Word and Image

In The Alphabet versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain comments on a return to image-based communication:

“To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis and abstraction.”[1]

Similarly, in Left to Right by David Crow, the author looks at the cultural shift from word to image. Crow examines the evolution of image-based fonts which were developed alongside shifts in graphic design production and software. Now, typing a letter on a keyboard could bring up a symbol that was entirely different from the one we might expect. Although the fonts followed the convention of the Roman alphabet (and the interface of the computer keyboard) the result was a collection of symbols that was unreadable in the conventional sense but that, nevertheless, could be considered a language or dialect.

What I find particularly interesting about these symbol fonts is the relationship that they have to mark-making in painting or drawing. For Fuse 10 an interactive disk and poster package, founded in 1990 by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft, Brody created ‘Freeform' a symbol-based font, which he used to generate works that were genuinely experimental, pushing typography – and the purpose of typography - to extremes. Brody said of 'Freeform':

“The basic idea behind freeform typography is that the computer keyboard can also be used as a musical instrument or a painter’s palette. It can be used as a way to redefine the representation of digital language.”[2]

Fuse 10 generated a huge amount of negative criticism: the main one being that freeform typography was a contradiction in terms. The critics of Fuse claimed that the only purpose of letters is to transmit meaning. When letters are abstracted to the point that they stop performing this function, then they no longer can be letters nor, by extension, typography.

Jon Wozencroft defended their position:

“Conveying meaning is not the sole function of letters/symbols/pictograms. It is also communicating feelings and vision. Fuse 10 – Freeform did not aim to don the mantle of Art, nor to throw ourselves into absolute chaos. We wanted to explore and question typographic shapes and motives, to emphasize the essence of communication: to reach out, not to recede. Paradoxically, Freeform is more an artistic statement than a fixed message.”[3]







[1] Shlain, Leonard (1988) The Alphabet and the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, New York, Penguin/Arkana




[2] Peters, Yves (2010) 20 Years of FontShop www.fontfeed.com




[3] Peters, Yves (2010) 20 Years of FontShop www.fontfeed.com


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