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 and its intellectual and emotional effects. In the new media age, a new type of literacy 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 understanding alphabets and their significance.

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

This blog post discusses letteracy by discussing the significance of the alphabet and then focusing on the importance of fonts and typography in visual design such as in a magazine or webpage layout, as well as in the use of logos.

Letters Capture Sound

One of the first questions to ask is “What are letters?” Letters typically refer to characters of the alphabet, which are used in written language to represent sounds. Letters are the building blocks of words and are fundamental to written communication in many languages. Each letter typically represents one or more sounds in a spoken language, and when combined in various sequences, they form words that convey meaning.

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 sounds. The change allowed Korea’s population to achieve a high rate of 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.

Fonts and Typography

A key distinction in letteracy is between the terms “font” and “typography” that are often used interchangeably, but they refer to different aspects of written or printed text. A font refers to a specific style or design of a set of characters that share consistent visual characteristics. This set would include letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and symbols. Font characteristics include attributes such as typeface, weight, style (e.g., regular, italic, bold), size, and spacing. Examples of fonts include Arial, Times New Roman, Helvetica, and Comic Sans.

Typography, on the other hand, encompasses the art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable, legible, and visually appealing. It 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. Typography involves the selection and use of fonts, as well as considerations such as layout, spacing, alignment, hierarchy, color, and overall design. Good typography involves careful attention to detail and consideration of the intended audience, context, and purpose of the text.

Below is one of my favorite TED talks about typography.


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. As the speaker points out, spacing is an important issue in typography. Kerning, Tracking, and Leading are three terms that describe the importance of space and help us do the denotative analysis.

Kerning deals with distance between two letters. Words are indecipherable if the letters are tooclose or too far apart. They can also be awkward to read when some letters have wi d e r spacing and others narrower.

Tracking involves adjusting the spacing throughout the e n t i r e word. It can be used to change the spacing equally between every letter at once. Tracking can make a single word seem airy and impressive but can quickly lead to difficulty in reading if used excessively.

Leading is a design aspect that determines how text is spaced vertically in lines. It deals with the distance |||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| from the bottom of the words above to the top of the words below in order to make them legible.

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.


A logo is the graphic signature of a person or organization. It is meant to encapsulate and communicate the preferred symbolic meanings of an organization that cannot be imparted through words alone. A logo is a simple, abstracted representation of an individual or corporate identity. It is a constructed icon meant to immediately denote and connote meaning.

A logo should maintain its clarity in many different sizes. It should be designed as an easily remembered icon that represents its bearer. It is meant to be seen and recognized instantly. It is also meant to be reduced in size without disappearing from view or losing its legibility. 

It may include visual elements such as colors, forms, fonts and shapes, and even dress codes. It should be effective in both black and white, and color. It should appear well in different media (paper, RGB, etc.) It should also translate well into different media and packaging. Few logos achieve these standards, but those that succeed play an important role in determining success.


Letteracy provides a framework for understanding the significance of letters, typography, and logos in visual design. By appreciating the art and science of typography and recognizing the power of logos, we can better comprehend and communicate through the visual language of text and symbols in our media-saturated world.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2020, May 5) “Letteracy” and Logos.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is a Professor at 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 Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. His American home is in Austin, Texas where he has taught in the Digital Media BS and MBA programs at St. Edwards University. He joyfully spent 9 years at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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