The visual landscape of type

Letters squeezed like lemons
ormally I can’t walk by a subway poster, a tossed-away flyer or a large billboard without muttering comments to myself about printed words that have been spaced nicely or if gaping cavities between letters are making my brain stutter. But the visual world of type is so large and interesting that the holes between pairs of letters are actually of lesser importance. For what you see in this project, it is, among other things, necessary to overlook the sometimes barbaric visual assault on the appearance of letters that have been squeezed like lemons upwards or sideways to make the content fit into a given space instead of taking the time of searching for a more aesthetically pleasing solution.
I look at my surroundings with the eye of a graphic designer. I am not burdened by the constant bombardment of messages as I scan what is essential, interesting or plain weird. I began to take images of those messages and in my mind a physical landscape emerged, a landscape of directions, opinions, shouts and murmurs, manipulative rhetoric, and enticements.
A never-ending story of change
t would be impossible to create a comprehensive and lasting map or relief of a place that includes all instances of typographic occurrences. It would simply be too much. When seismic shifts occur in nature they can change vast areas in the tiniest possible increments over long periods of time or in a matter of seconds resulting in catastrophic events. The shifts and changes in the topographical landscape of type are like a billion minuscle seismic shifts. To observe the changes one needs to have a fine-tuned radar and remember what it looked like previously. Here is a short list of what to look for:
  • Shops going out of business, signs coming down, others going up
  • Posters or house walls defaced, vandalized, and sometimes made more interesting by messages and visuals added by people
  • Typographic fragments burned into the tar of hot summer streets
  • House numbers that tell stories of care or neglect
  • Personal messages written on napkins or backs of match boxes, torn note papers
  • Loud messages painted on picket signs and protest banners
  • Accidental juxtapositions of unrelated messages that produce an emotion or memory by triggering sub levels of internal recognition
  • Way finding signs that can be trusted, and way finding signs that lead to unknown or undesired places – or accidentally to unexpected discoveries
  • Typos. Misspellings on an official sign or a piece of paper in a shop window, that advertise a product or inform about a temporary closure of an establishment with earnest disregard towards grammatical and spelling conformity, often rather funny.
What is the “topography of type”?
t is the attempt to collect and select, compare and juxtapose obvious, fragmented or indecipherable messages made of type in a specific area, or “landscape.” The intention is to explore the notion if a specific typographical landscape—a “topography of type”—exists that is unique to an area and if it could be somehow visualized in an interesting or surprising format. I wanted to look at this project not through the eyes of a graphic designer, but through the eyes of an explorer or a mapmaker.
What is a topography?
Wikipedia offers the following definition: “The term topography originated in Ancient Greece and continued in Ancient Rome as the “detailed description of a place.” The word comes from the Greek words τόπος (topos, place) and γραφία (graphia, writing). In classical literature this refers to writing about a place or places, [and] what is now largely called “local history”. In Britain and in Europe in general, the word topography is still sometimes used in its original sense.”
While a topography then is the detailed description of a specific or “local” place including the geographic ups and downs of valleys, plaines and mountains, can a topography also create a sense or feeling of a place through man-made typographical messages? Can furthermore a topography of type, or topography of messages, create a specific sense of a place, a landscape of words? Can one feel the up and down, the gradual shifts of meaning? Can the topography of type assembled in this website become a virtual corridor through which one travels to be a this place, in the way a kid looks at maps with his/her imagination going to far away places?
Is this topography of type bound to a specific location?
he basic idea of a topography of type did not start out to be entirely specific to one location. But since I live and work in North Brooklyn and frequently go into Manhattan, all images are taken here. This alone is a gigantic area with a staggering amount of typographical detail to be observed and/or collected. The original rough idea turned into a quest to uniquely typographically and topographically map this area, and I havn’t barely scratched the surface. It is here that I roam around, go to restaurants, visit parks, commute, and ride my bike, among many other activities. A different area would result in a separate topography with its own characteristics, basically creating a new topography of type, and as part of that possibly a different set of classifications. Maybe somebody else will begin to map an area that is of unique interest to them. I can’t hardly wait to explore a topography based on another unique typographical classification system.
A different approach to a classification system of type
ype whispers, yells, hides, lies, informs, bleeds. Every adjective in every language could be used to describe what type does. Type is language, type is emotion, type expresses us. Type is everywhere. Where should one begin to develop a typographical classification that begins to describe a topographical landscape of type? Of course, the history of typography provides a clear classification of the different forms of typefaces and alphabets. But this project is not about separating type into serifs, sans serifs, slab serifs, Egyptians or Displays and so on. It is about what appeared in front of me and how that typographic image arranged itself in my mind and what I thought of it at that moment.
What I saw arranged itself in obvious categories and that is how I have been organizing the images. Shop, Pavement, Graffitype, Displayorama, Decay, Dimensional, Big, 3/6/9. There will be other categories in the future. Based on these rather literal terms I have been photographing the typography of the street. While a street photographer immerses her/himself into the life of the street, I have been looking for the descriptive life, the frozen yet alive barrage of messages. That means the graffiti on the walls, the inscriptions in concrete sidewalk, discarded personal notes, or signs of commercial establishments. Like a street photographer, I look at my surroundings to uncover the obvious or the hidden, whatever displays a rich essence or a banal surface. I scan the ground I walk on, the walls I pass by, and any messages that whisper or scream at me.
Why 3/6/9?
ood question. I have no idea. It could have been 2/5/7. It is nothing mystical, mathematical or that 3/6/9 reminds me of a long lost combination to a bike lock. It probably is the shapes of the numbers, the plump roundness, the open and enclosed spaces they create, and how they seem to build on each other. Or be in each other visually. These numbers do not appear more often than other numbers. In fact, there seem to be less of them, but that could be because I am looking harder for them and all I seem to see are the millions of other combinations. A 3 next to a number that is not 6 or 9 breaks the rhythm.
What’s with the Displayorama category?
he original definition of a “Display” typeface is that it was meant to be used in larger text sizes. A type designer would have created a display version of an existing typeface so it could be used for larger headlines or bill boards. Certain ornamental fonts that did not easily fit into the classical categories (serif, sans serif etc.)—and that have been in existence well before many more designers could create new typefaces using computer software—have been, I assume, simply referred to by their given names. Nowadays, many typefaces are called “Display” typefaces when in earlier times they would have been called “Ornamental.” Or in other words “Grunge” typefaces or experimental typefaces are Display typefaces, designed to communicate a specific intent, no matter if they would be used in small or large sizes. Various opinions have been expressed on the excellent website Typophile.
My own concoction of the “Displayorama” classification is based on the extension “…orama”, a play on a type of camera device called “diorama” which was invented by Louis Daguerre and Charles Marie Bouton in France in 1822. The word literally means “through that which is seen”, from the Greek di- “through” plus orama “that which is seen, a sight”. I imagine a displayorama classification as a combination of wild typeface choices through which, intentionally or unintentionally, a message is displayed in plain sight to speak loudly and clearly, or to obscure its intent.
(Link: Wikipedia)
Who does this stuff?
his website and, unless otherwise noted, the copyright of all contents (images and text) belong to Michael Wiemeyer, a graphic designer working in Brooklyn, New York. Michael is a partner at Designlounge, a design studio specializing in brand identity, marketing communication and website design. Since 2004 he has been teaching design as an Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design—for the last few years as a typography teacher in the Communications Design department, alongside many incredibly gifted typography teachers and designers.