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Bear, Butterfly, S'more?

by Natalia Ilyin

No one who knows me would confuse my understanding of type with that of an expert type handler. I once infuriated a major type designer by mashing up a few sizes of his most recent effort on a postcard I designed for AIGA. I thought it looked jaunty. He got so mad that he called me and just sat, silent, on the other end of the phone until I lost my nerve and hung up.

So designing with type is not my natural métier. Nor is the understanding of what makes a type design “good” obvious to me. I can’t tell you what makes the lovely Idlewild so lovely, nor can I recognize a modern redraw of Caslon at 50 paces, the way all the type teachers at my institution can. And yet, as with so many things in life, a logical understanding of type may not be necessary for a love of it.

And love it I do. When I was four, I carefully outlined all the letters in my favorite book, Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, in ink. As it turned out, this book was an original 1916 edition. In her wisdom, my mother merely explained this fact to me in a quiet tone of voice, evidently believing that the lesson in typographic proportion was worth such unwitting destruction. Unfortu­nately, the mangling of Pyle did not enhance my natural affinity for type usage.

So I’ve never styled myself a type teacher. But in the strange world that is an undergraduate design program, vociferous students recently began to clamor for an “old-school” “Zenny” type class, the kind of class where people “did things with their hands.” And, since the real type teachers were busy teaching type, I found myself saying I’d teach it.

I may not handle type well, but that is not the fault of my wonder­ful type teachers, and I remembered enough of their ways to be able to teach what I could not, in fact, do myself. Please, no odious reminders of old proverbs about those who teach. Generally, I know what I’m doing.

So for a semester I subjected these students to the good old ago­niz­ing ways. They all were assigned a typestyle to practice upon. They traced it on trace. They painted it with Plaka. They wept over visual letterspacing. They huddled together in the far corner of the office squinting at fractional differences in the relationship between a three-inch “P” and “E” hung on the opposite wall. Oddly, they maintained a sort of buoyant pleasure throughout these travails, which I began to realize was the same pleasure that you see in people who learn to light a fire using two sticks or finally master the ancient art of Raku firing. For these students, a generation that does not remember a time before laptops, the mastering of type-tracing is akin to surviving in the wilderness without a cup in which to boil water.

All this trace and tempera provoked riotous laughter from a real type teacher who stumbled in one day, who I noticed, came around a few more times, once to proffer a stylus from his school days, and a few times just to see how things were going. All in all, it was a successful experience, and it was during this class that I figured something out, which is the reason for this column. 

First, I assigned each student a typestyle. These were the old war­horses: Bodoni, ITC Garamond, Caslon—this sort of thing. I assigned them because they are not currently hip faces, and students are less familiar with them than they are with, say, Interstate.

When I first assigned them, I noticed that the students tended to see things in the type that I didn’t see and to assume things about a typestyle’s character that I didn’t assume. At first, I just put it down to their not having had a lot of type history. But then it hit me, they were so innocent of history that they were pro­jecting personal meaning onto different typestyles. For them, type was taking the place of the inkblots in a Rorschach test. Ilyin
Natalia Ilyin ( is a designer, writer and teacher whose current research explores the history of the design of persuasion and the construction of the social Self. She has served as director of programs for AIGA New York and has taught at Yale, Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Washington. A professor at Cornish College of Fine Arts and one of the founding faculty of Vermont College of the Arts, she also co-directs a refugee relief program that supports community-identified initiatives on the Thai-Burmese border.