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Learning typography by making typography!

A note: In the third photo, the n is actually an upside down u. We didn’t have an n.

I am teaching Typography 1 and I have to say, I love this class. The students are eager and willing to take risks, the material is unfolding at a good clip, and things are just generally really rewarding. I have decided to take a more haptic approach to teaching the basic tenets of typography, which I will describe here for your perusal and evaluation.

What is Typography?

Robert Bringhurst says it best:

Typography is the craft of endowing human language  with a durable visual form, and thus an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy – the dance, on a tiny stage, of the living, speaking hand _ and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines. So long as the root lives, typography remains a source of true delight, true knowledge, true surprise.

From The Elements of Typographic Style, pp. 11

Essentially, what I am trying to teach is the history and practice of type, of printed letters (not directly wrought by the human hand) on paper. In order for the student to gain an appreciation for this art and some skill in its application, I need to make it come alive for her.

What is my bias?

I did not learn typography in any class – I went to art school, and did not have to take a single design course. Nope, I had to learn it the direct way: through letterpress printing. Before I encountered that technology and art, I only had my gut to rely upon. My hand lettering was okay, but my typesetting was just crappy. I had no rhythm, no style. In letterpress, you physically select the type letter by letter and place it in line: there is no escape from the concepts of letter spacing, kerning, and leading. You literally have to construct your text, a letter at a time. That makes a person care quite a bit about the text, its meaning, and its final conveyance. Once I had gotten my sea legs (typographically speaking), I started to give a damn about the work set before me, and I became a better designer.

The basic tenets of typography that I need to get across


The students need to learn the origins and evolution of type. It’s not enough to have them memorize the five families of type, which is a great but necessarily simplified introduction. They need to realize the role technology has played in its formation in as visceral a way as is possible.


I want my students to go beyond just memorizing the 10 or so basic parts of the letter and its space. Hopefully, they will get a sense of type as being a living, breathing creature, with tails and eyes and arms. Here is the type anatomy handout I prepared and gave them to show them as many of the terms as I could muster. I hope they keep it over the next few years as a reference at the very least.

The Usage of Space

Typography is all about the play of light and dark, of white space and letterform. If my students get to know the white space around a few letters intimately, it may make them more aware of it in general. Once you get a handle on the area in and around your letters, you can start modifying the kerning (space between certain pairs of letters), the tracking (the spacing between all letters in general on a line of type), and the leading (the spacing between lines of type).

The methods I am using to teach these ideas

Drawing of the letters

One traditional way of teaching the actual form of the letter is by having students trace letters over and over. I tried this in one class I was teaching and was met with resounding failure: the students found it boring and uninspiring. Also, they had no confidence in their drawing, so they never took risks. I was completely stumped until I went home and saw this woodcut by Albrect Dürer: 

It made me realize that what they needed was a grid to help them see the letter’s component parts. I hastily laid out a worksheet: 


The students were to translate the letter from one grid to the next as accurately as possible. I handed these out, anxious to see how they went over. The class set to work reluctantly (after all, the tracing had been so boring), but to my relief, they tucked in and ripped through the exercise with actual interest. The fact was, they were no longer trying to draw what they thought they saw, they were able to draw what they actually saw. The grid allowed them to split the letter up into parts, and that they could completely deal with.

In order to keep them from becoming too dependent upon the grids, I slowly reduced the number of grid lines in the grid. I also made the model letter smaller than the drawn one so the student would be forced to translate the letter entirely. Eventually, they had to draw the letters freehand.

In this way, I introduced them to the five major families of type and the parts of the letters, giving them a first-hand experience of the forms of each. They have done this work happily, for the most part, and their overall sensitivity for the letters has grown enormously.

Movable type the hard way

 As they worked on their drawn letters, I also needed to get them thinking about the white space around and between letters. To this end, I decided to use an old favorite: relief printing. I had the students carve their letters on blocks of soft eraser material, ink them up, and press them to their paper. I made sure to ask them to carve their letters inside the block, modeling the bounding box in some typesetting programs:

One week, they carved the letter, the next, they laid them out in words or nonsense words, which enabled them to work on their kerning. Next week, they will print two or more lines of words, working on their leading and kerning altogether. 

So far, the class has been so much fun. They seem to be really enjoying the exercises, and I have started to work these ideas into a tablet app that I hope to design this semester.


Filed under: Work


I am Libby Clarke, an artist, designer and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. I operate under the name Monstress, which actually started out as my zine label in 1997. Since then, it has grown to encompass all my efforts.


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