Summer 2005

Thou shalt not tweak fonts

Type now: a manifesto, plus work so far

By Fred Smeijers. Hyphen Press, £17.50

A commodity is, Marx once said, ‘a mysterious thing.’ They are objects that seemingly appear from nowhere, taking on a life of their own, appearing to emerge fully formed like some spectral apparition. This fetishisation of the objects of labour as free floating entities detached from the messy realities of their production, has infiltrated all areas of our life. Graphic design has, of course, been part of the advance guard, when it comes to offering the ‘clean white envelope’ into which all the messy truths of the commodity are neatly sealed away. The extent to which the commodification of everyday life has affected our conception of the design process and how it has transformed our use of type and type design, is one of the questions posed by Type Now.

Six short essays seek to consider how the deluge of ‘new’ types in the digital age has fundamentally transformed the nature of the profession. For Smeijers, in a ‘society that embraces shallow but fast consumption, with experiences following one after another in rapid short cycles [. . .] it is no wonder that type design is reaching its highest peak ever.’ He laments that accelerated capitalism (although he never manages to mention the ‘C’ word) is generating a culture of copying – or what he calls ‘font-tweaking’ – in type design. This, he writes, is particularly prevalent among young designers who lack a historical perspective of their vocation and proposes they resist the seduction of new technologies. In his essay ‘Artisan or designer’ he criticises those aspiring to embellish their work with some supposed ‘artistic’ expression and notes that those with creative talent should simply ‘Do the job as well as you can. Get on with it and keep quiet.’

As a postscript Smeijers proffers his own moral ‘Code of Conduct’ for designers. Primarily occupied with issues of copyright, many of the points are clear-sighted and justified. Yet, any question as to what kind of companies you work for, or to what purpose you put your skills, appears not to be on his agenda. As an ethical approach to design it is ineffectual. As a consideration of moral conduct within the design profession as a whole, it is narrow. In any principled record, shouldn’t you start by questioning the practices of the companies you sell your skills to? Smeijers clearly considers himself in a position to assert a moral code for designers, a code that he himself said ‘should work from the bottom up, rather than top down’. So, if this is the case, shouldn’t it be one that goes further than challenging ‘font-tweaking’?

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