Writing, languages & design

During the three years studying Graphic Design at the School of Arts Ghent (KASK), I have gradually developed a strong interest in publishing, typography and type design. This interest has grown from a passion for languages and cultures, that has been steadily developed as I came into contact with the Western way of life, art and literature. While being absorbed in the literary works of Jonathan Safran Foer, in the experimental writings of the 20th century group Oulipo, in the multicultural aspect of Belgium, and in the critical essays of contemporary type designers like Fred Smeijers, I felt the urge to create, to write and to edit texts, to experiment with the various facets of our continually evolving languages. These freshly inspirational resources would then mingle with my Vietnamese identity, and provide guidance on my personal development as a graphic designer.

Writing has always been my hobby, but the act of writing doesn’t limit itself to page filling and personal expression in literary form. Writing, just like design, manifests itself as a way of thinking. It is to be found in most of my practices that, at first sight, do not have a direct connection with the act of minutiously choosing the right words to be put on paper. It helps me make graphic novels with structural stories and engaging dialogues, think critically about design as a discipline, and, last but not least, edit texts that need to be published. As a graphic designer, I often consider myself equally as an author, though not always as one that originates or creates something. Taking the role of an author, in my experience, is to be responsible for the content of the text and how it communicates with the reader. Publication is fascinating, because there are numerous ways in which a text can be represented. It is thought-provoking to come up with a design that speaks for my interpretation of the text, while still respecting the intention of the original writer. Upon receiving a finished text that needs to be published, I often read it carefully in order to aquire a thorough understanding and to look for clues that may put forward possible visual solutions. Very often, these solutions involve using my redactional skill to clarify dubious details, or to add my own text in a way as to reinforce the objective of the writer.

One prime example of my interference in the original writing is my approach to the publication of The cat is on the table. This text is a transcript of a recorded conversation that took place between Chris Fitzpatrick and a dozen participants. They discussed the countless potential meanings of the phrase “The cat is on the table“, making it appear as a neologism. Each person gave the phrase in turn an alternative interpretation. This multitude of opinions formed the core of the text. In order to fulfil this principle purpose, I added my own interpretation of the neologism into the content, by narrating a new story about the cat and the table. My story emerged from existing words that have been said by Chris and the participants during the conversation. The original transcript is then printed in black on a dark background. Readers are guided through my new story by white speech bubbles that highlight my consciously chosen words. In this way, I attempt to emphasize the meaning behind the text while still respecting the author and his original transcript.

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My inspiration for the approach to this design comes from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Tree of codes. Tree of codes was published in 2010, and is generally more appreciated as an art work in the form of a book than as a fiction. Foer’s idea was to cut out words from Bruno Schulz’s novel The street of crocodiles. The words that are left told a new story that would otherwise stay unknown to us without Foer’s editorial work. This writing method was then accentuated by the design that Sara De Bondt created for the book. The needed words for the new story stayed on papers, while all the rest was die-cut, giving it the look of a sculptural object and a strong sense of poetry.

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Unlike Foer, I chose to keep the original text of The cat is on the table visible, because my new narration was meant to add more value to the main text and to emphasize its meaning. In my oppinion, Foer’s greatest success with Tree of codes was to question the form of the book. His words look fragile as if they could fall out of the pages at any moment. Not only can one read the book, but also experience its tangibility as a physical object.

Beside Tree of codes, Jonathan Safran Foer has written other stories that show his interest in creative writing. Foer is an American contemporary novelist. He was born in 1977 in a family of Jewish origin, which represents a considerable influence on themes that run through his novels. He has published five books in total; among them four fictions (Everything is illuminated, Extremely loud and incredibly close, Tree of codes, Here I am) and one non-fiction (Eating animals). Moreover, he teaches creative writing at the University of New York and is known for his original visual approaches to his two books: Extremely loud and incredibly close (2005) and Tree of codes (2010). Not only does he pay attention to writing, but also to the relation of word and image. He constantly experiments with the way in which texts can be communicated to the reader via the paper (or the book) as medium. In Extremely loud and incredibly close, Foer alternates between photos and writings, while applying typographical tricks that help shaping the story. He constructs the narrative out of a series of multiple but interconnected storylines. Readers encounter continually unexpected visual elements like photos (that at first sight seem to be placed randomly), special typographical solutions, and a flipbook at the end of the novel. These elements are not meant to illustrate the texts, but to have meanings on their own. Each of them add a significant detail to the story and serves to connect disparated fragments due to the various plots. Foer understands the ambiguous relationship between the image and the word it represents. His approach is not a mere cross-media seriality, but a complete integration of the visual into the medium of the book. Although his work has been adapted into a movie, it is remarkable that what Foer has done with Everything is illuminated and Tree of codes cannot be acheived by using other media. While reading his story, one is confronted with the material on which the narrative is told. Jonathan Safran Foer is therefore an author that unceasingly challenges the form of the book.

In the 21st century, when one is surrounded by countless media that regularly provide an abundance of input, I find it important to examine carefully the nature and functions of these media. My most recent project was to translate into a book the way we click endlessly through hyperlinks on the internet. My starting point was the brochure of The Artist Institute. Each season, the institute invites one artist to hold an exposition, whose theme would then lead to relevant artists that are in turn invited to showcase their projects. This organisation reminds me of how reading one article on Wikipedia might lead to clicking on various links in the article in order to fully understand all the difficult words that are mentioned. This activity often seems to be endless, because each new article would contain new terms that need to be clarified. The text provided by The Artist Insitute have equally some confusing words or references that require research. I then looked them up in the Encyclopedia Britannica, a page that I used frequently instead of Wikipedia, and copied into a book all the articles that these terms lead to. Each new article was printed on a different colour, interrupted every time a new word appears and would only continue when every ambiguities had been resolved. A simple brochure of originally 50 pages then resulted in a 1860-pages publication. Normally, when the web is represented visually, it often ends up taking the form of a spider map, with lines that show interconnecting subjects. In my project, the working of the web is represented in the thickness of the printed book instead of in the number of links. The form of the book also forces people to read differently from on screen. It brings back the linearity of the reading process that is otherwise no longer appropriate on new digital media.

Creative writing is one of the many ways to bring the medium of the book into consideration. It goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Writers express themselves by exploring new narrative craft, character development, literary tropes, and original compositions. They deviate from the norms of language and ask even more of what the word can offer. One early example that would serve as inspiration for later developments of creative writing is the dadaist poetry, especially sound poems that consite of nonsensical words (such as Karawane by Hugo Ball). In the 20th century, French literates also witnessed the emergence of Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a gathering of writers and mathematicians who based their writings on the contraints in form, literature and mathematics. These constraints didn’t seem to limit them in their creations. In contrary, they found their freedom in the endless possibilities of language, otherwise not perceptible without the norms. Georges Perec (1936–1982) was a very active member of Oulipo. His work from 1969, La disparition, is a lipogrammatic novel. Perec consciously left out the letter “e” in his entire book. In this way, the story is totally dependant of the chosen writing method. By omitting the letter “e“, the author only disposes of a limited vocabulary; each word decides the possibilities of those that follow. This formal contraint also suggests a metaphysical interrogation, as both the main character of the story and the parents of Perec also disappear (his father passed away during the war in 1940 and his mom was brought to Auschwitz in 1943). Because of the dependance of the story on the contraints in language, it will not find any better medium than the written words.

Personally, I am confronted with the limitations of the written as well as the spoken words on a daily basis. Coming from an Asian country whose official language is written in Latin script, I am lucky that the Latin alphabet is no stranger. Learning English, French and Dutch, I discovered that one can make whichever word he likes just by making endless combinations of 26 letters. In just the same way, new words are made regularly as the language keeps evolving. The grammatical and vocabulary rules of each language make it special and unique while still opening up millions of possibilities. However, while being exposed to this infinite freedom, I still feel limited by my own knowledge of all the languages that I can speak, fluently, so to say. Whenever asked how many languages I master, I often answer, half jokingly: “I write best in English, read best in French, speak best Dutch, and curse best in my mother tongue.” Unknowingly, my personal problem has been suggesting a universal problematic: one cannot always find the right word to describe the right thing. Beside the frustration of not being able to express myself fully in foreign languages, I am also aware of the abundancy of Vietnamese lexicon that I cannot use with optimum efficiency. Before knowing it, I was already absorbed in the multicultural aspect of my daily life and began writing in Dutch, despite my clumsiness concerning the vocabularies or sentence structures. This activity, to my surprise, makes me discover a new aspect in my own writing: Because of my limited knowledge of the language, I no longer have the tendency to look for the most beautiful words, and just manage to express myself with the only words that I can remember. The freedom is again found in the contraints. By keeping the language at its purest state, one has the chance to play with words, to experiment with different writing methods, and to be creative in visual approaches.

Furthermore, while studying typography and type design, I came to know how a language differs from another and how the appearance of a text depends crucially on the language in which it is written. Languages don’t just differ in sound; they also look different, due to many details like the length of the words, the use of accents, the diversity in punctuation marks,… It struck me how it is generally expected that one typeface should serve multiple languages. Letters form the core of words. The way they look alters our perception of the text. Fred Smeijers, a Dutch type designer, also mentions this problematic in his book, Counterpunch. For him, there’s a certain visual awkwardness when the typography is not adapted to the employed languages, especially when, due to today’s standardization, typography has mainly focused on the 26 letters of the alphabet while neglecting special character combinations that eventually occur in some other tongues. He wrote: “The relation between typography and language is not simple. Typography does not simply serve language. Typography can be seen as a threat to languages and cultures. We can even see typography as a serial killer of minor languages.” Taking all this into consideration, I started to inquire thoroughly Vietnamese typography. In the summer of 2016, during a trip back to my home land, I was overwhelmed by Hanoi’s dynamic typographic landscape while striding along the streets of the country’s second largest city. Countless shops selling the same goods compete with each other days and nights on the same streets. Signboards with excessive typography are omnipresent.

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Staggered, I intended to make a poster to pay tribute to this original mix of order and chaos. For this purpose, I began by cutting out colorful shapes based on the layouts of the typography. Then I drew some signs (that are now shown on the poster as white outlined shapes) to represent the mainly used typefaces on Hanoi’s signboards, like Cooper Black, Hobo, Arial, and fonts that resemble Chinese calligraphy,… Besides, the choice for a big dimension (the poster is 1189mm large and 1682mm high) is meant to leave an overwhelming impression on the observer, just like how one would feel, walking along Hanoi’s streets.

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After having examined the overall image of the Vietnamese typographic landscape, I aim to do further research on how Vietnamese functions as a language, especially when written. The language has not always been part of the Latin script system, but has roots in Chinese and Chinese calligraphy. For the moment, the cultural and historical aspect of Vietnamese as a language has not been deliberated during the type design process. I find it necessary to compare Vietnamese with other languages, both regional and international, in order to deepen the understanding of its working and visual effects. My project during the Master programme is to write a visual story for my mother tongue, to represent its sounds, phonetics, and appearance visually, while taking its historical development into consideration. It is also my intention to, at the end of my researches, make a typeface that is well adapted to the Vietnamese language with its remarkably short words and inordinate number of accent combinations. This project is not only a research on the language, but also on my identity in the multiculturality.

In conclusion, writing, cultures and languages are the most important influences on my working process. It is a relentless quest for the possibilities hidden in the freedom and contraints that each influence has to offer.

15/04/2017