All in the Details: Brief Musings on Type as Pictoral Elements

Typography basically boils down to the study and creation of visual elements that convey linguistic meaning. However, we are most used to seeing them in lines, and usually only read them left to right (or right to left or up to down, depending on which hemisphere you reside in). What if we could convey the same meaning without the arrangement of letters into lines? What if their arrangement could be completely different but still express the same message and power...perhaps even clearer than ever?

You may have seen the above portrait of Steve Jobs floating around on the internet for the past couple of months. It's elegant and powerful in a way that these exact same words simply lined up on a page could not achieve. It is part of a growing and exciting trend towards typographic portraits. Look at the below artworks/designs (yes, they are so beautiful and meaningful we are truly splitting hairs here). They may not be as well executed, but they are in the same vein as the Steve portrait.

At first glance, this is a recent trend. I remember doing similiar projects in typography class, being taught that this is indeed cutting edge, fresh, uncharted territory. I will agree that it is fresh in many ways, but nothing ever forms in a vacuum. If everything hasn't already been thought of in some way, then it has at least been touched upon. One of the earliest forms of typography as picture that I can think of is the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Look below: the letter "N" is crafted from dozens of swirls, abstract and organic shapes, but when the viewer pulls back it comes into greater clarity as a letterform.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that this is not the same as crafting a portrait from type. This is indeed creating new forms through combining, but it is a reversal of principles: while the manuscript is making a letter (man-made) out of natural forms, the portraits are the natural forms being made out of the man-made, which are the letters. This is one thing that makes them so unique. However, the creation of the man-made out of the natural would prevail in design for centuries.

Below is an alphabet that only further emphasizes my observation. While it is very clever that all the letters are made out of common objects, it is still the reverse.

it is not until the mid 20th century that we start to see forms, in earnest, being made from letters. The below poster from 1953 shows the growing trend, and I consider it to be a hybrid. The bike wheels are made from "O"s, and the Os are made from bike wheels. Which camp this piece falls into is not clear, but it is surely a step in the "type portrait" direction.

Yet another set of ads, getting closer but not there yet in theory.

It wasn't until the psychedelic art of the 1960's that we see type truly integrated into the forms of people and objects. Pioneers such as Peter Max and Victor Moscoso paved the way for the current state of typography in poster design. Fluid and wild, organic and artificial, theirs posters share, in a primitive sense, many characteristics with the sophisticated portraits at the beginning of this article.


While much has changed in the world of design in the past 40 years, undoubtedly, my goal in going through this brief history of type as forms was to get to the "a-ha" moment, the start of it all. And that start was the pychadelic, art nevou-inspried posters and album art of the 3rd quarter of the 20th century.