NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 33

Editorial Column

Typography: Function or form?

Majid Abbasi

Writing and reading are insep-arable parts of language. We view words as various shapes com-posed of interlocking letters, and this is how they transfer meaning. Whether we talk, read, or write, we are communicating. Thus, typography — which has a visual  dimension in addition to literary and written aspects — inherently deals with communication. In his famous work, An Essay on Typography, Eric Gill writes, “Letters are signs for sounds … Letters are not pictures or representations. Picture writing and hieroglyphics are not letters from our point of view.”
Simply put, typography is a writing system with certain predesigned letters. Typography, or the arrangement of letters, dates back to the creation of moveable type and the printing press.But could these previous letters and their arrangements be considered typography? Wolfgang Weingart believes that anything created with letters is typography. Hence, old manuscripts, petroglyphs, ancient clay inscriptions, as well as modern-day manuscripts and graffiti could be considered typography, since they depict forms of letters.
Typography is the key element of design in visual communication. Like design, typography contains functional and aesthetic aspects. Its function is to communicate with viewers and to transfer messages in highly  effective ways, both in ‘conceptual’ and ‘emotional’ form. The more accurate and concise the expression, the more effective the design. Whereas function is important in conveying meaning, form is core to expressing emotion. In other words, typography is the specific method of arrangement, determining size, letter-spacing, line-spacing, and adjusting the space between words. Selecting the correct typeface and the method of arranging and putting the faces together reflects the designer’s proficiency and skill. A design with unpleasant typography hurts feelings, adds to hideousness, and leads to more visual pollution.
Thus, in typography, form and function are intertwined; and the balance between these two is critical in design. Function without form is inefficacious and meaningless, just as form would be without function and meaning. This is why merely attractive designs which ‘play with forms’ are shallow and dishonest to their viewers, since they convey no meaning. Thus, they are mostly repetitious and boring, although beautiful. This is where pure ‘art’ and practical ‘design’ diverge.
Complexity in typography is more repellent than inviting. The more accessible the information, the less time is needed to digest it. However, good typography must not just content itself with being read and conceived. In this world of information overflow — which we face every day — typography must also be easy to capture and enjoyable in order to endure. In other words, in this visually crowded world we live in, simple typographic solutions are more effective and fresh.
The primary requirements for typographic design are knowledge of communication theory, correct understanding of the rules, identifying the audience, and focus on the objectives of communication. These rules are the common foundation on which any design is created and eva-luated. It is based on the design process, it is not accidental, and it enables the designer to control its creation. Focus on objective goals and attention towards the design process is essential to any form of design, in addition to beauty and attractiveness. It is ( of course ) more difficult to judge beauty than a message’s clarity, since aesthetics are more personal, vary by taste, are embedded in culture and time, and are the logical continuation of what has been previously created.
Today’s typography is also created based on the previous fundamentals — assuming that the duty of letters, words, and sentences is to communicate. The question is whether a sentence, a word, or a message is ultimately capable of transferring meaning. However, this does not mean that typography must not go beyond transferring information. In order to be ‘modern’ it must open new horizons in design, present ‘solutions’ out of the normal frameworks, and be ‘illustrative’ in the meantime. Today’s world of information overload provides designers with new arenas: the virtual environment, motion pictures and texts, digital publications, interaction spaces, and undiscovered areas that invite designers to test what they know, what they must discover, and the new skills they must learn to create in new ways. Simply employing the basic principles of typography is not helpful; new discoveries are required to expand its borders.

Majid Abbasi

is design director of Studio Abbasi active in the international community, based in Tehran and Toronto. He leads a variety of design projects for start-ups, non-profits and educational organizations worldwide. Majid actively contributes to the international design scene as an instructor, jury member, curator and writer. He has been editor-in-chief of Neshan, the leading Iranian graphic design magazine since 2010. Majid has been members of Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS) since 1998 and Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 2009.


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