A sign of a great elocutionist is when you can hear their words echoing in your head, even if you’re reading them on paper. Martin Luther King, Jr. was (obviously) a great elocutionist, as was his wife, Coretta Scott King. When you see the words, “because I’ve been to the mountaintop,” you don’t read them so much as listen to the familiar rhythm—the emphasized “been,” the deepened “mountaintop.” It’s impossible to separate the line of text from the sound of MLK’s prophetic last speech.
Oratory isn’t something easily captured by letterforms on a page, let alone the immovable stone inscriptions on a memorial. But for one of the design proposals put forth for a memorial to the Kings at Boston Common, it’s a key part of the design.
“From the beginning, the concept was that all the words on the site would be spoken, not written,” says graphic designer David Reinfurt, founder of O-R-G and one of the team working on the proposed memorial. For the project, Reinfurt developed a speech-to-text typeface that would visualize the sonic qualities of the Kings’ famous speeches right onto the stone face of the memorial.
Reinfurt developed a software that uses Google Cloud Speech-to-Text to turn the audio files of excerpts from the speeches into text. The software measures the loudness or softness of each word spoken, and renders the words on a grayscale. The loudest words are colored bright white and the softer words are gray. The grayscale is then used as a blueprint for the depth of the inscriptions: white (loud) words are inscribed deeper into the black stone of the memorial, whereas grayer (softer) words are most shallow. Reinfurt designed the characters of the typeface based on Artisan, one of the fonts that came with the IBM Selectric, the typewriter in vogue at the time the Kings’ were writing and delivering their famed speeches.
The font is part of a memorial design that features a series of black stone bridges on a raised plateau on Boston Common. While the proposal is one of the five finalists, the team behind the design—which consists of Reinfurt, artist Adam Pendleton, architect David Adjaye, and cultural agency Future Pace—is still waiting to hear if they’ve won the competition. Longform excerpts of the speeches would run along the stone ramps that descend from the bridge into the park, and on a series of sculptural plinths. They’ll also be displayed digitally on screens oriented underneath the bridge. An accompanying app will use location tracking to play video of the grayscale text as visitors pass by the transcribed speeches on the memorial.
“Rather than cherrypicking the most resonant quotes, like on most memorials, we wanted to include long excerpts of their speeches on the site, and give visitors an idea of the character with which those speeches were delivered,” says Reinfurt. He adds that the brief for the competition was that the memorial should be looking forward, rather than backwards, and indicate that the Kings’ actions, and words, reverberate just as strongly in the context of today.
“Speeches are literal calls to action,” says Reinfurt. “When you say something in public it has consequences, and their speeches had direct consequences in the world.”