Wellesley Hosts Symposium on Graphic Design in the Digital Future

Katherine McCanless Ruffin, director of the book studies and book arts program
September 16, 2016

On Saturday, September 10, more than 100 people filled the Library Lecture Room in Clapp Library to hear Wellesley faculty and other experts discuss the changing media landscape and how design principles used centuries ago can inspire and inform today’s designers. The symposium, Graphic Design in the Digital Future: Lessons from the Renaissance Book, was planned by Simon Grote, assistant professor of history, and Sarah Wall-Randell, associate professor of English. The two were named Scholars in Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia two years ago and created the symposium as part of their fellowship, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Grote and Wall-Randell explained to the enthusiastic audience that they believe the printed book, whose design elements were developed in the 15th and 16th centuries, offers value to designers in the digital age. “We remain attached to words and terms from material book technology,” said Wall-Randell. “We talk about ‘scrolling’ down and about Web ‘pages,’ and the word ‘book’ is central to the copyrighted names of laptops. Those words signal our cognitive patterns of attachment to those ideas. We must examine the history of those ideas to understand our present.”

Despite those attachments and carryovers, Grote said practitioners must also ask, “How much can we benefit from studying the ways in which the Renaissance pioneers of printed book production navigated the uncharted waters of their new medium? And, to what extent can we or must we apply in our digital work at least some of the design principles that those earlier pioneers developed for the printed book?”

The symposium addressed those questions through a panel discussion; a question and answer session; workshops in Web design and letterpress printing, led by Sohie Lee, senior instructor in computer science, and Katherine McCanless Ruffin, director of the book studies and book arts program; and a typography exhibit that spanned seven centuries, designed by Ruth R. Rogers, curator of Wellesley’s special collections, and Mariana Oller, associate curator, who helped guide participants through the displays.

The day began with presentations by panelists Simran Thadani ’05, Russell Maret, and Ken Botnick, who discussed how book design and digital design intersect.

Thadani, executive director of Letterform Archive, a San Francisco-based graphic design and typography library, spoke about religious books, making the case that all book design is thoughtful problem-solving. Bookmakers throughout history have solved “design problems” (such as legibility, utility, and appeal) by making innovative use of text, images, white space, and other page elements to convey information and engage readers, she said. She emphasized that “book design is always informed by technological factors” like pens, paper, and the printing press.

“Wellesley has had a huge role in the book arts community,” said Maret, a type designer and printer who experiments with alphabetical dialogue and produces limited edition books. He explained that letter forms are layered with semiotic meaning, and the best digital design exploits the possibilities of the medium, including the fact that designers are not limited to a static grid. Everyone has his or her own “micro-Renaissance,” he said, and can learn most of the skills they need from the design principles of 15th- and 16th-century books.

Botnick, of emdash design studio and Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that books can teach designers a great deal about conveying information because they are divided into parts and arranged sequentially. He said good design requires a deep understanding of the meaning of the content, and he noted that a potential problem with digital design is that the high quality of the software makes everything look finished— polished and beautiful—even when you’ve only just started.

The panel was followed by remarks from Soe Lin Post, director of design for Wellesley’s communications and public affairs department. Post said designers have always needed to tell a story in an aesthetically pleasing way, which requires serious study of typography. “Today’s graphic designers typically do not have the time to create a one-of-a-kind book or content,” he said. “There’s a need for immediate feedback.” Despite the faster pace, design remains a collaborative process, “a harmonious process of everyone working together toward a common goal,” he said.

“We consider the symposium, and Wellesley’s book studies program more generally, our answer to President Paula Johnson’s welcome call for the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences to address important societal problems by working together rather than separately,” said Grote. He, Wall-Randell, and Ruffin saw examples of collaboration and idea exchange all day, as did many attendees, who described the symposium as fun and invigorating.

Eliza McNair ’18, a computer science major, said she will incorporate some of the ideas she heard into her work as a teaching assistant this semester in a first-year writing class, WRIT 135: Living in the Age of the Antihero. “My job is to help the students develop a number of digital skills so they can develop a digital portfolio of their work that will contain blog posts, formal writing assignments, and a final zine,” she said. “Armed with suggestions like creating a physical presence with blank space and developing a dialogue between typographies, I left the library excited to use what I’d heard to improve my design tutorials.”