Cherokee Language Engages Design Students in Character Building

students in graphic design story

Graphic design students James Garofalo (left) and Sandi Deitrich make suggestions for classmate Daniel Bennett's poster design.

Students in Professor Ken Smith's typography and layout design class are boldly going where no students have gone before.

Futura boldly, that is.

Each semester, the Radford University assistant professor of art approaches students in his Art 282 class with an unusual assignment: Study the Cherokee alphabet, all 80-some characters, and subsequently duplicate those characters into an established typeface. Last spring, the assigned typeface was Clarendon. This semester, it's Futura Bold.

"At first the students look at me like, 'What is it you want us to do?' " Smith said, laughing. "But once they figure it out, they seem to enjoy the project."

Each student is assigned five letters from the Cherokee syllabary to transform into the new typeface. The student then chooses a word in the Cherokee language as the subject for a linguistic museum poster.

Sounds tough, right?

"Some of the letters are fairly easy, but some can be very difficult," Smith said.

The good news for Smith's students is none of them will be accused of witchcraft.

Yes, witchcraft.

That's what happened to Sequoyah, the illiterate Cherokee silversmith who in the 1800s developed the written language system. Many members of his tribe didn't initially comprehend Sequoyah's system and charged that he and his daughter were communicating through witchcraft. However, the two later were exonerated. They subsequently taught the written language and helped to bring literacy to thousands in the Cherokee Nation.

Take a close look at Sequoyah's alphabet, which is more like a set of symbols representing spoken syllables, and you'll notice many of the characters resemble those in the English alphabet, Smith said.

"So those are easy to replicate," the professor said. "But many of the characters look nothing like our alphabet, and those can be very, very difficult to mimic in a typeface. There's no frame of reference."

Amanda Gravely agreed. The junior graphic design major from Roanoke took on the challenge in the spring semester, designing letters and a poster for the word "bear" in Clarendon.

"It was pretty challenging to get the Cherokee letterforms to look right," Gravely said. "It was really interesting to study letterforms in another language and see how many possibilities there are."

The long-term goal of Smith's project is to perhaps develop the newly created fonts into a standard format usable by word processors and other computer applications. Right now, the professor said, Plantagenet is the only Cherokee typeface available.

"That must be really frustrating for graphic designers who use the language," Smith said. "And I don't think many people are working to resolve this."

Creating computer font software is "a long way down the road," Smith said. For now, his students are focused on designing the Futura Bold typeface in Cherokee and using those letters, along with a pronunciation guide and illustration, on posters to be exhibited in the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn.

Smith, who developed an interest in the Cherokee language when he lived near the museum, has been working on the project with his Radford University students for the past four years. There are already a number of their posters in the museum as a sizable educational display, he said.

For Smith's design students, who are helping revive what was once a slowly dying language, the project is an excellent dual-purpose learning exercise. It teaches the students to begin to read and write a Native American language, and it challenges their graphic design prowess.

"This project was very different than anything I have ever done," said Zack Brodie, a senior graphic design major from Martinsville who completed the class last spring. "It taught me more about the design process and how sometimes it's nearly impossible to get an idea and go straight to the computer with it. You have to go through multiple steps to get an end product that you are proud of."

Sep 25, 2012
Chad Osborne
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