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As children, we play with colors and
shapes, sounds and words, the movement of our bodies and the objects
around us—exploring our abilities and preferences. These multi-sensory
experiences provide a foundation for our awareness of ourselves and our
relationship to our environment. With a unique combination of
intelligences, based on abilities, experiences and knowledge—our
personal context—we learn to communicate with our own individual voice.
Individuals express their unique combination of intelligences
through one or more diverse symbol systems (alphabets, body gestures,
etc.). Working with their visual-spatial intelligence, graphic designers
are concerned with the syntax and semantics of visual symbols. In
theater, actors use linguistic and bodily kinesthetic intelligences,
relating physically to the text and communicating through gesture and
voice to their audience. Typography and theater are temporal experiences
and forms of communication, expressing ideas through different modes.
Although they occur in different dimensions and cognitive domains,
aspects of structure, motion and time are common to both. The three
basic components of theater—actor, space and audience – have direct
typographic parallels with type, page and reader. Modern typography is
objective and impersonal, revealing rather than obscuring an author’s
message. Postmodern typography virtually eliminates the concept of a
single authoritative viewpoint by adding the designer’s unique
expression to a cacophony of voices.
Students in the three typography courses at California State
University, Chico, are introduced to the idea of correspondences—first
between typography and music (1), then between typography and
theater—through interdisciplinary project assignments. As our students
discover their own personal combination of intelligences, relationships
between intelligences, and connections between typography, music and
theater, they enhance their ability to articulate visual information and
create meaning with their own distinctly individual voice.
Speaking, breathing and moving through a script, actors are like
typographers responding to grammatical structure. Exploring the natural
pauses of conversation, typography students discover how boundaries and
intervals can transform textual meaning—even the smallest gesture can be
used to develop a character’s thoughts or emotions. Typography student
Chris Lehman (Fig. 1) worked with the text of a dialogue from the
theater of the mind: radio. He selected and adapted a short segment from
“The Bickersons,” a cult classic that later became the basis of the
television series “The Honeymooners.” As Paul Bickerson lies tense and
sleepless (a victim of his new husband John’s raucous snoring), the
newlywed couple is about to discover that the honeymoon is over.
Modulating type sizes created interesting visual rhythms and
textures, resonating on the page like actors’ voices on stage. The
oblique orientation of certain baselines delineated speaking voices and
created a subtle visual tension that reflected the content. Like a
staged production, the context of this project shifted to reflect a
contemporary social issue, the stampede of gay marriages performed in
San Francisco during the winter of 2004. Without changing the action or
words, a descriptive narrative provided a gender shift, making Chris the
omniscient narrator who guided the reader to view gay marriage as
equivalent to traditional marriage. Understanding the motivations of the
dramatic characters enhanced the depth and development of the
typographic characters on the page. A supportive learning environment
resulted in a much more interesting solution that expressed a more
engaged and individual perspective, based on Chris’s own personal
context and combination of interpersonal and intrapersonal
In the mid-1980s, about the same time that graphic designers were
introduced to postmodern design theory and the process of creating
digital typography on a Macintosh, psychologist Howard Gardner published
his theory of Multiple Intelligences (2). Gardner has identified
distinct ways of knowing or representing the world, based on a unique
footprint of intelligence and creativity found in each individual. Each
of these intelligences relies on an individual’s personal context and
biological and psychological potentials.
Typography student Carrie Fritsch (Fig. 2) portrayed an asynchronous
Internet-mediated conversation in a book format that integrated aspects
of postmodern theory with digital typography. A dialog via email and
instant messaging (IM) presented a set of communication issues that
appealed to her combination of visual-spatial and linguistic
intelligences. Her conversation was full of emotionally charged issues
that became subverted from spoken sounds into an arrangement of static
words on a page. Depending on the receiver’s interpretation of certain
words, this interactive conversation took many twists and turns.
Typographic gestures, like an actor’s vocal inflection, transformed the
implicit nature of words into meaningful symbols.
Emotional content, such as humor, can easily slip through the lines
of text for most readers. Typographic gestures perform on a page like an
actor expresses subtle nuances of meaning through rhythm, pitch and
intervals of silence. Like an audience, readers are drawn to participate
in the experience of a narrative by the implied sensuous sound and
movement of type on a page, which elicits an emotional response.
Emoticons and sequences of analphabetic symbols, with contrasting
character attributes, were inserted to compensate for the attenuated
speech and to express emotion—developing a strategy to enhance the
participant’s ability to experience the words as if they were spoken.
Carrie’s approach was more focused on time—rather than pitch or
tone, which are only imagined, not actual, as in a spoken conversation.
The notion of time in an IM conversation is very important; participants
take turns commenting and responding—sometimes immediately and
sometimes after a delay. To place emphasis on the sound of a
conversation that is not affected by inflection or tone in spoken ways,
she developed a system of visual-alert symbols for the auditory cues
heard when a message appears on the screen. Since anatomical references
to the parts of letters (arm, ear, eye, face, shoulder, spine, etc.) are
common in typographic jargon, encouraging Carrie to think of type as an
extension of the human body seemed to help her to be more empathetic
and integrate her own voice. Extreme contrasts of scale emphasized the
anthropomorphic aspect of individual character shapes. In the same way
that theatrical lighting and sets create an emotional tone on stage, a
sequence of shifting figure and ground colors provided a dynamic tonal
setting for her book, making it a typographic performance.
Typography student Chelsea Moriarty (Fig. 3) was intrigued by Shakespeare’s play Much Ado about Nothing,
in which characters duel by teasing and gulling with words that are
filled with sarcasm and wit. In her version of the play, each of the
characters is portrayed by a different typeface, based on the
personality of the character and considered in the context of the
character’s situations, themes and relationships with other characters.
For example, Chelsea selected Futura to represent the young baby-faced
Count Claudio because the geometric letterforms seemed to express his
exuberance and naïveté. The typography is itself reactive, one voice
interrupting another through displaced slanting lines, just as
performers do on stage. The scale of the type bespeaks the loudness of
each word spoken on stage. The natural typographic rhythm of form and
counterform is exaggerated by the spaces between words and lines of
type. A change in the pitch of a spoken syllable or word is indicated by
a vertical shift in the typographic baseline, descending or ascending
like the emotional quality of a character’s voice.
Like the stage of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre, which projected
into the audience and lacked a proscenium, there is no lighting, no
scenery, no curtain in Chelsea’s play. Emphasis is placed on the dialog,
as opposed to the blocking or action. Only Chelsea’s design of her
book’s cover and binding are used to set the tone and create context for
We can live vicariously through dramatic characters. Without fear of
real consequences, we tend to take greater risks and break out of our
existing behavioral patterns, creating new ways of thinking. We’ve
discovered that theater invites students to expand on their own
experiences, engaging them physically, emotionally, spiritually and
intellectually in a multi-sensory design process. This approach provides
more varied entry points to understanding by inviting students to
become active participants and to apply their individual intelligences
to the process of learning about diverse symbol systems. Students who
learn to recognize their own unique abilities and employ their
repertoire of multiple intelligences, gain confidence and demonstrate
greater typographic fluency by learning to recognize and trust their own
(1) Armstrong, Frank. “Hearing Type.” (PDF) 2003.
(2) Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Video: AIGA Medalist Michael Mabry
About this video
Michael Mabry was recognized with the AIGA Medal for expertly melding design and illustration to create a playful and sophisticated visual language that is highly intuitive and intuitively right. Learn more about his work.
This video by
Section: Inspiration -
AIGA Medal, interview
There are a lot of designers out there applying for the same job. In this guest post for AIGA Houston, Savage Art Director Ashley Rundall explains why it’s important for every designer to find out what makes you unique and better at your job than the next
guy, then sell them in the interview.
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