Summer 2001

Digital type decade

Emily King

The sound and fury of ‘radical’ typeface design associated with the early days of PostScript have quietened into a purposeful, prolific hum. There’s a new order of craft and and invention, driven by corporate culture, nostalgia and the demands of the screen.

For a short period between the buoyant late 1980s and the economic downturn of the early 1990s there existed an unprecedented typographic euphoria. Suddenly, for a relatively small investment in hardware and software, designers were able to marshal the industry’s standard type technology from their desktops (thanks in part to the de-encryption of Adobe’s PostScript Type 1 software). For a few years this capability was exploited to the full and the result was an exhilarating rush of intensive typographic invention.

A 1992 article by Robin Kinross (Eye no. 7 vol. 2) described the heady early years of device-independent digital type and a newly reordered typographic landscape in which traditional firms (such as Monotype, Berthold and Linotype-Hell) had been forced to slim down, merge or seek out niches in a market that they had formerly dominated. In their place had emerged software firms (Adobe largely, and Apple and Microsoft to a lesser extent) who had arrived at type almost inadvertently through the development of desktop publishing technology and now were required to take up the slack. Most revolutionary of all was the rise of the independent type designer, individuals such as Zuzana Licko who had seized the design initiative. Kinross called the then-current changes ‘as profound as any in the course of [typography’s] 550-year history’.

The digital technologies introduced in the late 1980s did not just change the conditions in which type was being designed and distributed, they also changed dramatically the circumstances in which type was being used. Although it had seemed in the early years as if the software giants were going to occupy the typographic high ground left vacant by the demise of the old guard, it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. Since 1992 many of the traditional type firms have been reduced to venerable labels attached to static libraries, and although Monotype continues to thrive in the guise of Agfa Monotype Corporation (1) (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Agfa Corporation, which has been picking up other firms along the way including itc), it does so in a form that bears little resemblance to its former self. Where once Monotype targeted marketing at a community of type professionals, it now works with operating systems manufacturers to supply core fonts: the means to desktop publish and assemble workable websites.

Over the past decade it has become evident that software companies will never become the white knights of typography. In the example of Adobe, it seemed that the software created by the type team was at odds with the software products made by the rest of the firm; the former targeted the specialist, while the latter aimed to open up the activities of design and print to as broad an audience as possible. Given commercial imperatives, these companies have the resources to create fantastic products; remove the profit motive and their attention strays elsewhere. Interviewed in 1995, Adobe’s Bur Davies recalled a period between 1989 and 1991 (when the sale of Adobe’s PostScript types went ‘through the roof’) which was followed by a sharp downturn in 1992 when economic recession and competition combined to slash revenues. The consequences were immediate, the type team was cut to twelve people and their design programme was considerably reduced. By the mid 1990s the beautiful type booklets that Adobe had once produced to promote their Originals range had been replaced by glossy leaflets selling Fun Types.

The current emphasis of type design at Adobe, where a few key members of the original heavyweight type team do continue to work, is to showcase developments in type technology, in particular those technologies that are unwieldy and forbidding to independent type designers. The most important of these is OpenType. Announced in 1997, this font format was developed jointly with Microsoft to address the problem of cross-platform incompatibilities of the existing PostScript and TrueType formats. Its goal was later extended to work with the larger international standard character set of Unicode, which is designed to support the interchange, processing and display of written texts of all languages. Unicode v.3.1 accommodates 94,140 characters – enough for all the languages in the world.

Major recent additions to the Adobe type library include Robert Slimbach’s ‘full-featured, state of the art OpenType family’ Warnock – a typeface that brings together classic proportion and contemporary detail named after the co-founder of Adobe Systems John Warnock – and Carol Twombly’s Chaparral – an OpenType face that combines sturdy slab serifs with varying letter proportions. Both are accessible faces imbued with all the features that the OpenType format allows. (2)

As well as creating designs in new font formats, an area in which the big software companies continue to make the running is in the design of type for the screen. Among the most widely used and widely admired of contemporary screen fonts are Matthew Carter’s designs

for Microsoft: Verdana (sans serif) and Georgia (serif). The manner in which these fonts are distributed has echoes of the proprietary models that were the norm in the pre-PostScript era: just as fonts were once sold in conjunction with typesetting equipment, Carter’s fonts are distributed by Microsoft alongside their browser. The dominance of the software companies in the field of screen fonts seems likely to continue as only these companies have access to the extremely wide channels of distribution that are required if such fonts are to be successful.

The underlying method behind all of Carter’s Microsoft fonts was the same. Starting out by making basic bitmap fonts at the three sizes that Microsoft considered to be the most important for text on the screen, Carter embellished these fonts with bitmapped italic, bold and bold italic versions. It was only after these bitmap fonts had been approved that Carter wrapped a vector outline around them and passed them on to Tom Rickner, an expert in hinting type for the screen, who created the scaleable versions. Carter has argued that the chief virtue of working this way is not so much evident in the forms of the letters, but in their spacing, which remains regular in accordance with their underlying bitmap. The information design consultant Andrew Boag of Boag Associates describes Carter’s method as ‘bottom-up’ design. Although he acknowledges the need for Carter’s fonts and the considerable merit of the designer’s work, Boag argues that the bottom-up approach has its limits: there is a ceiling on the number of different letterforms you can make from a restricted grid. As an alternative, Boag recommends the ‘top-down’ approach, which involves hinting traditional typefaces for screen use.

One of the core techniques of the top-down approach is greyscaling, rendering letterforms in pixels of varying levels of intensity. This is a technique that comes into its own on low-resolution, colour screens of the kind that are the norm on desks around the world, particularly when appearance is more important than absolute legibility. Boag’s writing about this is included in his website. (3)

Other developments in screen type include the typefaces designed for hand-held screens, such as those on mobile phones and palm pilots. As these devices are used as a means of access to ever wider sources of information, their typographical qualities become more and more important. Because they are used at a preset sizes and need not be scaleable, the fonts that appear on these screens are relatively easy to design. Nevertheless, when looked at en masse they demonstrate commendable ingenuity in the face of low resolution. Peering at jaggy type on tiny black and white screens may have become an increasingly common activity, but this doesn’t mean that the long-term goal of making the screen as comfortable to read as the printed page has been abandoned. The most significant development in this area is ClearType, a technology that is being developed by Microsoft. Combining insights into the nature of screen display with an understanding of visual perception, the technologists and designers behind ClearType hope to exploit the properties of commonplace screen technology to create a more fluent reading experience.(4)

At present ClearType is exclusively available as part of Microsoft Reader and a only a small selection of existing typefaces have been adapted to the technology (including Berling and Frutiger), but many, including the technological commentator Nico Macdonald (5), believe that this type technology is set to become the onscreen standard.

Far away from the major software companies and the large-scale type distributors, the independent digital foundries (the new kids on the block in the early 1990s) continue to proliferate. The typography section of the Microsoft website carries a list of more than 600 small-scale type foundries.(6) To an extent, this section of the type industry has flourished against the odds. After the initial joy of gaining access to the tools to make and distribute type, the mood of many designers took a nosedive when they realised how difficult it would be to earn sufficient revenue from their type design labours. The primary threats to the independents were (and still are) software pirates and competition from larger companies who sell type in cheap packages or even bundle it free with other software. Small type foundries have adopted a range of different strategies in their efforts to overcome these circumstances. Some, such as the Dutch foundry Enschedé (7), have chosen to aim for the top end of the market by charging high prices for their fonts and offering quality and ‘exclusivity’ (their inverted commas) in return. Others, such as Rian Hughes’s Device (8), thrive on the quantity and immediacy of their output.

Another route taken by a number of independent foundries has been that of custom type. Making faces for publications or corporations has become the staple for companies such as Dalton Maag (9) in London (clients include BT, Hewlett Packard and Lego) and the Hoefler Type Foundry (10) in New York (clients include Harper’s Bazaar, Martha Stewart Living, Tiffany & Co. and the Guggenheim Museum). A unique typeface has become a must-have accessory among contemporary brands. It is partly due to the expansion of client-initiated design that the flow of new typefaces prompted by the technological changes of the late 1980s has continued unabated into the new century. ‘What’s a brand without a typeface?’ cries the cover of Dalton Maag’s brochure.

Yet the frenzy around type that was so much a part of the early 1990s graphic design scene is now somewhat dulled. Explanations for the damping down of typographic excitement might include the threats of software piracy and cut-rate competition mentioned above, or market saturation, or even economic cycles, but more likely than any of these factors is the reassertion of a couple of basic truths: type is complex and time-consuming to make, and requires an adherence to principles that put a damper on revolutionary ambition. What we are experiencing right now could be described as a second digital wave.

To a great extent, many of the directions being explored in type design now appear to be edited down, hemmed in versions of design initiatives that arose in the early years of PostScript. For example, the digital type magazine Fuse, launched in 1991, has just released its eighteenth issue, the first for several years. Taking the theme ‘Secrets’, Fuse 18’s editorial describes a world in which information has obscured meaning, and its typefaces reflect that theme to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest fits between theme and font are Matthew Carter’s contribution DeFace, which explores the communicative and destructive properties of graffiti, and Jake Tilson’s httpwc MEN ONLY which turns the keyboard into a means of revealing codes. Fuse produces typefaces that only qualify for that description in the loosest possible of senses and continues along an already established path, marshalling those designs in the service of its apocalyptic message.

At the other end of the type design spectrum, the exploration of various chapters in typographic history continues apace. In particular the merging of two quite disparate typographic styles into a single traditional-looking, yet distinctive face – a significant theme in type design since the introduction of PostScript – remains a popular tack. This approach informed both of Adobe’s major new OpenType typefaces, Twombly’s Chaparral and Slimbach’s Warnock. Also dealing in typographic history is Jeremy Tankard, who has delved into medieval manuscripts (Alchemy), the Grotesque and Egyptian lettering styles associated with the industrial revolution (The Shire Types) and is currently looking at the typography of the 1901 Doves Bible with the aim of creating a new typeface for publishing use. Tankard’s most visible face is the sans serif Bliss (British Midland Airways, Foxton’s estate agent). The Bliss typeface is the outcome of the assessment of five sans serif faces: Gill Sans; Syntax; Frutiger; Edward Johnston’s Underground typeface and Kinneir and Calvert’s Transport typeface (see Eye no. 34 vol. 9). The result is a design that answered the current quest for ‘a new simplicity’. It is a face that seems straightforward because it is imbued with so much that we already know.

In parallel with official typographic history, another area that seems to be proving endlessly fruitful to contemporary type designers is typographic popular culture. This is a broad field that ranges from the comic book through to the commonplace and functional – for example the car number plate, source of Conor Mangat’s Platelet (11) – and into the fantastic and the camp – a route comprehensively explored by the US outfit House Industries. (12) The mood in the popular culture camp is upbeat. House Industries employ an indeterminate 1960s and 1970s nostalgia, a longing for a time of burbling TVs, snackfoods and reclining leather chairs, an era when commercial culture was titillating and innocent, rather than manipulative and scary. All this frothiness is a bit foolish, but it does make a change from the decayed, abject thing that characterised many of the forays into pop culture typography of the early 1990s. While typefaces such as Barry Deck’s Template Gothic (1990) or Smoke Bomb’s Backspacer (1993) had us all teetering on the brink of unstoppable cultural decline, House Industries’ Latin Types speak of nothing more disquieting than ‘bongo madness’.

The split between typographic history and popular culture is far from unimpeachable: there’s an apparent distaste on the part of many typographic commentators for all of postwar consumer culture. As recent past becomes more historicised, the popular / historical gap may gradually erode. Lucas De Groot’s Pistol fonts are examples of designs that might qualify for inclusion in the typographic history section. Drawn from Jamie Reid’s ransom-note lettering for the Sex Pistols, and referring strongly to the design language of the punk fanzine, they seem sufficiently allied with grassroots, political radicalism to be allowed some kind of worthwhile typographic meaning. (13)

The idea that letterforms could communicate independently to the texts they spell out, though it dates from the earliest manuscripts, is heavily associated with the early years of PostScript, the outcome of the coincidence between the emergence of the software and the adoption of postmodern theory in US art schools. And while this is no longer big typographic news, it has become a broadly accepted truth. House Industries exploited this fact as part of the promotion of their recent sans serif face Chalet by inventing a designer, René Albert Chalet, and a story that touched some of type history’s favourite bases, Modernism, Switzerland and venerated French type foundries. In a related, but more earnest vein, in March 2001 the Bilbao cultural organisation Consonni, in collaboration with artist Hinrich Sachs, offered for sale at auction the international copyright and software versions of fourteen traditional Basque typefaces known as the Euskara types. As an element of Basque folk culture, these letterforms carry a political charge, particularly in the light of their censorship during the Franco period. The Consonni auction traced questions about meaning and ownership that might be relevant to the typographic community on a broader political map. (14)

If there is a style of letterform that is particularly associated with the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first then it is the gauche, techie look that has become visible in contemporary display type. The awkward, geometric faces that are part of this look are often the outcome of a systems approach, a method whereby the designer establishes the rules at the outset and then allows form to be determined by those rules. For example, many of the typefaces distributed by Christian Küsters’s Acme foundry are designed according to a set of principles that all but eliminate formal choice. (15) According to Küsters, the point is not how these typefaces look, but the ‘idea‘ that lies behind. Other designers working in this way include Julian Morey of Club Twenty-one, who takes inspiration from the crudest of vernacular types, in once instance the lettering on stationery delivery notes, and works these ideas up into full alphabets. The systems approach to type design implies scant attention to how letterforms might perform in a typographic context and as such has little to do with traditional typographic value, but they have created a current typographic mood. Perhaps it is a perverse response to the seemingly endless formal choice that was offered by PostScript technology. Another approach is to take the technology apart and craft new software that will make things interesting once again. This is the long-term strategy of the Dutch designer duo Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum and their invention appears unstoppable. The most recent recipients of the Charles Nypels Prize for typography (see Eye no. 39 vol. 10), Van Blokland and Van Rossum were the originals in this field (see Eye no. 7 vol. 2) and with recent projects such as Federal, a font that takes on more detail at larger sizes, they remain at its forefront. (16) The most significant development in contemporary type may be the emergence of the aforementioned Unicode, (17) a system of encoding that will encompass a large part of the world’s written languages and promote the cause of global typography.

But to return to the more local view, for many of the type designers who create the faces that we see around us these developments are of limited relevance. Jeremy Tankard has written a short paper for new type users on the trials and tribulations of the technology in which he describes the incompatibilities and glitches that are the constant hazards of contemporary type designers and typographers. As far as Tankard is concerned, OpenType simply is not happening yet, he doesn’t have the time and his customers don’t have the applications. Maybe, once this gap closes, we will witness a surge of innovation comparable to that of a decade ago.

Thanks to Phil Baines and Nico Macdonald

First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10, 2001

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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