Sunday, January 15, 2012

Gerrit Noordzij: having a good time when you’re teaching

Above is a Vimeo frame still of Gerrit Noordzij as he’s sketching and explaining the design of letterforms during his talk at TypeMedia on 25 March 2010. Erik van Blokland posted the video.

Noordzij is the renowned graphic designer and teacher at the Dutch Royal Academy of Art, The Hague. A great little book titled, The Stroke: Theory of Writing (1985) was written by Gerrit Noordzij and translated fairly recently by Peter Enneson (thank you, Peter). The publisher, Hyphen Press, states, “The Stroke stands out as the most concise and complete summary of Noordzij’s theories on type.”

In an excerpt from an interview with Robin Kinross, Noordzij describes how he teaches his “binary system” to students — Noordzij prefaces:
… any writing of any civilization begins with the stroke, and the stroke is made with the tool [brush or pen], and if you have a stiff tool, then the shape of the tool dominates the character of your writing, and with a soft tool the impulse of your hand dominates the writing.
Noordzij continues to explain:
I always found it very nice to ask my students “is it this? or is it that?”… It’s a nice method. It’s the binary tree.… My system is good for finding your way in design.…
The journalist Margaret Richardson once asked me what my main objective was in teaching. I said, to have a good time. She thought that I was not serious. But I said I was serious. And why did I want to have a good time? As a teacher you can only have a good time when your students are sure that they have a good time. I tried to find things that the students found interesting. Thought-provoking things are always the best; they like that.
I wanted to ask my students to study the book Printing Types by [D.B.] Updike. Then after three weeks I would ask them about it. In my classes we didn’t have what is called a ‘discipline’. Imagine that you go to your students, show them these impressive thick volumes, and say that you will ask them about the book in three weeks’ time. What do they say? “Oh, that's too much! We have so many things to do!” I just took a paragraph from the book and read it aloud. They started laughing. I said: “how do you think that this man could be so famous and yet say such stupid things?” The next day they were crowding around me with quotations and arguments. Just ask a student to find the faults in Updike or in Morison or in me, and they will bring you arguments.
It is just as with a child playing a game. I think that many students have the feeling, often unconsciously, that playing this game could be important for everything else in their lives. It may not really go to the heart of the matter, nevertheless it’s a good problem for a school. It’s a problem that can be a metaphor for your real problems, and because it's just a metaphor you can play with it. Then the only thing that you have to do as a teacher is watch, and show that you are present. So that when people are doing dangerous things, they can afford the risk, because you are there. When you are at the back of the class, sometimes you see somebody look to see if you are still there. That keeps you alive, or at least it gives you a good time.

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