Postgraduate

The Design and Social Meaning of Australian Type Specimen Books, 1880 – 1901

The Design and Social Meaning of Australian Type Specimen Books, 1880 – 1901

Jesse O’Neill

PhD, 2012

Supervised by Dr Katherine Moline & Dr Michael Garbutt

My research examines the Australian type specimen books of 1880–1901, the advertising texts of the local typographic trade. I develop a new approach to reading specimen books, and through practice-based design methods create a series of contemporary alternatives. This exposes the dominant cultural discourses present in these typographic artefacts.

Abstract

Printing history is a multi-faceted field, embracing studies of journalism, manufacturing, distribution, reading, and politics. Typographic design, which is the creation of printing’s visual culture, is an essential part of this discipline, yet it remains virtually unexplored in studies of Australia’s nineteenth-century printing trade. My research addresses the absence of local typographic discourse in printing history by looking to the advertising texts that promoted typographic styles to the colonial trade: the Australian type specimens of 1880–1901. To examine the ways typographers designed these books, I develop a multimodal social semiotic method for reading type specimens. This method uncovers the patterns of design in these books, explaining their visual composition and, importantly, their linguistic meaning as responding to the colonial typographers’ commercial context. I argue that the specimens’ design reflects dominant cultural discourses of institutional power, colonisation, and industrialisation, and that they depict the typographic trade as one of the forces that propagated the late nineteenth-century British Empire in Australia. Exploring these cultural discourses in the specimens’ language, I employ practice-based methods of type design, composition, and manufacture to create a new series of specimen sheets that feature texts from a wider range of late nineteenth-century commercial publications. The meanings of these texts contrast with those meanings uncovered in the colonial specimen books. This suggests that when designing their specimens the colonial typographers obscured those facets of their trade practice that did not support an image of institutionalised colonial power. This research provides a new method for examining nineteenth-century type specimen books, revealing the existence of regular patterns of design and meaning within this genre of texts. The research also introduces typographic history to Australian printing studies, exploring how typographers promoted their typographic work, and how they represented their professional role within nineteenth-century Australian culture.

contact

jesse[dot]oneill[at]hotmail[dot]com

Jesse O'Neill

Jesse O’Neill, Shadow Type Forme Drawing 2 (2012). Digital print and acrylic on paper; 38 x 57cm, and, Shadow Type Forme Drawing 4 (2012). Ink and acrylic on paper; 38 x 57cm. Photograph: Jesse O’Neill

Jesse O’Neill, <i>Shadow Type Forme Drawing 2</i> (2012). Digital print and acrylic on paper; 38 x 57cm, and, <i>Shadow Type Forme Drawing 4</i> (2012). Ink and acrylic on paper; 38 x 57cm. Photograph: Jesse O’Neill