Giving Type Meaning: Context and Craft in Typography | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Giving Type Meaning: Context and Craft in Typography

Giving Type Meaning: Context and Craft in Typography
by Mia Cinelli

Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, England, 2024
224 pp., illus. 250 col. Trade, £75.00; paper, Epub and Mobi, and PDF, £22.49
ISBN: 9781350256415; ISBN: 9781350255838; ISBN: 9781350255845; ISBN: 9781350255852.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
July 2024

There exist countless books on typography, but in this overcrowded market there should be room for this attractive and stimulating publication by Mia Cinelli, Associate Professor of Art Studio and Digital Design at the University of Kentucky. From the very start, the author specifies the scope and horizon of her work, which does not address the theory or history of typography, but which is meant to help students and professionals to correctly interpret the meaning of typography and make the best possible use of its possibilities. A wise and sound starting point that helps Cinelli to focus on a clear and effective analytical framework, while also giving her the opportunity to alternate general observations and specific case studies and short but well-made interviews with a small number of designers (not just on their career and ideas but always on precise realizations and achievements). As is the case in most work on typography today, the author exceeds the mere domain of fonts and typeface design, the starting point of her reflections, to take into account the larger field of both the materiality of typography, which includes the relationship with the host medium, from paper to wall to city, and the disciplinary environment of typography, a field where arts and design, communication and action, form and meaning are inextricably linked.

It is exactly the link between form and meaning, more precisely contextualized meaning, that is central to the author’s argumentation. We all know, to quote once again Jonathan Culler, that “meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless”, but this statement, the rightness of which has never been denied, should not be an alibi to shy away from trying to define the specific roles contexts can play in the production as well as reception of situated typographical artefacts. In Giving Type Meaning Mia Cinelli proposes a very simple but not simplistic analytical frame of three types of contexts: social, spatial, and temporal. In other words: first, the cultural assumptions and connotations of type, that is of any form of type, in time and space; second, the specific visual and material surroundings of the typographical message, which is never made or perceived in a physical vacuum; third, the temporal trajectory of our seeing and reading of type and design, whose perception often unfolds in time (reading and viewing take time and typographers can make smart uses of this constraint); and last but not least the permanent interactions between these three types of context.

Since meaning is always and everywhere socially constructed, it goes without saying that there are no “neutral” types. Even if the cultural background of type is not explicitly integrated in the making of a typographical design, it will inevitably return through the reception of the artefact, almost always separated in time and space from the original intention. One is never fully aware of the features, both the possibilities and the limitations, of one’s own cultural environment, and Cinelli’s book offers extremely valuable tools to raise awareness of these questions, demonstrating with the help of many examples the complex relationships between cultural preferences and expectations, always with the aim to help designers make a stronger use of the possibilities of their craft as well as find a better match between intended and actually perceived meanings. An art as well as a communication tool, typography has to combine multiple desires and hopes and cater to very diverse needs. In this regard, the increasing globalization of both typographic culture and visual communication is at the same time an eldorado and a minefield. Minelli’s analysis of the cultural underpinnings of typographical likings and conflicts is highly instructive, for instance when it comes down to better understand the contact zones and blurring of boundaries between European and non-European scripts in the global sphere.

No less interesting are the comments and explanations on spatial context, which is not just defined in purely or narrowly visual but also in physical and gestural terms. The latter terms refer to the tactile and sculptural aspects of typography. The author accurately reminds us of the fact that even the-dimensional forms of typography on paper remain three-dimensional objects. Cinelli gives excellent examples of place- and space-based meaning, with no less inspiring reflections on the multifaceted relationships between public space, private space, personal space, virtual space, and gestural space, each time well discussed with clear references to the technologies involved.

Finally, Cinelli also analyzes the temporal context of typography, smartly bridging the gap between past and present (a permanently shifting present of course). On the one hand, typography has a historical dimension that opens many possibilities to contemporary designers, who can reuse and appropriate older trends and conventions in unexpected ways (think for instance of the digital reinvention of medieval penmanship as seen for instance in the cover design of historical novels). On the other hand, time is itself part of the typographical medium, which can play with duration, suspense, transition, or surprise in the actual reading and interpretation of the message, often in combination with elements having to do with the spatial and architectural context of the signs (here one may think for instance of the way we read successive signs when driving a car or walking year after year after the progressively fading painted “ghost signs” on walls in the public space).

Giving Type Meaning is an excellent read, for typographers as well as a more general audience. This double audience is not a detail: throughout the whole book Cinelli observes the permanent dialogue between production and reception, which can take various forms of direct or indirect cocreation. Typography is a cultural artefact whose form and meaning are no less socially cocreated than the machines and devices studied by sociologists of technological change. At the same time, it also remains an art and Cinelli is definitely right when foregrounding the creativity of (generally commissioned) craftmanship.