Winter 1996

Read this aloud

Pierre di Sciullo’s experimental alphabets interrogate the conventions that govern the way we read, write and talk

Most contemporary typographers argue that letterform conventions must evolve, and they strive to replace old signs with similar or even unlikely ones. But Pierre di Sciullo goes beyond the formal aspects of typography. It is not the code itself so much as the process of codification which interests him. He designs not only the shape of letters, but invents a whole system of rules and uses for them. What attracts him is the distance between the code and the message, the difference between the oral and the written language (between instinct and convention) and the links between Western writing systems and those of Africa or the East. Thus he uses his various typographical projects to question the conventions of our reading, writing and talking.

Di Sciullo was born in Paris in 1961. He came to typography through his self-published journal Qui? Résiste, which he started at the age of 23. By then he had already worked as a comic and press illustrator and walked out of a Parisian art school after only a three month stay. “I was expected to work with existing characters,” he says with disgust, “and I certainly derived no pleasure from that … I realised then that it was not getting a diploma but doing things that counted.”

The journal’s title is a pun on the French crime weekly Qui? Police. Yet di Sciullo’s intention with Qui? Résiste was to resist the cheap shots at seduction relied upon by the mainstream press and the banal images that surround us, and to avoid the conventional working environment and maintain his independence. The journal represents for him an opportunity to rediscover, explore and play with literary texts by authors such as Balzac, Pascal or Plato, and to write as well as experiment with different graphic techniques. “I did not like the status of the illustrator, who is expected to create nice little pictures, and above all avoid giving a personal view of the text. Illustrators are supposed to have a certain style, and reproduce it ad infinitum.”

The main objective of Qui? Résiste is to explore the relationship between the written and visual message. “What happens if I put text and image of different origins next to each other?” asks di Sciullo. “How does the text influence the perception of the image, and how does the image influence the reading of the text? What happens if I manipulate texts, plagiarise them or deliberately create a distance between text and image? I like to cause contradictions. Ambiguity engages readers and makes them more active.”

Between 1983 and 1992, di Sciullo published, at irregular intervals, nine issues of Qui? Résiste. Each is a personal quest on themes such as seduction, truth, death, the woman, zoology, the square, clouds, reading and elementary logic. The titles – Manuel de la seduction (Manual of seduction) or Manuel de la femme (Manual of the woman) – suggest the humorous pseudo-scientific tone of the content.

In common with most other self-published journals, a major impetus behind Qui? Résiste was its author’s desire for his work to be seen. “I wanted to show my work – it exists only if it seen by others. I have seen my father, a painter, suffer from not being exhibited. I didn’t want to depend on the art market, or become part of that market’s financial speculation – if you work in fine art, you are working for an audience pre-selected by its wealth. Printed matter was, for me, the key to independence.” Soon after its inception, Qui? Résiste became renowned in the graphic design community and through it di Sciullo met other designers such as Pierre Bernard, with whom he collaborated in 1989.

The first few issues were produced as photocopies until he was able to convince printers and reproduction companies to support him. Issue 8 was funded with a grant from the French Ministry of Culture and further sponsorship, for the development of typefaces, came from the same source after the publication of the latest issue, no. 9, in 1992. Issue 10 will be a collaboration with the École des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg to accompany an exhibition of work by di Sciullo in 1997.

It is hard to make a living out of research alone, but di Sciullo finds it difficult to strike a balance between commercial and experimental work. “Clients who are ready to take risks and willing to produce unusual graphics are rare, especially in France. Qui? Résiste has given me the image of an extreme experimentalist, which is somehow restricting – it frightens clients away. But I think of commissions also in a pragmatic way. I want to produce things for use. After all, the constraints of commissions can also be challenging.”

From 1990 to 1992, he spent eighteen months working for the design agency Company Corporate as an art director, designing financial reports and other corporate communications material. Even though his views and working methods were at odds with those of his employer, he managed to produce some interesting work. The internal forms that he designed for the company itself, for example, are structured and functional, as well as contemporary, while unmistakably carrying di Sciullo’s “footprint’.

After he left the agency, di Sciullo pastiched that design business speciality, the annual report, to make his own “personal report”. To the question “how can one act politically?” he replies: “The world is good, my head as well. Politics starts with individually …” Charts, pie charts and tables analyse, with an almost Dadaist humour, the designer’s state of well-being. A week is summed up as follows: “Monday was good, Tuesday was good, Wednesday was good, Thursday was bad, Friday was bad, Saturday was good, Sunday was good. This week was a good week.”

It was with Qui? Résiste that di Sciullo started work on typeface design. He designed a “fantasy” typeface with post-modern features for his Manuel de la femme (no. 5, 1985) In Manuel du carré (Manual of the square, no. 6, 1985), just after the arrival of the Macintosh, he explored the shape of the pixel – which also happens to be square – and began designing bitmap faces.

By issue 8, Manuel de la lecture (Manual of reading), published in 1989, typography had become the main subject. Di Sciullo designed 46 typefaces (including variations) for the issue as tools for linguistic and visual experiments, to question the relationship between code and message. Two of his most accomplished typefaces, Minimum and Quantange are among them. “No text is neutral,” says di Sciullo. “In the East, there is a traditional suspicion of the body of the written word, the physical substance of the text.” In the introduction to Manuel de la lecture, he writes: “I searched for letterforms and codes which would remind the reader of handwriting: the organic undulation of the line and the infinite modulations of rhythm; of the voice talking, of several voices speaking together, and of oral language and its links to writing; of characters which have a life of their own, which add a second degree to meaning or which take a deliberate distance so that they can better fulfil their initial task; and of technology, with its new constraints, which pushes us to explore new territories.”

Two chapters, “La destruction des mots” (The destruction of words) and “Vers l’illisible” (Towards illegibility), are for him the discovery of the immense territory of the indecipherable, as shown in his treatment of extracts from Balzac’s “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) and from the chapter on Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984. But they also represent the discovery of the texture of the page and of the underlying patterns common to any form of writing. Another interesting feature of Manuel de la lecture is the resemblance of the transformed physical substance of the text to oriental or Hebrew writing. Rotating each single character of a text through 90 degrees creates a page with a Far Eastern reading structure: from top to bottom and from right to left. Other constraints imposed on the letterforms produce shapes which evoke typographic styles of the 1950s and 1970s.

The typeface Minimum (a reference to Rodchenko’s Constructivist lettering), based on the horizontals and verticals of a coarse bitmap grid, is well suited to the computer screen. Only the letters “v” and “z” contain diagonals. Through stretching, rotating, reducing and decorating the letterforms, di Sciullo has extended Minimum into a large type family, which now comprises over 40 variants. Most of them are transposed into PostScript format. Some, like Minimum Ivre (drunk) or Minimum Bong, create vibrating textures on the page. Minimum Bichro (two-coloured) uses one colour for the horizontals and one for the verticals, creating a third colour where they overlap. Di Sciullo has recently adapted Minimum Bichro into three dimensions to display the title of an exhibition, “Approche” (Approach), in which he is participating with nine other young French graphic designers. Red verticals and yellow horizontals are suspended in two different spatial layers: the distortion means the title can only be read clearly from one direction.

Di Sciullo’s development as a designer has gradually made him less concerned with experimentation for its own sake. “I am interested in the text itself,” he says. “I want to put the reader in reading situations. I am very critical of superficial design which reduces the text to a purely decorative element.” Quantange (the name derives from the French “Qu’entends-je?” or “What do I hear?”) is a phonetically based font which spells out the sounds of the French language. With each nuance of pronunciation attributed to a special sign, Quantange has up to 102 lower case and 35 upper case “letters”. At first sight it seems complex, but with the variations in basic characters corresponding to variations in sound, it can be approached intuitively and is effortless to read.

“This project came from my pleasure in the spoken word. I like listening, talking, writing and reading, and I love the French language,” says di Sciullo, who insists on font catalogues preserving his typefaces’ original names and presenting them in French phrases rather than as an abc.” “I set a poem by Rimbaud in Quantange, and people really liked it – it makes you want to read aloud. Other possible applications could be ancient texts, to revive their melody; books for learning French; transcriptions of conversations or interviews; songs … even the complete works of Karl Marx,” he adds with a smile.

At the other extreme from Quantange is Sintetik. Similar sounds are reduced to a common shape, and silent characters are eliminated: only fifteen letters survive the process. Like Quantange, it is best read aloud, but is more difficult to understand, as it becomes necessary to deduce or even guess at meaning. “Reduction and an economic use of signs are a likely evolution of our language,” says di Sciullo, and Sintetik demonstrates that possibility in a fairly frightening, extreme way.

Quantange also brought di Sciullo to the attention of the Georges Perec Association, a study group devoted to the work of the late experimental French novelist, which approached him to design a typeface based on one of the writer’s ideas. Perec particularly liked the constraints of language and the wordplay it allowed, especially palindromes where a word or phrase reads the same both backwards and forwards. He dreams of vertical palindromes, but did not get beyond one phrase. For the commissioned font Basnoda, di Sciullo adapted the eleven rotatable letters used by Georges Perec and extended the font to the other characters, the numbers and the punctuation signs; each single letterform is vertically symmetrical, legible the right way up or upside down. It therefore offers many more palindromic possibilities than the usual alphabet. Now Guillaume Pô, a writer and friend of di Sciullo, is working on a novel including long passages of vertical and horizontal palindromes that will be published by the Collége de Pataphysique (the science of imaginary solutions) in 1997.

In a one-off journal published in spring 1993 by another group of Perec enthusiasts, called Le Cabinet d’amateur (after a Perec novel), di Sciullo offered the hypothesis that the contemporary written language of the Tuareg in North Africa – Tifinar – is perfectly suited to the creation of palindromes. Most of its letterforms are symmetrical on two axes, and can be read from any direction. “The sign for the Tuareg rebellion is in itself a palindrome: the letter ‘z’, figuring the human body, is superimposed once vertically, once horizontally. It means to live in freedom and to revolt and can be read from all four directions.” A Tuareg association has since asked di Sciullo to design the first Tifinar font for electronic publishing. Since Tifinar is traditionally used by the different Tuareg communities to engrave messages on rocks or other materials, the letterforms which will be recognisable by all the communities. “I particularly liked this project,” he says. “It will allow the Tuaregs to print their own newspapers and books. The transmission of memory and access to information will contribute to their culture.” One of the first applications will be a bilingual medical book.

Di Sciullo’s inspiration for type design comes equally from within the traditions of typography. His admiration of the sixteenth-century figure Claude Garamond – as an engraver, typefounder and publisher – led to the creation of Gararond in 1995, a personal homage to Garamond, rather than an interpretation of the original. “I have deliberately taken a distance from any of the originals. What interested me was the impression of the whole, its rhythm, the texture on the page, the imperfections of the printed letters and the different slants of the stems in the italic.” Gararond, with its rounded forms, looks almost as if time has eroded the original’s serifs and smoothed away the angles.

More recently he designed Découpé (cut out) which, as its name indicates, is a stencil font for lasercutting paper or other material. What attracted di Sciullo to the project was, again, working within constraints: the stencil only permits open shapes. Currently, he is working on Paris-Gretz which he sketches during his daily train trips between the small town of Gretz, where he lives, and Paris, where he has his studio. The name is also a pun, evoking the Paris-Brest, a traditional French pastry. It is a roman font, based on blocked-in versions of his sketches, with Paris-Gretz Light retaining the outlines of the original sketches which are pencilled in to create a “natural” grey. Each letterform is completely different from the others and, as in most of his other fonts, there is no equal overall colour.

For his projects on CD-ROM or the Internet, di Sciullo often goes back to his early bitmap fonts, which are especially useful for the low resolution of screens. In June 1996, a showcase of his typographical and more personal work was launched on a Web site in Marseilles. “I find that most electronically produced pictures are very shallow, especially those done on 3D programs,” he says. “My first reflex was to introduce objects which still have a body, their own identity. For the Internet project I immediately thought of featuring my sketchbooks. Their intimacy seems completely contradictory to the public no man’s land of the Internet. This is quite troubling, but it is the contradiction which interests me.”

Arranged as a series, the sketchbook spreads can be viewed by scrolling the screen horizontally or vertically. But just like a book, it is impossible to view more than one spread at once. In the passage from one medium to the other, di Sciullo has not erased the imperfections or undulations of the scanned paper, but instead allowed them to take on new qualities on screen, resulting in interesting pixelised structures. “I always think of a technique as a translating technique, and try to assume it to its full potential. The transporting medium is just as important in its own right as the original one.”

That di Sciullo is interested in this kind of evolution and innovation is especially poignant in France where language is highly regulated by the Académie Française, and there are laws prohibiting the use of foreign words, televised spelling competitions and the world’s most codified formulae for composing correspondence. Yet there also exists a literary tradition of extreme language experiments in France. Di Sciullo, by extending these experiments to the smallest physical units of language – letterforms and phonemes – hopes to have his own influence on the writing process and to encourage new dimensions of texts to grow.

First published in Eye no. 23 vol. 6, 1996