“Type 1987” Revisited

What is a typeface? Today it’s whatever you want it to be.

“Still, if adaptation is unquestionably part of the history of type design, why all the fuss? Perhaps it has something to do with the rate of change. The newest technologies speed up the process of drawing typefaces. …Alphabets used to take years to draw (and still do for most designers), and drawing was the snappy part back when type had to be cut into steel punches and molds had to be made before type could be cast. Adaptations happened, but they took years to execute. There were natural, physical, chronological limits to change. Adaptations can take place in a matter of weeks now; hell, they can happen overnight. Computers exist to allow manipulation of data. Now that type is nothing but data, numbers for the crunching, it can be a chameleon, remade for every situation. Digital faces can come from nowhere and spread like the flu.”

I wrote that paragraph in early 1988 as part of a lengthy account published in Metropolis on the conference “Type 1987,” where typeface designers and other letterform enthusiasts grappled with the technological changes that signaled the demise of one typesetting method, the photographic process, and the ascendance of a new technology, computer-based and digital. The conference took place shortly before the Macintosh computer became the default tool for graphic designers. The question I asked throughout the piece was, “What is a typeface?”

Oddly, of all the things I wrote during that period, “An Existential Guide to Type” has had the longest legs. It was republished in the anthology Texts on Type: Critical Writings on Typography (Allworth Press, New York, 2001) and still pops up in the curriculum of design classes. Just recently the advanced typography students at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) were blogging about it. This struck me as strange: blogs are such a temporal medium, and the piece is very old. So I e-mailed instructor Tobias Brauer and asked him why he’d assigned it. “Part of the reason I made them read it,” he replied, “was to get them to appreciate a bit of how things used to be. To them design has never existed outside of a computer. I also thought it would be good for them to notice significant changes that have happened in the past so that maybe they can spot those same sorts of changes as they’re currently in progress.”

In truth the article was not really about type at all but about the relationship between technological progress and cultural change. The emotional fulcrum of the piece was an account of a debate between Roger Black, the former Rolling Stone art director who was by then well established as a design doctor for ailing newspapers and magazines, and Paula Scher, a graphic designer who was then half of the small firm Koppel & Scher and is today a partner at Pentagram. The debate concerned the practices of the International Typeface Corporation (ITC), a company that once dominated the type business and was itself a product of the previous technological shift from hot metal type to cool photo lettering.

Black was pro ITC, arguing that the company’s treatment of the typeface Garamond was “peculiarly contemporary.” But I latched on to Scher’s response: “As the focus of her end of the debate Paula Scher, not coincidentally, chose Garamond, a face first cut in the sixteenth-century Parisian workshop of Claude Garamond but recut and sharpened 60 years after Garamond’s death by Jean Jannon. Garamond in its many variations is one of the most used faces today and one of ITC’s top three sellers…

She showed two slides, one of ITC Garamond and the other of a Garamond out of a Linotype book. Two of Garamond’s hallmarks, the peculiarly high waist of the lowercase e and the dainty loop of the lowercase a, had been normalized a bit, rounded out slightly, by ITC for their Garamond. ‘The problem with the new form is it’s called Garamond and it’s not Garamond,’ argued Scher.”

At this moment in history the point of contention between the two designers seems trivial. ITC is not the typographic powerhouse it once was. Its role has been eclipsed by companies that jumped on the digital-type revolution as it was happening, like FontShop, founded in 1988 by Berlin-based designer Erik Spiekermann. There must be hundreds of Garamonds out there.

But it’s the other part of the argument (“It’s called Garamond and it’s not Garamond”) that still seems noteworthy because it’s about meaning and notions of authority—and both of those things are in precipitous decline. Substitute the phrase “mission accomplished” or “plan for victory” for the word Garamond in Scher’s declaration, and you’ll see what I mean.

“I had a hard time reading how arrogant and nitpicky some of the people who attended Type 1987 were,” wrote Adam McIver, one of the NKU design students participating in the type debates. “Complaining about the alterations over the years as fonts were tweaked and digitized, they sound like Star Wars geeks who bitched when George Lucas released the Special Editions.” He added, “I view type as another element in the design, like a photograph or illustration. Altering a photograph is essentially destroying the photographer’s original piece of art, and the same thing goes for an illustration. But if the overall piece benefits from it, who cares?”

This belief that everything is mutable is so prevalent among younger practitioners that Emigre—the type foundry and (now defunct) design magazine that came into being in 1984 to smash typographic orthodoxy and practically invent the renegade type movement—includes the following on its Web site’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page:

“What if I don’t like some letters in a font of yours, can I change them?”

“Can’t I use pieces of your fonts, just like musicians sample music?”

“I bought one of your fonts; can’t I do whatever I want with it?”

The answers are, in effect: “No.” “Not really.” and “God, no!” But they’re worded more diplomatically, in a way that reveals an underlying set of problems: “Please understand that we have nothing against experimentation and the customizing of fonts for private use. The problem comes about when such end products are sold and/or given away for free, under the guise of ‘new’ designs, and usually without proper credit to their true origins.”

The arguments of 1987 don’t make any sense to today’s young typographers because they assume that there is no difference between authentic and fake, original and imitation. Everything—whether it’s a 300-year-old typeface or something designed last week by your best friend—is up for grabs. But I’m not convinced that this is a cultural condition that can be blamed on “kids today.” Which way does diminished authority go, from bottom to top or from top to bottom? Could our current ugly political situation be attributed to the mutation of letterforms? That’s not such a crazy question when you recall that we now cast our votes on computers that reputedly allow tallies to be altered without a trace. To a computer there isn’t much difference between a letterform and a vote. Everything is mutable, distortable, and subject to revision not simply because the technology allows it—or because kids raised on computers have a different set of values—but because the signals our society puts out demand and encourage it.

Despite the fact that letterforms are now inherently unstable (or perhaps because of it), there’s a full-fledged typographic renaissance in progress. The Web is full of sites dedicated to new typefaces. I’m particularly enchanted with the output of Atelier René Knip (www.atelierreneknip.nl), a cavalcade of faces that blend old-fashioned cocoa-tin style with the studied primitivism of contemporary Dutch graphics. Another Web site, Typographica, hosts an annual “Favorite Fonts” list that was so long last year it had to be posted in two installments. The 2005 list begins with a summarization of trends. (Number one: “The dominance of indie foundries.”) The intro notes that a Frenchman named Xavier Dupré—who is based in, of all places, Cambodia —designed three of the favorite faces.

The Internet is full of wonderfully cool type, but only a very small percentage of this exuberance seems destined to make it into print. Print is beside the point. In the interest of science I convened a group of graduate design students from New York’s School of Visual Arts and asked them, “If you were going to design a typeface, where would you most like to see it appear?” Twenty-three-year-old Randy J. Hunt gave me the most cogent answer: “Honestly for me it would be something like small low-resolution displays, like a next-generation cell phone. Doing something like that would be amazing. That’s the most eyes.”

What if all this typographic activity is actually the gradual retooling of the written language for the screen? Maybe it is. But in an e-mail exchange Jonathan Hoefler—35-year-old type designer and president of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, a New York firm that has famously come to dominate the print media’s appetite for custom typefaces—theorizes that the current generation is simply as passionate about the Internet as earlier generations were about magazines and television.

Hoefler suggests that the typographic Web sites are interesting because they represent graphic design free of meddlesome clients. They’re more about art than design. Indeed the current type explosion sometimes makes me think of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of gas stations and industrial signage, studies in nostalgia-tinged beauty. A face called Gotham by Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler’s business partner, is an evocation of the “no-nonsense lettering of the American vernacular” and a conscious tribute to a “vanishing style.” Perhaps today’s feverish interest in letterforms is motivated by the sensation that something important is about to slip through our fingers.

But are we any closer to the “End of Print” now than we were 20 years ago? I doubt it. Or at least print isn’t the only medium under digital assault. The immediacy of the Internet has also made broadcast media seem impossibly slow and outdated. Print, television, radio, and movies are increasingly seen as sources of sensation rather than portals of vital information. I’ve begun to turn to all of them—as I often turned to art—as a way to refresh myself after spending too many hours staring at the computer screen. We’re not approaching the end of any given medium—even posters continue to flourish somewhere in the world—but rather a redistribution of their significance.

What we are facing is a crisis of authority. The authority of the artist and the designer is every bit as challenged today as the authority of the scientist and the legal scholar. We are operating in an environment where the value of objective truth—and, for that matter, subjective truth—has been diminished. In the past the printed word signified authority: the Constitution, a contract, an ink-on-paper signature, an article in the New York Times. But while the printed word has lost much of its clout, an orderly handover of authority to the digital realm has not taken place.

The new typographers I find online are the graphic-design equivalent of bloggers. Digital tools combined with the Internet have turned any number of isolated individuals into “foundries” just as the same technology has transformed millions of individuals into “publishers” or “pundits.” Some of them are impressively talented, others are not, but there’s no hierarchy. Authority is elusive and up for grabs. There is no official anything. What is the truth? It’s hard to say. What is a typeface? Anything you want it to be.

As much as the Web allows the display and distribution of endless quantities of garage foundry type, most of it can’t actually be used on the Web in a meaningful way. When designing text for Web sites, you can’t really specify more than a handful of faces because the final product, a Web page, will look different from browser to browser. Web designers can specify any font they want, but unless you have got it installed on your computer, your browser will default to one that you actually have.

The problem is not technological. It is entirely possible to transmit a given font’s specifications along with the contents of a given Web page. Digital information is digital information, after all. The problem is that no one has come up with a way of doing it without giving the fonts away and violating the rights of the type foundries. So this is the precise place where the new technology runs into the old ink-and-paper rules, the spot where the gears fail to mesh and our acceleration toward whatever happens next slips into neutral. What the crummy output of 300-dot-per-inch printers were to the guardians of typographic heritage in 1987, the Web’s limitations on typographic freedom are to the progenitors of type’s future today.

For the time being the only way to use one of the myriad exotic typefaces out there on a Web page is to treat it as a graphic element. Graphics on the Web, however, add bulk to a page and increase the time it takes to load. So while the Web encourages the culture of type design and streamlines the distribution of fonts, it isn’t yet the ideal medium for innovative typography. In a way the renaissance is, like everything else on the Web, semi-illusory. In the year 2006 you can do pretty much anything that you want…except you can’t.

Two decades later the loss of historic typefaces hasn’t happened. There are more of them out there than ever before. Even the debate about ITC Garamond lives on, at least among those who are old enough to be “nitpicky.” In October 2004 Pentagram partner Michael Bierut posted an essay called “I Hate ITC Garamond” on Design Observer, an online journal he helped found. If anything, Bierut was more venomous than Scher was in 1987. “Today ITC Garamond is no longer ubiquitous, but it pops up in unlikely places and still gives me a nasty start,” Bierut wrote. “I’ve come to realize that I don’t hate it for any rational reason; I hate it like I hate fingernails on a blackboard. I hate it because I hate it.” Since 1987, the whole world has changed…except that it hasn’t. Welcome to the future.

Variations on the Garamond typeface. Ironically, the Web has facilitated a renaissance in type design.

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