In Celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday

If ever there was a year to reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy, it would be this one. As a graphic design professor teaching typography for many years, the spring semester’s first project involved Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. The students would design it as a poster, using three different approaches.

First, they would make the speech as legible as possible, choosing a typeface that was easy on the eyes and applying principles of good typography, like appropriate leading and margins. I would ask students to consider where to break the lines of type while honoring the speech’s intention and cadence. The objective was to take a long piece of text and, without pictures or other devices, to make reading an enjoyable and approachable experience. The results were, at best, elegant tributes to the speech in its simplest form. 

The second part explored making the speech readable through a next-level design approach by considering the words’ weight and tone, as heard in the address. As a class, we would listen to the audio recording repeatedly, thinking about putting the prose into a form that expressed its gravity and intention appropriately, using different weights of typeface – light, regular, semi-bold, extra bold – to achieve the results. 

Finally, the students used typographic forms to show visual expression by exploring, exaggerating, and emphasizing, as did Dr. King, certain parts of the speech. For example, one student used scale creatively in the section, “No! no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” I wish I could include a picture of it – the words “No! no” were very large in scale and the rest of the sentence cascaded like a winding river across the page – it was beautiful. While this part of the assignment allowed students the most personal expression, they were reminded that they were the conduits of the expression–that their job was to interpret how Dr. King had expressed himself. 

While the assignment’s outcome was to explore and understand the power of good typography, another powerful objective baked into that assignment was to listen, understand, and interpret the author’s intention. After the year we have collectively had in this nation, it is my sincere hope that we will, at last, begin to listen to each other with greater intention. 

Whether you are my age (old enough to have seen Dr. King on live television as a child) or a student here now or somewhere in-between, we were all horrified by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, which brought outrage again to our streets. The pain experienced was palpable, real, and we are not over it – not as a nation, and not as a community. At DCAD, we listened during the “After the Hashtag” program held by our Students Services department in the fall. We listened when our alumni wrote to us for calls to action as a community.  We will continue to listen, seek to understand, and participate because it is lifelong work. 

As the first action in 2021, I formally invite anyone interested to join our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, an arm of our Strategic Planning Committee. I want to meet with this group during the last week of January to discuss our community challenges, address courses of action, and define some achievable outcomes by the end of this year. If you are interested in serving on this Committee, please write to me at [email protected] and include your preferred name and contact information. This Committee will be a safe space to share concerns, ideas, and thoughts for the future at DCAD.

We must do better as a nation, and that can start with the smallest of communities. As artists and designers, we harness powerful skills that enable us to do so. At DCAD, we can make legible, readable, and expressive written and visual interpretations of what is going on in our world.

I look forward to working with all of you as we strive for a better America.

– Jean Dahlgren, President