Johanna Drucker, “Experimental Typography as a Modern Art Practice”

In this article, Drucker examines the function of typography as it developed from the nineteenth century. Early on, it was a practice of establishing words and knowledge on a printed page, and the style or arrangement of the text was “unmarked” (96). However, more contemporary typographical practices pay much more attention to the rhetorical effects of text. For example, advertisements became more visually appealing—they included various font sizes, styles, among other designs. Typography transformed from a practice solely reserved for literary texts to a public phenomenon that revolutionized the rhetorical effects of all texts.

Drucker first discusses the history of typography, and the specifics of how printed works transformed. For example, she points to William Morris and the way that he used the development process of the text to inform the text itself: “Morris’s emphasis on the relationship between production techniques, graphic style, and categories of cultural activity contributed to developing the literary page as a distinct genre with a graphic style integral to, not incidental to, the literary text” (93). Likewise, the literary text informed the context in which it was developed.   The production process was not separate from the literary text; rather, both were intertwined. The style of the physical page itself influenced the literary content or text on the page.

More broadly, Drucker is studying the contexts of these typographical texts as they developed through the nineteenth century, and the ways in which typography benefitted the cultures in which it was used. A particular area she focuses on is the link between typographies and advertising. Typographical practices made advertising and mainstream publications more popular and effective in generating an audience because the graphics and layout of the typography enhanced the rhetorical appeal of the text. Drucker writes, “Such work provides the norms against which the experimental typography takes on its cultural significance as transgressive, and it is therefore an essential underpinning to an evaluation of the effect of the avant-garde work” (94). Typographical technologies challenged the notion that avant-garde ways of experimenting with type were detrimental to society. Specifically, this challenges platonic ideals about how writing would lead to loss of memory and virtue. Drucker disagrees, arguing that these changes in typography enriched the significance of the text.

Drucker follows this with the distinction between marked and unmarked typography. The Gutenberg Bible is one such example of unmarked typography, where “the words on the page ‘appear to speak themselves’ without the visible intervention of author or printer” (95). The absence of blank space and format changes allowed the reader to focus solely on the message of the text, rather than the appearance of it. Marked texts involved just that—visible changes to the text’s appearance. This kind of text most accurately represents advertisements and other visual texts today. In this section, Drucker is expanding on her overall point on how typography today has developed since the nineteenth century.

There are two places in this text that I question:  First, the figures included on pages 100-1 showcase different stylistic choices made by advertisers regarding their particular texts. I wonder how the public initially reacted to these advertisements.  I imagine there was at least some uproar as a result of shifting typographies.  The figures here symbolize a drastic shift in the development of typography.

Additionally, Drucker argues for the impact of William Morris and his influence on the artistic side of books. She writes, “His aesthetics were antithetical mainly to those of the early twentieth century avant-gardists who made the retrogressive tendencies of the arts and crafts movement a focal point for ridicule” (92-3). This sounds very telling; both because she insinuates the flux of the arts movement, but also because she suggests that books were made out to be foolish. At least this is what I am guessing she is saying here, but I’m not sure.

Finally, the language used in advertising is phrased by Drucker as “public language,” in contrast to the traditional literary language that has been around for centuries. Thinking about print and digital cultures in our society, in what ways can we place public and literary language within a rhetorical context? She argues, “public language, relies less upon syntax, and more upon rhetoric, than literary language” (97). However, both forms of language were effective in generating an audience. How so, rhetorically?