by Michael Rock

We were sitting around the other night (a group of survivors from the seventies) marveling that bellbottoms were actually looking good again. I swore it could never happen to me. Somehow the retro clock worked its way around and there was Deee-Lite or Jody Whatley or Vanessa Williams on MTV looking like the past twenty years had just disappeared. The mechanism of retro-izing is mysterious. It seems styles have to be reviled before rising from the ashes of old fashion magazines into new fashion magazines. The retro-glorified moment is brief; notice how the fifties craze — first revived in late seventies new wave— has vanished; left to die out in the malls, suburban bop bars, singles parties and Happy Days reruns.

This is getting around to the idea that letterforms, like fashion silhouettes, are one of the most overt indices of style — or as type designer Herman Zapf put it, “...one of the most visual expressions of an age...” Contemporary letter design is influenced by two somewhat antithetical forces; the need to be recognizable within the accepted conventions of the alphabet versus the varied goals of expression, semantic value, reference, and difference. By difference I am referring to a marketable difference — it’s a simple economic reality that a new font must be different in some way from an old one; otherwise no one will buy it.

Flipping through a type manual’s back pages is like perusing old high school yearbooks and ogling at the haircuts. ‘How could we have thought...how could anyone in their right minds...’ But scattered amongst the painful reminders of the near past—the Smokes, the Baby Teeth, the Rhapsodies—there’s bound to be a few gems. The gem may be a face that just last year seemed as awkward and dated as the rest — but there you are, shaking your head, thinking that just maybe Optima (my personal least-favorite, the bellbottom typeface) doesn’t look so bad after all. Letterforms intended to be contemporary or futuristic — like the future shock projections in Popular Science Magazine — are the most susceptible to premature aging. The 1970’s 2001-look or the OCR ‘computation’ style seems to prove that today’s futurism is sure to be tomorrow’s anachronism. But there is a constant demand for newness, and now with any array of innovative technologies there is a flood of new font designs to satisfy that hunger.

Type designing used to be one of the most obscure of professions. W.A. Dwiggens wrote that to most people letters were as transparently connected to ideas as the ticking of a clock was to telling time, but “...however unconscious of the type the reader may be, there is something communicated to him by the esthetic quality of the page he peruses—a vague something.” Letterforms frame the message, they place the content in historical and cultural context. While the canons of readability and legibility are usually stressed (perhaps because they are more easily defended), fonts are rich with the gesture and spirit of their own era—even Helvetica and Univers can seem downright nostalgic. 

The sensibility that gave rise to the consistency and unity of Univers (Adrian Frutiger, 1957) says as much about the late fifties mindset as Beowolf (Just van Rossem, Erik van Brokland, 1989) — a face that uses random computer generation to produce a font in which no two letters are ever exactly alike — says about the culture of the late eighties. Part of the impetus behind a project like Beowolf stems from the desire to challenge the technology, to capitalize on the digital production process and rethink the invisible conventions imposed on type design by the metal-casting process. But a reaction to the mid-century penchant for sanitizing is also evident in many new fonts. These new faces are unabashedly irregular, idiosyncratic and personal. Beowolf takes that idea about as far as it can go, disregarding one of the most basic aspect of moveable type, the consistency of the letterforms.

Notable 20th century designers like Eric Gill (designer of this text face, Joanna, in 1931), Paul Renner, Jan Tschichold and Rudolf Koch produced revolutionary fonts that now seem suffused with historical and nostalgic evocation. Renner was particularly adamant that designers continue to create experimental type forms and not endlessly duplicate the perfected forms of the past – basically, to invent alternate writing systems based on aesthetic and formal systems. On the other hand, Zapf sees the contemporary type designer as a function of history who “...should draw on [the work of Gill, Rogers and Dwiggens] for inspiration, recognizing that our cultural and commercial conditions are different from theirs.” In other words, updating the conventional structures to more contemporary forms. Today both trends — historical interpretation and formal experimentation — are evident and sometimes overlapping. Early avant garde experimentation is now firmly part of our design history; thus revivals of these alphabets have aspects of both the interpretive and experimental activity.

There are a variety of reasons to start a new font design, but according to Matthew Carter — a type designer who has worked in metal, photocomposition and digital technologies and is one of the founders of Bitstream — “... far and away the great majority of type designs come about just for the purest reasons, just because someone wants to do them...it is related to the instincts that people may have in the fine arts, a kind of self-expression.” Since fonts are usually created on speculation, not at the request of a paying client, it is one of the design sub-professions most open to personal initiative. Many of the new commercially available alphabets are the first attempts from new designers or — like Barry Deck’s Template Gothic or Tobias Frere-Jones’ Dolores — are the creation of young designers either still undergraduates or only recently graduated.

Carter sees the economic and technological factors of type production have transformed the industry. “Now it’s perfectly possible from someone to set up on a Mac using Fontographer [a font development software program] and get into the font-making business on a shoestring ...In the early days of photocomposition, let alone in hot metal days, you sort of took a deep breath before you developed a new type series... it was a project of absolutely architectural scale.” The labor and capital-intensive processes involved in the type industry disappeared with the refinement of the ‘desktop’ systems and new software. The entire process of taking an idea to a fully functional font has been democratized, demystified. As with any democratization there is a parallel increase in competition and mediocrity. We may have to suffer a lot of useless junk or second-rate knock-offs. But the advantages of having such flexibility outweigh the drawbacks. Ultimately it will give designers more control over the production of their fonts and — if the laws of capitalism function as promoted — increased competition and demand should spur an increase in quality and choice.

Many type designers are approaching the problem of font design from new perspectives. Readability, legibility, proportion or balance may not be primary concerns. To varying degrees digital fonts may look decidedly ‘different’- partially because the craft of creating postscript fonts is removed from drawing forms in plaka or cutting metal punches. Zuzana Licko, designer of many of the Emigre Faces, sees her designs as informed by several factors; the technology by which they are designed and the output devices they are intended to utilize, as well as personal experimentation within the structured forms of the alphabet. “One of my aims when designing typefaces is to see how much the basic letter shapes can be changed and still be functional...I am always very intrigued by experimental alphabets that either have no capitals or mix upper and lower characteristics, like Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26...” Embracing the new technology and the forms that it gives rise to can lead a reexamination of the standardized, expected letterforms. Carter feels that it may call the process of typography into question. “...People are experimenting with the relationship between the writer, the reader and the typographer and I don’t have any problem with that at all...[these designers are saying] there is more to the experience of assimilating information from a document than just transparent reading, a transparent transmission of information...” or as modernist critic Marshall Lee predicted forty years ago “...The evocation of mood becomes a primary concern of the designer. It is not enough for the designer to be ‘unobtrusive’...”.

The new technology has not only made ‘personal fonts’ economically feasible, but also allows for the designer to create or customize a font for a specific purpose. Jeff Keedy has created several limited-use PostScript fonts. His recent face Skelter was designed specifically for the Helter Skelter exhibition catalogue for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In this is a case, like Emigre Magazine, the line between type design and the graphic design is practically indistinguishable; a condition completely impossible — for both economic and technological reasons — before the the advent of desktop publishing. In a recent fax, Jeff Keedy wrote “...To make new typography you must have new typefaces, the old typefaces are almost completely exhausted of meaning, the new typefaces will revive them.” While one of his fonts, Keedy Sans, is commercially available, most of his faces are created with specific purposes in mind. Occasionally, if a font seems to be working, he circulates it amongst his friends and colleagues. Carter sees this as one of the most far-reaching implications of the industry. “...It is long way along the path to what I have heard referred to as tribal types. These are typefaces that don’t have to deal with the huge problems of legibility and universal acceptance in the Latin reading world...they can be project-specific.”

Already many of these new faces are making their way into mainstream usage. Letterforms designed by — or knocked off from — Zuzana Licko and Neville Brody turn up from Saturday Night Live to The New York Times. ‘Traditionalists grumbling that type died with the passing of hot metal miss the point. These new designers do not threaten the integrity of type design. On the contrary, they document and codify the ‘current’, generating the artifacts that will frame our generation. Carter’s opinion is “...you never know when something is going to be assimilated. There are some historical faces that nowadays people take completely for granted but they caused a terrible uproar when they first appeared. In the early days of Futura people threw their hands up saying ‘God forbid we could ever have anything as mechanical and cold as something like this!’” 

In my old typography text book from art school: Typography; A Manual of Design (1967) — about as close to a canonical text as you are going to find in design —author Emil Ruder wrote “...The fact that the typographer has no contribution of his own to make to the form of the typeface but takes these ready-made is of the essence of typography....The typographer must be able to take the impersonal view; willful individuality and emotion have little place in his work.” We took this approach very seriously. Ironically now it is this very mission of universality that now seems so peculiar to Ruder’s generation. That attitude of timelessness appears particularly temporal. Certainly, the idiosyncrasies of the present day (or to site Keedy’s phrase “willful ambiguity and rigorous inconsistency”) will be remarkable to the next generation.

Which brings us back to the recycling that is the inevitable by-product of the style industry. Sideburns or no? Medallions, platforms, leisure suits, all are sure to be high fashion in a matter of time. Looking new is often a function of looking different or referencing the correct historical moment. Difference - that is implied in newness - is a driving force in visual culture. But novelty (or opposition) is a force in theory as well. Each stylistic movement comes equipped with supporting ideology, or perhaps a ready-made alibi. It is a little amusing to see something like typefaces causing such a stir. Is a ‘bad’ typeface really any worse than platform shoes or shag haircuts?

I suppose each generation imagines itself at the peak of some great historical refinement; the idea of progress is central to the mentality of newness. I mistakenly believed that everyone would see 1976 as the nadir of visual culture. The idea that anyone might want to revisit will always be astonishing.