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Writing on the City: Letterforms, Technology, and Philadelphia Culture

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Writing on the City: Letterforms, Technology, and Philadelphia Culture

By Callie Holtermann and Jacob Anderson.


Callie:

“Typography? That’s, like, calligraphy, right?” When I told my roommate that I had elected to take a freshman seminar on typography, she was a little bit confused. Honestly, so was I. I had arrived at Penn with a course load of political science, but impulse-registered for “Writing On The City: Letterforms, Technology, and Philadelphia Culture.” I am so glad I did.

This class has handed me many “firsts”: my first SEPTA token, my first experience printing letterpress, and my first handwritten letter from Benjamin Franklin. Okay, the letter wasn’t exactly addressed to me, but this course’s collaboration with the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts enabled us to examine and transcribe eighteenth-century handwritten letters from some of history’s real heavy hitters. This was fascinating but a little bit scary — no one wants to be “that freshman” who sneezes all over Thomas Jefferson’s exquisite penmanship.

However, these early examples of letterforms in and around Philadelphia introduced us to a method of interaction with letters that none of us had ever experienced. Professor David Comberg encouraged us to pay attention to the contours of each character, the weight of each stroke, the negative space, and the character’s overall attitude. We brought this method of analysis to documents far and wide: early editions of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia-printed Bibles, and eventually to our own letterpress creation.
 

    • Writing on the City – Reading Room 1
    • Writing on the City – Reading Room 2
    • Writing on the City - Handwriting 3
    • Writing on the City – Handwriting 2
    • Writing on the City – Handwriting 1
    • Writing on the City - Handwriting 4
    • Writing on the City - Letterpress 4
    • Writing on the City – Letterpress 1
    • Writing on the City - Letterpress 5
    • Writing on the City – Letterpress 3
    • Writing on the City – Letterpress 2


Although the class was about letterforms, its subtext was to familiarize us with a city that was, for most of us, completely foreign. A lot of our class time wasn’t even spent in class — we left campus for numerous trips across Philadelphia, each of which introduced us to a new neighborhood and subset of Philly culture. Over the course of the semester, we visited the University of the Arts, The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Office of University Communications, and graphic design firm Cloud Gehshan Associates

When it came time to create our final projects, I wanted to integrate these themes of intense study of individual letters and exploration of Philadelphia culture. I drew inspiration from the eighteenth-century French letter I translated and transcribed on the first day of class and decided to photograph diacritics (or accents) across the city. Eventually, I developed a graphic that represented Philadelphia’s multicultural nature and distributed it, in sticker form, to other students.
 

    • Writing on the City – Callie Instagram 1
    • Writing on the City – Callie Instagram 2
    • Writing on the City – Callie Instagram 3
    • Writing on the City – Callie Final Project 3
    • Writing on the City – Callie Final Project 2
    • Writing on the City – Callie Final Project 1


We hear it all the time: College is a time to branch out. But it’s easy to get so caught up in credits, requirements, and pre-professional gobbledygook that we forget to study things that interest us, especially if they may not explicitly connect to a future career. This course allowed me to explore my interest in design without worrying that I would be the odd one out in a class full of intimidatingly cool Fine Arts majors. Now, I’ll turn things over to my (admittedly, very cool) classmate Jacob, who, unlike me, came into the class with an established career interest in design.
 

Jacob:

It’s true. I wanted to design, and I took this class knowing that I would be immersing myself in Philadelphia culture. I hadn’t realized, though, that signing up for the class would entirely change my perspective on design.

I want to be an architect. I had spent many hours playing around with CAD programs and researching the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. Never, though, had I given any thought to the typeface of the Google Sketchup logo, nor to the fonts used on the websites I was using for my research. “Writing on the City” made me reflect on the little details of the words that surround me on a daily basis. I found myself enchanted by the peculiar letterings on shop windows and the predictable simplicity of street signs. In some ways, the class turned me into a “type snob.” After watching the documentary Helvetica, I couldn’t help but search the cityscape for famous brands and businesses using that font in their logos. I was especially delighted to find that a career could be made of this fascination with typefaces.
 

    • Writing on the City - Jacob Instagram 1
    • Writing on the City - Jacob Instagram 2
    • Writing on the City - Jacob Instagram 3
    • Writing on the City – Jacob Final 6


In mid-October, our class visited Cloud Gehshan Associates to hear from one of its cofounders, Virginia Gehshan. Cloud Gehshan innovates wayfinding systems and designs signs for large businesses, including universities and hospitals. I had just begun working toward a degree in Architecture when I discovered this interest in typography. It took less than two months for me to be face-to-face with a person who had innovated a career path combining the two fields of architecture and typography.
 

    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 7
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 8
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 1
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 2
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 3
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 4
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 5
    • Writing on the City – Cloud Gehshan 7


This class gave me the opportunity, in my first semester, to connect with people working in my area of interest — one that I hadn’t realized even existed. It also introduced me to the subway/trolley system, which was necessary for visiting Cloud Gehshan’s open house the next day.

Going into Penn, I didn’t know that I would fall in love with Philadelphia’s history, its culture, or its people. Typography offered the perfect lens for seeing the city in its best light. In the end, I put a little something back into the city to show my newfound appreciation. If the topic still interests you, you can check out my final project in the YouTube video I made: “A Font That Defines You.” Otherwise, consider pursuing something a bit outside where you think your interest lies. It has worked out quite well for me so far.
 

    • Writing on the City – Jacob Final 5
    • Writing on the City - Jacob Final 4
    • Writing on the City - Jacob Final 1
    • Writing on the City - Jacob Final 3
    • Writing on the City – Jacob Final 7


Callie Holtermann is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences hailing from Pennington, New Jersey. Although she’s not yet certain about her major, she hopes to study some combination of politics, food and agricultural policy, and design during her time at Penn. She is also the business manager of Penn Counterparts Acapella and a volunteer with the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative.


Jacob Anderson is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and is planning to study Architecture. He is interested in continuing his studies in both English and Chinese typography.
 


Edited by Mariah Macias.