Against Type

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Look at this sentence. Did you notice anything about the letterforms that make it up?


Probably not. As 21st-century humans, with smartphones at-tached to our palms, we’re used to a typeface being purely func-tional, a practically transparent way of conveying information. But David Bernstein (art history faculty emeritus) knows that sometimes a letter is more than a letter, and text can convey meaning beyond the word itself. He is researching the connections between three examples of words-as-art: medieval illuminat-ed manuscripts, late ’60s concert posters, and Google “Doodles.”

It all began in the summer of 1968, when Bernstein was strolling around San Francisco and noticed posters advertising concerts by Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West.

The letters and words cre-ated wild, whimsical, spontane-ous imagery that didn’t just con-vey information, but also seemed suggestive of the music’s tone and the cultural atmosphere of the time.

Later, as he studied medi-eval illuminated manuscripts, he wondered if they anticipated the graphic arts of the ’60s. In the early medieval period, monks began designing and illustrat-ing original manuscripts of the Gospels. Breaking from the Roman convention of writing with a uniform script, the monks would change scale, using a large letter and then a small one, or change the pace so the letters tumbled over one another. Often, the letters became “historiated,” meaning they contained a scene or figure, usually related to the text. These manuscripts would have been open on the altar of a church, and they were meant to be displayed, much like posters.

Bernstein sees a similar dynamic in Google “Doodles,” the wacky versions of the Google logo that celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of various famous artists and scientists. (For example, to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the company, illustrators added an L, turn-ing the logo into Goog11e.)

What do these three things have in common? They all break with convention, Bernstein says, and add extra layers of meaning to the words themselves. In time his research will become a book. By drawing connections between art-words across the centuries, he hopes to remind us that all of art involves a human being making specific and intentional choices, and help us engage more deeply with something as mundane as a letter.