Visual Language Tutorial 4

Transcript from the ‘Visual Language and Grammar: Composition with Letterforms’ movie

Welcome to the fourth episode of Visual Language and Grammar. In part four we are going to be considering letterforms and understand their relationship to the concepts introduced in the previous episodes of Visual Language and Grammar. Letters are made of shapes such as circles, squares, triangles and lines. Letterforms are symbols that represent sounds and form words and sentences that help us communicate ideas. We can also view letters as visual forms in their own right.

The white square on screen measures 150mm. We will be using a 90mm square centred on this. And this square has been divided into nine 10mm units.

Capital letters
If we draw a diagonal line from bottom left to the centre at the top and then down to the bottom right corner we have the beginnings of the symmetrical capital letter A. The left half of a circle looks like a letter C. The right half a capital letter D. Three horizontal lines and a vertical on the left makes a capital letter E. The word capital means major, important or large. The top of the architectural feature column is called a capital. The most important city in a country is a capital. Capital letters are used to begin sentences and therefore are considered important. They are also known as uppercase letters, a term that derives from letterpress typography where letters were kept in drawers or cases. Capitals were in the upper case.

Small letters
A small circle with a vertical line to its right looks like a small letter a. Small letters are also know as lowercase. In letterpress the letters were kept in the lower case under the upper case. Extend the line up and place the circle to the right and we have the small letter b. The vertical line extending up is also known as an ascender because it ascends. Next we have a three quarter circle representing the lowercase c. Complete the circle and add a vertical line and we have a d. Drop the line and place the circle to the right and we have a p. Lines that drop down are known as descenders because they descend. Move the line to the right and we have a q. The English phrase ‘mind your Ps and Qs’ means to watch your language. It is thought to derive from the ease of which you could mistake the lowercase p and q in letterpress setting. Letters on metal or wood blocks were reversed so that they printed the right way around when inked and transfered onto paper.

Graphic letters
Often letters are modified to create graphic marks which can be used as distinctive monograms. We start with an equilateral triangle. A smaller white triangle is placed on top. And finally an inverted triangle is placed at bottom centre to create a very triangular letter A. This distinctive letter could be used as a visual identity, say for an architect. The arrow shape could be used on printed matter to point at important information. Or used in a signage system. The term branding comes from the old practice of branding cattle with an identifying mark from a hot iron. The next graphic letter begins with a vertical double square. We add a 45 degree triangle to the top. Rotate a smaller 45 degree triangle and place this underneath to create a letter F. A monogram is usually made from the combination of two letters to form one mark. We start with another vertical double square. Have you noticed how composing with visual elements is a bit like cooking with visual ingredients? To my block I add a circle. Then to the mix I add a white horizontal bar. A vertical line is then drawn down. Hey it’s TP. The logo king has cooked up my new identity – cheers mate! Oh the invoice, OK how much? Blimey!

Constructed Roman Alphabets
Classical Roman alphabets used to be constructed on square grids like the one we have been using. Geoffroy Tory, a French Scholar living in Paris during the 1500s was well known for his constructed initial letters. More recently David Lance Goines produced a very nice book on the constructed Roman alphabet. We start with a 90mm circle. Then a 60mm circle is drawn and placed 5mm up from the bottom on the centre. Another 60mm circle is drawn above 5mm down from the top. The two 60mm circles bisect each other and create an intersection point. I’ve drawn a horizontal blue line through the points to clarify this. This intersection has a very nice term. It’s known as a vesica piscis and is a principle of sacred geometry. Hey dude, that’s like a heavy metal band and like their latest album is sacred geometry. Make the sign of the horns. Yes thank you I guess you could see it that way. But there will be no more making the sign of the horns in this class. Moving on. We draw a 120mm circle centred on the left intersection point or vesica piscis. Thank you! Enough! Then we draw a 120mm circle centred on the right intersection point. As you can see from the shading the capital letter O has emerged. If we remove the circular constriction lines it becomes clearer. And then the grid disappears. Volia! A beautiful letter O for your delectation.

We’re going to take a look at typography in a bit more depth. Typography is the study and practice of designing and arranging type. Some designers love letterforms so much it becomes the focus of their work. Looking at the handsome form of letters you can understand why. I’ve shaded the middle part of the word typography. The top of the shaded area is called the x-height and represents the height of a lowercase x. The bottom of the shaded area is the baseline. Letters that have a flat top and bottom align with the x-height and baseline. Letters that have a circular top and bottom have been optically adjusted they dip very slightly above and below the grey shaded area. This is because they have less surface area in contact with the x-height and baseline and can look smaller as a result. So they have been optically adjusted. Some letters ascend up and peak above the shaded area – those are the ascenders. Hi guys! Some descend and sneak below the shaded area – take a bow you descenders! I want us to take a good up close look at these letters. I want us to become aware of their individual qualities. First the capital letter T. What makes it a T? A top horizontal stroke and a central vertical stroke. I call this quality the T-ness of T. Next up the letter Y, all angles and curves – the Y-ness of Y. Ah the beautiful letter P – a strong vertical backbone and if you don’t mind me saying a portly tummy, oh or is it pregnant? The P-ness of P. What? Guys? I know, I know – it can seem funny but you have to get passionate about type to really love it. So come on guys quit the laughter and give it up for the P-ness of P. Yeah woah! Sheesh you guys crack me up. The circularity of O. The O-ness of O. The G-ness of G. Genius. The R-ness of R. The A-ness of A. Oh come on guys give it up. You really do have to look at the A-ness of A to appreciate its qualities. Oh no, here we go again. Yes yes, the P-ness of P – hilarious! The H-ness of H. Finally the Y-ness of Y. Why? just because alright!

And finally
And finally – a composition using the various qualities of the letter T. I’m using size, weight and position to create this composition. The different weight of the Ts creates a gradation effect. The contrast in size creates drama and a sense of space and distance. The parts of the letters that touches the edges of the square creates visual tension. That’s enough of me hogging all the fun. Why not try some of the exercises I’ve shown. Bye! P-ness of P? A-ness of A? Sheesh – I don’t get it.