Lovely Letters: Leonardo Sonnoli Talks About the Heart of Typography

Graphic design is not only what you design, but what you’re designing for. To connect the product to the content, internationally renowned artist and typographer Leonardo Sonnoli suggests a thoughtful typeface. Over the years, Sonnoli’s work has traveled from the faces of books and posters to the inner caverns of the Coliseum in Rome, to the pages of The New York Times Book Review. On Tuesday, May 1, it brought Sonnoli from Italy to New York for a presentation about inspiration, representation and the integral part content plays in design.

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The title of the presentation itself, I spray cologne on to my typography without smudging the ink, represents the relationship of those concepts. Before designing any project, Sonnoli considers his content, researches it and studies old books for inspiration. (He says much of graphic design is referential.) In the basement of the Museum of Art and Design, where the presentation took place as part of a series of AIGA/NY events, Sonnoli posed this question to the audience: “What is the first thing you think about when writing a love letter: the content or the presentation?” For most people, it’s the content. The presentation just helps. Searching Yahoo Answers to see what “normal people think about typography” in the instance of love letters, Sonnoli found someone who wanted to spray perfume on a letter without smudging the ink. “Smudging the ink to me is to lose the sense of content,” Sonnoli said in a lilting Italian accent from the lectern. “Use typography starting from the content.” The same goes for any data visualization design:

typefaces are emotional and associative, so design them according to the situation.

Sonnoli chose to commemorate avant-garde musician John Cage by writing his name with eight-sided die thrown into letter grids. Cage composed chaotic music by throwing dice.   For a project in a cafe at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, he commemorated artists and art movements by creating individual typefaces for each: bold and shiny metal letters for Futurismo, a segmented linear font for Picasso, bolt-like Ts for kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely. At the Château de Versailles, Sonnoli studied Louis XIV’s art collection as well as the building itself to come up with silhouetted portraiture, wallpaper patterns and a one-of-a-kind Château de Versailles typeface. Sonnoli says the designer becomes a part of the content, even if that content isn’t his or her own. As an example of how difficult it is to stay out of the work, he’s prompted a class to design a promotion for something they really hated: a very hard task to accomplish. Yet, he reassured the crowd, design is not all serious work. “I don’t really believe in the important social role of the graphic designer,” he says. “I think we do it just for fun.” Rani Molla is digital media master’s student at Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.

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