Screenplay typography project: 10 years on

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This year marks my tenth year of teaching design at university. Typography is my main area of expertise; it is primarily where my passion lies as a design practitioner and academic, a subject that is very close to my heart. I am particularly into detail typography and typographic structures and systems. My approach is very workmanlike and pragmatic, and concerns mostly with finding the most fitting form for textual content. Style is seen as something that naturally emerges from this process rather than a purely artistic pursuit.

Since the first typography class I taught back in 2003, I have been running this project for my students at various levels. The idea of this project came when I was eating out with some friends at a restaurant called Alibi Room in Vancouver, and in the restaurant there was a small library of movie screenplays lying in a corner. I thought to myself: turning these crude documents (set entirely in one style and weight of the monospaced Courier typeface, an industry-standard format) into highly polished, publishable books would be an excellent assignment for my typography students.

Screenplay project brief (2012–13 academic year)
[If you would like to use this brief for one of your classes, please let me know via email, and give me full credit, thank you.]

Screenplay analysis

A student used colour to analyse the content structure of the screenplay (Choi Yee Nga, class of 2009)

I found the text document for the screenplay for the movie Brazil written by Terry Gilliam (of the famous Monty Python contingent), Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, one of my favourite movies of all time. [To this day I don’t know if this text is in the public domain, which probably isn’t, but this is all for education so . . . ] Before the text could be used for professional typesetting, the file would have to be thoroughly cleaned up and prepared. This process alone would force students to look closely at the structure of content so that they could give the text an ideal form for professional publishing.

This project also gives student advance training in the use of the InDesign software: tabs, indents, spacing, leading, paragraph indications, styles and so on. The structure of the text is complex and, in order to design it successfully, students must work systematically. However I do not see this as a purely technical exercise, but a way of thinking critically and making systemic design decisions. This working methodology would prepare students for things like designing for structured content for the web and other kinds of interactive and editorial projects, and places the importance of content squarely in the centre of any design task.

The brief also trains students to look closely at details and the subtleties of typography, and to pay attention to minute spaces, punctuation usage and the craft of setting type. Students also need to gauge how explicit or subtle typographic cues need to be for readers of such publications – not exactly a (linear) novel, but not a reference work either. Do I create a strong contrast so as to aid navigation amongst the scenes within the book, or let ‘typographic distractions’ be as minimal as possible so that readers can focus on the content and read in a somewhat continuous manner?

Screenplay marked proof

A marked proof page (Ross Milne, class of 2006)

An iterative process is essential for this project: to go through cycles of testing, refining, and correcting, until a final solution is arrived at. It takes a lot of patience and focussed attention, which graphic design students these days often lack. The final submission of this assignment is a dummy book with a series of spreads as well as a full set of specifications for the design. This is a deviation from what students often think of as a ‘final product’, which can be confusing at times. The idea that a design is not a one-of-a-kind object that a designer creates, but a set of instructions for others to follow, is increasingly important in (communication) design education. This year, I have even attached a small exercise of an HTML- and CSS-based e-book demo page to the project, extending the project from print to screen, planting the idea of parallel or multi-platform publishing in their minds, linking typography with interactivity and screen-based media.

This Easter break I finally took the time to work on this assignment myself. I have chosen to use a sanserif typeface (Quadraat Sans) for the entire text. This is a deviation from the norm, but I do find that Quadraat Sans is an extremely smooth-reading typeface for text that is as good as a serif, though unconventional for this genre. The text is quite minimally cued, read somewhat like a linear text, only with the character names and scene headings (slugs) in bold. A baseline grid is used. The specification document is here. Hopefully this would inspire my students, though it should not be seen as the one and only ‘perfect’ solution – many possibilities abound.

Some student work from over the years will be posted on soon.

About Keith Tam

Typographer, information designer, academic based in Hong Kong
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