< HIST216 : Modern Typography, c. 1880 to the Present: the "Crystal Goblet" of History

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HIST216 : Modern Typography, c. 1880 to the Present: the "Crystal Goblet" of History

Level:Part II (any yr)
Learning Hours:150
Credit Points:15.0
Course Convenor:Professor AA Kallis

Syllabus Rules

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Prior to HIST216, the student must have successfully completed:

Assessment Rules

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  • 100% Coursework

Curriculum Design: Outline Syllabus

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The module analyses the role of modern typography (from c.1880 to the present) as a semiotic system that is shaped by, reflects, and influences historical change. It aims to analyse how the written text (printed and, more recently, digital; official and vernacular) has made use of typographic elements to articulate and/or pursue transformations in social, political, and cultural values. The module approaches typography as a complex form of ever-changing 'historical visual dialect', subsuming diverse and ever-changing national, social, and cultural identities into its design practices. 

The first segment of the module provides a brief overview of the significance of the printing and typography in relation to history, modernity, and national culture/identity. Then the module embarks on a chronological journey that captures defining moments in the history of typography from the era of mechanisation of printing to the contemporary 'digital revolution'. The second segment of the module deals with the tensions between historicism, revival, and innovation in the period between 1880 and the 1920s. This is followed by a third segment on the typography of the 'modern movement', with a special focus on Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy. The fourth segment of the module discusses the postwar quest for standardisation as a strategy of 'escaping from the weight of history', first through the drive towards universal design standards and later through the postmodernist critique of the legacy of modernism that sought to promote individualism and to set written language adrift from the speaking subject. Finally, the fifth segment of the module focuses on the 'digital revolution', offering an analysis from the contrasting viewpoints of democratisation and globalisation. 

The module concludes with a special 'presentation event' in the final week, during which students will present and exhibit the group projects, followed by discussion and feedback.  


Topics studied will typically include:

  • The printing revolution and the historical text
  • Typography and identity: typographic traditions and national identity
  • Typography, industrialisation, and the birth of mass society (19th century)
  • Modernity and its discontents: revival versus innovation (fin de siecle)
  • Modernism and the 'escape from tradition' (1920s-1930s)
  • The influence of the Bauhaus and the 'New Typography'
  • The German ‘Sonderweg’: Blackletter versus Roman type
  • After the rain: escaping from the 'weight of history' (1950s-1970s)
  • The digital 'revolution' (1980s to the present)

Educational Aims: Subject Specific: Knowledge, Understanding and Skills

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The module aims to enable students to:

  • explore how key developments in modern and contemporary Europe (such as the industrial revolution, mass politics and society, the two world wars, totalitarianism, the 'digital revolution', globalisation etc) effected historical change;
  • appreciate the impact of modernist ideas and aesthetics on typography and visual design in the twentieth century;
  • engage in a comparative analysis of typographic trends across a number of European countries and the USA in the twentieth century; 
  • analyse developments in typography as distilled expression of historical change in the cultural, political, and social fields;
  • explore how typography has articulated visions of historical change for the future; 
  • acquire an overview of the major debates on typography and design of the same period and locate modernism vis-a-vis other counter-currents and critics;
  • appreciate how political power can be represented and communicated through visual design involving text and typography.

Educational Aims: General: Knowledge, Understanding and Skills

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The module aims to enable students to:

  • develop their oral and written communication skills, in a variety of formats ranging from essay-writing and group projects to online blog-style self-reflection and asynchronous discussion through the module website;
  • develop skills that will help them to use a variety of sources and resources, including texts, posters, signage, print and digital publishing, and advertising in order to understand and solve problems of  interpretation;
  • learn how to combine indepth study of particular topics with comparative insight;
  • explore clear, precise and comprehensive presentation of evidence and argument;
  • strengthen their analytical skills, particularly through a comparative approach that combines conceptual and empirical elements;
  • acquire knowledge of advanced web platforms and media, such as collaborative online 'canvases' and collaborative infographics (namely, rendering complex information gathered from personal and group research in a visually engaging and accessible form).

Learning Outcomes: Subject Specific: Knowledge, Understanding and Skills

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On successful completion of this module students will: 

  • be familiar with major developments in typography (historicism, revivalism, functionalism, modernism, post-modernism) and have a solid understanding of the historical forces that underpinned them; 
  • show a deeper knowledge of the multi-faceted meaning(s) of modernism in the fields of aesthetics, visual culture, political worldview, and social values;
  • appreciate how typographic artifacts can be analysed as both products of, and drivers for, historical change;
  • possess both specific knowledge relating to particular influential typefaces and typographic movements, and a broader comparative overview of their respective similarities and differences;
  • consolidate their knowledge of the twentieth century as a period of profound historical and cultural change


Learning Outcomes: General: Knowledge, Understanding and Skills

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On successful completion of this module students will be able to:

  • explain and defend the results of their research and their ideas in the context of seminar discussions and group presentations;
  • assemble coherent, logical and relevant arguments in the context of an essay and the exam;
  • demonstrate in the above settings IT skills that allow them to make use of the module's advanced online platform, online archival resources, content-management-system infrastructure, and library/online visual resources;
  • undertake research in a comparative and trans-disciplinary context appropriate to undergraduate degree level;
  • work both independently and in groups, developing flexible skills (personal, cultural and cognitive/epistemic) that will allow them to identify individual/ common goals and work towards achieving them; 
  • handle different types of information (textual, visual, web-based); 
  • relate ideas and factual information in writing of different styles/genres (formal academic essays; written group projects; gobbets; online blog-style contributions; individual and group oral presentations)

Assessment: Details of Assessment

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The module is assessed on the basis of coursework only. The rationale behind this choice relates to the subject matter, which lends itself to multiple pieces of coursework (conceptual/theoretical/comparative, in-depth focus on a case study, group-work focused on the changing use of typography in a particular field - see below). In particular:

  1. the project/assignment (800 words - 20% of total), due in the middle of the term, will invite students to assess the significance of a particular typeface in relation to its particular historical and/or national context. This will involve a combination of visual artifacts accompanied by textual commentary. Students may choose to do their assignment in the form of an annotated 'catalogue' or a 'photo-essay'. Selected/edited material will be made available on the course website for the benefit of all module students; 
  2. the group project (individual written contribution of 1500 words as part of group project submission - 40% of total), due at the end of the module, will involve colalborative work on the use of typography in a particular field of social/cultural activity (chosen from a list that includes books, newspapers, signage, advertising, propaganda, national/city identity, moving image, web) combining a long-term perspective on the changes in typography with an in-depth study of how typography is influenced by historical change. The group projects will be presented during the final week of the module, in the context of a special three-hour 'presentation event' (non-assessed presentation), with each group given 30 minutes to present their collective work to the rest of the cohort; and
  3. the essay (2000 words - 40% of total), due in the week after the end of the module, will ask students to tackle a theoretical aspect of the course in comparative terms (i.e. analysis of typography as a semiotic system in relation to its changing historical context).

The three pieces of assessment are designed to address particular skills, both subject-specific and generic. The project/assignment [1] offers students an opportunity to engage in a detailed, focused, yet concise analysis of a particular typeface, offering them the opportunity to appreciate its distinctive features and their ability to communicate changing values of its historical/national context. It also asks them to conduct both historical and visual research, putting into practice the main theoretical themes covered on the module in Weeks 1-4.

The group project [2] invites students to work together in teams of 8-10 (made to coincide with workshop groups and active from the very beginning of the module), with a view to capturing the changing uses of modern typography in diverse fields of social, cultural, and political activity over an extended period of time. Although students will be collaborating on their projects throughout the module (supported by group supervision sessions and individual informal feedback from the tutor), they will be expected to work independently on their (assessed) contribution for the project and at the same time design together with their group a presentation (non-assessed) for the last week of the module.

Finally, the essay [3] is designed to assess the students' understanding of theoretical issues relating to the analysis of typography as connotation of historical change; being the most intellectually demanding aspect of the module's assessment, it is scheduled for after the end of the module and will be supported by online formative feedback prior to submission. 

Curriculum Design: Single, Combined or Consortial Schemes to which the Module Contributes

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Major/combined/consortial programmes administered by History: History; History and Philosophy; History and Religious Studies; Social History.

Single Major/combined/consortial programmes administered by others: French Studies and History; German Studies and History; English Literature and History; History and International Relations; History and Politics; History and Music; History, Philosophy and Politics; Italian Studies and History; Spanish Studies and History.

Lancaster University
LancasterLA1 4YW United Kingdom
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