Exploring typography: Behind the scenes with author and educator Carolina de Bartolo

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[Carolina de Bartolo] One day several years ago (before I wrote my book, Explorations in Typography), a student in my Typography 2 class informed me — in a rather secretive and incredulous manner — that a fellow student in another instructor’s section had not been assigned to do “Explorations,” the typography exercises I’d devised to teach typesetting to my students. I replied that I was not at all surprised as Explorations were my own invention for my own students in my own classes but, her very memorable response to me was: “But how else would you learn it?!”

This one short exclamation was my first inkling of how valuable these Explorations exercises might be. I realized that for this student it felt so natural to learn this subject in this manner that she could not imagine learning it by any other means. And that’s precisely the kind of thing that is emblematic of the “invisibility” of good design — when you just can’t imagine it being done in any other way that would be better.

Over the years, many former students had written me to say that my Explorations were a “b*tch” (their words, not mine) and they utterly hated doing them (and/or me) at the time, but in hindsight they realized it was a turning point for them to set so much type week after week and learn how to do it in new ways and yet properly and well. (Often they’d add that they knew more about typesetting than their new boss. Oh, and that they no longer hated me. Thanks, students!)

It was late 2008 (the day Obama was elected) when I had an opportunity to show my Explorations to Erik Spiekermann. I’d toyed with the idea of making them into a book and even shown some layouts to students, but I’d never explained the idea to another professional designer. So even though he was the first to see it, Erik quickly recognized it as a fresh approach with some potential as a textbook. I seem to remember him saying, “You teach this? Nobody teaches this.” That made me feel good. And as you might imagine, it inspired great confidence to have a designer of his stature champion the project so early in the process when things were still rather nebulous.

Not long after that, I got to thinking: If these Explorations were indeed useful to students and if my approach was a bit uncommon, then maybe I have a certain amount of responsibility to share this material with other teachers and students of typography. After all, I had been using these Explorations to teach Typography 2 for more than 10 years, so the exercises had definitely been put through their paces.

That’s why, earlier this year, I wrote and published my first book, Explorations in Typography: Mastering the Art of Fine Typesetting. Erik described it as “a must-have for all future typomaniacs.” And innumerable kind words about the project have come my way through tweets, e-mails and in person. It’s been an incredibly gratifying experience to have created something that so many people around the world have found beautiful and useful.

Hopefully this book can live alongside all the other fine typography texts out there and prove to be instructive and inspirational to anyone who sets type, no matter whether the final delivery of the text to readers is on paper or on screens. I also hope it excites people about the inherent possibilities in setting text type when you exploit the natural breaks in the language, namely the paragraphs. Type in paragraphs can be expressive without being arbitrary. It can be functional and legible at the same time as being interesting, engaging and aesthetic … and the possibilities are truly endless.

P.S. As a special surprise for the attendees at our book launch party in June 2011, we created a 16 x 20-in. letterpress poster of all the typeface combinations from the book. It was printed in two colors at Third Bay Letterpress in Petaluma, Cal., on Strathmore Writing Ultimate White Cover, 100lb Wove. A limited supply of them are now for sale here.

Carolina de Bartolo has been teaching typography for 11 years at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Explorations in Typography: Mastering the Art of Fine Typesetting is her first book. It can be purchased here. We previously wrote about Explorations in Typography and its interactive companion website here.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by Mary Scott on 08.4.11 at 4:41 pm

    Hi Carolina,

    Your book will inspire designers who respect and revere type for years to come.

    Best, Mary

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