Summer 1992

Modernity and tradition

Modernism tried to break with the past; traditionalists embrace it. But any kind of ism is fated to become an anachronism

The question of what it means to be ‘contemporary’ in type design and typography is a complex one, involving seemingly contradictory notions of tradition and modernity. While recent typographic practice has shown some awareness of these issues, much of the surrounding debate had been muddled and unhelpful. If we are to provide a more positive basis for moving typographic away from these pointless polarities, then we need to unravel the confusion that surrounds our definition of contemporaneity.

The first problem arises when our belief in the perfection of the past attains more importance than our belief in the possibilities of the present. Typography, because of the means of its production, was both evolutionary and contemporary until the nineteenth century. The Old Faces were followed by the Transitionals, followed in turn by the Moderns, and the accompanying design work changed with the type to suit the mood of the times.

Types such as the fat Faces (c. 1796), Egyptians (1817) and Clarendons (1845) were invented to cope with the new demands of advertising and commerce, but it was an interest in antiquity that led to the first sans serif in 1816, and an interest medievalism that led to William Morris’ revival of the Old Faces types of Nicholas Jenson in the 1890s. When the process of type making was mechanised in the 1880s, the practice of using only contemporary types was replaced by a desire to recreate the “classic faces”. The design of new (contemporary) types was thus interrupted for some times and this pattern, which inevitably affects graphic design, has been repeated with every subsequent change in typesetting technology.

In the main, the twentieth century has been characterised by ‘traditional’ (book-based) design on the one hand, and a self-conscious modernity (represented by ‘Modernism’ itself) on the other. The last 10 years has seen a plurality of expression, much of which rejects both Modernism and tradition, except as formal devices to be plundered along with every other graphic language. This is sometimes referred to as ‘post-modernism’.

The problem I have with all these isms, particularly from an educational point of view, is that they are imprecise and confuse the true meanings of the original words. In thinking about what being contemporary means, I believe the only way forward is to avoid dogma, because all isms become anachronisms. A look at both Modernism and traditionalism, and at what the two words could mean, would suggest that tradition and modernity are very close.

What is generally regarded as traditional book-based design is dominated from an English-speaking point of view by Beatrice Warde, Stanley Morison and Jan Tschichold. Its characteristics are class (serif) faces and centred type. Warde likened typography to a crystal goblet – a transparent carrier for fine ideas – but did not discuss the grubby world of making money. More recently, the term has been used in conjunction with the word ‘values’, particularly when criticising current typography. One London-based designer who espouses ‘traditional virtues’ claims ‘only use to typefaces that are fifty years old, because they have proved themselves’. Such claims are ignorant and holier-than-thou, representing a complacent view that every typeface needed has already been designed, and that the past is better than the present.

Its link with the book means that ‘traditional’ is a pejorative term when used by general designers, but an aspirational one when used by its practitioners. Which gets us nowhere and has little to do with its original meaning, as quoted by Tschichold in the recently published The Form of the Book: ‘Tradition derives from the Latin trado, I hand over. Tradition means handing over, delivering up, legacy, education, guidance. Convention derives from convenio, to come together, and means agreement.’ Based on this, I see tradition as a living thing, an ongoing understanding of practicalities and conventions which each age must interpret as necessary, according to its own needs, learn and benefit from, and then pass on. It is not a static set of rules to be slavishly obeyed.

The word “modern” is fraught with similar difficulties because of its association with Modernism – itself an imprecise term embracing anything and everything from the Bauhaus to 8vo – which for the sake of the argument we could describe as characterised by a belief in the power of the present. It attempted to replace an infatuation with the past with contemporary expression based on principles of functionality. In fact, its rational and functional aims were undermined by its own insistence on looking ‘modern’ and a silly formalism, of which the exclusive use of the sans serif was but a part. In the early 1960s, David Kindersley proposed a serif, all caps alphabet for the British road sign system and various tests were carried out to find which was more legible, that is functional – Kindersley’s face or the Kinneir/Calvert sans serif. These were inconclusive (depending on who tells the story), but the sans serif won the day. It looked more “modern”. This insistence on looking new has been carried over into corporate identity, where it could be described as ageism: there is no place for the old simply because it is old.

Modernism rejected the past in its attempt to build a brave new world, but the revolution led to an introspection with little room for visual manoeuvre. There is no need for our design rigorously to adopt either traditionalism or Modernism, or to reject them out of hand. I recently found the following definition of being modern in a book on Le Corbusier: ‘To be modern is not a fashion but a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.’ This seems to fuse both traditionalism and Modernism and points to a way of working in the future which is positive in its philosophical and social concern, and tolerant in its means of expression.

There are already designers working quietly in this area, combining sensitivity to the text, traditional values of typographic detailing, and new graphic form. Whether designers loosely referred to as the ‘next wave’ fit the bill is open to debate. At least one critic sees the entire thing as a ‘betrayal of the word’, but such blanket condemnation would be rebutted by practitioners who have a passionate interest in the word, but believe that it is often better served by an expressive treatment. Of course what will happen is that what is in the original work a legitimate style, will be used by others as a fashion gimmick. Style originates unintentionally when artists wrestle seriously with the fundamental problems of a period. Fashion, on the other hand, deliberately seeks novelty and is usually willing to sacrifice, for that purpose, the good things that are already there. It is worrying that many designers do not know or understand history, and so are ill-equipped to use it in anything more than a superficial way. Gratuitous, jokey references replace original ideas or expression, passive copying replaces active creation. We can see this every day, from the bogus historicism of some of retail and environmental design to the tacky imitation of “next wave” work produced by design groups and advertising agencies who ought to know better.

Ours is not an age of books, but we can learn from that tradition much that we can use. Neither is ours an era of dramatic reconstruction and growth, as characterised the golden age of Modernism, but we must have a similar faith in what we are doing. Graphic design is about the ordering of information, much of it of an ephemeral nature. We design not for future historians to judge or condemn, but for an audience with immediate needs and expectations. At least the ‘next wave’ understands this, and with a little more thought, it can go a lot further.

Phil Baines, typographic designer, London

First published in Eye no. 7 vol. 2, 1992

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