Type and Media Masters program at KABK: A review
The Type and Media program at KABK, The Hague, Netherlands, offers eleven to twelve students each year the opportunity to enrol in a one-year type design master’s studies. As a former Type and Media (T[M) student (2009-2010), I have been approached by several people in the design field about my experience of program in The Hague. I thought the easiest way to share my experiences would be by documenting them all in one place. By writing this review, I hope to provide those individuals a quick overview of the program. I will try to stay as objective as possible, though needless to say this remains an account of a subjective experience. Looking back, I realize that I have learned a lot about type design and typography; however, like any course offered by educational institutions, this course comes with its pluses and minuses. Here we go.
Method and Philosophy
The Hague’s program is primarily based on the “learning by doing” method. While “reinventing the wheel” is an important and effective tool in teaching and exploring complex ideas, I felt there was not enough emphasis on key concepts and fundamentals of type design. For instance, during my final project (Canella Type Family), I went too far in one direction, which did not turn out to be the right one and which resulted in a lot of wasted time. Many common pitfalls could have been avoided if there had been proper theoretical background provided. The T[M faculty considers personal observations and decisions the key elements in designing a typeface. Taking into account rules of thumb, or in other words key concepts and fundamentals, means little in the teaching of type design in The Hague. However, I believe that someone who starts designing type needs to first establish the fundamentals which can be used when necessary to avoid common mistakes right from the start. On the other hand, I also believe that personal observations and decisions can be an important tool in some situations, for while it is important to make use of previous, well-founded knowledge to establish control over the process, personal observations and decisions help to cover new ground and to think outside of the box. I agree with the method of using personal observations and decisions as one form of experimentation, but not as the only one. It needs to be complemented by other approaches for a well-balanced understanding of the material, and successful implementation in practice.
Scope and diversity of taught material
Type history as a subject is scarcely integrated into the program. Peter Bilak from the T[M faculty, external lecturers, such as Fred Smeijers or Gerard Unger, and Frank E. Blokland from the BA faculty, introduce information about some of the main periods in type history, but only briefly. Unfortunately, the program is so densely packed that there is actually very little time for self-studies or library time on the subject. Some of the teachers have suggested taking one week off for research time in libraries. This suggestion is great, but not necessarily feasible for anyone given the course work load.
Type design in T[M’s program is closely based on calligraphy. Frank E. Blokland, who offers T[M students a BA classes at KABK, continues to teach calligraphy based on the tradition of Gerrit Noordzij. Renaissance writing and italic script with the broad-nib pen are the principal writing styles in his course. Erik van Blokland introduces pointed nib writing. As such, fundamentals for writing that are useful in today’s type design world are well covered.
Although The Hague introduces traditional foundations, such as calligraphy and even stone carving (taught by Françoise Berserik), programming and implementation of new technologies are not given short shrift. Some teachers are actively involved in current type technology implementations and programming, for example by Erik van Blokland, Petr von Blokland and Just van Rossum. We even had a course in Python programming, and we attended an Adobe FDK workshop. We had quite a bit of technological input during the program. As it was rarely applied after the workshops, it was not really internalised by the majority of the students. Thus, I have to say that even having been involved in the field for some time, I am still dependent on collaborations in terms of type production, and getting a type ready for publishing. My suggestion would be to integrate the FDK from the beginning of the course, so as to give the students the chance to familiarise themselves better with the technology, and have the opportunity to get feedback in their use of it.
The program coordinator organised a cultural program in which he also participated, which gave us a great insight into Dutch design, architecture and art scene. It included excursions to type and design related events in Holland, Belgium and Germany. In Holland, we frequently went to see design exhibitions, were offered guided city tours, attended conferences and visited designers. This was an invaluable experience in my opinion.
Research - practical and academic
While The Hague promotes a focus on practical research, academic research has little place in the program. The revival project, which has a theoretical and a practical part, requires at least some academic research. However, a 1500-2000 word essay does not really prepare one for professional academic research. Furthermore, there is no emphasis given on following any academic guidelines. I would have expected a master’s program to provide adequate academic knowledge in order to facilitate student’s enrolling in further studies, which imply solid academic research and writing skills. I would suggest emphasising academic writing in the program. Right now, students who aim to pursue further graduate studies would need to follow additional courses, or publish articles in the field.
There is an important point to be made here about the program, as far as as the quality and the opportunity for academic research go, and that is the fact that a masters degree is commonly recognised as an academic degree. Therefore, if KABK claims to provide a master’s program in Type and Media, the program should try to stay as close to that definition as possible. Otherwise, the whole pursuit becomes a blur and students might wonder whether they are attending a master’s program, or a year long workshop.
Expertise and pedagogical skills of faculty/teachers
Teachers at KABK come in different flavours. While all of them are top-level type designers and are skilled in different areas of type design, some are better teachers than others. Aside from the visiting teachers, we saw the regular core teachers once a week. We had constant feedback on our work, including helpful weekly individual review sessions, in which, each teacher commented on printouts of the typeface. During the final project phase, which was approximately four months long, we presented incremental steps of our work-in-progress at intervals of four to six weeks. This was quite helpful, because it forced us to respect deadlines on the one hand, and on the other hand the faculty was aware of the results and was able to interfere or guide us individually, when necessary. Some teachers have, on top of their technical skills, full pedagogical skills, which favours a student’s learning progress. Others can be rather discouraging and communicate a lack of sensitivity. For instance, in the first term, I worked on a Greek script in my free time, following the general philosophy of the program to experiment with a variety of things. One of the teachers commented on this experiment, saying that it would be quite unsuccessful and I should not waste my time with it. No matter if it was personal dislike or not, this attitude is unacceptable from a teacher who’s role should be to encourage a student, especially the students in this program, who were, without exception, all highly motivated to begin with.
Students who enrolled in the program not only came from different countries, but also from different age groups and educational backgrounds. Some were already experienced type designers, others just starting off. Experienced students often were able to give suggestions on how to improve on letter shapes. The same is valid for technical skills. In other words, students helped each other and exchanged professional skills. This meant anything from commenting on someone’s letter-shapes, helping in computer programming (Python), proof-reading text, as well as learning about bookbinding techniques. In other words, the collaboration between T[M students is an integral part of this program.
Grading seems to be a minor concern to program instructors. The first and only time that I received a mark was on my final degree certificate. While some students are not concerned with grading, others care a great deal. For instance, some students further pursue their education in Ph.D. studies or apply for grants. Another important reason to provide students with grades is to give the student an indicator of what needs to improve, and a chance to let them re-adapt their methods where necessary. In our case, marks were not used as an indicator to see improvements or failures during the whole year. Communication with the students in this regard will hopefully improve in the following years, given that some teachers have acknowledged this situation. If marks have no significance in this program, the T[M program appears to hand out degrees to individuals that can put forth a reasonable effort during the year.
Course organisation and communication
In terms of communication and administration, the program lacked a solid coordination framework. It is common not to receive any replies to emails or responses to reminders. More importantly, I also never received a detailed list of my course gradings, i.e., a corresponding mark for each course. I have made several requests to receive my marks (from the program coordinator, as well as each of my instructors) since my graduation. Thus far, I've been unsuccessful. Neither have I received any formal response as to why this request was not met. This attitude is therefore not a one-time glitch, but seems to be the norm. This element could easily be improved by simply communicating with the students.
Location and available research institutions
Although there is not really much time for research during the program, the location of the Hague is ideal for research in the field of type. Some research institutions are located directly in The Hague, for instance the Meermanno Museum or the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Prentenkabinet Leiden, the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, and the Plantin-Moreteus Museum in Antwerp are nearby as well. The Netherlands itself is an amazing place to be for culture and design. It is architecturally outstanding, where everything is truly designed here.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to work with the Type and Media faculty and my colleagues. Teachers are not only interesting type design personalities, but they also gave me an insight into their way of working, and perhaps more importantly, transmitted their passion for letters. It is a pity that the faculty does not see the practical benefits of research and theory as something that can work together. In my opinion, theories are interconnected in type design in order to minimize common mistakes and dedicate more time to experimentation. Furthermore, I would suggest increasing the length of the program to perhaps two years. It is commonly agreed among the faculty members, students and other practitioners that ten months of studies barely scratches the surface of the wonderful world of type.
This Type and Media program may or may not fit perfectly every individual, given the many variables in the picture. Needless to say, if you love type design, it is a great program to pursue in and of itself. I would recommend it to all, if and only if they are willing to cope with some of the shortcomings of the program’s organisational scheme. Knowing what I know, if I had to make the decision of whether to enrol in this program or not, I would definitely go for it.
I hope you have found this review useful. If you would like me to address anything in particular, please let me know in the comments below.
Mike replied on
What was your portfolio like? And what do you think why it was you amongst others to be accepted to t]m?
thanks for your comment, good questions. You can find parts of my portfolio I submitted for the t]m application on this site, for example in the section http://brigitteschuster.com/type . I do not know the selection criteria of the t]m faculty, some of my classmates were very skilled others less. You can look at other portfolios of former t]m students (http://new.typemedia.org/tmyears/) to find out more about the portfolio works. It would be great if you could leave a comment on my site later on once you have found out about which kind of portfolios are generally accepted by t]m.