Design and Layout • Inspiration Photo/Typo


This installment of the Letterform Archive's column for Create looks at iconic examples that blend photography and typography in powerful designs.


For decades after the invention of photography in the 19th century, the norm was to keep it separate from typography. The sparkling new tech and the 450-year-old tradition were treated as distinct media, usually relegated to separate pages, or at least isolated areas on a page. The unspoken rule, set by both convention and technology, seemed to be, “Text delivers content and photos illustrate content, and never the twain shall meet.”

The 20th century brought typography and photography together. Design innovators like László Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, and Piet Zwart placed the previously disparate elements within the same composition—even on the same visual plane—and thus set the stage for what would be the core medium of graphic design. Moholy-Nagy introduced the concept of “typophoto” in the 1920s, later describing it as the ideal way to communicate.

“Typography is communication composed in type.
Photography is the visual presentation of what can be optically apprehended. Typophoto is the visually most exact rendering of communication.”
— László Moholy-Nagy, Malerei Fotographie Film [Painting Photography Film], 1925

Letterform Archive in San Francisco houses hundreds of examples of design that synthesize typography and photography, from the groundbreaking work of the avant gardes, to the mid-century modernists, to contemporary innovators. Here are four examples demonstrating different ways to combine text and image, most of which are available in hi-fi digitizations on our Online Archive.

Elevate the Mundane

Dutch designer Piet Zwart (1885–1977) was trained as an architect but is best known as a pioneer of 20th-century experimental typography and photomontage. He preferred to call himself a “form engineer” because he was such a strong believer in functionality, standardization, and machine production. The Archive’s Piet Zwart collection includes more than 150 pieces of rare ephemera, plenty of which demonstrate overlapping elements executed through an expert use of color and screened photography. Many of Zwart’s clients were unglamorous suppliers of products like industrial cable and lumber, yet his catalogs and ads look more like works of art than commercial collateral. It was his unconventional and dynamic use of type and image that made the everyday seem exciting.

Piet Zwart, brochure for Nijgh and van Ditmar, 1931. Collection of Letterform Archive.

Aaron Marcus is one of the earliest experts in human-computer interaction and has a distinguished technology career, but he continually explores the fields of culture, language, and visual communication. His gift to the Archive includes conceptual art that is both beautiful and thought-provoking, including this series of manipulated postcards in which rubdown lettering transforms landscapes into typescapes with grazing letters, or reimagines a building as a ü.

Aaron Marcus, Symbolic Constructions, 1971. Collection of Letterform Archive.

Jodokus Driessen (photographer), Lauren (model), Armand Mevis (styling), Emigre #25: Made in Holland, Emigre Graphics, 1993. Collection of Letterform Archive.

Give Image & Text Equal Value

Emigre magazine, founded by Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans in Berkeley, California, is widely seen as a critical mouthpiece for graphic design’s tumultuous transformations of the 1980s and ’90s. In 2016 Emigre, Inc., donated a major collection to Letterform Archive, including archival material in various media, such as a complete run of Emigre font catalogs, development files for original Emigre typefaces, and audio interviews and mechanicals for Emigre magazine. Thirty-two issues of Emigre are available to read in full on the Online Archive, with more on the way. This special issue, designed by Vincent van Baar and Armand Mevis in The Hague, announces itself with a spirit that a flat layer of typography never could, and gives the title and portrait equal billing.

Let Text & Image Play On the Same Dynamic Plane

Martin Venezky is a graphic designer and photographer who frequently straddles the two fields, often within a single piece of work. The Archive’s Venezky collection includes posters for local and national institutions and editorial illustrations and covers for magazines, many of which are paired with developmental material, such as meticulous pasteup boards filled with Letraset and photocopied scraps. It all captures the rigor of creating by hand. In this piece, Venezky photographed sheets of graphic patterns along with cut-paper letters, bending and folding them to give them the same sense of depth, distortion, and perspective. The accompanying pasteup reveals the composition process, adhesive tape and all.

Martin Venezky, SFAC Passport Event Poster, 2013. Collection of Letterform Archive.

The integration of typography and photography was once unthinkable given the technological limitations. Now, of course, nearly anything is possible with digital tools. Still, work like Zwart’s, Marcus’s, Emigre’s, and Venezky’s reminds us that revisiting analog materials and methods can generate unique results, and at the very least offer an alternative way of thinking.


You can join Letterform Archive in preserving iconic designs like these. Become a member and get access to the Online Archive.

On your next project, consider combining once-disparate tools and mediums—camera and pen, paper and screen, photo and type—to give your brain and your audience a new way of seeing.

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