their connection to all of these letterform traditions!

Modifications for Younger or Older Students: For your younger child, after playing with the brush and the letterforms a bit, go into Microsoft Word and experiment with the following typefaces: What does my name look like in: Lucida Blackletter? Matura? Futura? Let them browse and find their favorite typefaces. For older and younger children, look at illuminated letters and initial caps and suggest they illuminate their initial. Older students can be typography detectives. Sometimes designers tell you in the front matter of a book what typeface they used: can you identify it that way? Or can you go into Word and figure out what typeface was used in your favorite book through comparison? Alternatively, find a favorite typeface and Google its name to find out its history. You can also research interesting typographers like: Giambattista Bodoni, Hermann Zapf, and Tobias Frere-Jones.

Additional Resources and Links:  http://ilovetypography.com/2007/11/06/type-terminology-humanist-2/

http://ilovetypography.com/2010/08/07/where-does-the-alphabet-come-from/ http://www.bemboszoo.com/

Dover has an interesting series of books on lettering.

Trivia Question answer: Steve Jobs! Watch his inspirational graduation speech at Stanford in 2005 to hear the story.

Anne Stevens is a visual artist with an MA in Visual Studies from UC Berkeley. She has developed the Creative Studies program exclusively for the Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program, as well as an online curriculum for CTD’s Gifted LearningLinks Program.  Click here to enroll in one of her upcoming courses for grades 2-6. Registration closes September 17!

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