Slow Typography

This is a forward about Slow Typography that I wrote recently for a book on Philipino Vernacular Signpainting for The Office of Culture and Practice in the Philipines.

The Office of Culture and Design has a ghetto publishing company called Hardworking Goodlooking, through which they publish the results of their social practice experiments. They print most of their books at small, cottage industry printing houses located in Metro Manila slum areas. They sometimes print fancy offset, but always with Filipino printers, an often strange but always interesting journey of a choice. Their first tiny crop of 2 books and one magazine last year was picked up for sale by Printed Matter and few other art book venues.

The book itself is very interesting, it  features interview and commissioned works with 25 sign painters from Metro Manila, as well as a couple of essays and a research paper by Fulbright scholar and RISD student, Catherine Leigh Schmidt, on making a typescript for Devanagari writing in India. The book is designed by Dante Carlos, responsible for design from Walker Art Center, and Kristian Henson (MFA Yale, Co-Founder of Hardworking, Goodlooking), both Filipino American designers looking for ways to reconnect with the tropical heritage.

For a preview of the book research process, head here. Meanwhile, here is my essay / introduction – about Slow Typography.

Slow Typography

An understanding of Slow Typography commences with knowing what is Fast Typography.

Fast Typography

Today, thanks to the keyboard we have all become typographers, albeit default “fast typographers”. This is because by broad definition, we nearly all use type (or prefabricated sets of letters) to write with. But few do it well, because in the West we are mostly digital natives, which means we have learned typography digitally, using the computer keyboard instead of our hands. The keyboard makes us lazy, meaning we understand typography as nothing more than the simple act of selecting a particular font or style of letter from the list of prefabricated fonts on the computer, which we then use to dress up and style our words or text. This is not good, not bad, just default: Fast Typography.

Consequently, most of today’s generation of “designers” practice this aforementioned Fast Typography without understanding how letterforms are constructed. They merely pastiche various styles of letters into their work, lacking contextual knowledge of how and why different letterforms such as Black Letter, Times New Roman or DIN were created in the first place. They freely butcher and bastardize letterforms, unaware of optimal spacing and grouping required for ease and comfort of reading; and unaware of the huge difference that beautifully proportioned shape, negative space and line thickness make to produce a visually pleasing pattern of type, or unaware of the impact that the conventions of reading and writing have on the way typography communicates ideas and emotions.

In an age when too much is fast, it’s important to remember to practice the art of Slow Typography. Go slowly and deeply, take the time to recognize the reading qualities of different faces for different purposes, and understand how they have been constructed. Detailed observation of the properties of diverse character sets and the measurements that quantify these observations makes significant difference. This can be achieved mathematically, or through the act of learning to draw letters by hand—using traditional tools of pointed and flat nib pen—and reflecting, to understand the relevance of body size and line width. The digital revolution has obscured body size, which is so easily comprehended when working by hand. Being the opposite of Fast Typography, Slow Typography is not merely grabbing a font off the computer. Instead, it instills the understanding of an organized whole which is the sum of its parts, and knowing that measurements of proportions of line, counter and space within a letter help to precisely evaluate or manipulate the appearance of heading and text. Slow Typography is a very human practice, it utilizes the senses, enabling the lyric quality of a word to be more apparent. It is the basis of creating brilliant typography. Slow Typography is an art that we are losing in the West

Authenticity and Recognizing the Value of the Individual

This globalised era of the corporation treats everyone the same way and does not value individuality. Many of us live far from where we were born, disconnected from our roots and one another. Furthermore, we feel uncertain and weary of the artificial hype and messages of advertising and social media. This is why we crave the grounded authenticity that Slow Typography affords, and why it is undergoing a renaissance in the West. Slow Typography helps us reclaim the unique value of our individuality, because it is as much about what makes someone special as it is about an outcome, and we want to feel special.

Focusing neither on consumer product, celebrity rock star designer nor style, Slow Typography is about process and knowledge. With this in mind, much contemporary commercially viable hand lettering that is currently popular in the west is Fast Typography, which follows a formula or style.  In the West, the rise of popular blogs has heightened the status of celebrity hand letterer and sign painter over actual skill in individual letter construction. Much of their lettering is nostalgic, following a safely scripted and on-trend formula of swirly Edwardian lettering styles. They express an affectionate sentiment for a style of lettering that appears to be or emulates hand-made styles.  Much of the current nostalgic letterpress style typography and curvy handwritten fifties-style scripts assume a positive affection for an era from which elements are appropriated to communicate commonly held sentiments. They reflect a Hollywood vision of the past, which in our particular times of economic austerity helps us feel warm and cozy. However, this artificial sentimentality erases what is real with an idealized, romantic, feel-good fiction.

The practice of Slow Typography, on the other hand, is authentic. It focuses on the gritty knowledge of all the hard work that is truly involved in creating excellent typography, and it views clinging to formulas from a nostalgic fantasy as lazy. In the West, our need for authenticity is also reflected in the popularity of the many cooking shows that highlight grassroots fundamentals of how food ingredients production; meanwhile consumers turn away from fast food chains such as McDonald’s.

Making is Thinking

Slow Typography starts with learning to precisely draw letterforms by hand and, if possible, by specific software. Through carefully crafting letterforms by hand, and using our senses rather than only the abstract thinking of the head, the practice of Slow Typography re-privileges ways of physical and emotional knowing. This is considered “tacit” knowledge, and has been dismissed for decades by our mainstream western education system. Tacit knowledge is difficult to quantify and put into words. Playing the guitar or writing by hand use tacit embodied knowledge, relying on the power of repeated acts, observation, material skills and stamina to perfect skill through practice. As the antithesis of working alone in the abstract world to which we seem to have drifted in the West, tacit knowledge is healthier and should be promulgated, as it involves being sensorially and personally connected to the material world and one another.

The art of Slow Typography involves learning to draw letters by hand, which nourishes mind, body and spirit. Working with our hands is a uniquely engaging human experience that comes from being both creatively and physically active. When a powerful nexus emerges between hands, head and heart, it builds tacit knowledge. To ignore completely the process of working with our hands is to be disconnected from our own feelings, from one another, from our community, our environment, and on a larger scale, our planet.

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