Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Letteracy and Logos

Posted on | May 5, 2020 | No Comments

More than ever, people are interested in how visual design influences the production of meaning as well as its intellectual emotional effects. Typography is the design and arrangement of letters and text so that the writing is easy to understand, appealing, and conveys an appropriate set of feelings and meanings. A logo is the graphic signature of a person or organization that is meant to encapsulate and communicate the preferred symbolic meanings of an organization.

Below is one of my favorite TED talks about typography.

This blog post discusses both the importance of typography in visual design such as in a magazine or webpage layout as well as in the use of logos. A new type of literacy in the new media age has emerged that Seymour Papert (1993) and others began to call “letteracy.” Papert was critical of the idea of introducing letters too early in a child’s development, but recognized that connecting with culture and history required alphabetical literacy.

“Letteracy” suggests a larger conversation about global visual culture and why people are increasingly more interested in the impact of typography in our media world. A twist on “literacy,” it points to discrepancy between a world in which reading is pervasive, and the relative ignorance of how letters are designed and have an influence on us. One of the first questions to ask is “What are letters?”

Capturing Sound

Letters are phonographic – they code the sounds of language in scripted figures. A few writing systems like Chinese characters are ideographic, they code ideas into their figures. Phonographic writing has the advantage of coding everyday language in their letters while being flexible enough to incorporate new words. Ideographic writing requires extensive memorization and social mentoring to enforce meanings and consistency in sound reproduction.

Asian societies like Korea, and to a lesser extent, Japan, have replaced Chinese characters with the phonographic characters. Korea instituted “Hangul” that is phonographic but with some iconic aspects. The characters represent oral movements of the tongue and lips used to achieve those sounds. The change allowed Korea to achieve a high rate of the population, achieving reading literacy. Japan has two sets of phonographic characters, hiragana, and katakana. These both are sound based, but each character represents a whole syllable – the vowel and the consonant. To make the situation a bit more complicated, they still use “Kanji” ideographic characters borrowed from China.

From Printing Press to Desktop Publishing

Johannes Gutenberg is credited with inventing both the printing press and the production of durable typefaces around 1460 AD. The technology had also been developed in China and Korea, but conditions in Europe were better for its expansion. Printing presses in China and Korea were state-based projects that eventually withered. Conversely, religious, market, and political conditions in Europe improved their chances of success.

The first best-seller? The Christian Bible. In 1517, the Protestant revolution began that emphasized reading of the Bible over the services of the Catholic church and its priests. It also helped Europe develop separate nation-states as people became more literate in their local languages. Printed materials in different dialects began to coagulate community identities. People began to identify with others who spoke the same dialect and recognize them as sharing the same national values. Benedict Anderson called these “imagined communities” in the book by the same name.

Thanks to Steve Jobs and the Apple Macintosh graphical user interface, different typefaces were added to computers. Along with WYSIWYG display, the new GUI enabled desktop publishing. This democratized the printing “press.” Consequently, understanding the importance of different styles of letters became an important literacy of the digital age.

Part of this literacy is an understanding the various meanings associated with typography. Type fonts can be designed and used with various purposes in mind. The “Power of Typography” video above explains in more detail.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand. He keeps his American home in Austin, Texas and has taught there in the Digital Media MBA program at St. Edwards University He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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