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Ideas from the Heart

After teaching Graphic Design for about 15 years, I noticed a strange phenomenon (actually I noticed a lot of strange phenomena, but I'm only writing about this particular one): very talented students in the lower grades failed, or almost failed, in the higher grades. The only cause I could detect was a difference in project timing: short term projects in the lower grades, long term in the higher grades. The simple fact that they had to talk to several teachers week after week seemed to make everybody unhappy in the end. The teachers and students were dissatisfied because the latter never reached the point where the former wanted the project to end up, the latter were unhappy because they saw their project going in a direction they did not realy intend to. The reasons for this were countless: misunderstanding, inexperience, too much experience, in short: every student/teacher combination is different. For years I've been struggling with this problem, not knowing how to solve it. Autumn 1998.

Tarja Nieminen, Head of the Graphic Design Department at the Institute of Design in Lahti is searching for a teacher to give a Typography workshop. Thanks through a Belgian connection (Lode Coen) they invited me. Since I was getting more and more interested in new media I suggested to combining a class on digital font creation (fontographer) with a class on new media (macromedia director).

The workshop started on Monday, December 14th at noon, until Friday 18th at 14:25, meaning the students only had four days to finish their project. From these four days a whole day was spent on courses (half a day Fontographer and half a day Director). The assignment: design an experimental typeface, produce it in Fontographer and present it with new media, using Director. On Friday a CD-Rom was burned with all the presentations, accessible through an interface.

Thinking backwards, I must have been crazy to think this could work! To my own amazement (and probably that of the students as well) it did. This wonderful mix seemed to solve the problem I described above in a miraculous way. Apparently all the ingredients needed for a successful workshop were present: no time (so students were almost forced to pursue their first idea,) group dynamics (there was a meeting every morning at 9 and every evening at 5, where the whole group discussed their projects), knowledge and skills (the courses and use of the new software) belief (a crazy and enthusiastic teacher who acted like he had done this many times before) facilities (the equipment and support in Lahti are excellent, thanks Kari!) and of course a challenging and rich subject: 'experimental' typography. The word 'experimental' is not only there because of the lack of time and craftsmanship to create a 'classical' font. When you look at the changes in society the last decade(s) you notice (at least I do) some reasons to believe our beloved way of communicating (the western alphabet) is getting under attack... and might not survive...

So,... let's have a look at that sacred old cow: typography! What is it actually, typography? Typography is the most poor and crippled way of communicating, ever invented! It is communication in its most naked, stripped-to-the-bone shape. What a poor sight: black shapes on white paper. Gray boxes, with gray lines. And this is supposed to communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings? If these statements do not shock typographers, nothing ever will! And then again: compare typography with the best way of communicating: two persons standing in front of each other. Basically they use all of their senses. I will not even refer to the scientific evidence that about 80% (79.23% or 50.01% for my sake) of what we verbally communicate is transferred by our gestures, by tonality, timbre and emotion in our voices and by facial expressions. But since I'm using typography to get my idea across, I refer to it anyway...

Those who do not read between the lines, might say: typography is dead! And I would then quickly add: long live typography! Yes, these workshops are a great opportunity to experiment with new ways to communicate, new ways of adding emotion, feelings, poetry, art, music, motion... you name it, it's yours... to these self invented vehicles of communication. And please, do not forget, these workshops result in what I call 'Digital Roughs'. For students they serve as a way, not only to explore typography, not only to investigate communication, not only to learn some computer programs, but maybe most of all: to discover the way they function as a designer in the visual communication process. By expressing their 'Ideas from the heart'

I have been doing 8 similar workshops since that infamous first one. The 8 CD-Roms prove that I stumbled on a very interesting recipe. The attendants always take care of the spices.

Lucas Nijs, teacher (and student)

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