ESAV Marrakesh, November 2010

My first visit for the academic year 2010-11 reconnects with the same bunch of students I taught earlier this year in March and May. On the first day the students, now in their third year (which also designates the third year of the graphic department of the ESAV) will continue to develop their skills and knowledge of Arabic script and typography by means of a series of exercises. This time around I conceived a number of tasks to train their dexterity and accuracy, in both, looking and drawing. The realisation that reading the script does not imply a profound knowledge of letter-forms surprises students time and again.

Day one aims at questioning the students’ assumptions about letter-shapes and earlier knowledge about the Arabic script. They are asked to complete a number of partly-hidden letters through free-hand drawing. The example letters are classic Naskh letters, using DecoType’s Tasmeem Naskh typeface. Through the process of copying/tracing/drawing, the students learn to appreciate the difficulty of proper contours, proportions and the relative positioning of letters.

Day two and things turn more complicated: how do you fuse individual letter-shapes? What are the alignments and how do individual letter shapes differ in context? Most students are surprised when realising that they didn’t quite know how to draw a letter, or indeed how the contextual shapes differ. While there is a fair bit of resistance, suffering and sighs, eventually most get somewhere, have moments of epiphany, and consequently satisfaction.

Day three: the students start to put their letters into context, choosing words and revising the individual shapes according to this application. More and more personal interpretation is introduced and the model is gradually less visible in the drawings. Questions of spacing and alignment turn more tangible for the students and coherence and rhythm are introduced as concepts. Later on, drawings get scanned and prepared for the next step, digitisation as vector graphics.

Day four starts with a scolding that reminds the students that work-ethic is not really compatible with constant YouTube video consumption and a gentle reminder that self-motivation and auto-critique are essential features for a successful designer. Some students must really think it is not their day as the realisation that the computer doesn’t help to hide a poor drawing kicks in. “Oh had I only made a greater effort with my paper drawing, the vector graphic doesn’t make it look any nicer” must have been on the mind of many a student this morning. Eventually some come to grips with the Bezier curves and a few nicely drawn letters make it into the classroom. Personal interpretations go further and wilder, in the best cases with some rather convincing results.

Day five and the work-ethics seems to prevail – or is it rather stress, anticipating the end of the course and grades looming? Either way, the students busily implement their drawings in final pieces with the aim of conveying the design process pursued. The class is split in “media design” and “graphic design” branches and accordingly letters are presented in static and moving images, according to students’ preferences.

Prologue: Although the students franticaly tried to finish in time, soon it became clear that only a handful would make it before the end of the course. The time lost during the first three days became graphically visible and I decided to give them extra time, rather than finishing with largely unsatisfying results. I hope the students will manage to motivate themselves, to be self-critical and eventually elevate their skills to a higher level of quality without external guidance and pressure.

Post Scriptum: As I left Morocco a little episode of applied type design sweetened the airport boredom. When the border guard checked the number stamped into my passport during my first visit, he clearly had a hard time deciphering the figures. The modern-face numbers hadn’t fully survived the stamping process and the official wasn’t quite sure what to note down. After a little back and forth, he was satisfied to have read the right figures, noted them in his paper, and used his ballpoint pen to correct the stamp in my passport.
I of course interpreted this as a first proof that the work at the ESAV lifted the typographic awareness of the whole country (and note the date when I left Morocco in May!).

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