MIT design project: Navokov’s Signs and Symbols

MAS 964: Expressive Typography and New Media

In January 1996 and 1997, I taught a course through MIT’s Media Arts and Sciences department (the Media Lab) on Expressive Typography and New Media. This course, run for credit during MIT’s IAP period (Independent Activities Period), was a follow up for the department’s consideration of me for the position of design professor in the Media Lab – a position that ultimately (and rightly) went to John Maeda. I was honored to even be on the short list for that job. And further honored to be able to teach two sets of brilliant students through MAS 964.

Students ranged from undergraduates to graduates, from various majors. We met 3 times a week and critiqued every student’s project. Each student created an experimental “book” using Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols”, by using the nature of reading on the computer to create expressive typography and reading structures that were metaphoric to some theme or themes in the story. In this way, it is hoped that the action of “reading” each “book” brings insights into the story. It is assumed that the reader will have already read the story, and that the student is creating a “book” that will aide the reader in further exploring the work of literature.

Students’ projects ranged from experiments in HTML, creating website “books,” to activating typography with motion and color using a fairly new application at that time, Macromedia Director. The results opened up a lot of creative and sometimes very simple ways that typography in a computer medium can expose meanings and reveal new ways to look at literature.

Many of the students have gone to impressive careers creating innovative design, like Peter Cho, Creative Director at Inkling, Ifung Lu of Guanxin, Elise Co of Aeolab, and Reed Kram of Kram/Weisshaar.

I had used this same short story in my Advanced Typography class at RISD for several semesters. Students and projects there were equally as brilliant, but were not focused on new digital ways of reading. I have a few of these concrete books in storage. One day I’ll photograph them (one is a set of “X-ray plates” made of glass!) and find out where some of those stellar students have landed years later.

Update: I recently found my original syllabus for the RISD assignment and I photographed the brilliant “x-ray” book. Here’s the syllabus copied verbatim:

graph3223.02 Typography IV
Angelynn Grant
spring 1995

project two: Signs and Symbols

Read Signs and Symbols, a short story by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), and the given literary analysis. Nabokov divided the story into 3 parts; you may use any or all of the parts as text for your final project, the format of which is completely up to you. You should choose some aspect or aspects of the story to bring out in your design: its structure; its symbolism and its view of symbolism in general; the author’s life and/or other works; the social context of the characters and narrative; in other words, find interpretations and meanings that you can emphasize or disclose typographically.

As you will read, Signs and Symbols is not just about the plot and plight of the characters, it is “about” the literary (verbal) use of signs and symbols, and how an author/artist can affect the reader/viewer’s understanding of the action. In exactly the same way, a designer can use typographic (visual) signs and symbols to affect how the work is “read.” Think about this power you have as controllers of the typography and design.

As with all your work, attention should be paid to the utmost in careful craftsmanship in this project. It could take the form of a book, poster, series of posters, set of leaves in a box, any form consistent with expressing your ideas. The only requirement beyond excellent craft is that it be purely typographic. The project will be due on the last Monday.