Thebes of the seven gates

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Thebes of the seven gates
Giovanni Lussu
Thebes of the seven gates
The school today, by Roberto Pieracini
Seeing a different horizon?
Save the children!
Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters
Routes 1 and
More routes
Giovanni Lussu
Thebes of the seven gates
2 61
Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?
In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen.
Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschleppt?
Und das mehrmals zerstörte Babylon
Wer baute es so viele Male auf?
In welchen Häusern des goldstrahlenden Limas wohnten
die Bauleute?
Wohin gingen an dem Abend, wo die Chinesische Mauer
fertig war die Maurer?
Das große Rom ist voll von Triumphbögen. Wer errichtete sie?
Über wen triumphierten die Cäsaren?
Hatte das vielbesungene Byzanz nur Paläste für seine
Selbst in dem sagenhaften Atlantis brüllten in der Nacht,
wo das Meer es verschlang
Die Ersaufenden nach ihren Sklaven.
Arno Schmidt 73
The horror! 80
Remember, my beloved 90
Semasiographic writing 94
Electric ants 100
The song of the morrow 104
The talisman
Pasta with sardines 1 and 2 110
Synsemic caponata 120
Another caponata 124
Engraved, suspended
A concise history
Der junge Alexander eroberte Indien.
Er allein?
Cäsar schlug die Gallier.
Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Philipp von Spanien weinte, als seine Flotte untergegangen
­­­war. Weinte sonst niemand?
Friedrich der Zweite siegte im Siebenjährigen Krieg.
Wer siegte außer ihm?
Jede Seite ein Sieg.
Books, books, books
Wer kochte den Siegesschmaus?
Alle zehn Jahre ein großer Mann.
Wer bezahlte die Spesen?
... so it goes on... 181
Index of names
Published writings
So viele Berichte.
So viele Fragen.
Bertolt Brecht, Svendborger Gedichte (1926-39)
Set in Info Office
(Ole Schäfer and Erik Spiekermann, 1998)
English translation by Eurotrad snc, Urbino
The School today
The much desired School, the University, was born in Milan
twenty years ago, in 1993, the Polytecnic of Milan. Third
Faculty of Architecture, Bachelor of Science in Industrial
The impetus to create it was provided by professionals and
graphic artists, who also participated in it directly.
A few years earlier, with the First Public Utility Graphics
Biennale, held in the town of Cattolica in the Romagna region
on the border with the Marche, a historic experiment came to a
conclusion, the result of which enabled new generations of
graphic artists to make their profession overlap with a need
for responsible social communication.
The communication project was aimed at citizens, with a
strong desire for direct participation.
The proposal was then refused by the consensus politics that
found the advertising agencies to be definitely more suitable
tools for preserving their own existence.
The excitement of the moment can still be felt in the “Graphic
Project Charter” presented in 1989 and signed by a large
number of professionals.
Now, many years later, we need to pay some attention to the
consequences of what was sketched out at the time, and check
out the present-day situation: academies, universities and
private schools have introduced training courses in graphic art
and visual communication. The ISIAs (Higher Institutes for
Artistic Industries) continue along the same route.
The Graphic Project Charter showed clearly what to do, but not
how to do it.
The Arts Award for Communication Design held in 2012 in
Urbino presented for the first time the actual substance of the
training in Italy. This appears inadequate, stationary, and
constantly seeking “creativity” and good ideas.
However, in this state of “creative” enthusiasm, the “sense of
the discipline”, its methodology and its research, are still
Our history, or the route that, with the passing of time, has
brought us to this point, is quite clear.
What is absolutely not clear is the depth and the preciseness
of the subjects, the objective responsibility of the training,
the ethics and the culture of a profession that still moves
between pleasant aesthetics and the recycling of the déjà-vu.
The profession seems unable to get beyond what is offered by
the available sophisticated programs on hand for everybody,
and unable to find a clear relationship for itself with these.
At the same time, its role within society and in relation to
other disciplines does not appear well defined.
Training courses, without a culture that is not only internal to
the profession but driving the project, remain empty and an
end unto themselves.
The last refuge seems to the individualism of graphic design
by famous artists.
In this clearly rather uncomfortable scenario, Giovanni Lussu
points to and follows a completely different path taking us
through the world of visual communication and investigating it
from the inside.
As one who has long been engaged in the training and the
culture of the profession – the most significant books
published in Italy are by him or edited by him – he presents in
this volume the whole of his career as a teacher, and his
non-proposal for education. Linear and involving civil
commitment – more so, even that a commitment to training – it
is closely linked to his profession as an artisan of graphic art.
As director of the Urbino ISIA I am delighted with this
publication, which carries a different view of the profession
and will, I am sure, help to make the whole world of training
more responsible.
Roberto Pieracini
Direttore ISIA
There is a certain imbalance, between how school has always
been alien to me and the large amount of time I have spent
impersonating the enemy, meaning the teacher.
Not so much in the primary school, but my aversion was very
strong from the first year of middle school to the couple of
years I attended the Architecture Faculty in Rome, and the few
months spent at what was then the Higher Course in Graphic
Art at Urbino, always strictly with very low grades.
Of course I made some friends who still attend school happily
but it seems to me that in all these schools I learnt very little
and I consider myself, in fact, to be self-taught (but not,
I hope, in the manner of the man in Sartre’s La Nausée, who
adjusted to a new culture in strict alphabetical sequence.
I would prefer to be more like Ekalavya in the Mahabharata,
who was rejected by his teacher Drona on account of his low
caste and withdrew into the forest to learn by himself how to
shoot with a bow and arrow, eventually overtaking even
The little mathematics I know I learned certainly on my own,
in later adult life, but I have the impression that I even
learned more Latin in those periods when I studied something
on my own account, rather than in the eight years I suffered it
at school.
The list of teaching posts I have held, in fact, points to a quite
substantial activity:
ISIA, Rome, 1982-86;
Montecelio Institute, 1989-93;
Milan Polytechnic, 1993-2009;
La Sapienza, Rome, 1996-2000, 2003-06;
Roma Tre, 1999-2000;
Master in Communication and information technologies,
University of Bologna, 1999-03;
Master in Photographic representation of architecture
and environment, La Sapienza, 2001-02;
Master in Paper and Multi-media Publishing, University
of Bologna, 2001-10;
Bari Polytechnic, 2002-08;
ISIA, Urbino, 2006-07;
University of Sassari, 2009-11;
for around 50 years in all, plus an indefinite number
of seminars, courses, workshops and laboratories,
from Cordenons to Ariccia, to Malta and to Rio de Janeiro.
And there is no doubt I have been lucky: I have always enjoyed
myself reasonably well everywhere, and sometimes even very
well, and I have had the great privilege of being around a
large number of young people, one generation after another,
in rotation.
Of course, I have never lived off my earnings as a teacher.
I have always been first of all a graphic designer, or a
communication designer or whatever you want to call it.
And I have always been a craftsman, properly registered
in the Chamber of Commerce (and industry, agriculture
and craft trades) for over forty years now.
When, rather reluctantly, I took part in a competition for
a university chair as associated professor, and when I then
won that competition, I preferred not to take up the post.
The reason for this – besides the fact that I had never got over
my mistrust of institutions – was because I would have had to
give up my identity as a free craftsman (incompatible
in this system with that of a university teacher), which gave me
a lot of satisfaction (and I really do not understand yearning
of many colleagues to be recognized as “professionals” – and
this even after Richard Sennett!), in order to take on the
identity of an employee, however highly respected, which
I found less appealing.
The intention of this notebook is, firstly, to talk about my
varied and complex – and even contradictory – work
experience; it does not claim to give instructions on didactic
methods, nor does it offer any strict, coherent method of
teaching. However, this does not prevent me from expounding,
as a craftsman, some brief considerations, even in a jumbled
way, haphazardly, while taking for granted all the declarations
of principle (I don’t like examinations, I don’t like marks,
I don’t like teacher’s meetings, etc.).
To start with, I think it is misleading and even harmful,
to require students to do simulated cases (a trademark for a
hypothetical company, an image for a possible campaign, etc.)
or to redesign existing cases.
The raison d’être of a graphic designer’s profession is the
presence of an interlocutor – the client who remunerates him
or her – and the design is first of all a mediation, or a
translation of the client’s requirements into visual languages.
The teacher can certainly not pretend to be the client,
and avoiding the relationship with the client only feeds
the delusions of omnipotence that are often lurking inside
The development of a critical awareness of life (for which,
first of all, historical knowledge is necessary), and a wideranging knowledge of what is happening in the outside world
are quite another thing, and they are essential.
The time spent at school is the only time, before work
or the laborious search for it, that can be devoted to pure
experimentation, and this must be taken advantage of as much
as possible.
In a school of design there should not be courses consisting
of so-called “frontal” lessons (in which the teacher stands
at the front of the whole class).
Everything that can be found in books should be studied by the
students on their own and afterwards, of course, they should
discuss it and experiment with it.
The teacher’s function should be to stimulate, offer
consultancy, propose and discuss.
In a field of such rapid transformations as the communication
field, the essential thing is flexibility, the readiness to adapt
quickly to new situations – something we often hear people say
but rarely find.
What we need to teach is the ability to assume and integrate
knowledge. This ability is obviously proportional to the quality
and structure of the basic knowledge.
But what are the needs which design schools have to respond
What are the questions asked by the society we live in?
One case that I now consider to be symbolic is the exhibition
of posters for the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary
of Italian Unity, which took place in May 2011 at Civitanova
Marche, in the context of the Cartacanta initiative (many of the
posters were reproduced in a subsequent edition of “Abitare”
A hundred and fifty posters, therefore, created by the same
number of Italian graphic artists, or communication designers,
and the expression – we might well imagine, given the skills
of the participants – of a category of operators that presumes
itself to be important, at an important event.
And what does this category express?
A reflection on the national identity, presumed or otherwise,
on the occasion of a fairly debatable anniversary?
A discussion, an opinion? A viewpoint? A declaration of
patriotism? A blistering criticism of the unification process?
Some kind of meditation on the visual traditions of Italy?
On how they have come together or otherwise in modern
graphic art? A dream, a premonition? In other words, some
content that would justify such a vast mobilization?
Nothing of the kind.
The one hundred and fifty designers drew, without a care
in the world and each in his or her own way, the number 150.
These events, as we, as graphic artists or designers, know, are
eagerly awaited because they finally allow one’s “creativity”
full rein and allow one to escape every so often from the
fetters of daily toil; they are fairly similar to children
exchanging picture cards: “if you’ve got that one, look what
I’ve got”.
However, a hundred and fifty children would without doubt
have done more interesting things, and certainly more amusing
What’s more, these figures in the graphics, from the pure
visual or pseudo-artistic point of view they are restricted to,
all appear cleaned up, all mercilessly produced or anyway
processed on a computer using commercial application
programs, all worked over and reworked dozens of times,
without anything of that lumpiness, those palimpsests of often
dramatic superimpositions and cross-breeding that are such a
part of today’s visual universes. In brief, they are decidedly
And so we ask ourselves: what school do we need in order to be
able to produce these images?
The answer is easy: we do not need any school.
I am unconditionally in favour of all forms of individual
expressiveness, being convinced that anybody can profitably
engage in them: jam labels, embroidered table mats, wood
engraving, painting for leisure or for gain, little machines
cobbled together in an amateurish way, as Galileo did as a
child, and also cooking, singing, gardening and the numerous
forms of DIY, and finally posters, leaflets, book covers and
trademarks – or “logos”, call them what you will – which I,
too, have done a lot of.
For all these wonderful activities there are, if one wants,
excellent manuals and thousands of courses and agreeable
opportunities for joining clubs.
There is certainly no need for university degrees, three-year
or five-year and maybe a master’s or a doctorate: just as there
is certainly no need to draw the number 150.
And there is no need for most of what comprises the current
graphic art of today: company images, editorial graphics and
commercial graphics of all kinds are all activities for which,
unlike what happens for an agronomist or for an electrical
engineer, circumstantial knowledge, which schools cannot give
(the information on the traditions and varieties of the specific
field of activity, on the place and type of structure one is
operating in, on the specific needs of the client, etc.) is far
more important than the knowledge needed of graphics or
This basic knowledge, if you think about it, is limited to very
little in the exercise of current graphic design: some notions
of typography (and graphic artists have very little of this,
and none at all up to a few years ago), a sprinkling of visual
perception (primeval and often badly digested, from the
amount of white writing on a yellow background that we see
all around the place) and not much else.
And then the fact that these graphic products are created
in one way or the other is usually quite irrelevant.
And in fact, with the widespread use of computers, a lot of
things that graphic artists did before are now done by those
who need them, which is precisely the reason why computers
are widespread.
Corporatists, or those who would like to be professionals and
who therefore tackle commercial graphic art in its most trite
and depressing forms, appear to be scandalized by this desire
for a do-it-yourself approach; but at this rate, if we start by
being scandalized, we cannot but finish up, explicitly or
implicitly, by trying to limit access to this activity, and in this
we cross over into the pathetic and slide down into the
Even the pretensions to formal mannered hegemony of the
much more authoritative international style have now finally
and definitively fallen into decay (apart from some last shreds,
like our unfortunate railway signals), in the face of the
sacrosanct contemporary eclecticism; that is all we need – to
find we have again got some Pius IX-type “Syllabus of Errors”
promulgated by a corporation of so-called professionals.
However, if graphic designers, or communication designers,
are not very important, visual communication certainly is.
It is more and more essential, not only in its transmission but
in the very elaboration of knowledge, and all the more if we
begin to assume, as now appears inescapable, a synsemic
approach to written communication; this means no longer first
the text and then the images around it, but new syntheses that
might activate complex neuronal relationships and multiply the
ability to assume and integrate knowledge.
Digital technology seems to be able to bring to completion,
and start again on, the many things that have been
experimented for centuries and millennia; and not only in
teaching, in popularizing and in research, but in the
participation of human beings in the social complexity they
live in, as Otto Neurath wished for with his Isotype, and in
their general progress towards future challenges.
Of course, in order to be able to face such a responsibility we
have to start from the beginning, from a primary school that
allows children to develop the intrinsic potentials for graphic
representation that are characteristic of our species.
It would then be nice if the middle school were really able to
offer an abundant supply of the base that is so often lacking in
young people who arrive in higher education; and lots of other
things would be needed as well, such as a better society.
different, being neither graphic artists nor communication
Perhaps the present ISIAs could in some way, because of their
unusual history and their organization, comprise the core of a
new development.
Before anything else it would be necessary to reunite what,
alas, has been separated and artificially put in contrast – the
scientific approach on the one side and the so-called artistic
one on the other.
But as far as specific university design courses are concerned,
we can today retrospectively conclude that they have not
started well, for the very fact that they were activated in
architecture faculties.
Even product design might have been better developed in
engineering courses; but for communication, architecture has
perhaps been the worst environment.
In the historical development of architectural design there is
not much that is useful for communication; in fact, there is
nothing at all, and it may be time to take a fresh, in-depth look
at the by now tired fallacies that link architecture, product
design and graphic design on the basis of the Bauhaus
experience and its emigration to America.
The presumptuous, empty typographical practice of this school
would on its own be enough to delete it from the list of
important references for communication today: the fact that it
claimed to make visual communication without consolidated
typographical knowledge is decidedly upsetting.
This new type of metagraphic designer must certainly have
a good basic mathematical knowledge, without which we can
understand very little not just about science but about the
whole universe of today and tomorrow; only this will enable
them to dialogue and interact with the different fields of
knowledge that make up the world.
If this knowledge were dealt with correctly, experimentally
and from a design point of view, we would see that anyone can
acquire it, and that it is also fun and really creative.
But with today’s graphic artists and designers it is no use
discussing these things: they are absolutely unable to argue
about anything, for the simple reason that they do not know
anything and do not do anything to find out about anything,
and they cannot therefore come up with any opposing ideas
except prejudices, and then silence, and then paralysis.
Perhaps it is the teachers, rather than the aspiring students,
who should take an entry test to get into these schools.
At the same time we should know and experiment consciously
with the variety of visual languages.
And, like Thomson and Thompson, I would go even further:
along with mathematics, we should also do figure drawing,
maybe not so much the traditional academic nudes or still
lifes, but the representation of figures – meaning knowing
how to see and render and clearly trace a physical
environment, a topographical, geographical space, a facial
expression, a relationship between objects and between
The positioning of graphic design in architecture faculties has
given rise to the worst aspect – formalism, intrinsic in that
tradition’s notion of “composition”. This means that the final
configuration of the communication artwork, instead of being
triggered off by an analysis of the message, as one would hope,
tends to be shaped by starting from considerations – formal
ones, in fact – that are external to it, as in the practice of
most of the so-called rationalist movement (which did not
actually have much that was rational in it).
We cannot now expect very much, substantially, from university
courses in communication design, and if they were closed it
would not cause very much damage, either for graphic art and
certainly not for the national economy; all requirements,
whether real or presumed, would be met more or less in the
same way.
It would be much more profitable if semesters could be set up
on visual communication, which would today be of use to
everyone, not just to future architects in architecture faculties
but also in any other degree course, both of a so-called
humanistic type and of a so-called scientific type, so that each
person could do best what he or she needs to do.
Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!
The original texts of my instructions for creating exercises
and practical tests are always marked like this paragraph.
The comments of authors of exercises and tests
are marked in this way.
However, to tackle the immense present and future challenges
referred to above, and to ensure the management and the
evolution of this complex situation, specialized operators
would be useful.
How can these complex communication planners be trained (and perhaps we should at this point call them something
The primordial plant (Urpflanze) will be the most wonderful
creation in the world. Nature itself will envy me. With this
model and the key to understanding it, one can invent an
infinite number of plants, ones that must be consequent –
meaning that, even if they do not exist, they could exist.
They are not shadows or poetic and painterly illusions, but
they possess an inner truth and necessity.
This same principle could be applied to every other aspect of
life as well.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Results of the program that generates all possible snails, even
those that “if they do not exist, they could exist”.
The program itself, therefore, is the ur-snail, the primordial
In 1982, my friend and colleague Sergio Vezzali, who had
already been teaching at the ISIA in Rome for some years,
suggested that I should hold the Morphology course at that
school (which now, as then, deals essentially with product
design) and he introduced me to it.
I had never taught and nor had I ever thought of doing so;
I was almost forty years old, and because of my general lack of
confidence in scholastic institutions I put up some resistance.
The prospect had some stimulating aspects, however, since it
would allow me to give rein to certain impulses that had long
been repressed.
As I have already recounted in my La lettera uccide, there was
a whole field of research, reflections and considerations that
had interested me for many years.
Following Intuitive geometry by David Hilbert (whom I had
known since I was a boy) I had collected some unusual texts on
geometry, such as Haresh Lalvani’s Transpolyhedra, Keith
Critchlow’s Order in space, Polyhedra primer by Peter and
Susan Pearce and, also by Peter Pearce, Structure in nature is a
strategy for design, which already went right to the heart of
the matter.
And there was also Growth and form by D’Arcy Thompson, Tools
for thought by Conrad Waddington, a series of texts on the
area that was then defined as structuralist, and the clever
anticipation by Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale,
which contained that very same keyword, coined by Goethe and
explicitly taken up by Propp.
I was by then already a determined reader, following an old
suggestion by my first mentor in photography Enzo Ragazzini,
of the review “Scientific American”, in its former Italian
edition as “Le scienze”.
With the aid of a very expert acquaintance, I was also starting
to understand what computers were and how they could be
It was not very clear what Morphology was supposed to be (a
term, as I recollect, coined by Goethe at the end of the
eighteenth century, with some possibility of it deriving from
proto-Romantic irrationalism) in a design school.
I put together a course syllabus based generally on a
mathematical approach to the morphogenesis of natural forms
which, for me, who was not particularly interested in product
design, might have been identical in a graphic arts course, and
I went into the school.
I was immediately very lucky to find myself in a class with an
exceptionally motivated, and therefore exceptionally critical,
group of students, a few of whom I then remained close friends
with, right up to today.
I confess that I enjoyed myself: I used to take in sea relics
collected over the years (stones, bones and roots) and I blew
soap bubbles into trellises that I had built by welding copper
rods, and the students used their ingenuity to create projects
and little machines.
However, I was in danger of having a particularly violent
traumatic experience the first time I had to do examinations:
in my aversion to school, I considered exams, from which I
myself had suffered horribly, as a cruel evil, and to have to
inflict such an abomination on others seemed to me
Fortunately, the examination candidates were considerate;
they accompanied me gently to the altar of sacrifice and,
laughing and joking, they made the event as far as possible
Meanwhile, I had got to know the mathematics teachers
Giordano Bruno (who was to become director of the ISIA thirty
years later) and Angelo Gilio, both pupils of the great
probabilist Bruno De Finetti.
Together with them I had signed the application for the first
computers in the school – two small Commodore 64s, among the
very first home computers of those years. Before buying them,
the scientific committee had to meet specifically to discuss if
they might obstruct the full deployment of “creativity”, as
some teachers feared, or not.
And together with them we quickly asked for a meeting with
Andries Van Onck, the Dutch designer who came from the
Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, and who arrived at the ISIA
in 1984, I think, to hold a course.
I had appreciated it very much when, a few years before, I had
come across his written piece Metadesign that appeared in a
famous issue of the review “Edilizia moderna” dedicated to
design (no. 83, 1965), which dealt with meta-design procedures
for generating forms on a mathematical basis.
We were hoping, along with him, to be able to start up
programs and research but Van Onck, alas, had left behind
those more juvenile ideas of his and, still urged on by the
waves of cultural anthropology of the previous era, he made us
a speech that was certainly inspired and impressive, in which
he proclaimed the two new buzzwords, Myth and Ritual.
Right, one of the many little “telephonic” drawings, actually
done in an attempt to survive the interminable teaching-staff
meetings, which I still associate indelibly with ISIA.
Anyway, with the two Commodores we did a lot of things, all
distinctly experimental: the two Alberi (Trees) and Chiocciole
(Snails) programs by Luigi Bonessio, in retrospective decidedly
pioneering, the simulation of the starfish preying on the snail
with the black turban by Francesco Perilli (from an article in
“Scientific American”, as were many other things), the cycloid
and epicycloid dynamics of Susanna Quaranta and Giovanni
Callori, then various little Martians, applications of the Game
of Life by John Horton Conway etc.
In that same period, on an Apple II (or rather, on one of its
clones), I was trying, as a concrete work opportunity, to create
a parametric star – an extension in various directions of the
star devised by Michelangelo for the pavement in Campidoglio
square (Il caso della stella a dodici punte [The case of the
twelve-pointed star], in La lettera uccide, pp. 84-97).
Below, the parametric star (ur-star).
a) relationship between the axes of the circumscribed ellipse;
b) number of points;
c) number of concentric “rings”;
d) value of the exponent in the ellipse equation.
The one designed by Michelangelo is repeated four times in
the third line.
Parametric trees.
a) verticality index; relationship between the length of a
branch and that of the branch of origin;
b) angle of the first “fork”;
c) number of branches at each “fork”.
The presence of pseudo-random functions guarantees that, for
each group of variables, each time the program is run it
generates a different example of the same species.
The school was not very interested in this research: they were
anxiously awaiting the purely applicational CAD programs, and
several times they tried to make me see that I could have done
something more useful.
In addition, relations between me and the school began to
show cracks and the appointment as chairman of the scientific
committee of August Morello, an authoritative exponent of, to
me, not very congenial Milanese design and a rather autocratic
person himself, finally induced me to leave the school, but not
without having first developed a rather difficult and ambitious
syllabus for the following year’s course.
However, the story does not end here.
My syllabus for the ISIA Morphology course for the academic
year 1986-87.
Looking at it today, I do not think even four years would have
been enough to carry it out.
appeared in “Le scienze”), and I had meanwhile read something
about Metafont, the parametric printing program that supplied
the fonts for TEX.
And I was in a polytechnic! Where it was raining mathematics!
As soon as I could I had a long conversation with someone who
had been pointed out to me as a great expert in computer
matters on the degree course.
I set out my convictions to him, I told him of my experience
at the ISIA in Rome, I proposed some striking scenarios – I
played all my cards.
But the expert remained unmoved, like stone: I explained
patiently that the game was over, and that software was
designed only in the United States and that we, in Europe,
ought to deal exclusively with applications and avoid pursuing
uneconomical fantasies.
I then agreed with Anceschi to organize a meeting with the
mathematics teachers on the degree course, who were certainly
very kind, but not at all interested (“tell us what you need, and
we’ll do it for you”).
I tried again, with a teacher who was apparently a little more
prepared to listen.
We fixed a meeting, but she didn’t turn up; later on, she said
that she had had more urgent commitments and had
unfortunately forgotten about it.
I understood then that there was nothing to be done, or at any
rate, that I would not be able to do it.
Time passed: years passed – thirteen of them.
In 2006, I was asked by the same Polytechnic (where I had
continued to teach in the meantime) to hold a course in type
Initially, I would not have wanted to do it because typography,
which I had been dealing with on a large scale for a long time,
was starting to appear more and more futile and affected, but
then it seemed to me the right opportunity at the right time.
With the very decisive contribution of Michele Patanè (an
enthusiast on the subject) and of Luciano Perondi, and with
interventions by Paolo Mazzetti, Giorgio Caviglia and Antonio
Cavedoni, we did the first course in parametric typography
(pp. 171, 178).
On the following pages, the material I gave the students
starting, I think, in 1984 (along with mountains of photocopies
from “Le scienze”).
Years later, in 1993, when the Industrial Design course at
Milan Polytechnic was introduced, I found myself proposed by
Giovanni Anceschi straight away to be a teacher on that course.
However, although I had not in the meantime had any
particular opportunities for further experimentation, and
despite the fact that the advent of the Macintosh had made
programming less straightforward, I was more and more
convinced that that mathematics – and not just for design in
general but for graphic art in particular – was the
complementary, inescapable path for tackling the challenges of
tomorrow (meaning what is now today).
For example, we had had to do a layout with Daniele Turchi
for a physics book, for work, in the TEX typesetting system
by Donald Knuth (a name that was already well known to me in
1977 because of an extraordinary article on algorithms that
Save the children!
Hand-in-hand with the mathematics on the previous pages,
there was another question to deal with, as further evidence of
the inseparability of the whole.
This is a story I have told and these are the pictures that I
have shown many times.
The facts of the matter are written in more detail in my La
lettera uccide (pp. 48-57) and, in a slightly different version,
in “Linegrafica” no. 296, March 1995.
It is enough to mention here that it was a so-called “drawn
poetry” workshop that took place in a fourth elementary class
in Rome Municipality in the context of the local authority
libraries’ initiative “Il gioco della rima” (“The rhyme game”).
I spent five days in class, with seven librarians assisting me.
Large sheets of paper (50 x 35 cm), large brushes, liquid
Day 1: slide-show of the most varied kinds of scripts – images
prepared for the occasion which for many years had comprised
the core of my introductory lessons.
Arabic and oriental calligraphies, Maya and Aztec texts, Indian
and Ethiopian books, African and Eskimo writings.
On Day 2 the children were asked to produce invented writings,
and on Day 3, to write their own name.
On Days 4 and 5 we aimed at the great final objective: to write
words in forms that would represent their meaning.
The children threw themselves into it wholeheartedly!
A perfunctory analysis would suggest that this approach to
writing is possible for the very children in question, around 9
years of age, because they already have a reasonable control of
reading and writing, but these skills are not yet automated for
Here too, letters are certainly symbols that, when grouped
together, convey precise meanings, but they are in some way
disconnected from their phonetic correspondence.
Compositional procedures – implicit rhetorics – are here
substantially visual; they avoid the Aristotelian paradigm of
writing as a simple transcription of verbal discourse, and they
escape what Roy Harris has defined as the “tyranny of the
The 100 slides I presented to the students (most of which were
the same ones I had shown to the fourth elementary-class
children of the previous chapter) were divided into 10
sections, interrelated as in the diagram in the illustration
We started from Plato’s Phaedrus, to finish with the icons of
operating systems which were then appearing on the scene of
digital images, passing by way of Chinese and Mixtec writings,
Ludovico degli Arrighi, Gottfried Leibniz, Lewis Carroll, Stefan
Themerson, Raymond Queneau and John Horton Conway,
I left the students a duodecimo in A4, with the list of all the
slides accompanied by comments, bibliography and various
small models.
On these two pages and the two following ones, the duodecimo
plus cover.
That collection of images, although continually modified and
adapted to different situations, was then the basis of almost
all my subsequent introductions to writing (see, for example,
pp. 40-43), both in my own courses and in independent
A suggestion for a richer way of teaching writing.
Save the children!, as Lu Xun writes at the end of his terrible
Diary of a madman.
Tree on page 33 as it was being done.
From page 29:
I had been repeatedly asked by Paola Trombin, then director of
the Graphic art Department, for a seminar at the European
Design Institute (IED) in Rome, but I had a strong resistance
towards it, as to any other private school.
After a few negotiations I had yielded: I would be paid a little
more than usual, and my fee would be devolved to Médecins
sans Frontières (so I would be doing a charitable action) and,
in addition, my intervention would then be published by the
And so it came to pass.
With the title La grafica è scrittura: una lezione (Graphic art is
writing: a lesson) an A4 pamphlet of 24 pages plus cover came
out, all in four colours, with layout by me, and with text also in
English (very well translated by a British student at the school,
Karen Le Marquand), and printed at my request by Graffiti, the
printer that was starting to collaborate in that same period
with Stampa Alternativa on my book series “Scritture”
In 1988 a series of seminars was held at the Urbino ISIA,
promoted by the AIAP (Italian Association for Visual
Communication Design), and organized by Gianfranco Torri,
who was then the Association’s vice-chairman.
Extracts or summaries of these meetings were later published
in a special edition of “Quaderni Aiap” (no. 13-14, 1989) with
the title Grafica; la cultura del progetto (Graphic art; the
design culture), supplemented with other materials.
Taking part in the initiative were many of the “Cattolica
group”, who had created the exhibition Propaganda e cultura:
indagine sul manifesto di pubblica utilità dagli anni Settanta
ad oggi (Propaganda and culture: study of the public utility
poster from the 1970s to the present day), and it was the first
(and last) “Poster Biennale” exhibition; in 1989 they would
create, in Aosta, the Graphic design charter.
My seminar Segno e scrittura (Sign and writing), which had
been the introductory one, was the occasion for establishing
some reflections made over the years.
In actual fact, this is one of the numerous variants in the set
of images used as a support in a general introduction to visual
From one course to the next, from seminar to workshop, I often
used to remix, substitute or add to them (first of all slides, and
later, after the final advent of projectors for computer, pdf
1. Gioacchino da Fiore’s trinity circles.
2. Giordano Bruno’s mnemotechnical diagram.
3, 4. Two bas-reliefs of the royal palace at Abomey, in presentday Benin.
5. Representation of the cosmos (India, 18th century.).
6. The Marshall Islands in an ancient ocean navigation map.
7. Pre-darwinian diagram of evolutionary phenomena (Louis
Agassiz, 1843).
8. The famous picture by Charles Joseph Minard representing
Napoleon’s Russian campaign.
9. Diagram of routes on the Paris-Lyons railway section (19th
10, 11. Henry Beck’s map of the London Underground Railway of
1931 and preparatory sketch.
12. Synsemic index of On number and games by John Horton
Conway (1971).
13. Quantitative diagram from Tools for Thought by Conrad
Waddington (1977).
14. Life cycle in an illustration by Jan Lenica (1962).
15. Rome and London (Joel Katz, 1988).
16. Rome and Florence in my covers for two “Libri dell’Unità”.
17. The Lord’s Prayer in a 17th-century English version.
18. The presence of US regiments in Europe during the Great
War: an example of the typewriter’s table vocation.
19, 20. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard by Stéphane
Mallarmé in the 1897 layout and in the 1914 one.
21. Page from The Scarecrow by Schwitters, Steinitz and Van
Doesburg, 1925.
22-25. Mayakovsky’s For the Voice by with layout by Lissitsky,
26. Visual poetry by the late futurist Carlo Belloli, 1961.
27. Page handwritten by Dostoyevsky for The Possessed.
28. Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Mouse’s Tail” in manuscript form
and in a typographical translation.
29. Translation by Stefan Themerson of a poem by Li Bo, 1945.
30. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in the interpretation by Franciszka
Themerson and in a current paperback.
31-34. Pages from Mon livre d’heures by Frans Maseerel, 1919.
35. Paul Klee, Einst dem Grau der Nacht, 1918.
36. Writing and drawing in Ben Shahn, 1963.
37. Raymond Queneau, Cent mille milliards de poèmes, 1960.
38. Eugène Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve in the layout by
Massin (1964).
39. Buckminster Fuller in a layout by Quentin Fiore.
40. Herb Lubalin, 1965.
41, 42. “IBM” in two elaborations by Paul Rand, 1957 e 1981.
44-45. Saul Steinberg.
For this workshop (100 hours Lussu, 25 Ceppi, 25 Rizzo) in the
Polytechnic’s Industrial Design degree course, which, like the
previous year, was based on the production of A6 booklets
(p. 52), I myself had prepared for my students – with great
care, I must say – these four booklets in the same format, all
twenty-four pages long.
As well as accompanying the slideshows I did in the classroom
with reproductions in miniature of each image and various
comments, also visual, on each of them, the booklets also
contained various other materials such as, for example, in the
case of the first one, a beautiful poem by e.e.cummings:
here is little Effie’s head / whose brains are made of
gingerbread / when the judgement day comes / God will find
six crumbs...
On the covers:
Jan Tschichold’s penguin for Penguin Books;
the rabbit god, patron saint of writing in the Mayan tradition,
compiling an “accordion” book;
two due “letter games” by Aaron Burns, Herbert Libalin’s righthand man in the ITC (International Typeface Corporation)
foundation, from his Typography (1961);
a Q drawn freehand by Tschichold for Sabon.
A duodecimo of introduction to typography prepared in 2000
and then used for all the subsequent cycles (p. 146).
On the two following pages, the material given to students on
the Industrial Design degree course at La Sapienza, Rome, in
the academic year 2003-04.
For my examination students were to create a number of fairly
substantial A6 booklets, on the basis of the short story
Enthymesis by Arno Schmidt, already done in A4 at Milan
Polytechnic (p. 73).
Some of these were published in issue no. 6 of “Progetto
grafico” magazine (June 2006, pp. 12-14).
This story of the A6 booklets (14.85 x 10.5 cm, mostly, but not
always, laid out horizontally), was then taken up again several
times; it began at Milan Polytechnic in the academic year 199596, when I was holding a workshop with Giovanni Anceschi
(100 ore Lussu, 50 Anceschi, Manuela Rattin, tutor), and had as
its guest Marcello Baraghini with his books “Millelire” for his
Stampa Alternativa publishing house, which then became the
inspiration for it.
There were few sections at that time and therefore there were
a lot of students – more than one hundred and fifty – in our
workshop, divided into forty-five groups.
To hand in the final work for the examination, each group was
asked to make copies for all the others as well, plus five for
the teaching staff.
This made a total of more than two thousand booklets overall,
which we found, before they were redistributed again, all
heaped up in a worrying pile.
For the booklets presented on these pages, and for all those in
later sections, the basic instructions were as follows:
A6 format (eight pages from one A4 sheet, for maximum
minimum of sixteen pages (eight in only a few cases), held
together with metal staples, to activate a consistent sequence;
a print-run of at least three copies, as the core of a limited
run and to safeguard from do-it-yourself affectations (holes,
fringes, embroidery, etc.);
drawings only in black and white, without shades of grey, to
reduce the matter to the bare essentials.
And also, from time to time, language constraints; absence of
alphanumeric symbols, or using only alphanumeric symbols or,
again, no more than a certain number of alphanumeric symbols
per page, or only figures, only straight-line segments, only
triangles, etc.
In fact, this choice of constraints always appeared to generate
commendable solutions, while the absence of constraints
certainly led to substantial compositions, but they were usually
much less interesting from the point of view of design
On pages 64-67, compositions that were originally A4
(Percorsi) will also be found, being placed there for
convenience of classification.
Here the students had to choose a poetry text in a foreign
language and present it together with their translation in
The problem, therefore, lay entirely in this correspondence.
Since the experience was certainly repeated, the compositions
presented on the following pages may have been produced in
different years, but I am unfortunately not able to indicate
which, with any certainty.
One of the workshops was definitely held along with Daniele
Action / Translation
Time, a song by Pink Floyd from the album The dark side of the
“time, ticking away incessantly, the inevitable arrival of old
age and death”.
The pamphlet design centres on the translation and on the
actions it involves.
Rendering graphically what translating means and what the
procedures are that our minds use in this activity.
For a beginner, translation starts with a search for the words:
the meanings may be multiple and may deceive you; in
addition, putting several words together may give meanings
that are very different from those in the original text.
I have therefore represented a long path which we go along
towards a translation that is at the same time correct and nonliteral.
The basic interpretative element that is emphasized
graphically is unrequited love – the unreachability of the
beloved person, the insecurity deriving from it, the anxiety,
and altered perception.
I tried to render these feelings with the design of a font for
Greek that would suggest this alteration, through missing parts
and segments reaching forward but unstable.
In the font in Latin characters, used in the translations and in
the transliterations, I adopted similar criteria, both as a
vehicle for a poetic message and for the visual coherence of
the page.
The layout, with the translations moving progressively away
from the original text, aims to render the poetess’s
heartrending emotion which, from the initial quiet, musical
lines, arrives at the concluding ones, where there is now only
desperation and an unbridgeable distance.
Finally, in each line couplet, in order to reinforce the layout
scheme, I negatively highlighted a fundamental word.
A game comes out
A popular Hebrew song about the months of the year.
The Italian translation is turned round, so as to follow the
progress from right to left of the Hebrew script.
In the middle, between the original and the translation, the
transliteration into the Latin alphabet, arranged so as to
indicate the music.
I have a dream
Martin Luther King’s speech of 28th August 1963.
The English original is the one written by King himself.
Ágota Kristóf
The fonts used were designed by the student.
A four-line poem from the beginning of the novel Yesterday.
Minimal writing, short sentences, dry syntax and absence of
adjectives [...]
The frame appearing on each page is intended to represent the
mental space that memories fight their way through, in a
succession of linked images; it is a closed space, and past
events, to which you are not allowed to return, can live only
here. Memories rise to the light as if emerging from a well of
Montalian memory; they are lightweight because they carry
with them the lightness of remembered events, but at the same
time they seem to struggle in the viscosity of the space
because the weight of the present is still there to anchor them
to reality.
The poetry text proposed here is a fragment by Sappho (2
Diehl); the two different translations of the first part are by
Ugo Foscolo (1821) and Giovanni Pascoli (1895) and that of the
final section is by Salvatore Quasimodo (1958).
The task of the various translations was to give immediate
graphic visualization (itself a form of a translation, albeit
inter-semiotic) to the modifications that happen in
transposing one language into another: poetry, therefore, is
one and unique, but at the same time multiple.
The difference between the various versions is also
highlighted by the final metric scheme, which shows how much
it widens (the marks with the dot at the centre show where the
voice rests).
Johnny Clegg
The song in which the South African musician (the “White
Zulu”) tells of his marriage in Natal to Msinga, according to
the traditional Zulu rite.
Routes 1 and 2
Dancing with the moonlight knight
The Peter Gabriel song for Genesis, from the album Selling
England by the pound (1973).
The dark bars are the low tones, the light ones are the high
tones, and the distance between the bars shows the speed
(distanced-slow, close-fast).
The text by Federico Garcia Lorca in the second movement of
Symphony no. 14 by Dmitri Shostakovitch.
We had to create booklets with the procedures of old
programmed instruction manuals, the direct antecedents of
digital hypertexts, or of game-books as they used to be
produced at one time.
Cops and robbers
The two players toss a coin to play, with a simple mechanism of
rewards and punishments (the robber obviously tries to escape
with the money, while the guard has to stop him).
Perfectly playable, as verified on several occasions in the
Domestic Kamasutra
Four situations (apart from the car and the washing-machine,
as shown here, there was also a bed and a chair), for each of
which various possibilities are given, with satisfaction indices
for men and women, a list of risks and their localization on the
body (bruises, electric shocks, alarms, etc.) and crossreferences to other situations.
The booklet was published in “Millelire” by Stampa Alternativa
in 1999, with the title Lo famo strano?
Underground maze
Each couple of facing pages offers different exits that crossreference to the same number of other pages.
According to the choice made, you find yourself in blind alleys
or you reach the prizes you are looking for.
Two-phase exercise.
As I have found only the acetate projection copies that were
prepared for discussing the results of the exercises with the
students, and the names were on the back of the paper
versions, I cannot give an indication of the authors.
Route 1
To represent (on an A4 sheet, photocopiable in black and
white, with a one-centimetre, white margin) the route that the
student takes on Wednesday mornings to reach the workshop
from his or her own home, using exclusively lower-case letters
of the alphabet, executed freehand and approximated to 12point Frutiger 55 body text.
The orientation of the sheet will be vertical, and that of the
letters horizontal.
As only the letters of the alphabet can be used (excluding,
therefore, punctuation marks, numbers and any other symbols),
the only room for manoeuvre is the directly linguistic content
of the communication and the arrangement of the letters on the
The representation must be unmistakable: the sheet must be
able to comprise an instruction manual for a purely ideal user,
who does not know the topography of Milan or the geography
of the region and who travels by public transport.
The simplicity of the design will be appraised: efforts to
reduce the number of letters necessary should not, however,
be made at the expense of research.
For example, the information could be tabulated, by arranging
the different methods of locomotion on different lines, or one
might consider space as a function of time between one phase
of travel and the next, etc.
The choice of the text should therefore be made according to
the layout that one wants to pursue (it would not be very
interesting, for the purposes of the exercise, to describe the
route by transcribing a pure oral communication).
Given a certain route and given the design constraints, the
possible solutions are obviously limited; choices must be made
and syntheses carried out, by exploring in particular the
relationship between the letters and the whiteness of the
Route 2
To represent (on an A4 sheet, photocopiable in black and
white, with a one-centimetre, white margin) the route that the
student takes on Wednesday mornings to reach the workshop
from his or her own home, using exclusively the signs for
numbers 0 to 9 (approximating 12-point Frutiger 55 body text)
and straight-line segments, arranged horizontally or vertically,
and all executed freehand.
Attempts at “visual poetry” are not considered relevant: the
numbers or segments cannot be composed to form letters.
The aim of this exercise is to reflect the relationship with the
previous one (that is to say, on the relationship between a
visual communication that is more oriented to language and
one that is less so), but it is not essential to refer to that: it is
not, therefore, a matter of transcoding it (unless it shapes up
well) and the configuration may be completely different.
It is clear that, being unable to use or compose letters, it will
be quite difficult to convey unambiguous information; in this
case, too, the interlocutor is purely ideal, being nevertheless
aware of the previous exercise.
It is therefore a question of creation a supporting
communication and it is up to the student to choose his or her
own code.
More routes
A workshop held with Daniele Turchi, and with Nino Perrone
and Liborio Biancolillo as collaborators.
As on the previous pages, this was also a matter of
representing the route from home to the Polytechnic.
In this case, as is evident, no particular constraints were
This section gives the results of operations of transcoding
literary texts.
A subset of this type of exercise, which included some pages of
forty-one A6 booklets (and therefore, unlike part of what has
been presented in the following pages, all resolved in
sequential structures), was published in “Progetto grafico”
no. 6, June 2005, pp. 8-25, with the title Piccoli libri dalla
Biblioteca di Babele (“Little books from the Library of Babel”).
Together with Antonio Perri we attempted an analysis of these
operations, in particular for the booklet compositions: here
are some extracts:
“[...] There are a lot of very complex questions lined up in the
field, which have been bitterly disputed by contemporary
theoretical research.
They are however enlightened by the very design nature of the
artefacts examined; the latter therefore constitute, according
to our reading hypothesis, a single, vast experimentation
workshop on basic themes of visual communication.
It is the design – as ought to occur more often – that is the
preferred key to solving theoretical problems.
[...] The notational strategies adopted in designing these
booklets bring the reflection back onto the concrete field of
what graphic art is and what its role is in understanding visual
In particular, this banishes the persistent common fallacy that
graphic art is simply ‘cladding’, and that the designer has the
sole task of providing an alternative expressive substance to
the verbal one, as if it were a case of dressing texts that are
already formed, with already-assigned structures and
constrained to the one-dimensional temporality of the verbal
This notion of ‘interpretation through transcription’, almost
through automatic substitution in fact, emphasizes the
verbocentric domain (the “tyranny of the alphabet” discussed
by Roy Harris), and ends up by denying, in the case of these
booklets, the active role of graphic design in giving a complex
visual form to a text whose only pertinent articulations are
originally aural-verbal ones.
There is no doubt, in fact, that each of these booklets, each in
its own way, with results that are more or less significant but
with each one structuring in any case its own notational
syntax, reconfigures the text with considerable expressive
[...] The students, in choosing the notational code, identified
each time what level of content and/or expression of the source
text to present again in the visual target text, thus reminding
us that a phenomenology of translation must also take into
account aspects of the substance formed that are not
immediately relevant – aspects that may be defined as extralinguistic, but that are never extra-semiotic or extranotational.
[...] The internal coherence of these visual texts authorizes us
to ask an even more fundamental question: what is their
degree of independent usability (meaning independently from
the literary text that was the pretext for it), not just aesthetic
but cognitive in the most general sense?
And again, looking ahead to the prospects of communication, is
the existence of visual texts that can ensure full usability,
provided with all the complex baggage carried by the supports
and by the traditional languages plausible?
In other words, is it possible to envisage narrative texts that
are independently and completely visual, which are able to
convey all that is currently the prerogative, for example, of the
novel form, with the emotional involvement, the indignatio,
the knowledge of the circumstantial surroundings, the empathy
towards the characters, the “plays on words” and, obviously,
lots more?
Left, the space of the appurtenances that accompanied the text,
in which each composition can be approximately located.
cold, descriptive register (translation)
warm, expressive register (interpretation)
Arno Schmidt
It was the first year in which the Industrial Design degree
course was activated, again in the Faculty of Architecture.
Workshop with Mauro Bacchini (100 hours Lussu, 50 hours
Bacchini); subject experts Manuela Rattin and Matteo Ricci.
Individual exercise: A4 etc., as before; accuracy of execution
(also in checking the good production of the final photocopy) is
strongly recommended, as is a careful reading of this sheet.
As in the case of the previous exercises (in particular Queneau,
Borges and pasta with sardines),the opportunity offered here
is the pretext for a general reflection on the various levels and
the different methods of visual communication, and not a
problem drawn from current design situations.
Arno Schmidt
One chooses (it’s better, obviously, if one has read them all)
one of the first three stories by Arno Schmidt contained in the
collection Alessandro o della verità (Alexander or What is
Truth, Einaudi, Turin 1965 and 1981), mentioned in the
Arno Schmidt (1914-1979) is one of the greatest German
writers of the post-war period, and two other stories of his
have recently been published in Italian (Il leviatano o il
migliore dei mondi, [Leviathan or the best in the world] Linea
d’ombra, Milan 1991),
A leitmotif in Schmidt’s work, which contains a deep moral and
civil commitment, is intolerance towards all presumptuous or
obtuse forms of political power (Schmidt would perhaps have
said that political power is always presumptuous and obtuse)
and this, each time, in the stories of the collection (all set in
ancient times, in a period from the 4th century B.C. to the 6th
century A.D.) takes on the guise of the Macedonian Empire of
Alexander, of the Carthaginian state at the time of the Punic
Wars, of the Roman Republic that had by now come to dominate
the Mediterranean, and of the Byzantine empire.
Even in German-speaking countries Schmidt is considered
difficult to read, because of the abundance of often
indecipherable references and quotations and because of his
“experimental” use of the written language.
In actual fact, once you have overcome the initial impact, you
realize that it is first of all a case of stories that are
extraordinarily well-told, with characters that one can find
endearing, as in all great literature, and that the apparently
arbitrary form of the language is instead admirably functional
to the narration of these stories and these characters.
The typographical form
Alexander or What is Truth is a typical case of typographical
form inseparably linked to the definition of the text.
One should note the details, the use of punctuation, of
hyphens, of brackets and inverted commas, all with precise
narrative functions, in particular in rendering dialogues and
free thought associations.
The first Einaudi edition of the book, on the other hand,
represents perhaps the acme of the modern paperback book in
Alexander or What is Truth is the first volume in the series “La
ricerca letteraria” (Literary research), which, apart from being
composed in Garamond Simoncini, which has already been
mentioned previously, is practically the only Italian narrative
to be composed in the unjustified way.
The cover is attributed to Bruno Munari, and the internal form
was worked out by the editorial staff of the publishing house.
The three stories we are dealing with can be analyzed from
multiple points of view: one of the many interpretation
methodologies of modern literary criticism can be applied (and
this should be done on the original text, maybe reflecting on
the complexity of the problems of translation), or a more
markedly semiological approach can be used (searching for
metatextual variables and constants), or again, the texts can be
subjected to a statistical-type survey (measuring the frequency
of words or even of letters); the analysis could also be done
from a strictly linguistic viewpoint (by analyzing the lexis and
the grammatical structures or the specific features of the
written language compared to the spoken language), or from a
purely typographical viewpoint, etc.
For the purposes of this exercise we will deal with the stories
as tales, in the most usual sense of the term, in which certain
characters move in time and space, in which events occur that
refer to different levels of reality.
The following five classes of entities limit the scope of the
The three stories are all in the first person; Gadir and
Enthymesis conclude with a paragraph written by others,
respectively by Abdichiba, commander at the fortress of
Chebar, and by Eratostheses, the great scientist of Cyrene who
lived between 275 and 195 B.C. and who was director of the
Library of Alexandria.
In each of the stories, as well as the narrator, there are other
characters and in each of the stories the role they play is
In Gadir, at the level of the “real” world, there are the
gaolers, and the tale gets crowded after the escape.
In Enthymesis, the members of the expedition go on without
ever meeting anybody, always staying together until the
dramatic epilogue; other characters appearing form part of the
level of memories, or of that of dreams or presumably of that
of delirium and hallucination.
In Alessandro the movement of human-beings is more complex:
as well as the company of actors, there is the sequence of
characters they meet, and Alexander and Aristotle are somehow
Time and space
The three stories, apart from the division into paragraphs
(shown by the pre-alignment of the first line), have an explicit
time division into days.
In the third story, Alexander or What is Truth, the days are
further marked out by a blank line and by the name of the
month (Targelion, the month of feasts in honour of Apollo that
falls between May and June) in small capitals.
In Enthymesis the days are associated with the distances
covered in the desert, measured in “stades” (the Alexandrine
“stade”, which was presumably the one used here, was equal to
184.85 m); also in Alexander, with a little patience and
consulting a historical atlas, one could measure the march on
Babylon, along the Euphrates.
On the other hand, in Gadir, the movements are only
imaginary: old Pitea, as we discover at the end, hardly ever
moves out of his cell.
Events and levels of reality
Each of the stories, in particular the first two (Alexander is in
fact more anecdotal, more constructed through direct
observations), develops on different levels of reality, in each
of which events happen (events may here be defined as
everything that happens and therefore not just the fact that,
for example in Enthymesis, Philostratus climbs up a gorge with
Tarfan, but also that he declares that the Earth must be a disk).
First of all, here is the “real world” and then the level of
imagination, divided into various aspects.
Both in Gadir and in Enthymesis there is a route that leads to
the imagination (or delirium) to gain the upper hand, while in
Alexander, the opposite occurs (it is the imaginary myth of
Alexander that crumbles gradually, as the young diarist
approaches the “truth”); in Enthymesis, we can also deduce
from Eratosthenes’s final note that it is the level of the
imagination that is the true one, while the Earth is, in fact,
There is also a specific dream-level, which is particularly
important in Enthymesis; and then there are also the memories
and the “hearsay”, and the considerations and reflections.
The structure of the stories here means the set of relationships
among the five classes of entities taken into consideration
(characters, time, space, events and levels of reality), including
the relationships within each of the five classes; relationships,
therefore, between different classes of entities (for example,
between spaces and levels of reality) or between entities of the
same class (for example between characters themselves).
The exercises will consist in visualizing the structure or, more
plausibly, part of the structure, of the chosen story.
It is easy, for example, to construct a spatial-temporal graph
for Enthymesis (distances on the x-axis and times on the y-axis)
that would allow the position of the expedition to be localized
(and therefore render the progress of the speed) in each of the
days of the story.
Each character could be represented by a letter (or by a
number or any other symbol).
The events could then be inserted, maybe ordered in their turn
into sub-classes, and the symbols for the events could have
each time an attribute that would indicate the level of reality
into which it falls (a triangle, for example, for the “real” world
and a circle for dreams).
The story could thus be almost “played” on a chessboard, in
which each square represents both a day and a distance, and
on which the pieces representing the characters, events and
the levels of reality move (in the case of this exercise, the
pieces would, obviously, not be able to move and it would be
necessary to represent the various situations simultaneously) .
Or one could analyze in particular the structure of the dreams,
or highlight the relationship between events of the present
and events of the past.
Or one could apply the already-quoted method used by Vladimir
Propp in Morphology of the Folktale [p. 115], and so on.
The exercise has analogies both with the initial one (Queneau)
and with that of the pasta with sardines for icons: on the one
hand, it is a matter of highlighting relationships, as in
Queneau, and on the other, of translating an alphabetic text
into different visual codes, as in the pasta with sardines
(although in the latter a structure of relationships is actually
always present).
The composition, which will be the main basis for the
examination assessment, must be as ordered as possible and
simplicity and economy of symbols will be appreciated.
Attempts at depiction, especially of an anthropomorphous type,
are not recommended.
Any symbols must be constructed only by using elementary
geometrical shapes (rectangles and squares, circles and
semicircles, and equilateral triangles), and avoiding, in the
construction of each symbol, complex aggregations of these
Continuous or broken lines, as far as possible of a constant
thickness, may be used.
Freehand symbols may not be used, except for alphabetic texts,
which must be approximated to the usual Helvetica light 10point body text (if created on a computer, they must actually be
in Helvetica light 10-point body text), including any titles.
Only lower-case letters of the English alphabet, numbers from 0
to 9 and punctuation marks (comma, semi-colon, colon, full
stop, and round and square opening and closing brackets) may
be used; the total number of alphabetical symbols, numbers and
punctuation marks (including both those used for texts and
those that may be used in some coded function) may not be
more than 500.
Care must be taken to ensure that the final photocopy is
centred (there must be a margin of 10 mm on each side of the
The deadline for handing in compositions is no later than the
end of the day of 26th May 1994.
Two pages from Alessandro o della verità by Arno Schmidt
(1965), first volume in the series “La ricerca letteraria”
published by Einaudi until 1973.
After this, which presented “outdents” instead of indents as in
the original German edition, all the twenty-one following
volumes were set unjustified and with the same page margins.
Undoubtly the best Italian pocket series from the time of Aldo
Manuzio (10.5 x 18 cm, paperback sewed with cotton stitches).
On the left-hand page, three compositions already published in
my La lettera uccide, pp. 42-45.
These are the only ones in this group, alas, for which I am able
to give the authors.
The horror!
Visual Communication workshop held along with Mauro Bacchini
(100 hours Lussu, 50 hours Bacchini), Manuela Rattin and
Matteo Ricci assistants.
I have unfortunately found no compositions for the exercise on
Stevenson referred to in the instructions (this was the fable
The song of the morrow, see p. 104).
These last two individual exercises, together with exercise 09,
are those that will be assessed for the purposes of the
examination grade.
The exercises carried out previously, both individual and
group exercises, will be used as additional orientation
material and may possibly directly affect the final grade, but
only to improve it.
The first assessment criterion, as mentioned several times in
class, is the compliance by the students with the imposed
constraints; the compositions in which it seems that the
authors have not properly read the instructions supplied will
be judged in consequence.
An understanding of the constraints (the problem-solving
aspect) is central to defining the design activity, and sets it
apart from generic artistic activity; it is no use having ideas,
even brilliant ones, if these do not respond to the problems
A badly produced photocopy, for example, implies that the most
elementary conditions of reproduction requested have not been
Reasonable accuracy in execution is also required, and this
obviously – given the extreme technical simplicity of the
compositions - cannot be considered as particularly difficult;
producing a careful working drawing is here only a question of
patience, which can be resolved in a very limited time of
The insistence on having the final drawing in freehand,
although on a base that may be created on the computer or
with ruler and set-square, is based on the conviction that a
minimum standard of manual control is essential for the
correct expression of intentions; it is not therefore a matter of
“beautiful drawing” or “beautiful handwriting”, so much as of
an ordered mind and a communicative ability.
As we saw several times in class, inaccuracy in execution
rapidly leads to bad communication: irregular line spacing and
spacing between words, and lack of uniformity in strokes
inevitably cause a decline in perceptual clarity and lead one to
misinterpret the meaning that the organization of the forms
was intended to have.
The third element of assessment is obviously the originality of
the composition.
Given the markedly experimental nature of this preparatory
workshop, nobody knows in advance what to expect and it is
the students’ work that will possibly attribute meanings to the
exercises and give them a sense.
All the exercises are intentionally limited to very well-defined
environments; in these last two, as in all the previous ones, no
knowledge is required of the students, except what is explicitly
supplied or could be assumed from a careful analysis of the
object of the exercise.
In the case of Stevenson’s story and Conrad’s novel all that is
needed is to reflect on the texts themselves; if students want
to get hold of further documentation and search for ideas and
information, they are welcome to do so, but it is not essential.
The students, therefore, will find themselves faced with
written texts – a primary form of visual communication, since
they are individuals, ultimately coming to grips with their own
The fact that no constraints were placed on exercise 10 (a tale
by Stevenson) concerning the symbols to be used should not
give rise to a corresponding explosion of “creativity”.
It is an opportunity offered especially to those students who
believe they can propose something interesting as an
alternative to having narrow constraints imposed, but
simplicity and clarity will obviously be appreciated (due care
and attention must be given to a good photocopy reproduction
of the black and white line drawing).
It goes without saying that we expect the exercise in any case
to be a reflection on what has been said and done in the
workshop (one can certainly say, for example, that pure
illustrative solutions shall not be considered as relevant).
If, on the other hand, anybody should feel the need for stricter
constraints, they can give themselves these, or they can apply
those of exercise 11.
The aim is to be able to arrive at the concluding day of the
workshop (31st May) with a discussion of the last exercises and
the announcements of the assessments.
It is therefore essential that the last exercise (11) should be
handed in no later than 17th May, so that there is time for
these assessments to be carried out smoothly.
The heart of darkness
Individual exercise 11.
For those who have never done so, read Heart of darkness by
Joseph Conrad and create a visual representation of it
according to the now well-known constraints (A4, black and
white, margins, freehand, etc.).
Only the 26 lower-case letters of the alphabet may be used,
approximated to 12-point Frutiger 55 and 75 body text,
arranged as desired.
The sheet does not need to have a defined orientation.
Keys to symbols should be avoided, and the fact that there is
no need for them will be appreciated; any explanations
considered essential for understanding the compositions may
be written on the back of the sheet or communicated orally at
the time of handing in.
The latest deadline for handing in compositions is 17th May.
The novel tells of a journey up the Congo river and down into
the depths of the soul (as always in great works, there are
multiple interpretations); the exercise sheet is the space of the
novel, and therefore of the journey.
The narrative is split into two levels: the group of friends on
board the Nellie, one evening in the Thames estuary, listen to
Marlow talking about a journey (from the strictly typographical
point of view, one will note the superabundance of paragraphs
in inverted commas, different for each edition, or preceded by
hyphens indicating a parenthesis).
There are currently numerous versions of the novel on sale:
Einaudi (16,000 Lire), Feltrinelli (7,000 Lire), Garzanti (8,500
Lire), Oscar Mondadori (9,000 Lire), Rizzoli (9,000 Lire).
School editions (with notes, with parallel text in English, or
only English text with notes): Bruno Mondadori (16,000 Lire);
Bruno Mondadori in English (15,800 Lire); Mursia, with parallel
text (12,000 Lire); Cideb, in English (11,000 Lire); Cideb, with
cassette (13,000 Lire).
The common Italian translation of the title renders imperfectly
the English original: “cuore di tenebra”, in fact, seems almost
to be just an attribute of Kurtz’s; and the more worrying,
general meaning of it is lost.
Only the Oscar Mondadori edition translates “cuore di
tenebre”; one could argue, in favour of the general sense, for
“il cuore delle tenebre” (“the heart of the darkness”), or even,
“il cuore dell’oscurità” (“the heart of obscurity”).
Kurtz’s last words, too (“The horror! The horror!”) seem
distressingly more banal in the translations (“Che orrore! Che
orrore!”, “L’orrore! L’orrore!”, “Quale orrore! Quale orrore!”).
The famous cinematographic transposition is Francis Ford
Coppola’s Apocalypse now (Orson Welles had one planned, but
unfortunately never made it).
The death of Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the film is explicitly
inspired (one can actually see a copy in a frame) by The golden
bough by James George Frazer (1890), a famous work of
research into comparative ethnology which takes its cue from
the ritual murder of the priest in the sacred grove of Lake
Very little remains of the very human Marlow of the book (who
is also the narrator in other novels by Conrad) in the neurotic
Willard of the film (Martin Sheen, excellent anyway).
On the opening pages, Conrad describes the narrator: “Marlow
sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He
had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an
ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands
outwards, resembled an idol”.
In the closing lines we have: “Marlow ceased, and sat apart,
indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha”.
The Swedish writer Olof Lagercrantz, in a fine book about the
book (In viaggio con “Cuore di Tenebra”, Marietti, Genoa
1988), explains that the attitude with palms outwards is one of
the Buddha positions known as “Viruda”, and expresses
Compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings.
Another interpretation, with different constraints and in A6
booklets, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
This was the final exercise, valid as an examination test for
the visual communication workshop held jointly with Angelo
Monne and with Attilio Baghino, tutor, on the Industrial Design
Course of the Architecture Faculty, based in Alghero.
During the semester the students had practised with a whole
set of less difficult exercises of this type, including the
Caponata recipe (p. 174-75).
Alongside, the workshop syllabus.
In the Form workshop the students will produce, on a weekly or
fortnightly basis, a series of booklets in size 14.5 x 10 cm.
The booklets will contain the representation of different
messages, of variable complexity, obtained by using different
visual languages each time, according to specific constraints.
The concluding booklet, valid as an examination test, will have
characteristics of summarizing the work carried out in the
Every work of communication design is, anyway – even if
sometimes it is not only this – “giving form” to a
communication problem; it is in fact mostly a question of
organizing the message manifested by the issuer in various
ways, onto a two-dimensional support.
Therefore each design operation is an operation of semiotic
transcoding, meaning the “translation” of a message expressed
with the use of certain codes into a message expressed with
others; it is the moving from one system of symbols to another,
so as to maintain nevertheless, as far as possible, similar
Since maximum eclecticism in usable visual languages prevails
today, compared with previous ages, this set of exercises aims
to familiarize students with the management of different
methods of visual structuring of the space.
We call the organization of a message in a two-dimensional
space, so that its meaning can be detected specifically from
this organization (unlike the single- dimensional linearity of
the verbal language), “synsemia”.
Various possibilities of synsemic relationships will be
experimented in the workshop, and these will also, in the
sequence of the pages, take on inescapably dynamic forms.
The presence of constraints that are different each time,
starting from that of allowing only black and white, is
The use of only black and white drains the structure of the
message and confines it to its essential elements.
Imposing different constraints as regards the visual languages
to be used, on the other hand, enables the desired awareness
of it to be obtained.
Remember, my beloved
The workshop “Notazioni e narrazioni” (Notations and
narrations), which took place with the collaboration of Lara
Seregni and Luciano Perondi, was based on a tale by Ernst
Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, Automata (Die Automate, 1814).
Hoffmann’s text, very representative of Romanticism in the
early seventeenth century, tells of an intrusion of the
irrational into everyday life..
Ferdinand, the main character, following a conversation with
an automaton (the “talking Turk”) finds himself faced with the
dark dimensions of existence: who was the mysterious singer,
his meeting with whom changed his life?
What is the role of the enigmatic Professor X? Was he present
at the wedding in the village of P., or not?
Since Hoffmann deliberately gives no answer to these
questions (and the charm of the novella derives from this, that
it leaves the reader in suspense after having involved him),
students therefore had, first of all, to work out their own
interpretation, which would allow them to set out a strategy to
deal with the problem posed.
Some lines of Pietro Metastasio, written for an aria in
Alexander in India (1729) and on which Franz Schubert
composed a famous Lied (D 688/4), are quoted in Italian in the
original German text:
Remember, my beloved,
if it happens that I die,
how much this faithful
spirit loved thee.
And if cold ashes
still can love,
even in the urn
I shall adore thee.
The workshop aims to study in depth the theme of the
relationship between verbal narration and visual narration.
How far can a notation that does not directly transcribe the
verbal language represent narrative complexity? And what are
the meanings that this notation can convey compared with
conventional narration?
Work may be carried out in groups of no more than three
The proposed text (Automata by Ernst Theodor Amadeus
Hoffmann, 1814) will be represented, through any desired
visual languages but only in black and white line drawing
(without grey shades), on a A6 finished size (14.8 x 10.5 cm;
flat size 29.7 c 10.5 cm.) leaflet of at least 16 pages including
cover, in 80-90 gr/sq.m. white paper, fastened with two metal
staples on the back.
One or two pages, positioned wherever might be considered
suitable, shall be devoted to a synoptic representation of the
whole text.
One or two pages, positioned wherever might be considered
suitable, shall be devoted to some indications of the reasons
behind the design and, if considered necessary, to the key.
The names of the authors will be shown clearly on the cover.
No more than 11 letters of the alphabet may appear on each
page, with the sole exception of the cover pages (first and
fourth) and of the one (or ones) devoted to reasons behind the
design and the key.
3 copies of the leaflet shall be handed in.
The black is the material quality, while the white is the
woman-spirit who invades and portrays, who unites and
divides, modifying everything it comes into contact with.
The story was interpreted by representing it in a scheme
containing its cardinal points.
Through a dual reading of the scheme, it is possible to identify
the moments of the story that come into contact with each
other, generating an effect of optical illusion that makes a
simultaneous visual reading impossible.
The automaton causes time to telescope, so that present, past
and future lose their meaning.
The different narrative intensity of the story is represented by
the progress of the line.
The narration is also seen as a series of processes set in
motion by the characters, viewed as mechanisms.
A further aspect is the strong duality between the mechanical
world and natural beings, a theme that reflects the times of
Hoffmann, in which industrial development is contrasted with
the Romantic tension that aims to rediscover man’s spiritual
The presence of music in the story, through three levels.
The first, at the top, is the one describing the “musical”
scenes in which the characters are involved.
The second one, in the centre, highlights the musical terms.
The third one, the “phantom” at the bottom, represents what,
in our opinion, is the “resonance” of the narration.
An attempt was made to represent the story, or rather one
aspect of it, through different languages, all having in common
the use of the same technique: ink on paper.
The focal point is the character of Ferdinand who is influenced
by meetings with other characters during the tale.
The whole representation is based on a metaphor: man, like a
tree, grows and suffers the influence of external factors, and
so Ferdinand’s branches, through meetings and other events,
become stronger or weaker.
The branches of rationality are made up of straight lines,
created with a roller, and those of irrationality are curvy and
irregular, having been obtained by blowing onto drops of ink.
Thorns and flowers indicate if the situation is negative or
The forms – the male protagonists – come into being with
geometrical precision, as solid and secure as the characters
are at the beginning; then they evolve and become organic and
Semasiographic writing
Workshop of A6 booklets, conducted with Vanessa Capozza and
Luciano Perondi.
From the Story of your life (1998) by Ted Chiang, which I then
translated in 2008 in the Stampa Alternativa series “Scritture”
(Writings), along with others in the collection Storie della tua
vita (Stories of your life and others, 2002).
The story tells of the arrival of aliens – heptapods – and of
how the linguist Louise Banks decodes their language.
But language and writing (obviously not linear) are such that
immersing oneself in them means falling into simultaneity and
therefore cancelling and overturning the flow of time.
From Chiang’s story:
“When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired
the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same
physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently;
the world-views that ultimately came across were the end
result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential
mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a
simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an
order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect.
They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose
underlying them all.
I finished the last radical in the sentence, put down the chalk,
and sat down in my desk chair. I leaned back and surveyed the
giant Heptapod B sentence I’d written that covered the entire
blackboard in my office. It included several complex clauses,
and I had managed to integrate all of them rather nicely.
Looking at a sentence like this one, I understood why the
heptapods had evolved a semasiographic writing system like
Heptapod B; it was better suited for a species with a
simultaneous mode of consciousness. For them, speech was a
bottleneck because it required that one word follow another
sequentially. With writing, on the other hand, every mark on a
page was visible simultaneously.
[...] For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead
of using language to inform, they used language to actualize.
Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any
conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the
conversation would have to take place”.
The Heptapod B grammar handbook is offered as an essential
tool for any human being who might come across this
fascinating alien language.
A systematic explanation of its syntax (revealed by the famous
linguist Louise Banks and her working group during the
heptapods’ stay on Earth) appears alongside numerous practical
examples that make the brochure easy to consult and
immediately understandable.
Through representation mechanisms and linear procedures (for
example, algebraic formulae and double-entry tables), the
handbook introduces the heptapod logic, based on
The part of the story taken for examination is the one during
which Louise Banks and Gary Donnelly try to communicate with
the heptapods.
The system of symbols travels along the timeline, pinpointing
the main actions intercepted inside the circles.
Under each circle, a sort of caption explains the symbols.
The reasons behind the design which led to this representation
of the story through summary diagrams are to be found in its
complex de-structuring process.
By making clear the values belonging to narrative composition
(rhythm, relationships between characters, key events and time
projection) five keys for interpretation were obtained.
The representation was therefore divided into two non-linear
levels: spoken, Heptapod A, and written, Heptapod B.
Heptapod A, described from a background composed according
to the alien entaxis, generates symbolic vibrations through
algorithmic processes.
Heptapod B, obtained analytically from a numerical pattern, is
made up of semograms which in the process of genesis are
linked to the time displacement of the story (axis of symmetry).
The parallelism between linear human language and non-linear
alien language is highlighted by the use of straight lines (past)
and curves of a circle (future) of variable thickness according
to the parameters that emerged from the de-structuring phase.
The verbal language makes it often tricky, not to say
impossible, to read the wide spectrum of information hidden
among the characters in the text.
With the help of a simple application designed for the
purpose, I opted for a structural analysis that could provide
me with transverse and immediate information, able to show
in just one glance some significant aspects of the different
semantic areas under examination.
The graphs obtained are the result of a combination of
algorithmic studies on the text (strings, sequences, structural
elements, etc.), examined so as to transform quantitative
information into qualitative parameters to evaluate the text
from a new point of view.
This type of representation, by sacrificing the immediate
comprehension of texts, nevertheless leaves aside the forced
“horizontal” reading of it to embrace a “vertical” view, in
which value is given to the individual component parts.
This is, in fact, a composition from a previous exercise based
on the same story, which was done in the academic year 200102, again at Milan Polytechnic.
At that time, obviously, the horizontal size constraint was not
Other workshop results are shown on pages 18 and 19 of the
above-mentioned issue no. 6 of “Progetto grafico”, June 2005.
Electric ants
Workshop entitled Representation and narration, based on the
story The electric ant by Philip K. Dick, 1969, published in
Italian, according to the Vegetti catalogue (www.fantascienza.
com/catalogo), in eleven different editions.
A wealthy interplanetary entrepreneur, Garson Poole, is made
to realize by chance that he is nothing more than an android,
an “electric ant”, as these artificial creatures are
disparagingly called by humans.
In the final scene Poole finds a button that opens a small door
in his chest; inside, there is a device that runs a programmed
tape, the programmed tape.
Poole sticks two fingers into the door and gradually as he pulls
the tape out, reality begins to disappear.
To study in depth the relationship between verbal narration
and visual narration: how far can a notation that does not
directly transcribe the verbal language represent narrative
complexity? What are the meanings that a “visual translation”
can convey compared with conventional narration, and how far
can this representation be used autonomously ?
The text to be represented: The electric ant by Philip K. Dick,
1968, published in 1969.
Dick writes in a subsequent comment of 1976:
“Again the theme: how much of what we call ‘reality’ is really
out there and how much is in our heads? The end of this story
has always frightened me... the image of the wind blowing, the
sound of a vacuum. As if the character could hear the final
destiny of the world itself”.
The text will be represented through visual languages and
techniques for creating it as desired, on a A6 size leaflet (open
29.7 x 10.5 cm) of at least 16 pages including cover, in white
80-90 gr/sq. m. paper, held together with two metal staples on
the back.
One or two pages, positioned wherever might be considered
suitable, may be devoted to an overall representation of the
whole text.
One or two pages, positioned wherever might be considered
suitable, shall be devoted to some indications of the reasons
behind the design and if considered necessary, to the key
(overall representation and/or reasons behind the design and/
or key may possibly coincide).
No more than 11 letters of the alphabet may appear on each
page, with the sole exception of the cover pages (first and
fourth) and of the one (or ones) devoted to reasons behind the
design and the key.
It is to be hoped that the composition will fall into the central
area of the scheme reproduced on page 8 of issue no. 6 of
“Progetto grafico”.
7 The names of the authors will be shown clearly on the cover.
Work may be carried out in groups of no more than two
The leaflet shall be created in a set of 3 true copies in black
and white.
of the present moment, enlightenment by the Absolute, external
2) representation of situations in the story that would give
information for the diagram.
The song of the morrow
The song of the morrow
This is the last of the twenty stories in the collection Fables by
Robert Louis Stevenson, published posthumously in 1896, two
years after his death.
It is a circular story: the daughter of the King of Duntrine, who
has no care for the morrow and has no power upon the hour,
lives in a castle on the seashore; one day while walking along
the beach, where strange things happened in ancient times,
she meets an old crone, who in the end, after having thought
the thought, she discovers to be herself.
The whole thing is accompanied by the “song of the morrow”,
played on the flute by a mysterious character.
The title of the workshop, conducted together with Luciano
Perondi, was Sinsemie combinatorie.
The students were given no other constraints apart from
Stevenson’s story.
The circularity of the story, however, lent itself particularly to
emphasizing some combinatory character, which the students
were encouraged to research.
Below is the sonnet I composed for the students, to have fun
with them and make the workshop successful; for some strange
reason it was left out of my final report by the school
Sonnet of today and tomorrow
There were twenty-five of them in the convent,
And they made songs of the morrow
There were those who were sad and those who were glad
There were funny things and strange objects
Each person there was intent on his work
And if at times their efforts were in vain
They just had to listen to the cold wind,
To open their ears to the singing of the morrow.
There were lots and lots, almost a hundred,
And the force ran through their hands,
I say it loud here, I do not repent of it,
And they heard the sounds from far off,
The notes that the wind brings in the evening
As it sings the song of the morrow.
A little children’s theatre carved out in cardboard, where
surroundings and characters clearly come onto the scene as
My interpretation is based on a double analysis of the story:
1) the protagonist’s state of consciousness, through a diagram
indicating the degree of affirmation of the four load-bearing
emotional factors (attachment to the material world, awareness
In this installation, a set of nine panels lined with different
materials, each one for each of the basic elements in the story,
form an environment.
The user is invited to put the panels in relation to each other,
using suitable hooks, with coloured tapes that create the
threads of the stories.
Eight rectangular tiles, each divisible into four according to
the axes of symmetry, produce 32 equal modular elements
leading to a total of 1,048,576 (32E) possible narrative paths.
A real musical instrument: eight copper pipes of different
lengths (established with the consultancy of a master lutemaker), hanging on eight metal supports fixed to blocks of
cement, form a tonal scale.
Each pipe is associated to an event, and the three authors
performed the Song of the morrow to a musical score for three
voices, one for each character in the story.
By modifying the score, numerous variants in the narration can
be obtained; but since one can obviously give a more general
interpretation of the event, it is possible to play numerous
other stories as well (the students produced, with the same
instrumentation, a score for Red Riding Hood, too).
A cloth book bound in velcro: the twelve pages can therefore be
re-composed, changing their sequence.
Since the format of the pages is a double square, and therefore
two pages with their long sides placed alongside each other
again form a square, this results in the six sides of a cube,
which can be assembled using the velcro elements.
In this way the parts of the action that take place inside the
cube (the castle in the story), and those that take place outside
can immediately be highlighted.
Photographs printed on the fabric are integrated with sewn
and embroidered elements in an object that has a considerable
synaesthetic, visual, tactile and sound effect.
The talisman
Pasta with sardines 1 and 2
One of the first exercises, in two phases, in the first workshop
I held with Mauro Bacchini (100 ore Lussu, 50 Bacchini,
Manuela Rattin and Matteo Ricci, subject experts) in the first
year that the Architecture Faculty’s Degree Course in Industrial
Design was activated.
In that year the workshop examination test was the one on the
story by Arno Schmidt (p. 73).
I did not, in fact, find the recipe on the left, which was
supplied to students in a sequential form without distinction,
in the Talismano della felicità by Ada Boni (where, in the 1949
edition I consulted – the nineteenth – pasta with sardines is
nevertheless very charmingly presented), although I do not
remember where I took it from.
I am unfortunately unable to go back to the authors of the
compositions, except for certain of those in phase 2 which
have already been published in my La lettera uccide.
large glasses of oil, 5 filleted anchovies, pepper as desired,
100 g pine nuts, 100 g sultanas, 800 g short macaroni. Clean
the fennel, removing hard leaves, wash and put it in a pan with
around 2 litres of cold salted water. Bring it up to the boil and
simmer for about ten minutes, then drain well and chop. Keep
to one side the fennel cooking water. Clean the sardines, open
them, leaving the two halves joined, and remove head and
bones. Wash them in plenty of salted water and dry on a towel.
Over a low heat, gently fry an onion in a pan with a glass of
oil; when it starts to change colour, add half the sardines and
crush them with a wooden spoon so as to reduce them to a
pulp. Then add the anchovies, washed, drained and softened in
a frying pan, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Add the pine
nuts, sultanas (soaked in water) and the fennel. Cover and allow
the flavours to develop for a few minutes. Over a low heat cook
the other half of the whole sardines in a pan with a little oil.
Turn them over without breaking them, using a wooden spoon,
and season them with a pinch of salt. Remove from the heat
after around 10 minutes. Bring the fennel water to the boil,
pour in the macaroni, mix and allow to cook “al dente”, then
drain. Season the pasta with about half of the prepared sauce.
Put a layer of pasta in the bottom of a dish, arrange a few
whole sardines on top of this and a few spoonfuls of sauce, and
continue until all the ingredients are used up. Finish with the
macaroni covered in sauce. Cover the baking dish and place in
a pre-heated oven (160°) to cook for 20 minutes. You can serve
the pasta either hot or cold.
Pasta with sardines 1
Lay out the recipe shown on this sheet (group exercise: one
composition for each group is sufficient).
A4, black on white and photocopy, as previous exercises.
Writing in freehand, on lines all with the same orientation,
approximating to Helvetica 10-point body text character.
Using only letters of the English alphabet and if necessary
punctuation marks (comma, colon, semi-colon, full stop),
numbers and round brackets.
Use only lower-case (if use is made of punctuation, start with
lower-case even after a full-stop, etc.).
Reformulate the text if necessary (obviously removing things,
but also adding or repeating or, for example, avoiding the
imperative form).
The object of the exercise is the visual organization of the
complexity of instructions with the minimum use of symbols.
This does not automatically mean a smaller number of symbols,
because a certain redundancy may prove to be useful for
visualizing the complexity; it is therefore a matter of looking
for a point of balance between complexity and economy of
It is clear that, given the constraints, one can manoeuvre only
with the relationships between portions of text (any
“underlinings”, which could be resolved by using different
fonts or different colours, may therefore be signalled only with
a particular arrangement); the room for manoeuvre, since the
text to be followed occupies around a quarter, corresponds to
around three-quarters of the sheet.
Pasta with sardines: Ingredients (for 6 people): 300 g. wild
fennel, salt as desired, 500 g. fresh sardines, 2 sliced onions, 2
Regardless of current usage (one should not therefore refer to
a definite interlocutor, but to a generic interlocutor, who only
has a knowledge of the terms and who can, in some way or
another, be enabled to cook the dish), the recipe may be
arranged according to different possible organizational
1/ temporal, from the list of ingredients to the conclusion (as
seen in the given text, drawn up according to the current
2/ by places (stove, preparation area, etc.);
3/ by ingredients;
4/ by tools (pans, frying pans, spoons, etc.);
5/ by operations (washing, chopping, seasoning, etc.).
One could then try to intersect several systems, hypothesizing,
for example, that one has to give priority to places and tools.
A guide for this choice may come from the answer to the
following question:
What priorities enable, in the context of the given constraints,
the complexities of the information to be more clearly
arranged on the sheet?
Pasta with sardines 2
A4, black on white (care in execution is required) and
photocopy, group exercise.
This is a question of giving a completely different
representation from the already-analyzed recipe for pasta with
sardines, which must be visualized without using an
alphabetical code (or a customary representation of numbers).
A suitable system of symbols supplied with a suitable grammar
(understood as a set of rules for aggregating the symbols) must
therefore be designed to enable the visual communication of
the recipe, through a suitable key.
The proposed problem is an abstract problem and one should
not be concerned that the solution must be feasible in an
everyday context.
The object of the exercise is not, by any means, the immediate
comprehensibility by the person who wants to prepare pasta
with sardines.
The object of the exercise is the representation of complexity
with a reduced number of symbols (one should reread the
instructions for the previous exercise), possibly with a logical
and formal coherence, and pasta with sardines is simply an
opportunity to do this.
1. Construction of symbols
The symbols must be taken from a square q with side ab (where
a is a number from 4 to 8, and b a measurement in mm.),
subdivided in turn into aC=n small squares.
a and b must be chosen by taking account of the following
points 3 and 4.
The n small squares may be white or black and the lines of the
grid must not be visible.
The number of possibilities of blackening the small squares
within the grid, from all white ones to all black ones, and
going through all the intermediate combinations, is 2n (if grey
were also provided for, this would be 3n, and if there were 4
colours, it would be 4n etc.).
For a=4, n=16 and the possibilities are therefore 2BG=65,536;
for a=8 the possibilities are 2GE – quite a large number.
It is however preferable that the square q is always
perceptually recognizable: those combinations that make
recognition possible (leaving, for example, a reduced number
of white small squares in a black field, or blackening only the
small squares along the edge, or marking the points of q, etc.)
are therefore to be preferred.
2. The system
On the basis of the given constraints (and of the further ones
shown in points 3 and 4) the design criteria for the symbols
(defined in point 1 as combinations of n small white or black
squares within a square q) must be chosen.
One can choose whether to try the route of depiction (meaning
that one can see that it concerns, for example, a saucepan) or,
at the other extreme, that of a totally conventional code (purely
geometrical configurations of small squares), or one can choose
an intermediate route.
One may, for example, design a symbol for each of the recipe’s
constituent elements: a symbol for each of the ingredients (it
should be noted that, without going into questions of chemical
composition, water, too, can be considered an ingredient), one
for each of the tools (it should be noted that water, too, can be
considered a tool, when it is used for washing), and one for
each of the operations, etc.
The symbols may be divided by classes and therefore, for
example, the symbols relating to the ingredients may all be
grouped by certain obvious characteristics compared with all
the others.
Or one might study a dynamic system, in which the symbols can
change into other ones: for example, the addition of an
element (as if it were a suffix or a prefix) might indicate that
a certain ingredient has already been partially prepared.
From a pure morphological point of view the problem of
designing a set of symbols, within the given constraints, is not
dissimilar from that of designing an alphabet: in each of them
it is a case of establishing formally coherent systems that have
a visual homogeneity.
In the case of the alphabet, the thicknesses must be
proportionally homogeneous, and the serifs, if present, must
be in a similar form, etc.
Likewise in this case of this exercise, all the symbols must be
made to appear as if forming part of the same group.
3. Grammar and staging
The symbols must be laid out in a rectangular grid (with the
sides parallel to those of the A4 sheet), composed of square
modules equal to q, and making sure that each module contains
just one symbol or is left blank (one should therefore avoid
partial superimpositions).
One may choose whether to leave visible also the parts not
occupied by symbols.
One should leave a 10 mm. margin on all sides of the sheet: the
maximum dimensions of r, without taking into account the
provisions in point 4, will therefore be 190 and 277 mm.
The maximum number of modules that may compose r, without
taking into account the provisions in point 4, will obviously
depend on a and b (if a=7 and b=3, for example, this number
may not be greater than 117, and if a=4 and b=2.5 it cannot be
greater than 513).
In order to proceed to the layout, it will be necessary to
establish a grammar, in view of the object of giving meaning
and if possible, visual coherence to the whole.
One might, for example, establish that the symbols for the
ingredients are always on the left of those for the operations,
or that the tools are always below; but one might also decide
that a certain ingredient and a certain related operation are
identified by one single symbol.
One may also prearrange (see point 2) a dynamic mechanism of
symbols, which change into others through a certain number of
One could establish on one of the axes a temporal progression
(even a mediocre knowledge of cooking techniques enables one
to hypothesize implementation times also for those stages that
are not specified in the original recipe) and on the other axis,
the intervention of ingredients and operations, or one could
try to visualize the recipe in stages, presenting the state of all
the elements for each stage.
4. Key
The same side of the sheet (always complying with the
minimum margin of 10 mm. from the edges) must show the key
for understanding the system, so as to make decoding possible.
The space available will be a rectangle that will also have
maximum dimensions of 190 and 277 mm.
The symbols, if shown, must be the same size as those laid out
in the grid and the alphabetic writing must be approximated
to Helvetica 10 pt, as given for the previous exercise.
A balance must therefore be found between number of symbols
and available space: too high a number of symbols will, in fact,
not leave enough room for the relative decoding.
5. Other considerations
It would not be reasonable to prearrange the symbols without
having an idea of the structure of relationships that one wants
to follow (one might find oneself, as noted above, with too
high a number of symbols and with little room for manoeuvre);
in the same way, it is not reasonable to think of the structure
without having an idea of how to generate the symbols.
The need for numbering, and thus for using linking arrows,
etc, must be resolved while keeping the constraints in mind,
and therefore by designing possible appropriate symbols.
A not-very-interesting solution to the problem could be, for
example, the mechanical substitution, in the basic text, of all
the words with the same number of conventional symbols
arranged in the same order (and the even-less-interesting
solution of arranging symbols alternative to the letters of the
alphabet would anyway not comply with the constraint laid
down at the beginning).
To carry out the exercise, no specific knowledge is required;
an understanding of the constraints and the exercise of
reasoning powers are sufficient.
On the other hand, the exercise may be an opportunity to get
to the heart of a whole set of current aspects of visual
From the design point of view, regardless of the specific
content (pasta with sardines), the problem is not far from that
of designing a system of symbols for a control panel, or of a
system of icons for an interactive multimedia publishing
From a meta-design point of view (meaning studying design
methodologies and structures independently of specific
applications) the problems implies a reflection on the
visualization of transformations and aggregations.
In particular, the fact that it is a matter of predesigning a
script (a finished set of decodable visual significants,
equipped with rules for aggregation) should be considered.
Compared with the previous exercise, the fundamental
difference between the two recipe representations (both
verbalizable, but both supplied with visual elements that are
not strictly linguistic) lies in the fact that in the first, it is
essential to know Italian while in the second, Italian should be
essential only for understanding the key.
Cardona’s book Antropologia della scrittura (Anthropology of
writing) can supply a lot of stimuli and, in any case, a
fascinating general picture of writing in all its cultural
Vladimir Propp’s book Morphology of the Folktale, on the other
hand, gives an example, albeit of a different type, of the
application of formalism (symbols plus grammar) for
representing complex phenomena.
The fairytales of the Russian folk heritage are analyzed by
using a specific system of conventional symbols to encode the
figures and typical situations of these tales.
Propp’s hypothesis (the original edition of the book dates from
1927), that all folk tales are particular cases of one single
super-tale that covers all of them, revealing deep structures, is
argued by comparing the formulae that highlight the structure
of each tale.
Thus the expression e3k2q2j1X14ZVISmPu indicates that in a
certain tale the hero (actually, in this case, a heroine) goes
away (e3), and then she is given an order (k2); the order is
carried out (q2), and then there is an insidious attempt at
persuasion by the antagonist (j1) followed by a killing (X14), but
a magic means emerges from the ground (ZVI) and unmasks the
antagonist (Sm), who is punished in the end (Pu).
On the other hand X10LR2CAN*BI indicates that the hero is
abandoned to the water (X10) and goes away (L); then he is
transported elsewhere (R2) and is given a difficult task (C)
which is resolved (A); the marriage (N*), the return home (B)
and the recognition (I) follow.
Lower-case letters describe the situation at the start, the
initial state of the action.
The numbers with exponents differentiate different modes of
the same basic functions: thus X stands generically for
“damage”, while X1 specifies that it is a case of kidnapping, X2
of loss of the magic helper, X3 of devastation of the harvest
and so on.
The general form of the super-tale, with a series of particular
cases, is presented on pages 145 and 146 of the book (this
present exercise could be conceived as a particular case of a
superstructure containing all the possible ways of preparing
all the possible ingredients).
6. Consignment
By the end of the day of 17th March.
Synsemic caponata
The workshop entitled Sinsemie (Synsemias) held at the IUAV in
Venice in the summer of 2007 by invitation of Giovanni
Anceschi, in the context of his New Basic Design program.
Here is my preliminary note:
“Based on a critique of linearity associated with the alphabet
understood as mere transcription of oral discourse,
the exercise proposes to explore the “synsemic” potentials
of writing, the ones that arise first of all from its
two-dimensional deployment on the support.
The participants will be supplied with a procedural sequence
(for example, a recipe, a user manual, a narrative fable, etc.):
they will have to design a notational system, composed of
symbols and aggregative modes, with the objective of
configuring a structural synthesis for them.
In addition, in a synaesthetic perspective, the symbols may be
sound or tactile symbols”.
I had then chosen a rather complex recipe by Ada Boni,
“Sicilian caponata - San Bernardo sauce”, which could be
substituted by the simpler “Caponatina according to the
Siracuse custom”, both from the 19th edition of the Talismano
della felicità (Roma 1949).
Emanuela Bonini Lessing has told the story of the workshop in
no. 45 of “Il Verri”, June 2010 (Notazioni sinsemiche di
processi interattivi, pp. 85-91).
Another caponata
The same Sicilian caponata as on the previous pages, in the
usual A6 booklets.
The final test for the workshop (held with Angelo Monne,
Attilio Baghino tutor) is the one on Heart of darkness on p. 80.
between and 1st and 3rd centuries A.D., with the mindset and
the attention of the leisurely tourist, it would have appeared
to be characterized not only and not so much by statues,
temples, public meeting places, colours and traffic, as much as
by the writings that were present everywhere, in the squares
and in the streets, on walls and in courtyards, painted, etched,
engraved, hanging on wooden boards or traced on white
square blocks, all very different from each other not just in
their appearance but also in their content, being at times for
advertising, at other times political, funereal, celebratory,
public, private, even for insults or for remembering jokes; and
naturally they were aimed, if not exactly at everyone, at a lot
of people, and therefore at the many people who could read
and were part of the urban community; and, if not exactly
produced by everyone, they were certainly produced tangibly
by those many people belonging to very diverse social classes;
and they were displayed anywhere, with certain preferences, it
is true, for some designated places – squares, forums, public
buildings and necropolises – but this was only the case for the
most solemn ones; the others were scattered indifferently,
where there was the entrance to a shop, a quadrivium, or a
piece of unadorned plaster at head-height.
Armando Petrucci, La scrittura (Public Lettering: Script,Power
and Culture)
Rione Monti
Engravings on plate
Engraved, suspended
In these two years, the course I had to teach was that of
“history of the decorative arts”.
After an introduction to the history of the Latin alphabet, I
agreed with the students to have two outings.
The first was a visit to the epigraphic section of the Museo
Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano), with its excellent
introductory room and a huge series of engravings of various
I asked the Course secretary’s office in advance to request the
Museum’s management for free entrance for teaching purposes;
then we went there, several dozen of us, like a teacher with his
class of children.
The second outing, in batches, was an inspection of the area
around the Pantheon (between Piazza della Rotonda, Piazza
della Minerva and the atrium on the street of the
Sant’Eustachio Basilica), where there is a concentration of
writing phenomena with a decidedly high density; those
marked on the plan and reproduced on the following pages are
a fraction of the total (the location of some of them, it has to
be said, is rather approximate and others, after ten years,
have been transferred, modified, or have somehow
To the somewhat diffident amazement of the traders, who
noted these indefinable platoons photographing the manhole
covers instead of the Pantheon dome, we strolled around signs
and obelisks like carefree tourists of writing.
For examination, the students then chose an area or a theme
and tried to make a small survey of it (pp. 132-35).
To anyone who walked around any city of the Roman Empire
Piazza Augusto Imperatore
Tiber Island
Methods of writing on stone
A concise history
Ever since it was published in 1994 Richard Hollis’s Graphic
design: A concise history has been the best introduction to
graphic design of the twentieth century, and it still is today (I
would have liked to translate it, for our Stampa Alternativa
collection, but Hollis explained to me that the publisher was
interested in negotiating the transfer of rights only for the
whole collection in which the book appeared).
Also excellent are Swiss graphic design (Laurence King and Yale
University Press, 2006) and his recent About graphic design
(Occasional papers, 2012); his text for the catalogue for the
exhibition on Italian graphic art at the 2012 Milan Triennale is
without doubt the best in the publication.
But Hollis is himself an excellent designer who grew up in that
climate of political and cultural effervescence in Great Britain
after the Second World War, so well evoked in no. 8 of
“Typography papers”, entitled Modern typography in Britain.
Only a person who has a deep knowledge of its design
processes can write convincingly about graphic design and
typography; otherwise, as in many cases, one is limited to
pseudo-aesthetic evaluations, which are not only useless but
also misleading.
The students were then in their third year, and I think this
individual exercise was the last one before the final
I took turns in the workshop with Nino Perrone, Luciano
Perondi and Daniele Turchi, and Antonio Perri also joined us
in that year.
It seemed to us that just reading the book in English – which
at least some of them necessarily had to do – was already
asking a lot.
The size was A4, and I do not think any particular constraints
were imposed.
On the page on the left, the cover
(the subtitle is “a concise summary”).
On the facing page, detail of a poster by the same student, who
would then further develop the theme in her degree thesis
(supervisor Nino Perrone).
computer room of Bari Polytechnic Architecture Faculty, using
the online dictionary Zhongwen (www.zhongwen.com).
The images reproduced on the facing page and on the following
one were shown in order to give a preliminary account of the
first experiment to the students of the second; they contain
summary hints about Chinese writing and the essential
elements in the translation procedure.
Both experiments were concluded successfully within the two
hours (meaning that most of the students translated the
proposed texts).
The two characters transliterated in fānyì, “translation”.
1-4. Engraving on bronze – and various calligraphic styles.
5-7. holding the pen and position of the arm and hand
(with little finger and ring finger further securing the
arrangement) in a German manual of the 16th century, from
Wolfgang Fugger’s handwriting manual, Oxford University
Press, London 1960; the brush is handled freely in the Chinese
8, 9. The meticulous analysis of two strokes, and eighteen
different types of dot in a modern treatise on calligraphy
(Beijing 1983).
10-12. “Grass style” in the works of two Japanese
calligraphers, and blades of grass in a Chinese xylograph.
13. A poem by Du Fu (712-770, Tang dynasty) addressed to Li
Bo, another great poet of the same period, with transcription
in pinyin.
14. The phrase proposed to the students in the first
A general synoptic representation.
Chinese writing is still burdened by prejudice and
misconceptions that have no other foundation than the
pernicious tyranny of the alphabet and the Aristotelian dogma
of writing as a pure transcription of the verbal language.
Even scholars who are supposed to be learned demonstrate
their scanty knowledge of this system and repeat time and time
again that Chinese writing is a relic of the past, decidedly
non-functional compared with the needs of the modern world,
forgetting that the astounding development of recent years,
right up to the space program, has been entirely created with
that kind of writing.
For a more balanced understanding of the question, I
recommend the excellent La sfida della scrittura cinese
(Chinese writing: the shock of modernity) by the French
sinologist Viviane Alleton (Carocci 2012, Italian translation by
Antonio Perri).
On these pages, two experiments in simultaneous translation,
conducted together with Nino Perrone: the first, more familiar
one (2004-05) was with just a few students, already in the
third year of the Industrial Design degree course, and with
paper dictionaries; the second (2005-06) took place with a
number of first-year students on the same course, in the
15. The 400-plus syllables in standard spoken Chinese, the
majority of which may then be pronounced in four tones
(continuous, rising, falling-rising, falling); different characters
with different meanings may correspond to the basic
morphemes of the language; but the “words” are largely
polysyllabic, mainly two-syllable; the characters, which are all
inscribable inside a virtual square, are written without spaces
between them, independently of the number of syllables that
compose the word.
16. The basic strokes forming the characters, which it essential
to be know how to count; it is also necessary to know that
Chinese is an uninflected language, meaning that, even less
than in English, there are neither declensions nor
conjugations, and the meaning is given by the context;
depending on its position in the sentence, the same word can
succeed in being a noun, adjective, verb or adverb.
17. Most of the characters, in turn, are composed of two or
more basic characters, or radicals, which are just over 200 in
number; the radical of the character highlighted here, the
fourth in the sentence, is the symbol that contains it.
18. Once the radical of the character whose meaning one is
seeking has been identified, or at least once one has
hypothesized which it might be, one looks for it in the list of
radicals (here from the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary),
divided by number of component strokes, in this case, two.
19. Detail of the list of radicals.
20. A serial number corresponds to each radical – in this case,
16; we therefore go from the list of characters, ordered by
radicals and, within these, by number of component strokes,
and we identify the character in question to which the relative
syllable is associated, with the accent to indicate its tone
21. Detail of list of characters.
22. At this point we move on to the actual dictionary, ordered
by syllable in alphabetical order and we reach tóng, which may
mean “alike”, “together” etc., but a rapid glance at the
compound words beginning with this syllable, and at the
characters that follow it, leads to a possible compound word
that figures in the initial text – tóngxué – meaning
“classmate” or “students”; this, with the addition of the
syllable men, indicating the plural and which figures three
times in the sentence, turns out to be the correct meaning.
23. Detail of the dictionary.
24. The solution to the problem: the sentence with the radical
of each character and the compound words highlighted; below,
the pronunciation of the syllables, their primary meaning and
the meaning of the compound words (the translation is:
“Welcome, teachers and students, to today’s meeting”).
Below, the text of the second experiment (2006), with the
addition of the keys for interpretation.
The translation is a short dialogue.
First speaker: “Dad says you can to the cinema today”.
Reply: “I can’t now, because I’ve got a lesson”.
The expression “electric shadows”, for “cinema”, should be
noted (at least one female student arrived at the correct
meaning independently, from the two individual syllables,
before arriving at the compound word.
Books, books, books
Promoted and directed by Umberto Eco (vice-director Riccardo
Fedriga), the master’s course went on from 2001 to 2010, with
five two-year cycles containing over 900 hours, and of one sixmonth “stage” term, of around 350 hours).
To train operators who could deal with every aspect of work in
a publishing house.
The subjects taught ranged from philology to publishing
legislation, from translation theory to warehouse management,
and from photoediting to negotiating rights, etc., in a series
of thirty-hour courses.
The students, twenty-five in each cycle, could also profit from
a large number of lectures organized by the School for
advanced humanistic studies, in his or her research activity.
I found myself there almost naturally, holding the courses on
typography and editorial graphics, because in the previous
years I had already held some seminars in the context of Eco’s
courses at the University of Bologna.
That was without doubt one of the most pleasant situations in
my varied teaching experience.
Right from the first year, I proposed that for my examination
the students should each create a book with characteristics as
on the facing page, and in three copies, to prevent an excess of
decorativist do-it-yourself handiwork and anticipate a mass
I gave the students a copy of Lettere, lettere, lettere (Letters,
letters, letters) – the introduction, in duodecimo format, to
typography on pp. 46-49, originally compiled for them.
Also, in the last years, since I had done the layout for it and I
therefore had the files, I gave them a copy of the fifty pages of
another introduction to typography that I had written,
Tipografia e oltre (Typography and beyond) which was
published in thr book Culture visive. Contributi per il design
della comunicazione (Visual cultures. Contributions for
communication design), edited by Valeria Bucchetti (Poli.
design, Milan 2007).
I then invited them to look at some books that were there in
the School library and I brought in others myself to circulate
among them.
Ten “lessons” of three hours each.
At least four were taken up with various guests: each year
there was Antonio Perri on Aztec writing (which I have always
held to be fundamental) and Marcello Baraghini, on his Stampa
Alternativa “Millelire” collection, or on anything else he might
consider suitable.
Then there was Silvana Amato (papers, booklets and cards),
Giovanni De Mauro (the “Internazionale” review), James Mosley
(if he happened to be passing through the area), Beppe Chia
(Bologna Salaborsa Library) etc.
That did not leave much time: starting from the second year at
least, we analyzed the books created by the previous course
attendees, we looked at a few pictures on typography and
graphics, we discussed various matters and we also chatted a
The students, on their part, knew absolutely nothing about
typography and graphic design, and nor did they have any
knowledge of layout programs (in school they had one day, or
maybe one and a half, of introduction to Quark XPress).
However, they had two essential requisites, without which they
would not have been there at all.
On the one hand, a strong motivation and a familiarity –
certainly not sporadic – with books; on the other, a solid
cultural background.
The admission selection was, in fact, quite strict: it was
unlikely that students could get in without a “cum laude” grade
in their degree examination (their high school diploma grade
was also assessed) and there were some far from trivial
interviews and tests.
From my point of view, they were entirely normal, friendly
youngsters, not particularly erudite (and certainly not
“swots”), but curious and well disposed to receive, procure for
themselves, elaborate and rapidly integrate new knowledge.
On the following pages, some of their books.
Quite a few of them, after thirty hours, can be compared to and
are even superior to the final compositions of five years of
university communication design courses, with a ratio, in
number of hours, of around one to a hundred.
So, dear reader, what conclusion do you draw?
Project for the editorial graphics examination
Creation, by each student, of 3 copies of an editorial artefact
with the following characteristics:
12 x 18 cm square edged vertical format;
at least 48 pages;
printing in black only;
arranged in stitched octavo or 16mo.
No constraint is given, however, with regard to the following:
Choice of texts and any illustrations;
type of paper;
making-up and cover.
It is understood that there is virtually no limit to the number
of copies printable with mass production processes.
In particular, the copies will therefore be:
a) printed directly from file to digital printer;
b) or produced in b&w photocopy from master created as
The making-up – the responsibility of the student (including
binding) – will be the same for the 3 copies.
The artefact will contain a text that gives reasons for the
choices made.
The student’s name will be shown clearly.
It comprises seven propositions, as reproduced alongside on
the booklet’s cover (the last one, literally ineffable, says:
“whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”).
Each of the propositions, with the exception of the seventh, is
then followed by a variable number of sub-propositions, up to
six different levels.
It is therefore a tree structure, which would need a surface of
a few square metres to be presented as such.
In this booklet, the text runs on odd-numbered pages, with
tabulations that highlight the level of articulation, while the
local map is shown on the even-numbered pages.
The following will be appreciated:
structural complexity, reduced to formal simplicity;
attempts to configure the space of the book in relation “to the
tensile stresses and pressure of the contents” (El Lissitsky);
care in choosing, with reasons, if possible, the fonts (and use
of appropriate printer);
care in the treatment of texts, and in particular of the
typographical details (small capitals, ligatures, spacing
between letters and words, etc.);
treatment of any illustrations to give an appropriate effect;
presence of tables, diagram, maps etc.;
presence of devices (notes, summaries, bibliographies,
analytical indices, translations etc.);
care in the physical creation.
Roman Jakobson
L’arte della parola (The art of the word)
The last master’s degree cycle in the school’s Sala Rossa
(there’s an odd-man-out here: little Martino, just a few weeks
old, in his mother’s arms).
Metric exemplification
Metric “mute” manual, the most moderate one possible in
supplying clarifications in a discursive, verbal form, but one
able to make certain percepts emerge.
Right, how the same propositions on the page above were
presented, in an inexorably sequential arrangement, in the
first edition of the Tractatus in English, published in London
in 1922.
On the facing page, below, the last pages of the text and the
bookmark with instructions for use.
An essay by the great Russian linguist on the visionary German
poet Friedrich Hölderlin.
A rather racy treatment of the text, as we can see.
Above: the first page of Jakobson’s text in the Melangolo
edition (Genoa 1979).
Below: the corresponding page in the “master’s edition”.
Xiàngqí. Gli scacchi cinesi (Chinese chess)
The author of this book is not a professional, much less an
expert in xiàngqí, Chinese chess, but only an unskilful,
occasional player [...] I have put in everything I know about it,
which little more than the basic moves and some endgames [...]
The game was taught to me by the janitor of a hotel in Beijing,
in the basement, and by a British teacher with whom I passed
the nights.
My sporadic playmates were: strangers on the train, Tanzanians
who had been in China for years acting as DJs in provincial
towns, jazz trumpeters and philosophers from Trieste and
Norwegian physicists and fencers. I owe my luck in having met
these extraordinary characters to xiàngqí.
A fine tale about Chinese chess is Acheng’s King of Chess, part
of a trilogy that also includes King of Children and King of
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Tractatus logico-philosoficus
This text – its name is derived from Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus
theologico-politicus – is one of the most crucial of the
twentieth century and was published in the original German in
The booklet’s dust jacket, below, comprises the unusual
chessboard, with the “river” in the middle.
The black and white pieces for playing can be cut from the
Danilo Trombin
Come ad Ash-shuwaymiyyah (As at Ash-shuwaymiyyah)
The book is a travel tale and was later published, with the
same title and essentially identical in layout, by the publisher
Apogeo (Adria), ISBN 88-88786-29-5.
Dizionario incompleto dei vincoli oulipiani (Incomplete
dictionary of OuLiPo constraints)
The lively, unceasing activity of the OuLiPo [Ouvroir de
Littérature Potentielle – Workshop of Potential Literature] is
reported on these pages in the form of a dictionary that
explains all the constraints, the rules, the linguistic games and
the paths of meaning created by the French group starting from
1960 [...] Looking carefully at the illustrious writers, poets and
intellectuals who have in the past tackled the amusing problem
of Italian translation, this project aims to summarize, in an
ironic but informed way, the current state of the art [...]
Warning before consulting:
I. The dictionary is deliberately called “incomplete”, in the
hope that during the days, months and years to come, the
movement’s creativity will always remain compulsively active
and that it will never finally (completely) come to an end. II.
Some of the entries in this dictionary have a very close link
with the culture and language of the original context. In these
cases I preferred to show some French texts and examples,
sometimes placing alongside them a possible analogy with the
Italian. III. The author is known for only some of the
constraints, and only in these cases is the author’s name
inserted in the definition.
Ágota Kristóf
Il grande quaderno (The Notebook)
Published in Italian also as Quello che resta, this is the first
book in the Trilogy of the city of K. by this Hungarian writer.
The illustrations are by Elena Orlandi herself.
I first chose the book [...] strong, dark but full of images, and
unforgettable [...] I immediately thought of the effect I wanted
the writing to create on the page, which had to be black, thick
and full... I looked at old books for children, and I understood
that that was the effect I wanted to obtain [...] I created a leftaligned layout with quite narrow side margins and the bottom
and top margins quite wide, and with centred titles, again to
give the idea of a handwritten notebook [...] I put in some
pictures: on re-reading the text I decided to draw some
passages and I took the liberty of thinking that the same thing
happened to the twins – the main characters in the book, while
they were writing their story.
I used fine-lined exercise book paper, very simple, unnamed
cardboard for the endpapers, black cardboard for the cover,
and parcel paper for the reinforcements. I stuck my fingers
together with Vinavil, glue paste and spray glue; I plaited them
with red polyester thread. I finished the spine with 38 mm-
wide plasticized cloth adhesive tape.
I risked my mental sanity and destroyed other books to make
this one, but I am satisfied with the result.
William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The performance that gave rise to this book was staged by the
then Compagnia di San Giacomo in June 2004 [...] The aim of
this work is to make it immediately understandable how the
work was staged [...] On the odd-numbered pages there is the
actual text, with full captions indicating the intentions with
which the characters pronounce the speeches, and the
associated lights and music; on the even-numbered pages there
is the diagram of the staging of the same extract [...]
On the left, therefore, the speeches of the moving characters
follow the ideal line of movement, while those pronounced
from a static position are composed in small blocks [...]
If a character is on stage and does not speak, the symbol
indicating this is in grey [...] At the beginning of each line
there is a small black square, to indicate the direction of
William Shakespeare
The Tempest
In order to choose the numerous typefaces suitable for the
characters of Shakespeare’s The Tempest auditions had to be
organized, lasting for a few days. We were proud to note how
successful our announcement had been: we had managed to
mobilize a large group of aspiring characters, young and old,
experimental and classically noble. They were there, in front of
us, silent and full of expectation, with their fonts more or less
complete. Thinking about it, we were more excited than they
were: the choice required us to expend a lot of energy [...] We
have only a very little space here to congratulate all the other
characters that played with us, but our memory has recorded
them and sometimes we still see the world through them.
Double thread stitched book, not done by cheating but with the
greatest diligence. Red and black thread donated by Mastro
Calzolaio in Via Rialto, the best in Bologna.
The Constitution according to me
From the back cover:
[...] a disturbing text: the Italian Constitution.
The Constitution - disturbing?
Yes, because in this typographical interpretation the
fundamental text of the Italian people emerges in all its
peremptory radical intentions.
Thanks to the graphic solutions adopted, readers can
understand the strength of the constitutional principles, the
delicate balance between rights and duties, and the unceasing
work of rewriting that has for decades been devoted to
regulating the State.
To reach the lowest possible consultability level and reduce the
degree of intersubjective verifiability, certain strict criteria
were used.
[...] At the end of the book two complete interpretations of the
poem are supplied in the two languages, created by choosing
some definitions absolutely at random and linking them in the
way that was most correct and expedient.
Index auctorum et librorum
The first edition (the “Pauline Index”) of the famous Index of
Prohibited Books, published in Rome in 1559 under Pope Paul
IV by the Congregation of the Sacred Congregation of the
Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church, or Holy Office.
The text was structured according to a “matrix” system. Five
macro-sections were identified according to the logicalargumentative progression, represented by the five bars
placed along the bottom margin. Each of the these sections is
in turn divided into content subsets, marked by indicators on
the side margin.
The logical structure and the graphic structure therefore
mirror each other.
The level of progression of the text is given by the intersection
of two bands that “cage” the page, projecting a graphic
element that is constantly represented to the reader’s eyes [...]
I tried to set as clear a visual structure as possible against the
semantic complexity of the text.
The Charterhouse of Parma
Lost in Waterloo
Two chapters from The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal.
I have conveyed Fabrice del Dongo’s route on a line at the
bottom of the page: from south (on the left) to north (on the
right). The geographical positions on this line are not fixed,
because they are an abstraction that should mainly provide the
reader with an approximate position – an attempt to tell him
or her continuously (as on the maps scattered around Bologna):
you are here. The only fixed coordinate is the border between
Italy and the rest of Europe, represented by the fold in the
Our tutor wheedled out the secret of sewing books from a
printing firm in Bologna, and passed it on in a fabulous lesson
in the computer room – a fact for which she is still being
investigated by the professional association of bookbinders.
The Sophist
The pictures are details of engravings by Max Klinger.
The book appeared published by Sirat Al Bunduqiyyah, which in
Arabic is the Favola di Venezia (Fable of Venice, Hugo Pratt,
Edwin A. Abbott
Corpo 12 (12-point body text)
Booklet à rebours (the page numbering goes from 48 to 1, and
that of the chapters from 7 to 0), telling the story of his own
Das Grande Laloola Dictionary
The dictionary refers to a famous nonsense poem by Christian
Morgenstern (1871-1914).
This uses a nonsense vocabulary that operates on individual
words in a completely wandering way, working through
phonetic associations.
Each word goes through two explanatory phases.
In the first, according to Lewis Carroll’s thesis of portmanteau
words, it is decomposed into its possible main associations.
In the second, some or all of these associations are lumped
together to give rise to some possible definition.
The dictionary is bilingual and, since Morgenstern is German,
each word is examined in English and in Italian.
The main aim was to give a different voice to poor Square
trapped in the novel.
The strict balance of the text is offset by the style of the
illustrations, which I created ad hoc; they were designed to be
in a dialectical relationship with the text, and are
differentiated from the cold, geometric severity of the original
All the illustrations are designed to be the result of the main
character’s idleness in prison, and this is also the justification
for inserting the spots scattered over the text.
It might perhaps have been more fitting for the book to be in a
square format, which could have represented tangibly the voice
of the main actor as well.
I tried to create an interpretation of the idea expressed by the
work, in particular the possibility it suggests of somewhere
I was, certainly, very involved in typography.
As a boy – it must have been in 1963 – I was enchanted by
Issue 8, second series, of Herbert Spencer’s “Typographica”,
which I found by chance in the art and architecture bookshop
in Via dell’Oca in Rome, with articles on Paul Schuitema and
concrete poetry.
I then kept on reading the review right up to the last issue,
number 16, in 1967, which included Kurt Schwitters on a timechart by Stefan Themerson, an extraordinary work that I later
published, almost thirty years after, in “Progetto grafico”
(no. 4-5, February 2005).
In the meantime, I got hold of the previous numbers and,
maybe in 1965, I read James Mosley’s The nymph and the grot,
a fundamental, incomparable story of the appearance of sans
serif characters at the beginning of the nineteenth century,
which I then translated into Italian (more than thirty years
I also chanced upon “Neue Grafik”, the Swiss review by Hans
Neuburg and partners (1958-65), and I gradually put together
the complete series of this as well.
In 1967, in the large Hoepli bookshop in Rome I picked up
Asymmetric typography by Jan Tschichold, which had just come
out and, two years later, again in the Via dell’Oca bookshop –
and who known how it got there – Schrift im Bauhaus. Die
Futura von Paul Renner by Hans Peter Willberg, a valuable
critique of Bauhaus typography which I got very accurately
translated, given my scant knowledge of German.
In 1972 Stanley Morison’s great Politics and script came out,
published posthumously and edited by Nicholas Barker.
And, being a complete autodidact, it is Morison and Tschichold
whom I consider to be my real teachers.
Aided by these and many other things which I started,
hesitatingly, to order from the Anglo-American Bookshop in Via
della Vite, I began to reflect, slowly and at length on formalism
in the rationalist movement.
I convinced myself that without typography there is no
communication design.
Only the control of typography ensures the precondition for a
design that starts from a message; otherwise, as in many areas
of rationalist graphics, it is only a question of a “minor
picture gallery”, as Gillo Dorfles wrote – of a small decorative
The comparison between “Typographica” and “Neue Grafik”
was in itself a revelation.
Both of them respond to the common need for reorganizing
experiences of artistic avant-garde movements in the previous
decades according to the new communication requirements in
Europe after the Second World War.
But while, at first sight, the first, British, one was brightly
coloured, flexible in its layout and in unjustified typographic
setting, often with imaginative enclosures, the second, Swiss,
one was frosty, rigid, uniform, and composed with fixed
justification in narrow columns, and therefore with irregular
spacing between the words.
Getting down to contents, “Typographica” ranged around the
world and the universe: Franco Grignani, Antonio Boggeri and
Max Huber were there, yes, but also Eric Gill and Germano
Facetti and Robert Massin and Raymond Queneau, and then
there were the directional arrows in the Chinese tradition,
Nicolete Gray’s studies on lettering, Braille, Hebrew
calligrammes, characters for typewriters, and Themerson and
“Neue Grafik” was what it was, programmatically useful only
for the commercial graphics of those years, dogmatic in its
defence of rationalist schematism as the only representation of
modernity, but it was shrewd and informed, it must be said, by
comparison with the fairly obtuse Helvetica-centred orthodoxy
I heard repeated ad nauseam in a long exploratory trip I made
to Milan in the early Seventies.
The impassioned, highly competent review by Emil Ruder of
Adrian Frutiger’s Univers in no. 2 of 1959, or the tepid
reception given to Helvetica by Hans Neuburg in no. 4 (“We,
however, will happily continue to use Akzidenz Grotesk”) is
sufficient proof.
It has now been clear for a long time that the purported
efficiency of rationalist graphic art was nothing more than a
formalistic, aestheticizing choice: of those cages, to quote
Bertolt Brecht, only the wind blowing through them will
As soon as Farsi un libro (Making oneself a book, 1990) came
out, in which I had written the part about typefaces, Piero De
Macchi, a veteran of Italian typography who had worked with
Aldo Novarese, promptly looked me up and persuaded me to go
with him to Lurs, to the week of the Rencontres internationales
de Lure.
I finally met Mosley and Colin Banks there and they became my
very dear friends for many years, introducing me to that
international typographical environment that I was part of for
a long time.
I enthusiastically welcomed digital typography, which finally
provided tools for controlling communication design.
Daniele Turchi and I were among the first to purchase both
Robert Slimbach’s Adobe Garamond and Fontographer, and I
well remember the genuine euphoria with which we directly
experimented in what was our main interest, word processing.
However, the rapid spread of digital typography produced, just
as rapidly, a new type of mannerism, which the orthogonality
of typesetting with lead, at least, did not allow to be practised
with such freedom.
It was hailed as the “democratization” of typography, and year
after year it produced only an infinite multiplication of fonts
and decorative characters after decorative characters after
decorative characters; this was fine in many ways, because in
the best cases it brought in a touch of liveliness to break up
the sad schemes of rationalism, but one had difficulty in
seeing applications that were not ultimately futile.
The entire world of graphic art and of design, on the other
hand, knew nothing at all about the parallel development of
Donald Knuth’s TEX, relegated to the ghetto of scientific
environments and which Daniele and I had almost furtively
caught a glimpse of.
So something was not right.
The Metafont, which Knuth had developed to support TEX,
indicated a path.
And here on page 178, after having skipped one hundred and
fifty-three pages, we take up again the story we left off on
page 25.
Apart from those presented on the following pages, I was also
in charge of other courses in type design.
The students in a workshop at the Rome La Sapienza university
(1999-2000), for example, who had happily indulged their
whims with the weirdest (and also rather unattractive, as a
typography purist would say) characters, had to compose for
the examination, each with his or her own character in 16-pt
body, a given file of text in A4 format.
I recall how surprised I was to find that almost all these
sheets, even those with deliberately irregular characters, were
essentially highly legible.
Oh Morison, Morison!
Still at La Sapienza, for several years after I had stopped
teaching there, the students from the LUDI (University degree
in industrial design) course who wanted to tackle the design of
fonts applied to me.
I thus found myself being co-supervisor for the degree projects
of some young people who I would at least like to mention
here: Enrico Baldetti, Stefano Cremisini, Elena Damato, Lorenza
De Agostini, Alessio D’Ellena, and Cira Viggiano.
In Alghero, on the Industrial Design degree course at Sassari
University, I took charge, with Angelo Monne and with Attilio
Baghino as tutor, of a workshop of do-it-yourself typography
(2009-10), from which the images on this page derive.
The students had to build, with any materials they liked, actual
fonts (“types”) to print a given text with.
A two-day session was held in that workshop, with enormous
success, by Claude Marzotto Caotorta, author of Proto tipi
(Proto types) (Viterbo 2007).
Ricci), which can definitely be called the first in type design in
Italian universities, and perhaps the first of this kind ever
held in Italy.
The starting point was the analysis of Stanley Morison and
Victor Lardent’s Times New Roman (as we can see, we moved
away considerably from this starting point).
The students, in groups (or more accurately, in hordes) worked
with Fontographer.
Guests of the workshop were James Clough, Piero De Macchi
and Anna Ronchi.
Three of the fonts displayed here have already been presented
in my book La lettera uccide (pp. 78-83) and I can unfortunately
give the names only of the students responsible for these.
Workshop of 150 hours held with Mario Piazza and Daniele
Turchi (50 hours each, subject experts Manuela Rattin and
Matteo Ricci).
The theme here was more specific: it was a matter of creating
very legible characters in 4-pt body, which could be used, for
example, for telephone directories.
Daniele Turchi wrote a clear and exhaustive account of this,
published in “Notizie Aiap” no. 10, June 2000.
The students’ first names in this case will be found in the
index of names on p. 182.
One of several exercises in approach to typography, at a time
when students who had a computer were in a clear minority.
Workshop held with Daniele Turchi, Nino Perrone, Luciano
Perondi and Liborio Biancolillo.
The configuration given in the grid alongside (in Adobe
Garamond Italic) must be reproduced by assigning to each of
the 448 squares a value chosen from the following four:
a) white;
b) light grey;
c) dark grey;
d) black.
The technique used for shading in the squares must allow the
greys to be evident in the photocopy.
The basic grid must not be reproduced.
The final composition must be on white A4 paper.
The configuration thus created must correspond perceptually,
from a distance of 5-8 m. to the starting one.
A mechanical arrangement of the problem (assigning to each
square a value proportional to the amount of black in the given
configuration) does not necessarily lead to a perfect perceptual
The originals of the starting configuration and of the different
treatments are 50%.
The reductions on the facing page, top, which are obviously
purely indicative because of the further presence of the print
screen, are by 3%.
A type design course held in close collaboration with Antonio
Perri, who held one in semiology applied to typography.
The students therefore had to design a font and at the same
time a notational device that would demonstrate its
The font system on this page is inspired by a character
designed by the Scottish calligrapher Tom Gourdie in 1965 for
learning in Swedish elementary schools.
Lines of different thickness and different inclinations are
applied on the basic structure, in the FontLab application, to
obtain a huge range of variants.
This system is the point of transit between the variability
obtained with essentially calligraphic procedures and the
mathematical-programming approach of the parametric font on
the following page.
Type design workshop held with Michele Patanè, subject expert,
and Luciano Perondi.
Workshop of 150 hours held with Mario Piazza (100 hours
Lussu, 50 Piazza, subject experts Manuela Rattin and Matteo
Our aim was to have the counter emerge on the printed paper
– the counterform of the letter, i.e. that “void” created by the
chisel which is just as important as the positive form for
identifying the different letters.
We then went on to an analysis phase, examining fonts of
different types and different historical periods in order to
study the changes in the counterforms and sizes.
After the analysis, we turned our attention to the world of type
design and visual communication, collecting some useful hints
and suggestions.
The design phase got under way, taking Gill Sans as a starting
point for defining the “negative” font; this design method was
then abandoned in favour of an approach that was less tied to
the influence of already known and assimilated forms.
The intervention by Roberto Arista, entitled Parametric
Typography as a Didactic Method, was published in the papers
of the meeting, signed by Arista himself, by Alessio D’Ellena
and by Luciano Perondi: Quelhas, V., Marques, H. T., Mendonça,
R., III Encontro de Tipografia: Livro de Atas, Porto Polytechnic,
Porto 2012, ISBN 978-989-20-3439-3.
So it goes on...
Communication by Luciano Perondi
21st March 2013, at 21:19:13
“Below is a summary of the significant phases in the project:
Summary of current state (Academy/ISIA)
On this page, the Controforme program, here reduced just to
the letter “e”.
The program, written in Guido van Rossum’s Python, the
resident Macintosh language, makes use of the RoboFab
application (by Erik van Blokland, Tal Leming and Just van
Rossum) to generate the fonts in FontLab.
1) When the experience at Milan Polytechnic came to an end, I
started to apply the parametric method to teaching typography
in the first year of the ISIA and Academy three-year course,
which seemed to me to be the ideal teaching situation for
dealing with this theme: enquiring into the mathematical
relationship between the forms of a character and trying to
reproduce it with a parametric algorithm seemed the best way
to tackle the problem of a first approach to typography. The
results were independent of a student’s basic preparation;
some significant evolutions were worked out by students
without any training either in the typographic field, or in
mathematics, or in computers.
In the initial phase of this path, which started in 2006, as
mentioned on page 25, the reference was Donald Knuth’s
In the opening section of issue no. 20 of June 2011 of
“Progetto grafico” (“Mathematics and design” by Luciano
Perondi and Maria Rosaria Digregorio, with written pieces by
Igino Marini, Michele Patanè, Alessandro Tartaglia and me)
suggestions for a mathematical approach to typography can be
found annexed to the issue, extracted from Knuth’s Tipografia
This ur-e, now finally emancipated from any calligraphic
reference, is the point of arrival of three years of research and
workshop experimentation.
It is worth emphasizing that this is completely original
research, which did not at the time – and indeed does not
seem even now – to have any equivalent in any other design
school in the world.
Research and experimentation carried out, one might say, in
the face of a fairly lukewarm interest on the part of the
academic institution.
But the story goes on (see next page).
2) I therefore started from where we had left off at the
Polytechnic, that is, from defining characters starting from the
counters, since this seemed the more advanced solution and
one that was free from the calligraphic process, which was too
conditioning in design.
3) The students immediately tried to draw the black forms
directly, without going from the counterform, by simplifying
the drawing and using only orthogonal manipulators.
4) We then worked with the students on defining a number of
basic components drawn only with orthogonal manipulators;
with these components it would be possible to make an
approximation of any form and carry out diagonal lines with
cutting interventions and possible waste.
In relation to point 5, a subsequent message (25th March 2013)
announces that “the independent variables have become 33
this morning, thanks to a more or less fortuitous discovery by
one student”.
5) Alongside this, the course concentrated on isolating and
studying the relationship between the independent variables,
which serve to define the appearance of a character from the
user side, and therefore taking into account perceptual
distortions that define the effective sizes of a character.
The course then concentrated on studying the functions linking
the variables.
At the present time (March 2013), thirty independent variables
have been identified, which would potentially allow more than
10^31 fonts, metrically distinct from each other, to be
generated. We presume that at least 50 independent variables
can be identified and formalized.
At point 7, it is meant the III Typography Meeting organized in
Porto (Portugal) by Porto Polytechnic (Visual Arts, Music School
and Art Department) in 2012.
6) Some students have made an exceptional contribution to the
development of the workshop:
a. algorithms for calculating curves passing through two and
By Academy, it is meant the Urbino Academy of Fine Arts;
by ISIA, the Urbino ISIA.
three points have been worked out – 2011;
b. functions have been studied to connect components designed
separately and subjected to transformations – 2010;
c. an algorithm to balance the spaces between letters starting
from the integral of the space at the sides of a letter – 2011;
d. the way in which the axis of a glyph can be oriented (by
moving the weights), without having recourse to a calligraphic
model, has been formalized – 2012;
e. Roberto Arista is working out, for the three-year diploma
thesis, an automatic analyzer of characters capable of
detecting some of the main typographical variables in a given
character. The data collected are subjected to a statistical
study to find important uniformities.
7) The course was presented in Porto, Portugal, by Roberto
Arista in the autumn of 2012.
8) All the scripts from all the examinations are available to all
students during the course; a website in which all the scripts
are assembled and made available with GPL licence is under
9) Frederik Berlaen has made RoboFont licences available free
of charge for the course.
10) New and amazing metatypographical hypotheses are
forming on the horizon, and the future is rosy.
Index of names
Published writings
Various collections
Individual publications
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