Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China  
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Project. Basic typography: word expressions & typographic studies.

Purpose. To encourage students to explore the relationship between written and typographic letterforms and the contexts in which typographic communication exists.

Assignment. This is the first project of a five-week basic typography course for year one Visual Communication students. The first part of the project is about divergent thinking. It encourages experimentation and the discovery of the expressive potential of written and typeset letterforms. The second part is about convergent thinking. Students combine some of the letterform experiments with text typography to create typographic studies that meet specific formal requirements or communication objectives. Composition issues such as contrast, rhythm, repetition, axis and hierarchy were also addressed. Principles of Roman and Italic calligraphy were introduced prior to this project, and samples of 17 classic typefaces were provided to the students for studying in detail.

This project is not about rules, conventions or the traditional aesthetic values of typography, but to engage the students in experimentations and composition without fear of making mistakes. Students were encouraged to use their intuition, and the objectives for the layouts in part two were loosely defined and open to interpretation. I was keen to make students aware that typographic communication is not about immutable rules, but changes according to context.

Part 1: Fifty word expressions

1. You have been assigned a word. Look up its meaning in an English dictionary.

2. Create 50 visual expressions of this word, by means of written and typographic forms (ten of these will be typeset from the set of 17 classic typefaces assigned to you). You are encouraged to be inventive and use a variety of writing tools and perhaps found objects. Explore unusual papers, inks and pigments. Try out different x-heights, ascender/descender lengths, proportions, stroke widths and weights. Consider how these words sound. Some words are short and sharp: staccato, in musical terms. Some words are longer and more flowing: legato. Try to translate this audio experience into a visual one. Do not try to create pictorial interpretations of the word. Experiment and have fun!

3.Typeset the definition of this word in 12-point type on 17 point leading in a sanserif typeface (again chosen from the list of 17 typefaces you were given on the first class). Duplicate this 20 times on one sheet of A4 and print it out and bring it to next class for creating typographic compositions.

Part 2: Twenty typographic studies
Using the 50 word expressions and the definition you have typeset, create 20 layouts according the following objectives. Use the photocopier to enlarge, reduce and repeat. Do not work directly on the computer—please cut and paste by hand.

A structured composition
Low contrast
High contrast
A static layout (symmetrical)
A dynamic layout (asymmetrical)
For an elderly person
Causes frustration
For a poet
For an engineer
Uses repetition
For someone who is visually impaired
For someone who is illiterate
With an image

Format. Part One: A4, black and white only. Part Two: 18 x 18 cm, black and white only (gray tones are allowed)

Time. Fifty word expressions: 1 week. Twenty typographic studies: 1 week


Keith Chi-hang Tam is a Hong Kong-based information designer, typographer, teacher and researcher. He is currently an assistant professor at the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where he heads the Communication Design programme and the Information Design Lab. Prior, Keith taught and practiced in Vancouver, Canada. Keith's research and pedagogy focus on the interrelationship between typography and information design. His work encompasses the history, theory and practice of typography, with particular interest in text typography, typographic structures, complex information and multilingual issues. Recent projects include bilingual typography, wayfinding design, tourism information design and theory and history of Chinese typography. Keith is a board member of the Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI), and chaired its 2012 annual conference held in Hong Kong. Keith holds a BDes in Communication Design from the Emily Carr Institute, Canada and an MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading, UK.

For additional examples of Keith’s typography pedagogy and examples of student work visit:
http://keithtam.net/documents/ktam-pedagogy-06.pdf (8.31 MB PDF)


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