NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 45


Some Approaches To Non-Latin Type-Design Education

Fiona Ross

On being contacted to write about my ‘approach to education most specifically in relation to non-Latin typeface design’, it was a surprise for me to realise that I have been teaching in this field for at least twenty years, mostly at the University of Reading in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication. Furthermore, coming from a background in the study of languages, followed by working for over a decade in industry at Linotype Ltd (UK), I realise that my experience usually differs greatly from that of the students I teach on the MA Typeface Design (MATD) courses, the Type Design Intensive (TDi) Course, and my PhD students. 

Developing non-Latin type-forms workshops 
In order to support student learning that relates specifically to non-Latin typeface design, for which there continues to be a paucity of well-designed typefaces, over the years I have devised and led a series of non-Latin type workshops. The content and range of teaching methods employed for these workshops is very varied, and therefore the first part of this essay focuses on just three particular activities I have developed to encourage students to develop script-agnostic research-based design methodologies, appropriate to their individual skills, that can be honed in the course of their studies and be transferred to professional practice in diverse environments. These activities are underpinned by collections-based research, that forms a key teaching aspect within the Department of Typography, which houses exceptional collections for teaching and research. How the use of archival material has progressed to supporting PhD students forms the second part of this essay.

The MATD student cohort, that has increased since the course’s inception, tends to comprise a yearly intake of at least 14 students often from more than 10 different countries. Unsurprisingly, the cohort usually has a diverse range of linguistic, cultural and educational backgrounds. Consequently, the students possess different skillsets and differ in their approaches to learning and higher education. Providing sessions that are meaningful to all participants is challenging, and therefore adopting the practice of ‘active learning’ has been a crucial aspect to develop in the workshops in order for each individual to build a sound knowledge base and develop a high level of self-efficacy.
For some non-Latin type design is their primary focus for applying to study at Reading, where non-Latin script typefaces are not regarded as secondary or merely as companions to Latin typefaces; however, the lack of reliable literature and teaching material in this subject area often results in many students arriving ill-prepared for the non-Latin components of the MATD course. The students’ expectations of the course content and what they can achieve vary from being inappropriate (a dominance of calligraphy) to unrealisable (undertaking too many scripts). Those unfamiliar with non-Latin scripts may feel overwhelmed, while native speakers may at times appear over-optimistic for their anticipated progress. Reflecting on how to address some of these difficulties has been fundamental in the creation of teaching materials and in devising particular activities, which are naturally informed by professional practice.

Given that most MATD students are from a graphic design background (unlike my own), and that a key aspect of the course is integrating theory and practice in visible outcomes, it can be assumed that most of the students are primarily visual learners. With regard to non-Latin typeface design, the description that seems most apt is that the non-Latin workshops endeavour to teach students how to see, and also to demonstrate the value of evaluating critically all they research, read, and see through a typographic lens, thereby continually building on their knowledge in order to make informed decisions in their work. 

Initially, I found that some students were disengaged if the workshop did not seem to have relevance to them, i.e. covering a script in which they ostensibly had no interest; and some were expecting to only study in a ‘practicum’ setting common to most design learning. I therefore make explicit at the outset the expected outcomes and reasons for engaging with the sessions; i.e. the development of a design methodology, and its potential application in the ‘real world’ irrespective of the script. It is important students perceive that the ‘subject matters’ and is concerned with visual communication pertinent to all global linguistic communities. 

Activities And Their Development
Lectures, which cover material not readily available in published literature apart from my own writings (e.g. script history; key typographic issues; design issues; and resources), are divided into short thematic components that can be echoed across the scripts for each workshop and are regularly updated to remain current. Discussion is encouraged: the students are invited to interrupt if something is unclear, and contributions are welcomed, e.g. from a native speaker on pronunciation. This environment helps builds a sense of a community of learners in which there are diverse voices. 
The lecture segments are interspersed with whole-class, small group, or individual activities that provide an active learning environment that takes into account different aptitudes. Lettering exercises and initial steps in typeface development are key activities; however, perhaps the most innovative activities with the greatest impact on learning and outcomes are the Reading type-forms game; the Type-design case study; and the Newspaper evaluation.
The Reading type-forms game customarily forms the initial introduction to a non-Latin scripts workshop. Selected groups are tasked to arrange randomised type-form cards in Arabic or South Asian scripts according to the script or typeface. This game ensures students engage not just at a surface level. The task requires close scrutiny and collaborative rather than competitive work, fostering social cohesion in a lively environment. The whole group is involved in the discussion of the results, which relates to themes picked up and reinforced during the lecture segments, e.g. the shaping of counters in the Nazanin typeface.
The Type-design case study comprises a whole-class evaluation of a renowned typeface’s adaptation from hot-metal technology to digital technology. Utilizing archival resources, this provides students with an opportunity to scrutinise an unpublished case study that demonstrates the integration of research and practice that has real-world significance. Showing exemplars of good and poor practice, it provides opportunities to fill in perceivable gaps in students’ knowledge of typefounding history. It also leads to the discussion of how to gain a deeper understanding of type history by analysing both historical and contemporary typefaces.

The Newspaper evaluation provides students with an opportunity to analyse the typographic environment for a number of scripts that constitute the daily reading experience of millions of readers worldwide.  In this activity small groups of students are allocated different non-Latin newspapers for analysis. The groups present their findings to the whole class. Situated at the end of the workshop, or in a subsequent session, the exercise consolidates the learning of previous sessions. Students realise they now see the objects under scrutiny differently and are able to make valid observations about typographic practices of perhaps previously unfamiliar scripts. It imbues them with greater self-confidence and an appreciation of the benefits of teamwork. Furthermore, it increases cross-cultural understanding: e.g. attention is paid to stylistic preferences such as the use of the Perso-Arabic script Nasta’liq for Urdu composition; and the preferred shaping of letterforms for Persian composition. It encourages students to further their typographic knowledge by investigating other genres or environments.

Extension Progression
The relatively recent extension of the non-Latin workshops to include script-specific sessions by professionals who are MATD alumni has been highly beneficial to the programme. How these workshops, in concert with other MATD sessions devised by the Course Director, Gerry Leonidas, have assisted students in devising their individual research-based design methodology to equip them for future projects is often described in their ‘Reflections on Practice’ submissions. This is further reflected in their high-quality written and practical – and at times award-winning – outputs. Furthermore, it is pleasing to witness MATD graduates progress to becoming collaborators in international design projects. 

In developing and extending the non-Latin workshops, I have been reliant on employing archival material, especially the Non-Latin Type Collection at Reading which has been crucial to my own research and practice. I have therefore sought to widen the pedagogic potential of this rare resource, of which I am the Curator, drawing on it to underpin previously unchartered research topics and train students in archival research.

Supporting PhD studies through archival collections
It is only recently that the subject of typeface design, particularly non-Latin type design, has been regarded as a suitable topic for PhD research. There has been a prevalent notion that education in design relies primarily on the elicitation of tacit knowledge through practicum immersion, rather than being informed through design-led historical enquiry. However, increasingly, MA Typeface Design students are moving on to PhD study having appreciated the benefits of research to underpin design practice. 

As already indicated, there is a noted paucity of scholarly literature and reliable sources related to non-Latin type design and to pedagogic practice in this field. Consequently, there is a need to develop learning and teaching materials, which further underlines the need for higher-degree research to contribute to scholarly discourse and design practice. The utilisation of primary source material, such as that held in the Non-Latin Type Collection (NLTC) is essential to informing such research, and its location in the Department of Typography has enabled it to be utilised as a vital resource for postgraduate teaching and research.

The NLTC originates from Linotype & Machinery and Linotype Limited (UK) and comprises approximately 10,000 original type-drawings and related documentation in over 20 scripts. It is exceptional in that it documents type-making and type-design processes across different technologies from the early 20th century to the present day. It holds the drawings of Arabic-script typefaces which covered 95% of the Arabic newspaper market during the last decades of the twentieth century and 80% of the remaining commercial printing. These typefaces are still in use today, albeit often in cloned forms, and include Nazanin and Mitra that were designed for Persian text composition. The archive holds much correspondence such as that from the major Iranian newspapers Ettela’at and Kayhan, and from other studios and presses in Iran. The Linotype Indian digital typefaces accounted for 90% of the Indian vernacular newspaper market during a similar period and are still commonly used, mainly in cloned form. 

The challenges encountered in supporting PhD studies in type design were both pedagogical and practical. On a pedagogical level, these were concerned, firstly, with how to build sound knowledge in a nascent discipline that has little reliable literature, and that depends on an understanding of the linguistic, technological and aesthetic aspects of the type-design process. Secondly, how to train researchers to interpret archives appropriately: misinterpretation or a temptation to cherry-pick materials to support preconceived notions is always a danger if students are unguided. The NLTC would be fundamental to resolving these concerns. 

On the practical level, the NLTC arrived unsorted, uncatalogued and, in some areas, incomplete, and thus, the principal question posed was: how can students use it efficiently and effectively? How to train researchers to search and handle the archives, to find relevant material, and to cite their findings accurately? 

Existing Literature
My first PhD student and then others revealed that, lacking relevant reliable literature, my book The Printed Bengali Character was useful in perhaps unanticipated ways: it showed a research methodology for using primary sources that was applicable to other scripts; it initiated a vocabulary with which to discuss non-Latin typeface design; and it was informative in elucidating changes in type-design processes in the light of technological transitions that impacted on contemporary typography. 

Collections Sessions
The majority of my PhD students has been MA Type Design alumni; and in relation to their chosen research topics it was evident that working directly with the NLTC at the outset would prove fruitful to their research. However, new script-agnostic sessions were required: key issues pertaining to archival research would therefore be abstracted to focus on how to engage with primary sources using critical analysis to interpret original artefacts. These issues, in the context of scholarly research, related to: relevance (to their topic), significance (in the wider context), chronology, attribution (and reliability), language coverage, technological implementation, aesthetic evaluation, bias, and copyright. The sessions, reinforced by Research Methods sessions, would prepare the students to work effectively with other collections in different repositories, which might assist in filling in (or simply acknowledging) gaps – archival silences – that may occur in any archive. Curatorial guidance (but not over-reliance) is often vital to the researcher, as in the case of the NLTC, which benefits from my familiarity with the material from my time at Linotype as many of the original drawings are unsigned and undated.
Engagement And Expansion
The students’ engagement with the primary artefacts built increasing knowledge and self-confidence in archival research to support their theses – as demonstrated in their written drafts and final submissions. Indeed, new information has been uncovered – as is evidenced by the work of some of our PhD students, who have been adding to a small corpus of reliable resources. The impact has been to extend student’s learning and skills though guidance and training in the intelligent use of archival resources to underpin design-focussed research topics, which can have wider relevance beyond postgraduate study. 

The use of collections for teaching and learning has been a long-held practice in relation to other collections within the Department of Typography and in a few other academic environments. The NLTC, which has regular additions that reflect the latest typographic practices and technologies, has relevance to diverse linguistic communities; therefore, a natural progression has been to extend its reach to a wider international audience through exhibitions and talks. Since 2007, seven international exhibitions have been mounted with materials drawn from the NLTC; each co-curated with a PhD student, and with accompanying publications. The next exhibition is to be held in the Department of Typography, focussing on the Persian typographic materials and will be launched in March 2019 for the Persian New Year 1398.

 1 By Pouya Ahmadi, editor of this issue. The term non-Latin is problematic but is arguably better than some previously employed terms and can be a useful umbrella term. Clearly, the ideal would be to achieve parity across all scripts in terms of the typographic rendering of languages. My field is specifically South Asian, Arabic, Thai and Ethiopic.
 2 This essay is therefore an updated summary of two unpublished case studies undertaken for a teaching qualification at the University of Reading in 2016.
 3 See: 
 4 See:
 5 See R. Banham & F. Ross, (eds) Non-Latin typefaces: at St Bride Library, London and Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, London: St Bride Library (2008) p. 37.
 6 See F. Ross, The printed Bengali character and its evolution, Richmond: Curzon Press (1999).

Fiona Ross

specializes in non-Latin type design and typography, having a background in languages with a PhD in Indian Palaeography (SOAS). She works as a consultant, type designer, author, and lecturer; her recent design work has been in collaboration with Tim Holloway, John Hudson and Neelakash Kshetrimayum for clients such as Ananda Bazar Patrika, Adobe, Microsoft, Monotype and Harvard University Press. Fiona is a part-time member of staff of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading (UK), where she is Professor of Non-Latin Type Design and Curator of the Department's Non-Latin Type Collection.

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