I remember my first experience with semiotics in a theory class. We compared a picture of a tree (really more a drawing or icon) and the written word “tree.” The picture communicates tree by looking enough like a tree to get the idea across. The written word “tree,” however, doesn’t look like a tree. The letters stand for the sounds that together make up the spoken word “tree.” These are two different ways of thinking and “reading.” Image is visually based communication while text refers to spoken language and sound.
Most of the time text functions invisibly—the reader isn’t consciously focusing on the esthetic qualities of the letterforms. And this is as it should be; I want to be able to read a novel for its story, not for conspicuous (distracting in this context) type design. When appropriate, however, I love when text is seen as well as heard.
Sometimes text functions visually because of its relationship to an image. In A Family Life in Silhouettes by Rudolf Koch, the entire design is cut from a single piece of paper. Nothing is isolated or floating; everything is connected. As a physical object the design would literally not hold together if the type and image elements were not connected to each other and to the border. This physical unity also translates into visual unity. Additionally, both text and image read horizontally and the entire design is a series of silhouettes, an interplay of black and white, of positive and negative shape. The strong relationship of text and image serves as a cue to “read” the text for its visual qualities as well as its verbal meaning.
In Bassdrumbone by Niklaus Troxler, text functions visually because of the unusual cropping and positioning of letterforms. When I first encounter the design I notice bold blocks of type scattered on the page. Each letter has been set at an angle and cropped square. The only identifying characteristics are the interiors of the letterforms. Ah, I see different letters now and I am finally ready to read! BDB . . . ? ARO . . . ? What is this? I switch to the first reasonable word set in smaller red type. “Bassdrumbone.” Some clues. Some mystery. Finally I see that rather than reading horizontally I need to look up and down to find “bass,” “drum,” and “bone” set vertically from left to right. Even after I am able to read the black letters for their verbal denotation, I am continually aware of their visual impact—the playful bouncing quality of their loose arrangement on the page, the fact the two S’s and B’s are different, the relationship of the three vertical words and their counterparts in the central, red, horizontal row.
I think what is so satisfying about visually expressive text is the shift in the regular habit of how we approach, read, and understand words on a page. It is a change in the usual thought process, a jolt of surprise that begins aesthetic awareness.
image 1. Cinamon, G: Rudolph Koch: Letterer, Type Designer, Teacher, 2000, p46.
image 2. Jazz Blvd. Niklaus Troxler Posters, 1999, p293, Lars Müller Publishers.