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Exercise 3.3: Experimental Typography

Updated: May 28, 2022

Research Task 2: Choosing A Typeface

Before the following exercise, I read through the chapter 'on choosing a typeface’ in the book, Notes on Book Design by Derek Birdsall as a preface to starting Exercise 3. Birdsall outlines a number of his own thoughts in this extract about which rules around typefaces he feels compliment certain subjects and the context in which they will be seen. I found his examples insightful, including his suggestion on how serif and sans serif fonts work best in opposition as headings alongside the main body. I feel it is important that he also mentioned "in most cases" when talking about his own preferences. A place where one font usually doesn't work could turn out to be effective or vice versa depending on the context of the work mentioned.


For exercise 3, I needed to use a single font of my choice to interpret the following extract from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the sea. It is an evocative piece from a classic novel that sets the scene for the mystery of an ocean creature that captured the interest of ocean faring vessels from the 19th Century.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne

Chapter 1, A Shifting Reef

The year 1866 was signalised by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and puzzling phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten. Not to mention rumours which agitated the maritime population and excited the public mind, even in the interior of continents, seafaring men were particularly excited. Merchants, common sailors, captains of vessels, skippers, both of Europe and America, naval officers of all countries, and the Governments of several States on the two continents, were deeply interested in the matter.

For some time past vessels had been met by “an enormous thing,” a long object, spindle shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale. The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log-books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a whale, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science.

As the rest of the book progresses, it is discovered that the rumoured creature is a giant squid, but for this particular extract from the first chapter, the writing describes the rumours of its appearance from the perspectives of several sightings amongst sailors. I analysed and identified any descriptive words to make notes on in my sketchbook, then considered the forms that they could take as an image through visual research using mood boards.

Choosing a font

I considered which font to use by looking through my swatch books and digital font libraries to see which lent itself the most to the setting of the piece with several criteria in mind as I searched. On the practical side of things, I wanted to find something that had the flexibility to work for legible titles and text body and that would feel appropriate to the time period the text is set in, but also something that would give me as many options as possible for experimenting. I found myself gravitating towards well balanced Old Style serif fonts and after swapping out options to see what worked best using the original text in InDesign, I eventually chose to use Century Old Style Std.

Although a popular choice for modern book releases due to its high legibility, the Century family of fonts carries with it the traditional printed sensibilities of 19th century typeface design that doesn't feel too far from those used for printed news and reports from the time period that the book takes place in. The standard version of Century finds a modern use in children's books, but The Old Style variation I've chosen here is slightly more compact for larger bodies of text while maintaining strong legibility as a title, heading or main body of text.

Another benefit from this version in particular is how the shape of some of the serifs on certain letterforms link to the maritime setting of the story. The capital 'h' shares the same overall shape as a ships anchor and the letter "s" has a sleek variable curve that ends in sharp hooked serifs, resembling the tentacles and barbs of a squid, which have great potential for use in some of my designs.

Visual research

I was encouraged to be experimental in presenting the text in interesting and unusual ways, so I based one of my mood boards around the work of other experimental typographers to get a feel for what could be achieved. I gathered a collection of my favourite images from other experimental typographers and designers to use as inspiration.

There are thousands of examples of ideas in typography circles that are both inventive and explorative in nature, and I really enjoy the endless range of images that can be generated using the same letter forms as starting points. I particularly enjoyed looking at the work of designer Andreas Scheiger, who uses mixed media to present letters as artifacts under scientific study in his Evolution of type series. Although colour is still relevant to typography as with any other design subject, I noticed many typographers also focussed on greyscale palettes.

For the thematic side of things, my second mood board covered the aquatic and maritime setting of 20,000 leagues under the sea. I wanted my own typography to create a sense of that mystery of what lies in the deep and the danger that is implied by the creature below.

Initial Ideas

I printed out some templates for single and double page spreads to note my designs onto which I used to block out and plan my concepts. I kept referring back to my mood boards and the original text for inspiration until I had generated a diverse list of ideas. I tried a mix of 'A' size single portrait and double landscape page spreads that took each design in a different direction from the last until I was happy with the range.

From looking at experimental typography examples I became interested in trying to make calligrams, where the shape of the words reflected the theme of the text and many of my designs featured this in some way or another in the shape of aquatic objects such as ships, bubbles and the tentacles from the infamous squid. I didn't have a specific media in mind when I created most of these ideas and only made decisions on whether to use analogue or digital production methods when I moved on to the next stage, where I chose some of the stronger ideas to turn into four more developed ideas.

Developing Ideas


The first concept I developed stayed close into the initial idea number 2, where the body of the two paragraphs of text would form around a central eye to create the textured skin of a squid peering at the viewer through a port hole as seen from inside a ship. Using Illustrator I started the tricky process of experimenting with the right font size and line distribution to align the two paragraphs of italic text along each path in a pattern where they would still be easy to read.

Development process for "Eye", from illustrator layout to ink drawing then back to digital colour.

When all of this was blocked out I then printed out a version to add illustrated texture by hand, particularly to the wood panel wall. For the final touches I then scanned the illustrated image back into Photoshop and added some dull colour and a few shadows to help sell the setting. I do enjoy this concept as I have left it here, but if I returned to it I would improve the illustration further with extra work more on atmospheric lighting and reflections within the eye to help to reinforce where it sits within the environment.


'Depths' was a concept inspired by initial idea 4 where the original idea was to use rising bubbles focussing on adjectives, but as I started working with these in illustrator I found the circular shapes were limiting on their own. Instead, to try and create the feeling of the words being pulled down into the sea below, I warped the perspective for the main paragraphs using illustrator to peel letters and words off at angles more the further down the page they went.

Creating an atmosphere using gradients and shadows in the 'Depths' Concept

The second paragraph has less focus making sense and and more on maintaining the illusion that the words and lines were being devoured into the maw of the squid creature as indicated by the rising 's' tentacles. Adding some dramatic lighting with gradients really helped with this and at the end I used 'o' letters to bring back some of the bubble trails.


This concept began with option 5 as I had a clear vision for how to make a calligram of the word squid using the letters from the word to create the physical form of the creature. I spent some time doing this in Illustrator by manipulating the letters, then brought it into InDesign to use in a composition with some other elements visual elements from initial idea 1. besides a few elements such as the ship and the moon, I was pleased to be able to have constructed everything else from the shapes of letters alone.

Repositioning and inverting elements to create a final portrait 'Squid' design

I tried some portrait and landscape options that i played around with for a while, trying to find the right balance between everything, but settled on a portrait structure that would allow the squid to be seen upright and indicate its size and the depth of the water in comparison to the ship. I also took the opportunity to use the book and chapter titles to create an effective moon and reflection effect. The use of the upside down capital 'T' as an anchor also came into play and is my favourite trick from all my experimentations, to use a drop anchor as a drop capital in the first paragraph!

'Murky Waters'

This concept based on idea 8 was the loosest of my initial ideas and an exception to the others as depends on experimentation using real water and photography as the main media. I filled a Tupperware tank with water and added small amounts of ink to create a murky and silty surface, then submerges torn extracts of the main text using a torch shining through the side to simulate the effect of diving photography.

Experimentation using real water, murky inks and torn text.

I had some initial trouble focussing on the surface of the water in way that had balance between clarity of the words and the murky atmosphere of the water. Then, completely by accident as I moved some of my props in the water, a torn section of paper floated closer to the surface where it caught the light of the torch. I really love the composition of the words it highlighted across the lines. Mysterious, forgotten and seafaring are all a solid summary of the atmosphere of the extract and after adding some extra contrast and visual noise in Lightroom, I really like the unique end result of this experiment.

Click one of the images above to expand the gallery.

Building these designs was a fun way to explore alternative uses for text and has definitely opened me up for using more text based imagery in my book and illustrations work in the future. I would like to work on more individual word based typography though, as looking at my designs in this exercise, I put a lot of focus on individual letters or full paragraphs, and skipped over some of the middle ground of choosing key words or small phrases to interpret. Although I'm proud of my work, I also think that I had more emphasis on legibility than some of the other typographers I looked at, and I should also be pushing these limits further.



Flickr (2021) Experimental Typography At: (Accessed 15/10/21)

Hester, C. (2020) Experimental Typography At: (Accessed 15/10/21)

Shieger, A. (2021) Projects At: (Accessed 15/10/21)

Tate (2021) Artists: Mira Schendel At: (Accessed 15/10/21)

Typoday (2016) 2016 Poster Competition Results (Accessed 15/10/21)

Wikipedia (2021) Calligram At: (Accessed 15/10/21)


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