Typography Insight: iPad App Teaches Fonts Like Never Before

Learning the subtleties of Helvetica and Garamond used to be a pain—but a sleek new app has made the process easier

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Dong Yoon Park has figured out a way to use the iPad as a better teaching tool than the widely used, yet archaic textbook.  An MFA design and technology student at Parsons The New School for Design, Park created a tablet application, Typography Insight (now available on iTunes), that is designed to help beginners learn the subtleties of fonts.

Students in introductory typography classes are asked to memorize and understand the forms of classic fonts such as Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni, Century, and Helvetica. While some typophiles might recognize that Century is a tad curvier than Helvetica, gaining a deep understanding of the differing fonts (i.e. enough to survive being quizzed on them) takes hours of staring at letters. "As a beginner, it is difficult to see the subtle differences," Park explains on his website. "This is especially true in traditional media such as paper text book, where the typeface in question is presented in linear, small sizes."

As a design student, Park found it difficult to learn letters. To train his eyes to recognize the spacing and curvature of varied typefaces, Park would not only manually recreate fonts, illustrating large black letters on white paper, but also hang images of letters upside-down to focus just on the shape. These tactics helped, but they were labor-intensive, and Park admits he still didn't do too well on his quizzes.

Later, Park decided to focus on the shortcomings of both his homemade tools and traditional materials and improve upon them with technology as his master's thesis project. Traditional media wasn't cutting it. The flatness and smallness of letters in textbooks makes it difficult to compare and find relationships between fonts. But with touch screens larger than those of cell phones, tablets served as the perfect medium for Park's vision.

Park wanted something that could display the finest details of each font, but which would also allow for the manipulation of the letters, so students could study the shape from all angles. "Most of these devices now provide highly responsive touch screen interface at consumer-friendly prices, making them more accessible to a larger audience," Park says. "As tablet devices are designed as handheld objects, the screen is much closer to users, and they can provide more immersive experiences."

While other typography applications exist, Park wanted something that had the same density as his textbooks; something more educational. After creating six prototypes, Park's finished product represented a more complete learning experience. Typography Insight allows learners to juxtapose fonts side by side and with an overlay feature. As you can see below, the iPad touch screen permits comparison techniques that would otherwise be difficult using a textbook or even pen and paper.

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Park also added various ways to inspect the details of each typeface, history, terminology, and a section that teaches how to measure typefaces in units and another that teaches students how to set type.

Traditionalists who memorized fonts the old-fashioned ways might protest that an app could never replace the tactile experience of hand-inking letters. Park, however, doesn't intend for his app to replace these methods, but rather to do away with what's not working—textbooks—and create something better:

With my own experience in design school, I do appreciate and do understand the importance of the traditional methods such as drawing letter 'g' with tracing paper and inks. I think those elements are a crucial process for designers and cannot be replaced with the experience in digital technology. Rather, I think this application can be used along with traditional typography education and it would be important to keep the balance between traditional analog methods and new digital methods.

As technology improves and costs for devices like tablets decrease, schools are beginning to incorporate technology into the curriculum. Perhaps Park's innovation provides a useful template for other curricula looking to improve learning with technology.

Images: Dong Yoon Park



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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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