Graphic language — typefaces, digitized writing systems, hand-lettering, and so much more — is, without exaggeration, everywhere in everyday life: in way-finding signage, traffic control signage, and billboards; in books, instruction manuals, and on product packaging; on the interfaces of consumer electronics and personal vehicles; on cell phones and walls with graffiti art; and on websites and digital ads, just to name a very few examples.
One implication of this proliferation of letterforms is that the people responsible for creating graphic language, caring for it in different ways and putting it into the world, hold tremendous power in shaping, spreading, and promoting certain kinds of social messaging that’s attached to these ubiquitous cultural forms.
Text has long interested anthropologists and other social scientists, especially its capacity to impact both individuals and larger social groups. This includes, for example, the development of literacy practices, debates over orthographic systems and spelling reforms, and the role played by printing technologies in the formation of modern nation states. But in most of this work, the specifically typographic aspects of text have been almost completely overlooked.
To the extent that social scientists have explored typeface itself as a significant feature of the social world, their research has largely been formulated in mostly cognitive terms, in which different typefaces affect the “legibility” or “readability” of a text. How typeface operates as a social and cultural technology, though — including how it is actively designed and used not just to communicate linguistic meanings, but also to convey affect, ideology, and morality; how graphic language is actively bonded to other cultural forms or social groups; and how letterforms help create specifically classed and raced public spaces and material objects — is much less clearly understood.
This project, then, is a study of graphic language and its role as a kind of social technology that’s put to use in organizing relations between humans and a range of cultural phenomena. The centerpiece of the project is an ethnographic investigation of the communities of professionals who design and deliberate graphic language, and who attend to the formal details of letterforms as their primary objects of concern. This includes a whole bunch of people: type designers, typographers, graphic designers, software engineers, linguists, archivists, librarians, design educators, authors, and many more.
I have more to say, of course, but for now, I’ll just leave it here.
The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (SBE award #1851282), the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the UC Irvine School of Social Sciences.