Reflecting on formal design education

What is the role and meaning of design education? As a field of study that is firmly rooted in practice, is the purpose of design education simply for skill training so that students can get a job upon graduation? I would think not — education has a greater role than that, especially in the 21st century where the constantly evolving economy and technological developments mean that skills — and indeed the profession and industry — transform at a rate unbeknownst to previous generations. Education needs to prepare graduates for resilience and unpredictability.

On the occasion of receiving a design education award back in 2016, the Hong Kong Designer’s Association asked me a couple of questions, and I reflected on the role and meaning of formal design education.

As aesthetic standards may be subjective and varies between people, what are the criteria you would take into consideration, while grading your students’ works other than functionality?

I do not believe that aesthetics can be considered separately from function. Good designers try to understand the context and users rather than focussing on his or her own taste or aesthetic preferences. Good design performs as intended, and that includes whether a piece of design can be understood or used, as well as whether it elicits the right emotional response. Grading, to me, is overrated. The most important thing is that students develop their ability to articulate whether something that they have done is effective for the intended situation. The ability to self-evaluate is more important in my opinion. As much as I do not believe in grading, it is a necessary evil in formal education. Drawing up a set of objective criteria for an assignment is important. The final outcome of a project needs to adequately answer to the requirements and the needs of the intended users as set out in the brief. The final outcome is only part of the picture. Research and concept development need to also be taken into consideration. Clarity in verbal and written communication is also important, because designers need to be able to eloquently explain their work.

There are many renowned self-taught designers who did not acquire their skills through standard education. To what extent do you agree that knowledge of design can be taught through a standard educational system?

Good designers tend to be life-long learners. A natural curiosity can motivate anyone in learning anything really. So design, for sure, can be learnt outside of formal education. The craft aspects of design can be imparted through apprenticeship in a design studio, but the apprenticeship mode of learning is also quite widely used in formal design education. But we mustn’t forget that formal education can be much more than simply a means for honing professional skills; more importantly it should be a place where an inquisitive, critical mind is nurtured. Asking critical and difficult questions, challenging the status quo, advancing knowledge in the profession – these are all very important within formal design education. So design education is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Along with the industry, educational institutions drive change in the design profession.

Image: A vision for the future of education in the year 2000 produced as a cigarette card in France, 1901 (from Wikimedia Commons)

Also published on LinkedIn and on Medium in (in)visible (de)signs

Baseline grid

Teaching notes on how to set up a baseline grid in InDesign. This document is a slightly revised and reformatted document previously available here.

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A baseline grid is based on the leading of the continuous text (body text) of a publication. Leadings and paragraph spaces of all text in a complex publication would then be mathematically derived from this leading. A baseline grid ensures that the sizes and leadings all text in a complex publication are related to each other and are locked into place, so that they line up across columns as well as across pages. Baseline grids are almost always used in newspapers, and often in other complex publications such as magazines and textbooks.

Digital typography

‘In typography there is no technical step which is not at the same time an aesthetic decision’ — Emil Ruder

Some teaching notes on digital typography. This is a sightly revised version of the previous document that was available here for download.

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Since the advent of printing with movable type, typography and technology have become inseparable. If we are to accept the definition of typography as the mechanical production of written language, then we must have an intimate understanding of our prevailing typesetting technology – the computer and its software and output devices – in order to become competent typographic designers. There is craftsmanship involved in digital typesetting; creativity is also built upon the foundation of understanding the technology. 

Document design and usability of documents

Not the usual typography and information design books, but specifically on designing documents from a user-centred point of view.

Burke, C; Black, A; Stiff, P; Waller, R (1992) Designing business documents. Surrey, UK: Monotype Typography Ltd

Hartley, J (1994) Designing instructional texts (third edition).
London: Kogan Page

Schriver, K A (1997) Dynamics in document design: creating texts for readers. New York: John Wiley & Sons

Twyman, M (1985) ‘Using pictorial language: a discussion of the dimensions of the problem’, in Duffy, T M and Waller, R, Designing usable texts. London: Academic Press 245–312

Waller, R H W (1982) ‘Text as diagram: using typography to improve access and understanding’ in D Jonassen (ed), The technology of text
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 137–166

Waller R H W (1999), ‘Making connections: typography layout and language’, Proceedings of the 1999 Autumn Symposium, American Association for Artificial Intelligence

Bilingual typography: Hong Kong case studies

This keynote presentation was delivered at the Multilingual Typography Symposium at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in 2011. Through considering the socio-political and socio-linguistic evolutions of bilingualism in Hong Kong, the presentation argues that visual harmony is not always the ultimate concern in cross-cultural typography – its effectiveness depends on how the two languages or scripts as well as their semantic components interact with each other under different contexts and purposes. With a systemic approach, the presentation examines case studies of bilingual typography in Hong Kong, considering bilingualism in terms of parallel translations, code-mixing and code-switching. A comparative descriptive framework for bilingual typography is also presented.

Bilingual typography: Hong Kong case studies from Keith Tam

Typographic hierarchy and legibility research

A seminar that discusses Michael Twyman‘s notation system for establishing typographic hierarchy (headings and paragraph) and a summary of Herbert Spencer’s review of literature of over 100 years of legibility research. Useful for typographers to inform their design decisions.

Twyman, M (1981) ‘Typography without words’, in Visible Language, XV no. 1, 5–12

Spencer, Herbert (1969) The visible word. London: Lund Humphries and Royal College of Art

Typographic hierarchy and legibility research from Keith Tam

Typography and book design reading list

Typography manuals

Baines, Phil and Andrew Haslam (2002)
Type & typography
New York: Watson-Guptill

Bringhurst, Robert (1997)
The elements of typographic style
Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, Publishers

Felici, James (2003)
The complete manual of typography: a guide to setting perfect type
Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press

Hochuli, Jost (2008)
Detail in typography: letters, letterspacing, words, wordspacing, lines, linespacing, columns
London: Hyphen Press

Kane, John (2002)
A type primer
New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Lupton, Ellen (2004)
Thinking with type: A critical guide for designers, writers, editors & students
New York: Princeton Architectural Press

McLean, Ruari (1980)
The Thames and Hudson manual of typography
London: Thames and Hudson

Middendorp, Jan (2012)
Shaping text: type, typography and the reader
Singapore: Page One Publishing


Burke, Christopher (2007)
Active literacture: Jan Tschichold and New Typography
London: Hyphen Press

Kinross, Robin, editor (2002)
Anthony Froshaug: typography & texts
London: Hyphen Press

Kinross, Robin (1992)
Modern typography: an essay in critical history
London, England: Hyphen Press 1992

Poyner, Rick (2003)
No more rules: graphic design and postmodernism
New Haven: Yale University Press

Classic texts

Gill, Eric (1988)
An essay on typography
New York: D R Godine

Ruder, Emil (2001)
Typographie (seventh edition)
Sulgen, Switzerland: Niggli

Tschichold, Jan, translated by Ruari McLean (1995)
The new typography: a handbook for modern designers
Berkeley: University of California Press

Tschichold, Jan; translated by Hajo Hadeler (1991)
The form of the book: essays on the morality of good design
London: Lund Humphries

Theory, research and discourse

Beier, Sofie (2012)
Reading letters: designing for legibility
Amsterdam: BIS Publishers

Heller, Steven and Philip Meggs, editors (2001)
Texts on type: critical writings on typography
New York: All Worth Press

Jury, David, editor (2001)
TypoGraphic Writing: selected writing from thirty years of TypoGraphic, the journal of the International Society of Typographic Designers
Stround, England: ISTD

Spencer, Herbert (1969)
The visible word
London: Lund Humphries/Royal College of Art

Swanson, Gunnar, editor (2000)
Graphic design & reading: explorations of an uneasy relationship
New York: All Worth Press

Unger, Gerard (2007)
While you’re reading
New York: Mark Batty Publisher

Walker, Sue (2001)
Typography and language in everyday life: prescriptions and practices
Harlow, England: Pearson Education

Book design

Bartram, Alan (2001)
Five hundred years of book design
New Haven: Yale University Press

Birdsall, Derek (2004)
Notes on book design
New Haven: Yale University Press

Haslam, Andrew (2006)
Book design: a comprehensive guide
London: Laurence King

Hochuli, Jost and Robin Kinross (1996)
Designing books: practice and theory
London: Hyphen Press

Hochuli, Jost (1993)
Book design in switzerland
Switzerland: Arts Council of Switzerland

Williamson, Hugh (1983)
Methods of book design (3rd edition)
New Haven: Yale University Press

Tschichold, Jan (1991)
The form of the book: essays on the morality of good design
Vancouver: Hartley & Marks, Publishers