Slam Poetry / Expressive Type Poster


Mary Kippley. Poem: "Blackjoy" by K. McClendon.

Left: Kennedy Simpson. Poem: "Blackjoy" by K. McClendon.
Right: Tou Cag Xiong. Poem: "My Lover Blocks Me on Social Media" by Melania Luisa Marte.

Left: Ella Smith. Poem: "Ode to my Childhood Bedroom" by Sydney Holets.
Right: Oscar Jara. Poem: "Opposum Queen" by EJ Schoenborn.

Left: Hannah Bubser. Poem: "Healing" by Ashley Nelson.
Right: Poem: "Eclipse" by Mari Tadesse.

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Duration: 1 day
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Project Brief

Each year, as part of an intensive introduction to typography, I take our intro-level students to a Poetry Slam, run by our university's student slam poetry team. Students identify up to three poems performed that evening that they'd like to use as the subject of this mini-project; I then work with the slam organizer to connect the design students with the student-poets, and gather the poem texts in a shared Drive folder. The project brief is to create an expressive typographic poster that captures some of the qualities of seeing and hearing that poem being performed. The project is quick (under two hours start-to-finish), with work pinned-up on the "gallery wall" and a brief, informal group critique at the end of class.

Learning Objectives

This project asks students, how can we interpret or visualize performative qualities found in performance -- qualities like volume, rhythm, pacing/tempo, rise and fall, emphasis, silence/stillness, repetition? How can we make typographic choices (typeface, size, weight, tracking, italics, CAPS vs. lowercase...) and use design principles like contrast, movement, hierarchy... to create a design that communicates not only the words of the poem but its spirit, the experience of hearing it performed by the author themself?

Another objective is simply to encourage students to be more expressive, exploratory, and experimental with their type. At the intro level, students are often hesitant to push outside of their comfort zone (what they think "good design" should look like), and for most that means modern-ish, International-Style-ish, clean, organized, minimal, rigid.


Each student generates one 11x17 poster, with the complete and unabridged text of one poem. Students may incorporate illustrative or photographic elements, but the posters must remain type-dominant. Otherwise, there are no rules; in fact, for this project I encourage students to take all the rules about typography that they've developed and throw them out the window.


This is a mini-project, but part of a broader intensive introduction to typography, for which we use Ellen Lupton's Thinking With Type. For this specific project, we look to the expressive end of the typographic spectrum for historical and contemporary examples: Dada, Futurism, avant-garde poets such as Apollinaire, 1950s-60s typewriter art, postmodern/psychedelic/Grunge type, concrete poetry, found-text erasure poetry, hand-lettering (Louise Fili, Jessica Hische, Ed Fella, Carolyn Sewell, Joshua Blankenship), contemporary experimental compositions like House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) and I Wonder (Marian Bantjes), and many others.


This is still a new project for me, having only run it twice. I've found some students hate it and retreat back to their grids immediately, but a portion really do get into the expressive aspect of it. The collaborative aspect -- knowing that they're working with the literary creations of fellow students -- seems to generate a deeper engagement and almost reverence to the text, much more so that I've seen just using text excerpted from the public domain. I also try to limit the mini-projects to one class period (two hours) start-to-finish, to keep them from overthinking it, but some do need additional time to get to what they consider complete.

Since our campus poetry slams happen outside of normal class time, I can't require attendance, so there's always a portion who can't go or just don't go; for those students, I've fallen back on publicly available videos of slam poetry performance (out of courtesy, I always ask the performer's permission to use their work, and out of about 20 poets so far, I haven't had anybody say no yet).

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