Spring 2010

Fast track songlines for type

Steven Heller on Gail Anderson’s SVA class in typographic animation

The new media landscape demanded ‘a new kind of typography’, declared Herb Lubalin before an international assembly of designers back in 1960. Television, though comparatively primitive at the time, required typefaces that could be read while in motion. Similarly, the speed at which advertisements flew by on cars, buses and trains signalled a need for typefaces that were easy to read at peak velocities. Lubalin’s prognostications were spot on in the 1960s, and they still resonate.

A decade ago Gail Anderson, creative director at SpotCo, started Just Type, a class for the Designer as Author MFA course at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. The idea was to push students who were not always comfortable designing typography to explore new ways of working with words.

‘I love letterforms and while I can’t remember my cell phone number, I can tell you the names of a million typefaces, where you can get them, and what face might be good for a layout,’ says Anderson. Her goal was to make students a little less intimidated by typography; less hung up on the distinctions between a perfect cut and a not so great one.

She wanted them to relax. So she started with a series of one-week exercises designed to be quick and disposable: ‘My hope was that if there wasn’t the pressure of potential portfolio pieces at stake, maybe there would be a little risk-taking.’

One project involved making a song animation with words alone, using black and white images. ‘We wanted to make them move.’ So the students started playing with iMovie, which led to Flash and AfterEffects. That was the impetus for ultimately focusing the class solely on type videos, developing ideas, turning them into rough storyboards and then animatics. Everyone was to be thrown into unfamiliar software at the same time. ‘It was a level playing field for those designers who never considered time and motion before,’ she says. She set small goals: 30 seconds one week, a minute the next, and so on.

They had to consider not only the selection of their song and their type but also how to make their words come to life. ‘The type has to talk, quite literally to sing.’ The single constraint: they had to work only in black and white, and with letters not images, although letters were used to create images. ‘I’m just a stickler about the image thing. It’s about the type. The dirty little secret is … if you pick the right song, the video almost designs itself.’

Anderson’s goal was for the class ‘to leave with a greater appreciation for what words “look” like’, she says. ‘I wanted them to see how letters can be used to create not just words but sounds, objects, figures and textures.’

One student, Wes Gott, got it: ‘I realised that the movement of the type can affect your perception of its “personality” just as much as the formal qualities of the letterforms,’ he says, referring to what he calls the type’s ‘actions and physique’. Another, Karin Soukup, says, ‘Throughout this project, I felt like I was casting the type as characters in a period-inspired play, looking for the ones that typified certain eras in the most explicit way possible. To a degree this felt limiting, but also liberating in its clarity of direction.’ Alexej Steinhardt ‘learned that if you can show humour and intelligence, you can get away with typographic murder.’

‘I’m the only one who panics in those last few weeks that they’re not going to pull it off, but they always do, and the type videos blow me away year after year,’ says Anderson. Of the 23 videos produced in 2009, she talks about the following five for differing reasons, but she notes that it is always the choice of song that sets the whole exercise in motion.

JULES TARDY ‘Whatever’ by Gnarls Barkley, from The Odd Couple, 2008.

⦁ Jules Tardy converted video footage into text using ASCII Art. His video plays on the contrast of the patterns formed over the simplicity of the DIN typeface used to illustrate the lyrics of the song.

‘Jules was the guy who had an idea, made a plan, did the research, and figured out a new way to approach the project,’ says Anderson. ‘His video was a real breakthrough for the class, and it was truly exciting to watch this one slowly take form. He found a way to use ASCII text as a texture. The video gave me a new appreciation of a song I liked but hadn’t thought about much recently, which is what the best of these projects accomplish.’


‘Beep, Beep, Beep’ (based on Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’), arranged and narrated by Weird Al Yankovic, 2008.

⦁ Alexej Steinhardt’s typographic interpretation of Weird Al’s humorous take on Beethoven’s original. The melody is ‘sung’ as increasingly impatient beeps of cars waiting for an interminable red light to turn. ‘Alexej’s decision to use the car logos was just genius,’ says Anderson.


‘Drawing in the Dark’ by Yacht, from I Believe in You. Your Magic Is Real, 2007.

⦁ Wes Gott’s video is all stop-motion: the lucite letters, transformed by ‘the tension between light and dark’, come alive to spell out the lyrics. ‘Wes Gott was a mystery, but I trusted that he’d walk in with something that would surprise us all,’ says Anderson. ‘He’s already got an award from the Type Directors Club.’


‘Que Sera, Sera’ by Wax Tailor, from Tales of the Forgotten Melodies, 2005.

⦁ Karin Soukup’s stop-motion typographic video, which she subtitles ‘Is Print Dead?’, juxtaposes DJ Wax Tailor’s quick-cut advertising voice-overs with decades of musical influence – from hip-hop to Doris Day – to create a metaphorical conversation between ‘The Past’ (print) and ‘The Future’ (digital) in an effort to explore her question.

‘This is one of those songs that’s ripe for a type video,’ says Anderson. ‘Karin wove a theme into it that I never would have thought of: is print dead? She struggled with the individual scenes, wanting to perfect them before moving forward. My experience has been to think big picture first: lay it all out, then go back and massage the details. The end result here is both smart and beautiful. And it’s a great song, too.’


‘Modern World’ by Wolf Parade, from Apologies to the Queen Mary, 2005.

⦁ Cristina Vasquez’s video depicts a world inspired by futurist movies such as Metropolis. Using repetition as an element for rhythm, she built a world of type where uniformity, conflict and the urban city ‘become too much for some to handle’.

‘Cristina did it the hard way,’ says Anderson. ‘She worked out the kinks along the way before moving forward. So while the progress was slow, each week, we were able to see the video take shape in very clear ways. She gave it a final polish at the end that took it to a whole other level, though.’

First published in Eye no. 75 vol. 19 2010

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.