Summer 1997

Compare and contrast

With a CD-ROM based on its legendary lettering archive, Central Saint Martins has created a new tool and resource

Packed away in the library at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, the Central Lettering Record might have languished unseen. But a recent revival of interest and new funding have led to intensive work resulting in a striking new CLR CD-ROM.

The CLR was established as a teaching resource at Central School of Art and Design in 1963. The materials within the archive – photographs and specimens – were collected largely by Nicholas Biddulph and Nicolette Gray, joint teachers on the School’s course in lettering in the 1960s and 1970s. Gray and Biddulph were ambitious: they intended the archive to represent the full range of lettering practice, from the functional to the expressive, and later extended it to include lettering from other cultures such as China and Islam.

Inevitably, given this broad remit, the historical collections of the Record are diverse, guided by the personal enthusiasms of Gray and Biddulph. Examples range from Greek inscriptions to twentieth-century experimental calligraphy. They had hoped to re-establish the primacy of lettering by making the practice fundamental to discussions about the bases of typographic form, and to draw out the connections between historical letterforms and contemporary design practice. The adoption of Modernism by British art schools had overshadowed the once-pioneering lettering tradition established at Central in the 1920s and 1930s by Edward Johnston.

The fortunes of the Central Lettering Record faltered in the late 1970s. Nicolette Gray retired from teaching at Central, and while Nicholas Biddulph remained on the staff until 1991, funding and support for the archive diminished during the 1980s. The merger of Central and Saint Martin’s Schools of Art in 1989 prompted the acceleration of a long-term decline in interest in lettering at Central, and the typographic emphasis of Saint Martin’s held sway to the newly unified school. The archive may have been forgotten, but for the coincidence of a revival of interest in the resource among certain staff members, such as Phil Baines, and the emergence of a new source of funding for research in the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) late in 1993.

A team of five are now working with the material at the Central Lettering Record. Their main task is the creation of a CD-ROM that will make accessible the resources of the archive. The content emphasises the practice of typography above that of lettering – a bias that could be seen as a betrayal of the aims of the Record’s founders. Eric Kindel, editor and designer, denies any such betrayal. He argues that the current project, the goal of which is to produce a teaching tool that will render the resources of the archive relevant to a new generation of designers, is in line with the historical aims of the Record.

Furthermore, Kindel has suggested that traditions of lettering and typography, once seen as opposed, have become reconciled. That the focus of research is partly upon the documentation of the profuse typographic activity of the past ten to fifteen years is pertinent. Recent type design activity has been associated with new digital formats, in which the interchange between lettering and typography, territory dear to Biddulph and Gray, has become increasingly lively.

The basis of the Central Lettering Record’s CD-ROM, now in prototypical form (and not yet available to the public), is the group of 140 typefaces that form the spine of the research. The limit of 140, partly dictated by the capacities of the medium, precludes any claims to comprehensivity. Making no bids of this kind, the CD-ROM goes under the working title A Survey of Typeforms. But although Catherine Dixon, researcher on the project, and Kindel are explicit in their partiality, the validity of the project depends upon the soundness of their initial selections. Examined chronologically, the choice of typefaces is extremely uneven. Unlike some histories of the letterform, which attempt to steer a smooth and continuous course to the present, Dixon and Kindel have not shied away from the messiness and heterogeneity unavoidable in a more inclusive account. In choosing typeface designs that go back to the beginning of the print era, they have consulted the venerated histories of the period. In bringing up the account to date, they have had to assemble a number of more fluid stories.

Dixon and Kindel have weighed up factors that include the acknowledgement of important trends and designers, the recognition of responses to technological change and, to some extent, simply the availability of the material in the archive. Scrolling through the list offers an engaging introduction to the survey.

The immediate route to the material on launching the CD-ROM is through a menu bar indexed alphabetically by font name. Overriding chronology, the designers write that “the interface is meant to provide a framework in which history can function, but which also offers opportunities for atemporal consideration.” While temporal accounts are given their due within a “timeline” that currently lists designers (and will soon to be augmented to include typeface names), the purpose of the CD-ROM is to provide users with data from which to construct their own stories, historical or otherwise. To this end, it is vital that the interface of the CD-ROM offers enough cues and clues for those unfamiliar with the history of type to be able to map out a rewarding route through the mass of information that it holds.

Kindle and programmer Jonathan Taylor have created a split-screen interface. Divided down the middle, the two halves are identical, allowing the user to cross-reference at will. This device is a simple way to sidestep the monotonously circular routes determined by many interfaces, although it does not yet contain enough data or functioning prompts to allow the feature to be explored fully in its current form. Further information is being input and new indexes are being constructed in time for the planned completion at the end of autumn 1997 – when the funding runs out.

A Survey of Typeforms is intended to be primarily a visual resource. Biddulph was known for arriving at his classes with a mass of material from the archive, dumping it on a desk and negotiating it visually in the most wide-ranging and cross-historical manner. Eric Kindel invokes the spirit of Nicholas Biddulph by making a tour of the area of the CD-ROM entitled “alphabets: here it is possible to get up to eight different faces on screen and compare them letter for letter.

One of the most problematic areas of the research behind the CLR CD-ROM has been that of classification. When Catherine Dixon was charged with adding material of the last decade to the existing resources of the archive, she had to decide how to sort these new acquisitions. Existing type categories (such as “Ornamtenal” and “Slab Serif”) failed to deal with the variety of contemporary type design, so a new system of classification seemed appropriate. The task of determining such a system was made central to the CD-ROM project, but since inception in 1995 it has required several overhauls.

Dixon’s research into classification systems has reinforced her belief that any such system is only operable within a certain context, and that the quest for overarching type categories is “doomed”. The classification area of the CD-ROM is intended as a starting point for explorations of material on the disk. Rather than putting types in “boxes”, Dixon hopes to encourage users to make valuable connections.

In spite of its emphasis on the visual, the worth of A Survey of Typeforms ultimately depends upon the written content, the type of histories not yet complete in the prototype. An early example of these, “types of Manutius”, suggests these accounts will focus upon cross-references to other data on the disk. This is admirable, but in writing these histories the authors have conformed to the tendency of those working in the CD-ROM medium to see each collection of data as complete in itself. Encouraging users to explore the boundaries of the CD-ROM, there is no reference (such as a bibliography) to the world beyond. Surely it would not compromise the digital medium to point the user to other kinds of reference material: use of a CD-ROM does not preclude a visit to a library or archive. The disc may be more accessible than these other resources, but many people would like the possibility of using a range of source material in tandem.

The project raises questions about the nature of the potential audience. Typophiles might enjoy the archive of photography, but are likely to quibble about the loss of typographic nicety incurred by certain printing types when displayed on low-resolution computer screens. New users might find the material hard to negotiate, although judgment should be withheld until all the data is in place. The CD-ROM will probably function best as a starting point to enquiries about type of all levels. Reference to pointed sources would make any complaints about low resolution redundant. Pointers to the existing wealth of typographic reference will allow those coming fresh to type to increase their understanding. The Central Lettering Record CD-ROM has the potential to be an invaluable resource.

First published in Eye no. 25 vol. 7 1997

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