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How Typography is Like Chocolate

I’m teaching Typography II this semester and one of my goals is to provide my students a certain typographic sensitivity. The text I’m using is Robert Bringhurst’s excellent book, The Elements of Typographic Style. On the first day of class I asked my students to read the introduction to Bringhurst’s book and create a typographic response to their reading.

This morning I welcomed my Typography II students to class with a culinary surprise. I pulled out several Hershey bars and using a sharp knife (and food prep gloves) I divided the chocolate bar up so everyone could have a piece. I asked them to describe how the chocolate tasted—as if they were describing it to someone who had never eaten chocolate before.

One of my students describes her experience:

A smooth, creamy texture as it melts, hard at first, but then melts in your mouth in sweet distinct taste. The smell is unique, not unlike a mild coffee scent, but a much milder taste with a pleasant aftertaste in the back of the tongue. The taste first hits the tip of the tongue as it quickly dissolves and sweetly coats the whole tongue in a sweetened range of flavor.

After writing about their chocolate tasting experience, I asked my students to pin up their typographic interpretations of Bringhurst’s text and explain their concept. One by one students explained their responses, but the solutions fell largely into two categories: paths that designers are free to follow (or not); and how letterforms constantly change, yet differ very little. Today, two solutions in stood out as being particularly well executed.

I then asked my class to read the first chapter titled, The Grand Design, out loud (it’s only a couple of pages long) while I cut up some artisan chocolate that I purchased from a local chocolatier. Bringhurst uses metaphors from theater and music to describe typography, but I wanted to use my students’ palette to create their own typographic analogy. In contrast to the first chocolate, this second chocolate was savory and contained cinnamon, cardamom, and chili pepper. The flavors were bold, spicy, and lingered for a long time. I knew my student’s culinary experience would be quite different from that of the Hershey bar they experienced earlier.

One of my students described his experience this way:

It’s less dry and flaky, but more melty. This stuff is spicy. Good lord. I do like spicy foods though, and this stuff is awesome. It’s like, oh this is a nice sweet piece of candy, OH JESUS I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS! The aftertaste is great though. Leaves a chocolate and cinnamon lingering flavor. Keeps the mouth tingling as well.

After everyone in the class recovered from their culinary experience, I asked them to articulate how typography was like their recent culinary adventure. Recorded below are some of my favorite responses:

  • “Good typography is apparent and pleasurable. Great typography starts off the same, but there is a realization of the quality of the piece, thus the preverbal aftertaste is richer as well.”
  • “It takes patience and love in order to create a work of art. Something worked on quickly and sloppily doesn’t have the same attributes as something worked on with more time.”
  • “Typography is familiar, relatable, understood, but it can still surprise you, be different, and memorable.”
  • “When looking at typography and studying it, it reveals many more things underneath its surface. It reveals the ingredients and processes that it went through to achieve its final result, like chocolate.”

After a short lecture on grid systems we launched Project 1: Design a Three-Page Magazine Spread. This is a project that was developed by my colleague, Meaghan Dee, the previous year. I’m not sure if today’s chocolate/typography experiment will reveal itself in my student’s final solutions, but I’m hopeful that my students are beginning to realize, and successfully articulate, the difference between good typography and great typography.

Feel free to adapt or modify this approach for your own purposes, but please be kind enough to leave me a brief note and tell me how things worked out for you.

Image source: Groovyfoody.wordpress.com

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