Winter 1994

Beyond typography

Fuse’s talented team is on an inspired quest to ‘Make it new!’ But what is the project really about?

Like enraged citizens, long denied political rights, bursting into the palace, graphic designers have broken down the walls of the hitherto closed enclave of letterform design and seized control. The digital reformation of the type-founding industry is complete and the story of typographic democratisation, with its Thatcherite undertones of deregulation and free-market capitalism, is old news. Type will never again be produced by a guild-like fraternity; the craft republicanism and labour unionism that characterised letter-making are gone forever. But as exciting as the results of the type revolution have been, it is hard not to feel a speck of remorse for the decimation of another craft, and another organised group of craftsmen, by a handful of young punks with personal computers.

Now the means of type production have been decentralised, the integrity of a letterform can no longer be measured by the traditional yardsticks of mastery of tools and processes, quality of handwork and historical continuity. But a new typographic rhetoric has filled the gap. The stabilising influence of the apprentice system that has been replaced by an order that sees the letterform as a site for visual experimentation and the alphabet as a screen on to which designers project their creativity. The contemporary type designer carries the baton of Van Doesburg and Bayer in a quest for originality.

For the past three years, Fuse magazine has been an unofficial mouthpiece for the supporters of digital typography. Conceived and created by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft, and distributed as a quasi-promotional piece by FontShop international, Fuse is marketed (at £25 an issue) as an ‘interactive’ magazine-on-diskette with experimental typefaces, printed specimen sheets, an editorial essay and biographical and creative notes by the designers. Fuse fonts – usually four to a set, although there tends to be a bonus font or two thrown in for good measure – are offered as works in progress and subscribers are encouraged to customise them at will. That is apparently where the interactivity comes in, though apart from the designer’s approval, there is nothing inherent in a Fuse font that makes it more malleable than any other PostScript font for the electronic doodler with a copy of Fontographer and time to spare.

Mafia of Modernists
The typefaces in each set reflect, more or less, a general idea – religion, exuberance, (dis)information, and so on – that serves as the theme for each issue. Editor Jon Wozencroft opens issue I optimistically anticipating that ‘A dynamic new forum for typography will stimulate a new sensibility in visual expression, one grounded in ideas, not just image.’ He closes his inaugural essay with ‘we must clear the cobwebs that cover the type that has so quickly been digitalised and dumped in the system folder. Otherwise we will be left deeper in a digital nightmare, plundering as many hot metal typefaces as possible to compensate for our lack of imagination. We will pretend to be in command of our language, but we will actually be locked in a museum.’

The first issue reiterates a familiar lament: the typographic establishment – perhaps the repressed memory of an overbearing father figure in the form of a curmudgeonly typography professor – is inherently conservative and restrictive. Some unnamed mafia of Modernists is insisting on legibility without understanding that times are a-changing. It is a classic generational conflict in which the parents cannot relate to the new music that drives the kids wild.

The idea is revisited in issue 4. Using the language of anti-establishment youth rebellion, Phil Baines writes, ‘Typeface designers today are Modernist law-abiding citizens who police their forms within the strict confines of function.’ In the same issue, Jeffery Keedy evokes the age gap, bemoaning the longevity of ‘an exhausted Modernism that refuses to die’. But even a cursory glance through a typehouse manual or popular magazine from the last 30 years should dash the idea that the world ever tottered on the brink of a global Helvetican domination. The stranglehold of a single, homogenous Modernist theory is a designer’s fantasy. Talk of timeless letterforms and rational organisation has never made it far beyond the typography class, the corporate design consultancy and the airport signage system. And letterforms have never been inviolate – it is more that the tools to tamper with them have changed: from brush and ink to camera to computer.

Visual play
After Fuse’s first couple of issues, the subject of Wozencroft’s essay and the idea of ‘a dynamic new forum for typography’ part company. Typography itself is rarely discussed and Wozencroft seems intent on linking the formal gestures of letterforms to larger issues of contemporary culture, not by direct reference but juxtaposition. The editor muses on a range of subjects from virtual reality (issue 5) to violent cinema (issue 7) – the connection between theme, type, and essay becoming increasingly tenuous – until Fuse 9 (‘Auto’), which features a polemic on negotiating London traffic.

But while the intention of the writing is occasionally nebulous, the real focus is the type itself, and the list of Fuse contributors reads like a litany of famous young designers: Phil Baines, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, Ian Swift, Peter Saville, Rick Vermeulen, Rick Valicenti, David Carson, and so on. Fuse’s gift is not for prose but for visual play, and it affords the opportunity for a series of talented designers to explore aspects of form-making outside the restrictions of the typical design brief. The fonts range from the purely formal to the highly conceptual to the completely irrational. While some stand as viable headline faces – and turn up in the most unexpected places – others openly defy the possibility of use.

The openly defiant types – such as Tobias Frere-Jones’ Reactor (issue 7), in which each character gradually bespeckles earlier lines with ‘noise fields’ as typing progresses (‘the more you type, the worse it gets …’) – are the most interesting in that they suggest an experimentation that works on the levels of both idea and form. My favourite is Paul Elliman’s performance-based font Alphabet (issue 5), produced in a London photo-booth with 26 participants playing the letters. These fonts question the very idea of repetition made possible by new technology, the meaning of formal choices, and the linguistic contingencies of the media.

Letters with magical power
Other faces evoke historical precedents outside the canon of fine typography, such as Victorian display faces (Keedy’s LushUS) or the goofy, round-cornered futurism of the early 1970s (Moonbase Alpha by Cornel Windlin). The conflict between the systematic and the decorative is evident in the contradictory methods the designers bring to bear on their projects. An undying fascination with the modular is still clearly present in fonts such as Erik Spiekermann’s Grid, D’coder by Gerard Unger and In Tegel by Martin Wenzel. A continued fixation with the overtly irrational can be seen in Pierre Di Sciullo’s Scratched Out and Rick Valicenti’s Uck N Pretty.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the magazine is the poster collection that serves as a showcase for each issue’s assembled talent. Each poster is a two-colour font specimen demonstrating one of the featured alphabets, though most of the posters seem to shirk that aspect of their job. Next to the lively type design, the compositions appear loose and unfocused. Almost uniformly uninteresting and with no real function to perform, the posters slip into dilettantish formalism, resorting to frivolous competition among themselves.

Not far below the surface of all this furious experimentation lurks a stated desire to remystify modes of linguistic expression, an almost palpable longing for some spiritual past in which alphabets possessed a totemic significance. Fuse is a conscious effort to reinvest letters with magical power. All the rhetoric about new forms of writing obscures the real significance of experimental type design. Fuse is not a project about type at all: the alphabet is not a vehicle for communication so much as a backdrop against which the designers spin their elaborate narratives. While the forms assume the variegated surface of post-modernism, the underlying issues indicate that projects such as Fuse are deeply rooted in Modernist goals of avant-garde experimentation and artistic originality.

In her essay ‘The Originality of the Avant-Garde’, art historian Rosalind Krauss demonstrates that Modernism operates within the tension between two opposed terms: the exalted idea of originality and the degraded notion of repetition. Originality has certainly been a clarion-call in twentieth-century art, from Ezra Pound’s admonition ‘Make it new!’ to the Futurist calls for the destruction of history, from Tschichold’s claims of a ‘New Typography’ to the lust for experimentation in contemporary projects such as Fuse and Emigre. The language of the Futurist manifesto, in which Marinetti conflates the museum with the crypt or the cemetery, is echoed in Wozencroft’s image of designers locked in a cobwebbed museum of historical revival.

But the alphabet presents a unique contradiction to the quest for originality. The alphabet is a given that predates all who come to it. Every designer who works with the conventional forms of the alphabet is condemned to endless repetition of those accepted forms. The designer can manipulate them only insofar as the end result falls within the realm of what is known to be the letter. Once that boundary has been crossed, the designer becomes a skilful maker of plastic form, but can no longer claim to work in the domain of the linguistic. While the creators of Fuse may gaze longingly towards an antediluvian paradise of magical pictorial languages, it is the unyielding persistence of the alphabetic structure that becomes the benchmark against which the genius of the contemporary type designer is measured.

Viewed in this light, Fuse is a project about the brilliance of its participants and the clever manner in which they redefine the boundaries of the project. In lionising the experimental, Fuse promotes popular notions of artistic genius, originality and authenticity: terms that, following Walter Benjamin, traditionally invest art and the institutions that house it with value. But in the case of type design, that originality is always undermined by the fact that the alphabet itself can never be reinvented, it can only be endlessly repeated. In addition, the popular sentiment that places formal innovation squarely in the hands of the artist and the authentic artistic object is confounded by a product, a typeface, that can exist only in multiple and only through the mass-production process of typefounding: manual, mechanical, optical or digital. This contradiction is borne out by the losing battle that has been fought to protect the property rights that govern the intellectual ownership of a letterform.

The caged artist
The strategies High Modernist designers concocted to advance the cause of anonymous typeforms, under the guise of legibility or historicism, are generally misread. Conventional post-modern grumbling imagines a hygienic programme aimed at stripping the world of decoration. But Modernist promotion of characterless or timeless typeforms is in fact a self-serving endeavour to protect the precious commodity of originality ascribed to the designed object. If artistic originality is key to the notion of Modernism, the Modernist object must, by its very nature, speak of the genius of its maker. Swiss Modernist Emil Ruder defined the typographer as one who wielded pre-existing forms: ‘The fact that the typographer of no contribution of his own to make to the form of the typeface but takes these ready-made is the essence of typography.’ The generic letter, like Helvetica, functioned through transparency: by not interfering with the ‘signature’ that allowed the work to be traced to its maker. The authority of the designer lay in his or her ability to manipulate standard forms into images which told of individual originality.

As letterforms have become more personal, and have in themselves become intimately connected to their makers, the authorship of the designed object is increasingly muddled. If a poster is designed using a typeface that is clearly identified with Neville Brody, is the genius of the design in the letterform or in the arrangements of the letterforms? Who is the author of the work? Whose originality is paramount? At the same time, the genius of the type designer is dissipated as his or her fonts become widely available, allowing their signature style to be easily appropriated. As typefaces increasingly become design statements in themselves, the crisis of design authorship intensifies.

It is fascinating that such vocal proponents of a kind of artistic freedom work in a medium that is so innately restrictive. The alphabet becomes, as Krauss puts it, ‘a prison in which the caged artist feels at liberty’. By the latest issue, Fuse 10 (‘Freeform’), however, it is apparent that the charm of that cell block is wearing thin. The ‘fonts’ in ‘Freeform’ deliver a collection of abstract shapes liberated from the work of letterforms. These new shapes need only to be evocative without the duty of consensual recognition.

Indecipherable Shapes
Wozencroft reports that issue 10 of Fuse was something of a watershed: ‘For some time we have been talking about our intention to create an outlet that uses the keyboard more as a musical instrument or palette of colours, and not to restrict its potential to the endless refinement, sophistication or abstraction of Roman letterforms.’ But in throwing off the restrictive chains of the alphabet, the goal of the project becomes clouded. As optimistic as ever, the editor finishes his essay almost mystically: ‘Freeform is an impulse that connects to the optical nerve net of cyberspace, whilst rooted in the primary convergence of magic, art and writing.’

As with much of the rhetoric that surrounds these experiments, what that primary convergence is remains murky. Like the indecipherable shapes that appear on the screen, the connection between intention and form is increasingly vague. After ten issues of fervent pursuit, Fuse has come full circle. The hope for ‘a new sensibility in visual expression, one grounded in ideas, not just image’ seems more precarious than ever. Fuse is faced with a difficult problem: once the governing force of the alphabet has been abandoned, what comes next?

Reading the prologue of Fuse 10, I recall an American animated cartoon in which, after chasing the burning end of an impossibly long fuse across a desert, around a mountain, through a tunnel, over a bridge, under a house, the bedraggled pursuer of the Roadrunner, Wily Coyote, finds himself back at the starting point, a stack of dynamite tied to his own tail. As the fuse burns to the end, he turns with a quizzical look to the audience. Quick fade to black. Explosion audible.

First published in Eye no. 15 vol. 4, 1994

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.