Vienna-based designer and typographer Paulus Dreibholz has published a beautiful volume all about that fundamental human activity, reading.
Along with music, architecture, literature, acting, dance and other cultural activities, typography claims only a small niche in the totality of human communication and interaction. However, due to its direct relationship to language, its complexity and ubiquity, its influence on our society and our society’s consciousness and development, typography constitutes an interesting and significant element of social life.
Typography is a wholly cultural phenomenon. Invented and refined by human beings, moulded to their needs and developed by their interaction with it, typography allows people to communicate across space and time. Typography cultivates and is cultivated: we form it and it (in)forms us.
One of the most striking characteristics of human beings, and probably the biggest difference between humans and animals, is humans’ developed ability to communicate. The exchange of information – whether real or hypothetical, whether within ourselves or with others – allows us to establish distance between our being and our thoughts, and makes it possible to expand our consciousness in new ways. There is no such thing as communication without meaning (since even meaningless communication is open to interpretation). As a reciprocal process, however, communication begins first with the reading of meaning and not with the sending of information. Only when something has meaning can I see it, try to understand it and accordingly construct my own message. Because of this, I believe it makes sense to consider first the process of reading and to return to the process of design later.
The ability to recognise meaning and allocate it correctly is the basic requirement of semiotics, the study of meaning generally, and thus also of semantics, the linguistic study of meaning. Without this capacity to interpret there would be no meaning, no content to messages and no sense; only formal relationships and empty constructions containing neither purposeful nor coincidental relevance would exist. Meaning arises during the processes of reading, in particular the processes of acquiring and interpreting information. Let us examine the misunderstandings that result from two often prematurely drawn conclusions with regards to this process. The first preconception deals with the relationship between the reader and the word.
In conventional use, we take the written word as a precondition for the process of ‘reading’, and with that we leap directly to typography, the study of the printed word. This is, however, a premature connection, since reading encompasses more than the reading of letters. The verb ‘to read’ is the root for many characteristic modifications, as in ‘a reading’ or ‘the reader’. And, indeed, reading refers to the processing of more than only the written message. (The term ‘literacy’, incidentally, also alludes to media in general and not only to typographic messages, just as texts and other written messages, works of art, experiences and developments can also be read.) This broader definition of reading is not exclusive to the English language: in German, one also speaks, for example, of reading traces or tracks (Spurenlesen), likewise activities that have nothing to do with the written word.