Design 2

Step 1: Annotate the artwork above by labeling recognizable objects, guessing why these typefaces were chosen, what each word has to do with its surrounding.

Step 2: Using what you have seen and annotated, interpret the design here.

Credit Line: Trying to Look Good Limits My Life(2004), part of Stefan Sagmeister’s typographic project20 Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.


The word “novelty” when applied to typefaces now implies to letters that are ephemeral or silly. However, when novelty typefaces were at their commercial apex during the mid- to late 19th century and again throughout the late 20th, “novelty” was a term of distinction, meaning that an alphabet was something other than classic, and frequently metaphoric.

Metaphoric letters were imbued with symbolism and served as vessel and as idea. Often visual puns, they were used to enliven the printed word and add dimension to a page.

“Rustic”, an early typeface, (later copied and renamed “Log Cabin”) was designed in the 1840s by the London foundry owner Vincent Figgins, who had also begun cutting Tuscan letterforms (ornamented type with fishtail serifs) around 1815. Rustic had cut logs forming the letters (even the round ones), came only in capitals, and was used in periodicals, bills and posters to inject a trompe l’oeil illusion, but also to imply naturalism (decades prior to Art Nouveau). In its various subsequent incarnations it was used to advertise in anobvious way rustic productsand ideas, such as campsites, hunting cabins and related items.

This genre of illustrative lettering, which in the 20th century was commonly used to underscore visually specific businesses and services--including icicle-shaped letters for ice machines or air-conditioning, and chopstick or bamboo letters for Chinesefood--was used by commercial job printers when customized illustration was too costly or unavailable. While such faces might be considered typographic stereotypes today--and perhaps even racially derogatory--they were meant as “typography parlant” (akin to architecture parlant, a structure that serves a basic function yet also conveys a secondary, semiotic meaning, as in a hot-dog stand shaped like a hot dog).

An avid lettering metaphorist, Austrian-born designer Stefan Sagmeister transforms everyday natural and industrial objects into letters to convey messages in which the metaphors trigger deeper understanding of the message--and they look intriguing too, which is the primary function.

List the bold terms below; write out a synonym or definition for each:

Text Based Questions

  1. How is “novelty” typefaces viewed today differently than they were in the late 19th century?
  1. What was the goal of the early metaphoric typeface described in the article?
  1. Why might it be inappropriate to use certain typefaces for specific clients?
  1. Why is Sagmeister’s work above intriguing?