In part two of our Toolkit for Learning Type History, Sabiha Basrai offers expansive approaches to studying typography.
This article by activist and educator Sabiha Basrai is the result of her 2023 research fellowship at Letterform Archive where she studied collections of global typefaces and collaborated with staff on curriculum development.
Curated sets of objects in the Online Archive tell a visual story of typographic design, starting with the Western world.
We love to hear how the Online Archive is enhancing design courses around the world. Teachers are using the Tables feature to create and share design artifacts and inspiration with their students, or present curated sets as slideshows in class. During the pandemic, when we weren’t able to welcome students to the Archive, the staff created our own tables* to help navigate type history and highlight works in the collection that exemplify major movements. Now we’re sharing a few of these tables with you!
Nineteenth-century printed ephemera brought color and design innovation to the masses. Thousands of fine examples of this blossoming graphic design will join the Archive.
The first artists and printers to call themselves “designers” advertised their work in the mid- to late nineteenth century. This period of the industrial revolution marked a peak of experimentation and extravagance in the trade, when printed ephemera flourished to meet the demands of expanding commerce and increasingly urban populations. Engravers, lithographers, and letterpress printers used a wide variety of opulent colors, lettering styles and typefaces, illustration techniques, and production methods to attract customers—both companies and consumers. They added dazzle and vibrancy to the stuff of everyday life: advertising, calling cards, invoices, labels, packaging, postcards, and tickets.
Up to that point, most people experienced printed material that was relatively dull, drab, and monochrome. Innovation in technology and craft changed everything. It was as if someone switched on the light.
Guest researcher Anne Galperin reveals unsung contributions to a major sourcebook of mid-twentieth-century type design.
Part 1: Ten of 252
Sometime in the 1990s, my father-in-law Bill Hermes—who’d retired from his career as an art director—gifted me neatly organized boxes of his professional books, tools, and supplies. In this thrilling collection of stuff, which spanned decades, was the 1971 edition of Photo-Lettering’s One Line Manual of Styles.
This aptly named book is a mind-boggling, 470-page compendium featuring 6,500 eclectic examples of display typefaces from the most prolific supplier of phototypesetting. I browsed it often over the years, but, one day in the summer of 2018, something in the volume made me stop short.
In the sea of 252 names—including titans of modern graphic design such as Joseph Albers, Milton Glaser, and Bradbury Thompson—I counted 10 women. At that moment I decided to try and find them.
From retail branding to wayfinding, sign letters shape our urban landscape. Get a peek at the Archive’s stacks in this first stop on our reference library tour.
As an omnipresent artifact of design, signs have a universal ability to both impart information and evoke a feeling. Sign documentation — whether online or in a book — can be a portal into a place’s cultural history. It captures a typographic snapshot of a city. It tells a story about evolving reproduction technologies and how they affect design choices, how commercial dynamics affect cityscapes, and how typography can communicate the intangibles of a business and its clientele.
“Now is the time to take words from boring codex forms and put them everywhere.” Vivian Sming talks Latin American artists’ books with Alan Sobrino.
As part of her curatorial fellowship at Letterform Archive, Vivian Sming has been introducing us to innovative book artists and independent publishers. In this installment, she sits down with Alan Sobrino of Errant Press who distributes and publishes books by Latin American artists, often in bilingual editions. All the books shown here are now part of the Archive’s collection of visual language.
Vivian Sming: Can you introduce yourself and tell us what prompted you to start Errant Press?
Alan Sobrino: My name is Alan Sobrino. I’m from Mexico City originally, but I have lived the last 10 years in a city called Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico, one of the most violent cities in the world. It’s the hometown of a lot of drug dealers. While I was living there, I started working on Errant Press. I knew that what I was trying to make and what I was writing was never going to be published in the way I wanted them to. If you go to traditional publishing houses with ideas that are outside of the box, like putting some poems in matchbooks or like playing with the containers, well, obviously, they’re going to react. They liked the texts, but I got rejected all the time trying to put them together as a project. After a while, I decided to start doing it myself. My first books didn’t look like the ones I make now. They started as small projects for friends. I shared them with people who I knew would like them. They eventually started growing and becoming more popular between friends and zinesters in Mexico. I decided to create Errant Press as a gateway for putting all these works I was making already out there, and also to make a little bit of money to keep producing. Because I realized that without money, I couldn’t keep publishing my work. I thought Errant would be a good way to make some cash flow so I could keep producing.
Our new collection offers a visual explosion of the 1970s–80s punk scene in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.
Punk has always been anti-establishment, and that includes the traditional design establishment. Its ethos is DIY; make do with what’s available, and figure it out. Don’t have the necessary supplies? Doesn’t matter; you can make paste from flour and use a public library’s xerox machine. Punk thumbs its nose at the polished. It embraces the messy, the handmade, and the authentic. It is a state of mind reflected both in the sound of its music and the look of its promotional graphics.