Building a Global Community of Typographic Practice

Written by Aoife Mooney and Jillian Coorey on September 13, 2017

In 1928, Vincent Steer, the self-described “advertising typographer” behind the book Printing Design and Layout (1934), established the International Society of Typographic Designers (ISTD) in the UK. Steer’s aim was “to bring together in friendship and mutual help, all those with a love of the printed word”. From these guild-like beginnings, the ISTD has evolved to wield a growing international influence, gaining recognition (as its tagline notes) for “setting and promoting typographic standards worldwide”. The society exists for — and is run for and by — typographers, graphic designers, and educators, who share and support its goal of creating and inspiring interest in all forms of typographic communication.

Ultimately, the society proposes to create what Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner describe as a “community of practice” around typographic design. It does this through a rigorous, peer-reviewed membership model wherein interested applicants submit a portfolio of work for review by the Society’s board. Membership in the society indicates a level of typographic skill and creates an affiliation that means more than just a desire to be part of a community. In this way, the ISTD recognizes dedication to craft; membership serves as a credential as much as an affiliation. This member-driven community includes noteworthy typographers, graphic designers, type designers, and educators like Astrid Stavro (Atlas), Freda Sack (Foundry Type), Allan Haley (Monotype), Ivan Chermayeff (Chermayeff, Geismar & Haviv), and Paul Woods (Edenspiekermann LA). A glance through ISTD’s membership list reveals acclaimed typographic exponents and practitioners alongside emerging and early-career talents.

This integrated ethos lies at the heart of the ISTD’s scope of work, which strives to bridge industry and education. To this end, the organization’s Annual Student Assessment Scheme accepts submissions in and from institutions around the world for evaluation against the Society’s standards of excellence. Students who wish to enter must complete typographic projects based on a selection of briefs written and distributed by the ISTD Education Team. If successful, the students are awarded membership to the society, and their work is showcased on an international stage through the ISTD’s annual publication(s) and website.

In this way, the Society provides a platform for young typographers to offer their work up for critique and to enter a contemporary conversation with pillars of the international typographic community as peers. The structure of the assessment pairs educators and practitioners as teams to evaluate, critique, and collaboratively provide written feedback on the students’ work. Membership is awarded with a Pass, Merit, or Commendation to those whose work meets the Society’s standards. This creates an active dialogue between education and industry, forging connections that can influence pedagogical strategy, provide pathways for interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations, and positively impact student placement after graduation.

Students make decisions based on a strategic communication goal. Thus content, rather than form, shapes their approach to authoring messages typographically.

For educators, running the ISTD briefs in the classroom provides a pedagogical toolkit that can enhance or supplement the typical curriculum structure. ISTD Education Director John Paul Dowling has stated that the goal of the student assessments is “to give both tutors and students the opportunity to explore and develop typography as an inherent part of the design process and thus bring the typographic gesture to the forefront of their design education”. The briefs work well in an advanced typographic curriculum and make excellent capstone projects and individual investigations. They do this by prompting research-through-making, and asking the students to use their typographic skills as a means of expression and translation. Through gathering content and creating narrative structures, and letting these things guide the choice and implementation of a given medium as a tool, students make decisions based on a strategic communication goal. Thus content, rather than form, shapes their approach to authoring messages typographically.

For students, the briefs provide an opportunity to flex their typographic muscle and utilize it in the service of a topic that interests them. The assessment puts their work on an international stage, in the hands of excellent designers and informed educators, opening doors for internships, placements, and future academic pursuits. Projects that achieve passing marks are of the highest caliber and make stunning portfolio pieces.

“Age of Anxiety”, Emily Thomas

In Age of Anxiety, Kent State Visual Communication Design (VCD) senior Emily Thomas explored McCarthyism in response to a brief asking for a typographic interpretation and exploration of a “fad” — a short-lived but pervasive zeitgeist. Gathering content from a range of sources, Thomas organized the piece into a series of booklets, each typographically representing the creeping infiltration of fear fueled by this sociopolitical mechanism through a range of typographic techniques, binding styles, color choices, and paper stocks. After compiling everything into a pocket that demonstrated the lock-and-key nature of the concept, Thomas invited readers to tear open the “book”. Thomas was awarded membership to the Society for this submission, with a Pass.

In a digital reinterpretation of “We Real Cool” by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Kent State VCD MFA student Alex Catanese responded to a brief written in partnership with Editions At Play — an initiative from Visual Editions and Google’s Creative Lab. The brief asked students to “choose a chapter from a banned book and visually interpret it as a digitally dynamic book”, paying attention to “the potential of the digital form”. The interface Catanese designed questions why one interpretation should ever overpower another, instead considering multiple perspectives on “We Real Cool” within a digital medium.

We Real Cool, Gwendolyn Brooks

“Through the interface, a story is revealed in the same way a person might tell one, offering loose connections, and multimodal forms such as audio, motion, video, or text,” Catanese said. “The typography serves an expressive yet functional purpose, acting to represent various ‘voices’, opinions, and interpretations, and playing on the linguistic aspects of the spoken word”. Catanese was granted membership to the Society; his work was awarded a Commendation.

The first North American ISTD Annual Student Assessment was hosted at Kent State in February of 2017. Beginning with a welcome statement from current ISTD Education Director, John Paul Dowling, the ISTD’s international presence was expanded. “When I was appointed Education Director”, Dowling said, “one of my key goals was to make the Student Assessment Scheme as international as the society’s membership. Adding North America to the existing regions [Australasia, Ireland, the Middle East, South Africa, and the UK] has gone a long way in achieving this”.

We encourage educators around North America to consider taking part by incorporating the ISTD Student Assessment briefs into their typographic curricula for Fall 2017/Spring 2018. The briefs for the 2017 scheme will be available online on October 1, with the assessment planned for April 13, 2018. Requests for resources or further information should be directed to Aoife Mooney (ISTD North America Coordinator); more information about the Society and Assessment Scheme can be found online.

Aoife Mooney holds an MA in Typeface Design from the University of Reading. She has over seven years of type design experience, having worked as a full-time typeface designer for Hoefler & Frere-Jones before becoming a freelance typeface designer and consultant for Frere-Jones Type and Google since moving to Ohio in 2013. She is an Assistant Professor at Kent State University, where she researches, writes about, and teaches type design, typography, and graphic design.

Jillian Coorey is an Associate Professor at Kent State University in the School of Visual Communication Design, where she teaches foundation through upper-level courses with a focus on typography. She regularly presents her research and design work at national and international venues. Her work has been recognized by Graphis, The Society of Typographic Arts, and AIGA.


  1. Indra says:

    Although I am not called to action as I’m not in North America but still, why? To streamline design education and make it more predictable and outcomes more boring? To make it easier for educators who have no more ideas for what to teach?

    Besides from including basic type setting rules and best practices, I would rather like to encourage every educator in North America to come up with their own educational concept and content. Maybe we will get more variety in inspiration (beyond the hegemony of Anglo-American and European design heritage), bolder type choices, less kitschy drop caps, less oilerplate stuff.

  2. Aoife Mooney says:

    Hi Indra,

    Thanks for your feedback! I’m going to aim to address your concerns as comprehensively as I can here, in case they speak to other educators concerns also.

    The ISTD is an entirely volunteer-driven organisation dedicated to the promotion and upholding of typographic standards worldwide. It makes no claims to curricular development, nor is the Annual Student Assessment scheme intended to alter or replace any curricular practices. The briefs released are intended to provide an opportunity to students to showcase the skills they have learned within an existing curriculum, put their work in the hands of industry professionals and leading typographic educators and if they are successful, grant them a credential through membership to the organisation.

    In terms of “streamlining” education, the implementation of the briefs is at the discretion of any institution who chooses to use them, and often they are run as independent studies. On top of this, there are usually around 8 briefs released in the packet, and the students can choose any to work on, so this actually makes for less streamlined learning curves and design outcomes within a classroom. The briefs also do not specify outcomes to the projects, but merely conceptual prompts, from which the student starts their research, and self-directs the project outcome based on the content they author and curate choosing form and medium based on their individual research. This means that there are no two projects that are alike in a cohort, and the learning curves and outcomes reflect the individual students background knowledge, skills and interests.

    Which brings me to the last point you raised about educators who have run out of things to teach: These are not easy briefs to teach to. In fact, they require just what you state you want more of: educators coming up with new educational concepts and content. Having been a student undertaking one of these briefs, and a prof teaching to them, I can tell you that these briefs lead to some mental gymnastics in navigating the learning curves of a body of students working on completely self-directed work! We are looking for educators willing to implement the briefs in their classrooms as a means to innovate and challenge themselves to teach students to engage more deeply with the theoretical and social contexts of typographic design with whatever pedagogical strategies they so choose. In this way, the briefs promote independent thinking on both the part of the student and the educator.

    I do hope I have answered your concerns here, but please let me know if not. Others may share your misgivings, and I would like to address any and all of these as soon as possible, as we try to start on the right foot and launch the scheme here in the US in order to provide access to students in North America. We would appreciate your support!

  3. Aoife Mooney says:

    Relatedly, I think you may have missed the point about the scheme aiming to create a community of practice between education and industry, providing a forum for discussion of the future of typography, as well as opening up pathways for student job placement and feedback from industry. This has a similar intent to the commonplace portfolio review but potentially affords the student more detailed and balanced feedback, coming from professionals and educators working together and focusing on one specific project.

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