Neutrality / Expressionism

In an essay called ‘On Typographic Signification’ Gerard Mermoz questions the dichotomy between transparent/neutral and ‘expressive’ typographies. He suggests a new strategy for thinking about the “functional interaction between typography and text.” Mermoz looks at two examples of typographic work that represent “typography as an authoring device and as an intervention on the text and typography as a design tool working on the external form and visual configuration of the text, irrespective of its content.”[1] Mermoz further categorises these strategies in terms of ‘designing from within’ and ‘designing from without’.

Mermoz looks at the prologue of Derrida’s ‘Feu la cendre’, a text that he categorises as ‘the author as typographer or ‘designing from within.’’ Mermoz argues that the typographic treatment of this text, which integrates writing, voice and typography, creates an opportunity to view “the printed text not as a static form, but as an interactive structure requiring (inter)active reading.” Mermoz then proposes to re-define typography “as language in performance and as the body of the text, from which signification emerges through the productive work of creative interpretation.”

Of course, it is not always possible for a designer to work collaboratively with an author. In most design jobs, the designer is not the author and is usually working with texts that have been given to him without design input from the author. In ‘A type primer’ John Kane suggests that:

“In most circumstances, a designer’s first goal is to make material comprehensible to a reader. In other words, you should understand the material well enough to know how someone else needs to read it.”[2]

Mermoz elaborates on this:

“In cases where the author does not specify the typographic layout of his text, scope remains for the literate designer to interpret the text typographically in such a way as to enable the text not just to be comfortably read (principle of readability), but also to be engaged at the level of its substance or content. This pressupposes, on the part of the designer, a thorough engagement with the world of the text' and an in-depth knowledge of typography; so that appropriate typographical choices may be made to enrich our own engagement with the text. In this instance the role of the typographer is to make explicit the strategy of the text.”[3]

In contrast to authorial typographic interventions or ‘designing from within’ Mermoz looks at ‘Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse’, published in 1990, as an example of external typographic interventions. Mermoz argues that these interventions do not engage with the text but at the level of their visual appearance. These devices are meant to “challenge the readers’ expectations by disrupting the flow of the text” but Mermoz argues that they do little to intervene at the level of the text.

Mermoz calls for “greater conceptual rigour and working towards a typology of typographical modes of refence/interaction with texts”  and a “greater and more specific integration of theory at all levels of graphic design” in order to place ‘”typography once again at the service of the text.”







[1] Mermoz, Gerard (2002) On Typographic Signification, Coventry




[2] Kane, John (2002) A Type Primer, London, Laurence King




[3] Mermoz, Gerard (2002) On Typographic Signification, Coventry


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