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It's not how we teach typography, it's how we learn typography
by Dr. Shelley Gruendler

In a past issue of this magazine, I was asked to comment in the Design Trends section on the forces shaping the next generation of typographers and typography and I admit that I gave a rather pessimistic view: Graphic designers must improve their typographic knowledge as there is far more evidence of bad type than of good. As multilingual issues increase, along with rapid technological changes, awareness through experience is imperative and this begins with education.

The limited typographic offerings of design and trade schools continue to do a disservice to their students and, without significant changes to type education, the future looks bleak.

This appeared just weeks after a colleague of mine in the typographic field, Rod McDonald, based his regular column in Applied Arts Magazine on how drastically the typographic industry has changed in the past 25 years. [Rod McDonald, Applied Arts Magazine, Volume 25, Number 1, “What’s Old Is New Again,” p. 12.] We welcome these changes but lament the rapidly expanding gap between the future of the industry and what typographic education currently provides for our designers. Surprisingly, we have yet to determine how to help the next era of learners. McDonald’s point is not unique, but we are anxious to encourage every educator and educational institution to investigate possible solutions to this widening rift between our education and its application. In order to achieve this, I encourage all typographic instructors to assess how they learned typography, and then to use that knowledge to focus on the learning of typography and not the teaching of it.

When I first began to teach in England in the late 1990s, my mentor, architect and design education specialist Dr. Michael Pause, advised me to “Teach as you learned, not as you were taught.” This was extremely helpful to me as I struggled to identify how I wanted to help these learners learn.

I often say that one of the most frequent questions that I get asked by students is, “Why is learning typography so hard?” I jokingly respond, “Because it is hard. Get over it!” However, that is not all of the answer. What I don’t mention to students is that typography is difficult to learn because it’s difficult to teach well. Our current educational environments lack time, resources and qualified instructors to examine better solutions and alternatives.

Amazingly, there are still numerous educational institutions where students are learning in a formulaic fashion—where they are following trends instead of understanding them, and merely arranging elements instead of organizing functional hierarchies. I am constantly surprised at how many portfolios I’ve seen with typography projects for which students have researched a “famous” typographer and designed their page of information in that style. (I can assure all students that these pieces are just as miserable for me to review in your portfolio as they are for you to design.) I sincerely doubt that this is the best we can do for our typographic learners. It is up to the learners to demand more and to the educators to provide it.

I’m currently engaged in changing perceptions of typographic education through Type Camp International and at the Advanced Typography Program and the Communication and Ideation Design Certificate programs at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada.

At the college, we were invited to create a new program combining career-training and academic studies for a non-traditional demographic of learners—adults. Fortunate that the school granted us the freedom to address these concerns in a relatively experimental fashion, the instructors and I worked together to formulate a curriculum that prepared our diverse learners for the future of the industry. We were not interested in producing a consistent “look” from our graduates. In fact, we wanted the opposite—to provide an eclectic and diverse learning environment with a unifying emphasis on strong skills in both thinking and doing.

We were certain that typography would be one of the major themes of the curriculum and, out of our twenty required classes, three are typography, a number unheard of in the majority of today’s schools. Our typography classes are neither electives nor specializations; the type classes are opportunities for the students to apply organizational thinking to communication functionality and user comprehension, core concepts in today’s design industry. The result is students who have strong abilities in ideation for context and use, regardless of where they wish to focus their creative careers.

We know that what we offer is rare, but we also know that typography is crucial to communication design and that many of the skills involved in it (organization, grammar, hierarchy, readability) are intrinsic in the other classes that we offer such as Human Factors and Usability, Visible Language (Cognitive Theory), Advertising Design and Information Design. The students aren’t just learning which typefaces to select; they’re learning how to design for true communication, and for where it could be in the future. Shelley Gruendler
Dr. Shelley Gruendler is a typographer, designer and educator who teaches, lectures and publishes internationally on typography and design. She holds a PhD and an MA in the history and theory of typography and graphic communication from the University of Reading, England, and a Bachelor of Environmental Design in graphic design from North Carolina State University. Gruendler is a frequent speaker at typography conferences, is proud to live in the Canadian Typographic Archipelago and, maybe someday, hopes to get around to publishing her biography of Beatrice Warde, the doyenne of accessible typographic theory. She is the head of the Advanced Typography program and the Communication and Ideation Design program at Langara College in Vancouver, Canada, and is founding director of Type Camp (