Autoethnography Typographic Timeline


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Duration: 1 week
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Project Brief

Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research that challenges the usual methods of researching and writing. It is reflective—it seeks to describe and analyze personal experience to understand the cultural experience and represent others. It treats research as a political, socially-just, and socially-conscious act.

In this participatory class exercise, students use their personal experiences to create a typographic timeline. Specifically, they are asked to explore typography that resonates with them — perhaps on a particular genre, style, cultural movement, or technology. 

Students are encouraged to include artifacts not typically considered in typographic design textbooks, including signs, graffiti, movie titles, documents, and any example of typographic ephemera that speaks to them personally. They are told to be curious and follow paths that guide their interest.

Collect and gather a minimum of eight images using the template provided. All sources must be cited and adequately captioned with all available information: 

Caption info should include the following:

  • Date Created
  • Creator (if known)
  • Artifact Title 
  • Artifact Type
  • Location (where was it made or found)
  • Description (1–3 sentences
  • Citation of source 

Learning Objectives

  • Expand typographic history to uncover and include historically marginalized designers and allied professionals
  • Expand the canon beyond schools of design that are historically privileged and homogenizing
  • Expand the definition of graphic design
  • Practice exploratory research for knowledge sharing and creation
  • Gain familiarity with using archives to conduct visual research


Students submit their eight captioned images for grading. The core deliverable is an in-class participatory exercise in which the students organize their captioned images in a timeline form. The y-axis is organized by time, and the x-axis by category (i.e. formal properties, artifact type, etc.). Once finished they are given string and make connections across years and categories to create a non-linear timeline of their collective type samples.


Several design archives and image libraries exist online, and as always, don't hesitate to visit a physical library for exploration. 

Online Archives:

The People’s Graphic Design Archive

Letterform Archive

RIT Design Archives

AIGA Design Archives


I've conducted this assignment for two consecutive years and have been extremely pleased with the results. I will say that I was nervous about the in-class timeline construction but was pleasantly surprised by how much the students seemed to enjoy it. I ran this in the first week of an Introduction to Typography course with sophomores, and I noticed they were proud to share their specimens and took to working together to figure out the best way to organize. By the end of the installation exercise, everyone was participating and excited about making connections across time and category by finding similarities in formal styles and other typographic elements. Each year's final result was visually striking as an installation, and students didn't want to take it down.

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