Ben Shahn's 'Alphabet of Creation'

alphabet of creationAs long as I'm talking about graphic alphabets, I may as well mention Ben Shahn.

The first thing you have to know is that Ben Shahn is like, the patron saint of typopgraphers. His understanding of how letterforms fit together (simply put: the same glass of water should fit between each pair of letters), and the way that his early training as a printer informed his lettering, was inspirational.

So, Shahn created an amalgam of all the graffiti he saw and called it the "People's Alphabet" and that's usually how he draws English letterforms--blocky, wonderful shapes with differing stroke lengths, like some wonderful Rube Goldberg statement, all done in lettering.

Later, he created his Hebrew alphabet, and indeed, used this "Alphabet of Creation" as his logo. What I love, in part, is the way that he captures the sense of calligraphic Torah-Hebrew, and I especially love the pieces where he mixes Hebrew and English together. Instead of trying to make them both look alike - an awful idea for most (but not all - definitely not all) graphic purposes, he has them contrast with each other, making it easy to tell one from the other, and letting the contrasts between them add to the unity of the overall graphic. Just goddam inspiring—to me, at least.

Here's a drawing, Pleiades that shows the Hebrew in use. Here is one, "bring back my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth which brings the two (hebrew and english), together. Note that he also puts the graphic in the middle of the poster, separating the two. In modern design, I would say that it is sometimes good to let the graphic surround the Hebrew or Yiddish/English or transliteration, so that they can both start from the same common point running down the page.

If you look at a lot of Shahn's work, you realize that he didn't always use the same English lettering alphabet. Like Walt Kelly (Pogo) he was a master of so many styles. Here is a page from his Hagaddah showing a different Hebrew (and also note the alphabet of creation logo).

One of the most beautiful and inspirational books on lettering is Ben Shahn's "Love and Joy about Letters". I got an inexpensive (<$50) copy years ago "gimme something I can get coffee stains on without feeling too guilty". No coffee stains, but one of the best pick-me-ups you can imagine. I'll be using Shahn's setting, in Hebrew and English of "Hine mah tov" in my lectures on Hebrew typography. Find the book in your local library or bookstore and take a look.

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This page contains a single entry by Ari Davidow published on June 3, 2004 10:04 PM.

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