For the past seven years, actually eight now, I have been a Sessional Faculty member at OCAD University. I did not seek teaching out, but, to sound a bit cliché, I think teaching found me.
A few designers mentioned my name to the school, and then came the call. Many of my peers have longed for the opportunity to teach, but it was something that scared the hell out of me.
I like to push myself occasionally, so that following September I stepped into my first class. I struggled with the proverbial tweed jacket syndrome, the issues of being a ‘professor’ and trying to keep the students’ attention and gain respect while imparting sage wisdom on their fresh creative minds.
Over the first couple of years I taught various classes (Graphic Design 2, Portfolio Development, Typography—Structures and Advanced Structure), and I enjoyed teaching. Once I locked into the ‘Art Director as Teacher’ method that has been really successful for me, I felt comfortable. I felt like I was able to discuss a student’s work while also giving additional insight into how he or she might interact with a senior designer in the industry.
Then everything changed. Five years ago, I was asked to teach ‘Expressive Typography’, and I realized that everything I love about type and typography could be packaged into a curriculum.
I should go on record and say that I think Expressive Typography is an odd title. All typography is expressive by its mere nature, isn’t it? However, what this course allows me to do is talk about the classic work of Brockmann, the paintings of Basquiat and El Lissitzky, the cut and paste methods of Martin Venezky (a personal hero BTW), the cartoon doodling of Kevin Lyons, Fantastic Man magazine, Paula Scher’s work for the Public Theater and the disciplines of deconstructivism and have it all make sense. I have the educational responsibilities of OCAD U, but the bandwidth in teaching ‘expressive’ is really wide.
So back to the question that sparked this piece: How do you teach Expressive Typography? Well, I’ll tell you it’s tough. Not because it’s constrictive, but because it’s just the opposite.
The majority of students that come to my class have gone through two years and three prerequisite classes before they end up with me. Their experience has been rooted in Swiss/international theory, so they have been taught rigorous typesetting fundamentals. Then they walk into Expressive Typography (oh yeah, renamed this year as Experimental). Imagine eating only oatmeal (sorry Swiss type) for all your life and then one day going into the kitchen and a cruise ship breakfast buffet is laid out in front of you. Where do you start?
I find that a majority of students panic a little—not running around, sky-is-falling, panic but definitely uncomfortable. I add to thier discomfort by creating briefs that are about interpretation. Yes, the project outline is quite simple, but I ask them to question me. I ask them to push the boundaries and create something that they want as the end piece. Fundamentally, I teach Expressive against the grain of the classic client and designer construct, and I ask the students to leave that comfort zone and become more conceptual, dare I say, introspective.
What does this wank have to do with typography? A lot. In our day-to day we are asked to create work that is appropriate for our client’s projects. We are asked to think through and often imagine ourselves in the shoes of the audiences for which we are designing. We have to think externally and react internally. What I try and do with Expressive is get students to do just that. I ask them to think about themselves and interpret their experiences into typographic realizations while using me for checks and balances. I ask them to embrace their emotions, good and bad. I get them to open up to methods that we as practitioners are rarely called upon to implement. Is this art then? Sure.
I teach Expressive to help students embrace an identity. I teach Expressive to allow students to show their thoughts, weird and wonderful, to the world using the concrete formation of language.
The work that we as designers create daily is rooted in storytelling. It doesn’t matter if it is a construction company’s website, a visual identity for a retail store or an app to encourage exercise in children. We are expected to build a level of emotion that will create a connection between our client and their audience. To be able to do that we need to understand that audience, and to do that we need to be wider emotional thinkers. Expressive Typography opens up the intellectual and the emotional sides of a designer and allows her to see many perspectives.
If you are interested, here’s a project I’m working on with my students right now:
During the next week, document in precise detail 12 consecutive hours of your life. This information will then be disseminated and used as the content for your project. Use the information you gather to build a typographic composition that will engage outside viewers and show them how incredibly brilliant, textured and enthralling your life is, or isn’t. Remember that the more you have to work with, the easier it will be to create a strong and visually engaging piece.
Are you willing to take on the challenge?
I’d love to hear your comments below.