Purdue Profiles: Dennis Ichiyama

February 22, 2011

Dennis Ichiyama, professor of visual communications design. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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For Dennis Ichiyama, professor of visual communications design, printing with wood type is not an outdated technology; it is an art form. In fall 1999, as designer-in-residence at the Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wis., Ichiyama separated himself from digitalized graphic design and mixed, inked, set and pressed to create one-of-a-kind prints.

During his time at the museum, Ichiyama was featured in the Kartemquin documentary "Typeface," which gave him the chance to share his passion for hundred-year-old wood type and introduce the craft and art to a new generation of designers.

How did you begin viewing type and letters as an art form?

I come from a bicultural family, so for about 11 years, I was learning Japanese -- speaking, reading and writing -- at the same time I was going to English school. This idea of learning something old was very backwards to me. I wanted to embrace Coca-Cola and burgers and rock and roll, so I never saw any use for learning another language.

It was confusing to learn these things at the same time. Japanese characters are completely different than the Roman alphabet. Drawing characters is done with a brush and is almost calligraphic, whereas Roman letters are meant to be the same thickness and height. These two letterforms have now intersected and support one another in my work.

It's only in hindsight that I realize my dual heritage is where my interest in typography probably stemmed. In college I began taking courses in typography, and at that point, I decided to go into design and learned the ABCs in a more formal way.

To you, what is the most fascinating part of working with typography?

The beginning of any project I do is the most exciting, but also the most frightening. If a project is really good, you don't know where it is going to go. Most people feel very insecure when they don't know where something is going, but I really enjoy playing around with ideas and seeing what form they take.

That is something I try to teach my students. For them, the journey of an eight-week project can be stressful if they don't know what the final product will be. But I'm confident that their best work will emerge if they don't let examples and expectations hold them back.

You recently received a Faculty Fellowship for Study in a Second Discipline and are now collaborating with Printing Services. What projects are you working on there?

This fellowship is all about finding another department or area that can help expand your work and research. No one had ever proposed to work with a non-academic unit before, but I wanted to work with Printing Services. Right now we are working in the digital realm and experimenting with typical book structures. We just did books with canvas, paper and plastic covers. We're cutting books differently and drilling holes through them. We're pushing Printing Services to do things they normally wouldn't do, and as long as we don't hurt the equipment or the operators, we'll continue seeing how far we can go.  

What is your favorite part of teaching?

In all my years of teaching -- it's been 35 or so -- the favorite part of my job has always been creating exercises for my students. It's a challenge for me to figure out how to test students' knowledge and ability while making it fun. I like to create projects that will be relevant for a long while and will help students build a portfolio. That is the most exciting part for me because I try to give students a project that can have another life after it's been graded, and hopefully something that will help them when they begin looking for a career.

What is your most memorable moment related to your work?

Most recently, winning the Rome Prize in 2006 was truly amazing. The Rome Prize is given to people to spend a year at the American Academy in Rome. Classicists, historians, musicians, writers and architects study there, but they also have a designer division.

Being in Rome and being among all these very unique individuals helped me expand my work. The work I do is largely solitary, so it was a tremendous opportunity to have these people comment on my prints and to give them feedback on their music or art or literature. It made for an exciting time. 

That must have been fantastic. Will you be traveling anywhere else soon?

This spring I'm going to look at a graphic design program at Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice, Italy. I'll visit the school, tour the facilities, speak with faculty and staff and report back to the study abroad offices at Purdue. Our hope is that during their junior year, our VCD students can spend one semester at Purdue and one in Venice studying design along with art history, architecture, culture and language.

For more information about "Typeface," visit http://typeface.kartemquin.com.