Winter 2006

Is type my religion? Food for thought

Typographical Journeys

50th AtypI Congress, Lisbon
27 September –1 October 2006

The ATypi 50th Congress in Lisbon was not perfect, though the unending summer weather, and the location – the University Art Faculty, a former Franciscan monastery in the cultural centre of Lisbon – were, almost. The solid walls and plain geometry, a fine model no doubt for Trappists, have not been adapted so successfully for more talkative monks, or even congress attendees. As everyone agrees, it is not in the formal sessions where most learning is done or knowledge exchanged, but when people meet. However, there were not enough smaller spaces allotted for this. There was good attendance, over 350 (as at Helsinki) from 34 countries, with 35 per cent being students; sufficient critical mass to generate discussion or debate. Except that the mass was acritical. The panels’ discussions were not totally predictable – the future of newspapers (Gerald Unger’s fonts effortlessly making his case), or how to run a digital foundry – were not chaired actively by someone who knew the score, and how to draw and orchestrate debate from the audience. Hence there wasn’t any debate from the floor, but nor was time allowed for it.

This shortcoming appears to be structural. The mental map of typography and type design in the bony heads of the organisers, local and global, is full of empty quarters and ‘here be dragons’. So there were no ‘typographical journeys’ (the riveting Congress theme) into the act of reading, its aural-visual nature and neuro-physiological basis, though Lisbon has an ace researcher in this field. Nobody would have thought from the programme that typography is also a linguistic discipline, and nothing was reprised from the Prague congress of two years ago, no close readings of work old or new, to demonstrate how criticism is done.

Unfortunately, Portuguese design schools in higher education are under great pressure to ensure that 51 per cent of their staff have PhDs by 2009, in order to satisfy the requirements of Bologna. This means an exponential increase of productivity for the handful of university departments with doctoral programmes, so many teachers go to Spain, where departments are still short on experience and experienced supervisors. The result was too many papers from the Iberian peninsular that were embarrassingly lightweight, at best well-meaning, were also under-informed. The besetting sin with schools continues to be the uncritical adoption of Gestalt theory: uncritical in the sense of ignoring von Ehrenfels’ coupling Gehalt / Gestalt, the dynamic unity of Form and Content, structurally exemplified in the trademark image of faces / wineglass.

Sadly, the local organisers, Experimenta, with plenty of practical experience in running a design biennial, wrong-footed on the climate (sitting after lunch in a darkened room is good for a siesta but not much else), and the food showed neither design sense, nor awareness of cultural difference – factory pork could have been substituted by factory turkey, or better, deep-frozen fish, to avoid grating Jewish and Muslim sensibilities . . .

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