Autumn 2005

Commerce, culture and customer publishing

U&lc: influencing design and typography

Edited by John D. Berry
Mark Batty Publisher, USD55, £40

The transformation of culture into commerce has been one of the defining features of recent history. For centuries, physical resources were exploited and modified for their profit-making potential. Today, cultural experience in all its guises is at the forefront of generating private wealth. The markers we use to define our identity are ever more indistinguishable from ‘the economy’ that manufactures the narrow range of paid-for experiences. And let us not fool ourselves; graphic design history does not operate outside of this system. The never-ending array of essential monographs, must-see exhibitions, new magazines and reviews – such as this one – often manufactures the requisite interest that contributes to this culture of short-lived saleable experience. This is not to deny the critical and historic value such works offer the reader, or to say that we cannot reflect upon this process in the act of recording and appraising design history. It is simply that we need to remain attentive to what each new book or essay offers in way of a broader awareness of its relation to the socio-cultural moment, and our own critical knowledge of that dynamic.

That said, could a typographic magazine, which was launched to promote the wares of its owner, ever hope to offer the reader any critical distance? Such was the problem faced by U&lc. Launched in 1973 by Herb Lubalin, Aaron Burns and Ed Rondthaler, U&lc was initially created as a mouthpiece for the promotion of typefaces produced by the International Typeface Corporation (ITC), which had been founded by Herb Lubalin, Aaron Burns and Ed Rondthaler in 1970. Yet, from its rough oversized tabloid format, to the relative freedom each successive editor and designer had vis-à-vis the magazine’s look and content, U&lc had a rare freedom among marketing quarterlies. At its height, the magazine had a circulation of more than 200,000 and established a reputation for original articles and exciting new designs, all of which served to elevate the perception of ITC’s typefaces among the design community.

In a new retrospective anthology of the magazine, U&lc: influencing design and typography, the magazine’s final editor John Berry notes that it was originally ‘conceived as a form of “soft marketing”, a publication that would not just fill itself up with marketing copy and sound like an ad itself, but would provide a mix of intriguing content and flamboyant design that might catch the attention of graphic designers and typographers’. As an ‘amiable conversation with the graphic design community’ it was through Lubalin, and the magazine experience he brought from Eros and Avant Garde, that U&lc quickly became a conduit for a review of all facets of popular and historical typography and design (except, as Steven Heller notes in his contribution to the book, that of Modernism). Unfortunately, in a desire to show a broad range of work from the magazine’s existence (1973-99), this current collection fails to reveal how much Lubalin’s eclectic approach loomed large in most subscribers’ image of the magazine, an impression that persisted even after his death in 1981. The very real import of this nostalgia became palpable when John Berry asked Mark von Bronkhorst to change Lubalin’s original logo for the first edition of 1998. ‘Nothing that we did in my tenure as editor created as much of a stir as changing the logo,’ notes Berry. Combined with a reduction in size to a more conventional magazine format [8.5 x 11 inches], it is not surprising that, economic factors aside, the publication only lasted another five issues after this edition.

One of the recurring problems of U&lc arose when essays and articles became mere formalistic exercises, occasions to treat the ITC’s typefaces as a graphic commodity rather than a vehicle to communicate opinions and ideas. Clearly there was always a pressure to present the company’s product in the most flattering light possible. Unfortunately, the outcome was often egotistical designers paying little attention to the meaning of an article and riding roughshod over the need to enhance the author’s words. This was especially so in the early 1990s; with the arrival of desktop publishing, many issues of the magazine became stark examples of the work of designers drunk on the possibilities of this new technology. Fortunately, through such individuals as Ellen Shapiro, Bob Farber and Paul Davis, U&lc utilised the work of designers who cared for what was being said and how it could be expressed with the reader in mind. It is in such work that the true legacy of Lubalin and U&lc resides.