For my Digital Publishing Scholarship & Studio Fellowship this summer, I am working with master calligrapher Cheryl Jacobsen to design her first textbook that will support the introductory calligraphy course she has taught at the University of Iowa for more than 20 years. As an MFA Candidate at the Center for the Book, I have served as Cheryl’s Teaching Assistant for four semesters. However, Cheryl and I go back even further—when I enrolled in the very course I now help teach as a freshman in college.
That means I have been practicing calligraphy for nearly twelve years now, which was a funny time to declare my devotion to this “old-school” art form. Public schools across the country had just decided that teaching cursive writing would no longer be a part of the curriculum. Yet, there I was, feeling so pulled to study something that humans have practiced for thousands of years. The content felt more relevant than ever because calligraphy straddles the worlds of craft and art.
Calligraphy begins as a craft, a learned skillset that exists within a structured universe. A student of calligraphy must first practice and replicate historical hands (the calligraphic term for font) using a ductus (a diagram that shows the number, order, and direction of strokes required to create a letter). It takes hours and hours of practice to even get comfortable writing a new hand, and only after that time, can a student begin to make effective art with calligraphy. Art involves personal interpretation of a medium. And with calligraphy, an artist must first understand how the shapes and strokes of a hand interact in order to break those rules and create something new. People often fail to appreciate this, and as a result, there are hundreds of terrible instructional calligraphy books written by unqualified hobbyists.
Therefore, the mission of creating this textbook with Cheryl is to present the history, tools, practice, and art of calligraphy in the most digestible, relevant way possible. She has boiled down her lesson plans to a science. She is able to break down complicated design principles, anticipate confusion, and pinpoint subtle mistakes. For years, she has used handouts to communicate this information with students. This textbook—with its introduction, four sections, index, etc.—presents calligraphy not as a hobbyist activity, but as a fine art that demands a lot of discipline and attention to detail in order to be successful. A book is also a more navigable learning tool, and it is also a more democratic tool—all of which supports the mission of the digital humanities.
Reflections from the Summer Fellowship
When I pitched my book design project months ago, it seemed like a relatively manageable project. It would require book design knowledge, experience with calligraphy, and proficiency in Adobe InDesign—all of which I possess. There is, however, one big question a book designer must ask: Is the content for the book finished? Before this process started, my answer was yes, of course.
Cheryl has honed her teaching material for more than 20 years, and I have used this very material in class for four semesters as her teaching assistant. It is perfect and complete. Any question a student has can typically be answered via the handouts Cheryl distributes in class. However, I didn’t realize that converting the handouts into a cohesive book format would require a bit of reformatting.
Here’s an example: Cheryl usually introduces the first calligraphic hand, Roman Capitals, by introducing the “skeleton” version of the letters. She breaks down the letters to their simplest form in order to focus on the fundamentals of proportions and spacing. Once students get this, she introduces the history surrounding Roman Capitals so that students can begin to learn more complicated versions of the letters. That works great for in-class instruction, but for the book, it makes most sense to start with the history. That way, students gain a chronological understanding of the letters and why we study them in the first place. This requires a bit of re-wording, which means unexpected content generation.
In addition to reformatting content, I have also spent a significant amount of time on the cover design, knowing this is how the book will present to the world. Because Adobe InDesign makes it so easy to play with typography, I spent hours playing with a type-forward, graphic cover design. This ultimately felt too robotic, almost antithetical to the hands-on nature of calligraphy. I ended up scrapping the first concept entirely and instead asking Cheryl for some original artwork. This also led to me to rethink the header and subtitle designs. Instead of using a typeface, I have asked Cheryl to write them in calligraphy. Striking the right balance between a digital typeface and organic calligraphy has been merely one unanticipated but rewarding challenge of this project.