A Note on ‘Typoetry’
by Michael Betancourt


Typoetry is a portmanteau word made from the combination of “typography” and “poetry,” but also evokes the abbreviation for errors in typesetting, the “typo,” that renders text alexical (asemic). It identifies a variety of visual poetry made by manipulating and fragmenting typography so that its identify comes into question [Figures 1, 2, 3]: these exploratory and experimental works approach writing via encounters with the printed page.[i] Typoetry arises from residues of language—neither a challenge to the communicative language, nor a refusal of the transparency of reading[ii]—it adheres to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theorization of those semiotics that defy the allocations of fixed or final meaning:

Language does not present itself to us as a set of signs already delimited, requiring us merely to study their meanings and organization. It is an indistinct mass, in which attention and habit alone enable us to distinguish particular elements. The unit has no special phonic character, and the only definition it can be given is the following: a segment of sound which is, as distinct from what preceded and follows in the spoken sequence, the signal of a certain concept.[iii]

Typoems are not a demonstration of theory, neither homologous with any discursive introduction that comes at the start, nor illuminated by way of a declaration of intentions and affects.[iv] The purpose of a discursive opening is to distract from the articulation[v]; what you see is what you see: the active decision to engage perception as-if it was a vehicle of symbolic meaning (i.e. intentionally encoded) arises from the audience imposing signification but not theorizing its arrangement[vi]: the legibility of cultural signifiers[vii] conceives those terms in the range [Figure 4] between visual works and lexical forms as a lacuna, a nebulous zone of implied order, their “enunciative intrusion” illuminating the role of “model texts” for lexia.[viii]

 Typoetry is more than merely a meditation on what graphic design theorizes as “invisible typography,”[ix] a construction that reifies visual semiotics by denying linguistic attempts address the alinguistic; their organization became increasingly complex and dynamic. The technical potential of the design software Adobe Illustrator to fluidly convert positive and negative spaces of digital fonts into physical materials for manipulation are demonstrated by the typoem. The foundation of each composition is resolutely and unquestionably focused on violating the familiar, Modernist conception of lettering, kerning, layering and hierarchy[x] as invisible materials. These designs modulate the fundamental semantic identification of ‘language’ to draw attention to the semic/asemic distinction. Shifts in recognition are cued by via the physical materials employed in constructing each composition; typoetry reveals what Michel Foucault identified as the foundations of semiosis and language in The Archaeology of Knowledge:

The statement is neither a syntagma, nor a rule of construction, nor a canonic form of succession and permutation; it is that which enables such groups of signs to exist, and enables these rules or forms to become manifest. But although it enables them to exist, it does so in a special way—a way that must not be confused with the existence of signs as elements of a language (langue), or with the material existence of those marks that occupy a fragment of space or last for a variable length of time.[xi]

And then expanded in his discussion of Rene Magritte’s painting in This is not a Pipe:

For the text to shape itself, for all its juxtaposed signs to form a dove, a flower a rainstorm, the gaze must refrain from any possible reading. Letters must remain points, sentences lines, paragraphs surfaces or masses—wings, stalks, or petals. The text must say nothing to this gazing subject who is a viewer, not a reader. As soon as they begin to read, in fact, shape dissipates.[xii]

Refusals of visuality give shape to the materials themselves: built from fragmented letterforms and their negative spaces, they fusion accumulated fluency, extratextual experience, and intertextual knowledge with perception. Drawing conclusions from what are experiential works invites intentional fallacies and teleological justifications: while they originate with typography and digital fonts, what actually appears is what emerges when those vectorized instructions are a plastically transformable field[xiii] unmoored from their regimented identity as letterforms. Typoetry depends on the fluid transformability of digital software.[xiv] The example in Figure 1 is derived from Helvetica, an iconic typeface of the mid-twentieth century that is purified of all excesses to leave only the elements necessary for their (problematized) lexicality.

Typoetry develops in parallel to asemic handwriting, adapting the effacement of signification to typography while retaining the cues that identify these compositions as being-language, even if their informational dimensions as-communication are in suspension. Exploiting the expressive potentials of letterforms is hardly new, but in these Janus-like visual gestalts the lexical recognition becomes, a meditation on the perfect moment where perception becomes meaningful and the semiotic chain begins its inexorable progress towards what semiotician Hartmut Stöckl ascribed to the graphic dimensions of language:

Typefaces may point to the nature of the document, carry emotional values, or indicate the writer’s intended audience, and aspects of the layout may serve to reinforce the thematic structure of a given text and facilitate access to its information. Finally, on yet another level of typographic meaning making, the graphic signs of writing can assume pictorial qualities. Thus, letters may form visual shapes which stand for objects from reality, signal states-of-affairs or actions, and illustrate emotions. Materials and techniques of graphic sign making, too, may be made salient in text design and can thus convey something about situation, genre and stylistic intent of a communicative occurrence—this is also a pictorial kind of communication. It is this threefold semiotic nature of typography that provides its communicative flexibility.[xv]

Legibility is assumed in visual poetry: if not as coherent words, then as letters remaining familiar, coherent, recognizable.[xvi] This proposition is apparent in how the spaces around or between forms echoes a “protentional expectation”[xvii] that externalizes the knowledge that arises from and overlaps with these graphic expressions that are neither familiar letter shapes, nor not-lettering.[xviii] They reward contemplation and engagement with the faces of typographic characters in the same ways that lexical poetry does, as Gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim noted:

The structure of the whole, certainly of dominant importance, is influenced by the parts, which in turn depend on the whole as to their shapes and interrelations. Neither the whole nor the parts are primary constants, primordial executives of influence. Rather, all components from the whole to the smallest detail exert their modifying effect, while they are being modified.[xix]

The premise that visual poetry needs to be and reward only immediate contemplations stifles the potentials for greater complexity. Typoetry offers a counteractive to negation: they neither have, nor are designed to have the instant recognition followed by immediate forgetting typical of logos and brand marks as in visual poetry by Derek Beaulieu, Richard Kostelanz, Geoff Huth, Donato Mancini, Christian Bok or Scott Helmes. These typoems are meditations on a “natural technical evolution”—as in the transformative visuals based on letterforms by Norman Ives or Rosaire Appel—they are not monoidal constellations offering a fantasy that there is only one meaning; instead their interpretations proceed in ways that draw attention to the as-if of the reader’s desires that find letterforms and familiarity among the graphic expressions of each composition.


Figure 1: Example of a typoem, copyright © 2021 Michael Betancourt / courtesy Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Figure 2: Example of a typoem, copyright © 2021 Michael Betancourt / courtesy Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Figure 3: Example of a typoem, copyright © 2021 Michael Betancourt / courtesy Artists Rights Society (ARS).

Figure 4: The categorical range of ‘lexical function.’




[i] Bohn, W. The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry: 1914-1928 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) pp. 3-8.

[ii]  Schwenger, P. Asemic: The Art of Writing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019) pp. 34-60.

[iii] Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, with the collaboration of Albert Rielinger, trans. Roy Harris (Chicago: Open Court, 1972) p. 102.

[iv] Schellong, M. “Moving Signs: Playing with Legibility and Aesthetic Experience” Typemotion ed. Bernd Scheffer, Christine Stenzer, Peter Weibel and Soenke Zehle (Karlsruhe: Hatje Cantz/ZKM, 2015) pp. 55-57.

[v] Drucker, J. “What is a Word’s Body?” What is? Nine Epistemological Essays (Victoria: Cuneform Press, 20130) p. 38.

[vi] Wainer, H. “Preface to the 2010 edition of the English Translation” Semiology of Graphics trans. William J. Berg (Redlands: Esri Press, 2010) pp. xi-xii.

[vii] McLuhan, M. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962).

[viii] Eco, U. A Theory of Semiotics, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979) pp. 137-138.

[ix] Warde, B. The Crystal Goblet, Sixteen Essays on Typography (London: Sylvan Press, 1955) pp. 11-17.

[x] Golden, W. The Visual Craft of William Golden (New York: George Braziller, 1962) p. 21.

[xi] Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 88.

[xii] Foucault, M. This is not a Pipe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) p. 24.

[xiii] Berry, D. and Dieter, M. “Thinking Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation, Design” The State of Post-Cinema Berry, D. and Dieter, M eds. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) pp. 2-3.

[xiv] Brownie, B. Transforming Type: New Directions in Motion typography (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015) p. 15.

[xv] Stöckl, H. “Typography: body and dress of a text” Visual Communication 4.2, (June 2005) p. 78.

[xvi] Huth, G. “Visual Poetry Today” Poetry  vol. 193, no. 2. (November, 2008) p. 127.

[xvii] Stiegler, B. Technics and Time 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) p. 19.

[xviii] Stiegler, B. Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) p. 77.

[xix] Arnheim, R. To The Rescue of Art: Twenty-Six Essays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 205.

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