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InsightJun 14, 2021

Back to School with Edmund Li RGD

Written by Edmund Li RGD

In this edition of Back to School, Edmund Li RGD shares and critiques his student project to promote an International Typographic Symposium and Exhibition. 


I started out going to Ryerson University to study architecture. Before graduating, I decided to transfer to the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCADU) in 1993, where I studied in the Communication and Design Program (C&D). During our third year, students were asked to focus on a particular specialization within the C&D program and to choose from graphic design, advertising or illustration. I ended up choosing graphic design and naturally, one of the core subjects was typography with a class taught by Debbie Adams.


Students were asked to design a series of applications to promote an International Typographic Symposium and Exhibition at the Design Exchange. While the content was provided to everyone, each student needed to develop their own theme which would be used as the basis of their concept. We were asked to design a word mark to express our theme, as well as stationery to carry the brand, a horizontal and a vertical format poster to promote the event and finally a multi-page programme booklet documenting all the activities and events for the 2-day symposium.

Design Process

The assignment was a disaster for me. As I met with Debbie to discuss progress, I had nothing useful to show and could not come up with a theme that worked. A few weeks passed by just like that. It was stressful to see how everyone progressed and how behind I was. I shared my anxiety and concerns with Debbie and there was a moment of silence. It was not our first assignment and she knew my abilities and where I should have been. Instead of providing me with further creative advice, she asked, “Why don’t you stop stressing yourself and not think about this project tonight? Go and have a beer with your friends.” I was shocked and thought she was joking. She insisted that it was what she wanted me to do. I followed her advice; instead of working on the project, I had a drink with friends. A week later, I came up with the concept of “Type Dreams”—a symposium for typographic enthusiasts who were so obsessed with typography that they dreamt of letters while sleeping.


Not only was the concept well received by the instructor and students in class, but it also caught the attention of Applied Arts Magazine during our student exhibition and ended up being featured in their “Noteworthy” section for student work. For me, it was most gratifying to see the reaction from my friend Steven Kim when I shared my concept with him. He was one of the most talented designers in my year and the idea impressed him. I knew I was onto something.


The devil is in the details. While I still like the overall concept and the airiness achieved in the composition, looking back, I cannot stand how awful my typesetting was. I cannot agree with my younger self about the choices on hyphenation, line breaks, kerning and tracking or the use of hyphens and en-dashes. There are instances where I can see extra spaces between words hiding here and there too. Remember that this was a project on typography, and typesetting was part of the course’s focus. Knowing how well-trained Debbie Adams’ eyes were and her expert typesetting skills, I can imagine the grim look on her face when she was reviewing my work. She must have tried very hard to concentrate on the positive side, instead of focusing too deeply on the typesetting details and errors. From an accessibility standpoint, overlapping imagery with small text is also something that I will no longer do.


Edmund Li RGD

Edmund Li RGD is a creative director with over 25 years of experience designing interpretive and wayfinding signage, exhibits, donor recognition, and interactive around the world. Creating experiences that are accessible to all is an important aspect of his design philosophy. This is reflected in the choice of type, colour, contrast, and message delivery techniques in his projects. Edmund is a co-author of AccessAbility 2: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design.

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