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Expression, Through Sign Language, Explored By Team

“A person’s voice can be distinctive, enabling another person to hear and immediately identify the speaker. But does the same concept apply to sign language users?

The Motion Light Lab (ML2), a resource hub of the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning at Gallaudet, set out to answer that question through an original video project. #TypographyThursday

In “What Type Are You?,” a team led by ML2 Creative Director Melissa Malzkuhn, ’04 G-’08, sought to illustrate how people who use American Sign Language express themselves with their hands, facial expressions, and body in unique, recognizable ways. In a series of 10 videos, the team assigned specific fonts to participants’ ASL fingerspelling.

“The goal of this project was to show that fingerspelling is not homogenous,” Malzkuhn said. “Each signer has a distinct tone and style, much like the ways speech varies from one person to the next. We wanted to encourage people to realize how others view them and their signing as unique and personal.” 

Each video shows a person fingerspelling a phrase while English letters in a correlating font appear on-screen. A brief commentary explains why that particular font was chosen, and viewers are encouraged to share opinions about whether they agree and suggest alternate fonts.

The idea to link fonts with fingerspelling came from Matt Malzkuhn, ’05 G-’07, Melissa Malzkuhn’s brother and a doctoral candidate in cultural studies at George Mason University. “The idea initially came to me while watching interpreters in several of my classes,” Matt Malzkuhn said. “Every time they switched, I found myself adjusting to their different styles. That was when I realized there are different signing and fingerspelling forms to consider.”

Matt Malzkuhn shared his idea at one of ML2’s collaborative workshops, which bring together people from different departments at Gallaudet to brainstorm and implement creative projects that align with ML2’s goals of fusing creative literature with digital technology and exploring bilingual interfaces. The idea evolved into a project in which the ML2 team set out to explore the connections between signing styles and typography as a visual representation of voice, a topic previously explored by others only in the auditory domain.

“This is a great project to approach the role and existence of different signing and fingerspelling forms that go beyond the common ways in which we study ASL,” Matt Malzkuhn said.

As a ML2 intern, Bethany Weiner, ’15, was assigned to the project and worked with Melissa Malzkuhn and Ben Bahan, professor of ASL and Deaf Studies, to turn vision into reality. The team decided that in order to explore signing style, they should focus on fingerspelling as a more literal and closer visual representation of voice and typography. 

Assigning font to individual is not an exact science, however, Weiner said in an introductory video she created with Melissa Malzkuhn in which they explain the research behind the project.

“There was no definite rubric,” Weiner said.” “We looked at hand shape, spelling speed, and the clearness of spelling. I filmed different people spelling a sentence I had created that had every letter of the alphabet [a pangram], so we could see how they formed each letter.”

After filming, the ML2 team sat down with an array of printed fonts and debated which best corresponded with the individual’s style. Once the team reached a decision, they developed a justification to include in the video description.

For example, one video features a woman with long fingers and who signs quickly.

“Long fingers and fast spelling make a lethal combination,” the justification says. “Long sleek fingers … makes for a thin font; there’s almost no spacing between her letters and words. She is an Edition.”

“Another goal of this project was to show that if you spell clearly, it is easier to ‘read,'” Weiner said. “But if you fingerspell sloppily, the ‘font’ is harder to read.”

Melissa Malzkuhn said the team studied typography rules and debated the difference between serif and sans serif fonts and which category was more appropriate to represent clearer fingerspelling.

“I’ve always wondered what is a Helvetica fingerspeller, as opposed to a comic sans fingerspeller?” Malzkuhn said. “If you can’t understand a person’s fingerspelling, that would be dingbats.”

The video series is available on YouTube and was shared on social media with the #TypographyThursday hashtag. Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) is a Science of Learning Center in the United States, funded by the National Science Foundation and Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. VL2 comprises four resource hubs focusing on the optimal learning and neural foundations of the growing bilingual child, reading and literacy, two-way communication among science and public educators and policymakers, and the science-based creation of translational products for the betterment of young children’s learning and academic success.

Each hub serves as a fundamental national and international knowledge resource. VL2 seeks to understand how learning through visual processes, visual language, and visually based social experience contributes to the development of language, reading, and literacy in ways that provide cognitive and linguistic advantages to all young children, especially young deaf visual learners. We seek this knowledge for the benefit of all humans.

Motion Light Lab (ML2) is one of VL2’s four resource hubs and is an interdisciplinary lab that brings together people from different disciplines, including motion capture and computer science, neuroscience, art, Deaf Culture, and multimedia design to create new knowledge and discoveries. ML2’s projects combine creative literature with digital technology and aim to explore bilingual interfaces through visual narratives for a learning experience.”

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