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Interview with Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson from Spellbound

Intellect caught up with Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson from Spellbound to find out more about the book and the inspiration behind it.

Could you describe your new book in a few words?

    Spellbound: Rethinking the Alphabet offers a concise examination of the historic development and contemporary use of alphabetic writing, and presents two approaches we have invented for rendering the letters of alphabets in highly visual ways. While the book’s primary emphasis is on the Roman alphabet and our re-designs for Roman letters, a multi-cultural context is also introduced especially through the inclusion of two chapters by guest essayists who explore aspects of Arabic and Cyrllic alphabets. The book makes the case that while historically the Roman alphabet has remained anchored in variations of shapes as the means to symbolize letters, we have entered a cultural context in which dramatic changes in the visualization of writing are within our grasp. Factors driving change in the ways in which we communicate by writing include the cultural (e.g., the constant search for opportunities for creative expression) and the technological (e.g., digital communication makes more flexible approaches to the alphabet feasible). The book advances key points of analysis through a wealth of illustrations.

Where do your own personal and academic research interests lie?

    One of us (McDaniel) has devoted his career to exploring various strategies for melding the visual and the verbal in experimental approaches to literature and visual art. One of us (Robertson) has researched and written extensively on a wide range of topics about contemporary visual art. Together, we have researched various approaches to the development of experimental alphabets, which vary in terms of their aesthetic “flavors” and in terms of their functionality. The three guest essayists who contributed chapters to Spellbound expand our book’s perspectives  – Aaron Ganci is a visual communication designer, Erica Machulak is a specialist in medieval literature (including English and Arabic), and Gabriel Ritter is a curator of contemporary art.

What did you enjoy the most when writing this book?

    We were captivated to discover how flexible the new approaches to the alphabet we have invented can be. This alphabetic flexibility opens vast new areas of further research: a change in alphabets can allow access for different levels of intellectual, cultural and psychological meaning; and a change in alphabets can – if certain qualities are invested in them – be surprisingly easy to learn, use, and remember.

In this title, you state that the written language is on the verge of its greatest change since the advent of the printing press. What do you think has contributed to this change?



The advent of digital forms of communication has prepared the ground, allowing us to write, transmit and store written communication in forms that humans could never effectively and efficiently process prior to the computer. Digital tools have also ushered in cultural change – such as the widespread use of social media – that have prepared us to welcome additional and, perhaps, dramatic changes in the ways we communicate.

In what ways do you think research on typography and language will evolve over the coming years?

Today visual and verbal (as well as aural) forms of communication mix and meld to an extraordinary degree. Research about typographic formats will, we believe, increasingly pay attention to how different parts of the brain can be accessed and stimulated by various communicative strategies working individually and cooperatively.

Do you have a favourite chapter from the book and if so why?

    Can we name two favorite chapters?  The chapter by Erica Machulak,  'Thinking in Scripts: The Look of Arabic,' is beautifully written; her analysis of the subtle nuances of approaches to the written word in Arabic gives our book an invaluable moment of grace. The second  'favourite' chapter is the Conclusion: we believe this book will ultimately prove to be prescient about future changes that are only now taking shape. Our final chapter gives, we hope, tantalizing hints in the right directions. While we are generally optimistic about the changes we envision, we also note that challenges will accompany us in a world in which written communication becomes increasingly open to personalization and tribalization.

Do you have a favourite Intellect Book and if so what is it?

TV Museum, by Maeve Connolly, is a very smart book that offers readers a lot to think about. Television (much like the alphabet) is one of those fulcrums upon which significant aspects of our entire culture pivots. Plus, the visually-rich design of this book captivated us.

What are your future research projects and plans?

    We have very recently completed our research on the fourth edition of our co-authored volume Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art after 1980 (forthcoming from Oxford University Press). The new edition incorporates our recent research about making art in a post-Internet world. That publication milestone signals it is now time for us to embark on more travels to research new manifestations of contemporary art in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 … !!
    One of us (Robertson) is now working on research for art in the 19th through 21st centuries, for a new survey text (being developed by Thames & Hudson); and the other (McDaniel) is starting to develop plans for an exhibition of experimental versions of iconic texts (e.g. U.S. Declaration of Independence and, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice) rendered in our new visual alphabets.
The research that anchors our publication of Spellbound with Intellect continues; for example, some of our most recent examples of experimental literature will be available soon in the online literary journal Word Riot.

Are you attending any conferences this year or next?

We will be giving a presentation on aspects of our experimental work on the alphabet at the upcoming College Art Association Annual Conference (in NYC in February 2017).

To buy a copy of Spellbound please click here

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