I am posting this on April 2 so it doesn’t get dismissed as an April Fool joke.
A private e-mail list has been discussing whether training in calligraphy and lettering is necessary in modern design education.
To paraphrase the eminent antiquarian, Kasper Gutman, that is a question, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment.
Because I am merely former professor of digital typography at Stanford and former Melbert B. Cary Jr. professor of Graphic Arts at RIT, a school that was formerly respected for excellence in typographic education, I felt that I needed to ask more eminent authorities for their views.
Accordingly, I posed the question to Dr. Hermann Püterschein, widely respected for his scholarly, penetrating, insightful critical appraisals of the type designs of Bill Dwiggins. At roughly 135 years old, Dr. Püterschein is among the last of that dwindling generation of European type scholars (among whom must also be counted the bearded Frenchman Paul Beaujon) who wrote brilliantly illuminating typographic studies in their heydays in the 1920s and 1930s.
Dr. Püterschein, like the eminent but much younger computer scientist-cum-typographer, Donald E. Knuth, doesn’t use email. Expanding on a remark by Dr. Knuth, Dr. Püterschein has explained, “email is for people who want to stay on the high tip-top of things; I want to get to the low-down bottom of things.”
Therefore, we used an older, slower, but still effective communication medium, the Ouija Board, in the use of which Dr. Püterschein shows consummate skill.
I also tried to contact M. le Professeur Beaujon, but he prefers the Sémaphore, maintaining that it was good enough for Napoléon and the Count of Monte Cristo, so it is good enough for him. He will occasionally assent to the use of the héliographe, but because that requires bright sunlight, which we haven’t seen in Rochester since September 2014, I won’t be able to post his reply until sometime in the summer.
Me: “Dr. Püterschein, is training in calligraphy and letter drawing necessary for modern graphic design?"
Dr. Püterschein: “Aber Nein! Es ist nicht notwendig! [Absolutely Not! It is not needed!] We have only to take a look-see at the outstanding brilliant work by modern graphic artist designer men, comparing same to the utter dreck produced by clumsy-hand trade crafters whose exuberant youthful spirit-vision and free inspiration were early on endamaged and irretrievably cramped by ill-advised lessons in so-called “beautiful writing” that revanchist antediluvians call “calligraphy,” but which Grecian philosopher Plato himself warned against aeons ago in his 'Laws'."
(Editor's note: Momentarily overcome with emotion at being asked for his views for the first time in several decades, Dr. Püterschein briefly lapsed into German despite 100+ years in America, but soon recovered his equanimity, and once he got rolling, he recovered the fluent English for which he was so often celebrated.)
Dr. Püterschein: "For instance, please scrutinize carefully this example of supreme quality lettering art produced by one of the most famous and admired modernist graphical artists, the celebrated collagist and dilettante Dadaist, Kurt Schwitters:
'Systemschrift' (As can be seen in Alastair Johnston’s erudite article in Smashing Magazine. http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/03/21/weird-and-wonderful-yet-still-illegible/)
Dr. Püterschein: "Observe the sensitive handling of curves in all instances, the delicate equalization of weight, the judicious letter fitting, the clarity of forms, the balance of proportions, and the astonishing readableness.
"I must emphasize, however, that in the case of Herr Schwitters, calligraphy lessons would not have had one iota of influence on his genius, because as he said of himself, "My trouble is that I cannot be taught anything." To that I can only add, it is not his “trouble” but his virtue! For there is nothing so powerful as ignorance and ineptness to propel our culture into the future which it so richly deserves.
"Compare, then, Schwitters’ sublime Systemschrift to a deplorable design by a modernist typo-grafiker of the same era, Jan Tschichold, who unfortunately did study calligraphy and lettering as a youth, and whose father was a sign painter who inculcated his innocent and impressionable child with the pernicious aesthetics of a visually bankrupt retrograde fraud called 'tradition', or worse, 'humanism'. Tschichold's reversion to the worst tendencies of benighted, outmoded, pre-modern eras has regrettably polluted otherwise right-minded practitioners of the modernist persuasion, even the fine designer and winner of RIT's prestigious Goudy Award, Brad Thompson. How much better Thompson's magnum opus, the Washburn Bible would have been had he composed it in Systemschrift instead of Sabon!
Dr. Püterschein: "This horror, named 'Sabon' (which means 'soap' but can never be scrubbed clean of its criminally decorative excrescences) is what happens when youthful spirits are compelled to learn calligraphy and all that messy cramped hand-scribbling with pens and inks and brushes and all the smudge-pot obsolete paraphernalia of unlamented anterior literate existences! Youths’ free feelings of spontaneously idiopathic self-ego expression get remorselessly torqued into pathetically routinized commonplace symbologies that any unkultured charlatan presumes not only to read but also to understand, even that ersatz Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology, Robert Langdon. Ach, he is such a ridiculous joke. The real Leonardo would have laughed, laughed at such a transparent mountebank.
"Observe carefully that the preposterously named Sabon is utterly degenerate revanchist rubbish, barely worth discussing except to point out that it is nauseatingly legible, appealing only to the base ignorant, deluded petite-bourgeoisie who, with rudimentary biased education, think, if they think at all, that the goal of *graphic design* is to convey information, when we, the genuine cognoscenti, know that design's true, timeless and important purpose is to revolt against the tyrannical hegemony of the contemporary Weltanschauung!!!"
(Editor's note: At this point, there was a disturbance in the Astral plane and Dr. Püterschein’s remarks came to an end, but not prematurely, because, I believe, he had finished. I mean, I can’t imagine what more he might have said to make his point. Therefore, I must conclude for the time being, although I do hope that whenever the sun comes back to Rochester, I will hear from Monsieur le Professeur Beaujon, whose remarks will, I am sure, prove as eloquent and distinguished as those of Dr. Püterschein. I promise to post them here.)