Acting Like a Character

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , typography

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 intelligences.

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 the setting.

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 voices.

(1) Armstrong, Frank. “Hearing Type.” (PDF) 2003.
(2) Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books, 1983.