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In The Political Realm, Typography Is Power

Two design students prove there’s realpolitik in the typefaces protestors and presidents use to convey their messages.

Protest has gone undeniably digital since the Arab Spring, with online tools guiding and broadcasting protest. One vestige of the ’60s still hangs on though: the handwritten poster, which is much in evidence at rallies and walks across the country (and world). Voices, a new book by German publishing house Cake, examines the DIY type design found on protest signs, investigating why a scrawled slogan has greater power to move us than a well-set Helvetica or Univers.

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Cake developed Voices after attending a two-day conference, Typography and Power, that invited attendees to explore how type and print can influence the political realm. “Can the choice of a particular font include political and ideological implications?,” asked organizers. “Can certain writing systems and logotypes be seen as manifestations of power?”

Philipp Lehr and Robin Scholz, the two young design students behind Cake, took to Google Image Search for answers. They plumbed the depths of the Internet, culling 50 typographic manifestations of protest that range from terse (a heavily censored “Everything is fine; love your government”) to funny (the always relevant “Give a shit!”). Each sign is contextualized with a bit of explanation from Wikipedia.

“The idea behind the publication is some sort of compendium that collects interesting and individual typographic characteristics of protest signs,” says Scholz. There’s an easy explanation for why we still make our own signs: It’s free and fast. Not everyone has the forbearance to create their own Shepard Fairey parody. But the duo illustrate that there’s also something deeply emotive about a protester holding up a message in their own unique handwriting. Through type, protesters find a way to distinguish their individual voices–a harsh, boldly scrawled shorthand can still stand in for a bullhorn or tweet.

Cake’s research into the politics of type led to a second book, Things America Said, that visually analyzes speeches about Iraq by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Like Voices, the book isolates the content of a political message by focusing on its appearance. Lehr and Scholz reorganized each speech into an alphabetical list of words, showing which were used most often; they also distilled the essential content of each speeches, CIA-style, by whiting out fluff sentences. “[We] view printed matter as a haven to think about and evaluate certain topics,” says the 22-year-old design student, “which leads to a more precise observing and a deeper involvment by the viewer.”

Check out the rest of Cake’s work and buy either booklet on their website.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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