“…can a single symbol represent infinite individuality?”
Sarah Gephart, “Hypothetical Hack,” Digressions, MGMT, 2018
“Much like the stars, the dinkus is a point of navigation.”
Daisy Alioto, “Ode to the Dinkus,” The Paris Review, June 8, 2018
“By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words.”
Pico Iyer, “In Praise of the Humble Comma,” Time, June 24, 2001
“I’d rather be a comma than a full stop.”
Coldplay, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” Mylo Xyloto, Parlophone/Capitol, 2011
Project 1: Characters
In this project we will not exactly work with typography, or lettering, or a typeface, but with something more elementary, more fundamental: characters. Letters or symbols that are printed or written (or, of course, illuminated or projected, on screens). Characters are the raw materials of words, of sentences, of visual communication. As Thomas Phinney, CEO of FontLab, puts it, “A character is the smallest component of written language that has semantic value.” They are composed by us, using their inherent semantic meaning to form further, more complex meanings, but they also often come pre-loaded with semiotic meanings in and of themselves. In other words, characters that are generally understood to mean one thing (semantic), are often interpreted in a given context as something else entirely (semiotic).
These meanings are often ascribed historically and become established through use. But they also attain culturally specific meaning relating to use and association. The visual representation of characters (“glyphs,” in type design terms) add further complexity to characters: how they are designed adds a level of subjectivity to these ostensibly objective shapes. Their apparent black-and-white authority is of course consistently challenged, undermined, and altered, through inventive construction (emoticons) and to articulate complex ideas succinctly, such as conditions ($), authority (©) or warnings (!).
For one half of this project, we’re going to specifically focus on non-alphanumeric characters and, at least for our primary project focus, ignore A–Z and 0–9. The Unicode Consortium, a Mountain View, CA, non-profit that develops and maintains international standards and data relating to text in software, provides a helpful, if daunting, guide for us. Their Unicode Standard assigns a unique number to every single character, no matter what platform, device, application, or language. As of March 2019 their most recent version, Unicode 12.0, contains 137,928 characters covering 150 modern and historic scripts, as well as multiple symbol sets and emoji. There’s an admirable activist aspect to Unicode: their simple self-described mission is that “Everyone in the world should be able to use their own language on phones and computers.” It’s serious work: many languages are at risk of dying out, and without representation in our primary contemporary communication tools (keyboards) and mediums (text), they are all the more vulnerable to extinction.
The Consortium has gained a wider public recognition in recent years thanks to emoji being included in their scope: yep, they’re the people who decreed that Yawning Face, Falafel (finally!), and Drop of Blood (?) should be among the 61 new emoji added to Unicode 12.0, coming soon to a phone keyboard near you (iOS 13 will launch with them this September, for example, as Apple announced on World Emoji Day—it’s a thing—this past July 17). Importantly, just like Unicode’s mission, the continuous expansion of emoji also represents efforts for greater human representation within universal communication, even if it’s often WAY overdue: this year not only sees additions of people in wheelchairs, with a cane, or hearing aids as part of the mix, but will also allow the option to change skin tones for people holding hands.
Having said this, in addition to our non-alphanumeric character rule, we’re also going to say no emoji characters for at least the first half of our assignment focus and keep it purely type-based, not pictorial. I know not all emoji are pictographic, so feel free to make an argument for something if you think you have a case.
As for the other half of the project, a speculative future character that doesn’t yet exist: an emoji may or may not be the most appropriate way of articulating the idea, principle, or emotion that you're trying to communicate. In this part of the project, you can move into the potentially more illustrative, pictographic realm of type and typography if you wish.
You will select, analyse, research, and articulate graphically and in writing:
One existing, historically-established non-alphanumeric, non-emoji character found encoded in Unicode 12.0.
As a companion, you will also think about, research, invent, design and articulate graphically and in writing:
A new speculative character that typographically represents or symbolises a contemporary idea, condition, phenomenon, &c. relating to you, your interests, and/or culture at large, that doesn’t yet exist.
Format: As appropriate. A final edited, designed form bringing together your research, design work, reference pictures, contextual uses of new character, written descriptions and/or captions. Format could be print (booklet, zine, newspaper, &c.), digital (web page/website, &c.), video (edited as a short graphic documentary-style piece with narration, or a kind of recorded lecture-style piece), or an actual illustrated designed lecture with images, text, sound(?) with a script prepared for you to present. Any of the above or anything else you can think of as a relevant format to best present your project will be valid.
Week 1: Thurs 6 Sept
Week 2: Thurs Sept 12
Week 3: September 20
Week 4: September 27