Spring 1991

Get the message?

Legibility is relative. Is it time we broke the tablets of stone? Agenda by Michèle-Anne Dauppe

Barnbrook Eye03 (for ‘Get the message?’)

Traditionally, legibility has been determined by a set of fixed criteria, absolute standards based on optical research: the “rules” of typography. But this approach denies the cultural connotations of type. Typefaces and typography communicate meanings and target their audience by class, age and gender. Neville Brody’s early reductions of words to signs in The Face magazine, for example, knew and found their audience. Legibility cannot be a blanket evaluation; it must take account of whether the target audience gets the message. Moreover, the concept of legibility itself raises the question: legible by whom?

Legibility must also be considered within the framework of history: standards may shift according to the period of history under consideration. Baskerville is perhaps the epitome of a legible typeface, embodying the traditional virtues of a classic. But when first introduced in 1757, Baskerville was heavily criticised for its illegibility – for being “fatiguing to the eye”, and indeed for “blinding the Nation” with “Baskerville pains”. The root of this supposed illegibility was the fineness of Baskerville’s serifs, made possible by improvements in printing and paper surfaces. Times change: what is readable now may well have been completely unreadable in the past. We live in the age of television, with a visually literate audience used to a sophisticated level of coding and pace. The audience has moved on, the technology has moved on, but the attitudes of some typographers have not. They prefer to jealousy guard their rules – their tablets of stone – rather than confront the complex shifting ground of legibility.

The contemporary interest in pushing typography to the boundaries of legibility is part of a broader cultural context – the post-modern condition. Challenging functionalism in typography has led to experimentation with the message rather than words, with type as image, with recognition rather than reading. The work of British typographers such as Phil Baines, Jon Barnbrook and Brody challenges accepted dogmas, some of which stem from the legacy of modernism. Modernism itself was truly radical (consider Bayer, Zwart, El Lissitsky), but its inheritors allowed it to become impoverished and sterile.

Another way of understanding this typography is to consider it in relation to other radical approaches to communication. There is a history of work which aims to disrupt “the flow” (Brechtian theatre, for example). This political stance attempted to engage the audience with the text, to make the audience “work”, and to emphasise the “construction” of meaning. Radical typography might aim, not to flow seamlessly, legibly, but to halt and disrupt, to expose meaning and language as problematic.

A radical aesthetic is neither style nor a set of devices to employ. Its appropriateness will vary according to the historical context. Cultural debates from earlier this century, such as Brecht’s theory of “alienation” and the Russian Formalists’ theory of “making strange” cannot be naively transported to the present, but they do form a history of theory and practice on which to draw in developing the debate on legibility in a cultural context.

The continuing theoretical revelations of recent decades in semiology, structuralism and psychoanalysis have deep implications for contemporary typography, given typography’s special relationship with language. So why is typography so under-theorised? Part of the problem is the weighty millstone of “craft” blocking intellectual enquiry. Technology, for example, has a crucial role in contemporary typography. Apple Macintoshes have facilitated the development of radical approaches to legibility in typography. The exploding visual and creative freedom which the Macintosh makes possible is unparalleled. With increased experimentation, a new vocabulary for typographic design could evolve, freed from the constraints of tradition. But this potential is consistently denied by the British typographic establishment, who insist on restricting the argument about the limits of legibility to one about craft. Anti-Macintosh propaganda on the grounds of loss of craft skills and appreciation obscures the real impact of technology. Why is it so tenaciously upheld? Protectionism. Technology smashes vested interests. The whole guild-like conspiracy of typographer/typesetter/printer is being usurped by the Macintosh – when under threat, raise high the “craft” banner.

So the debate over legibility is diverted into one about craft instead of communication. Why should this matter? It matters because it is part of an ideology which says that legibility is scientific, that rules transcend history and that type is neutral. Type is not neutral. The values and messages it communicates are available for appropriation – they are not fixed. Typography can legitimise or trivialise, confirm or reject: it has effect. Typography is powerful and typographers should wake up to their responsibilities; responsibility, not at the obvious level of aesthetics (cosy typography), but social responsibility. Typography is part of everyone’s physical environment. It is omnipresent and, crucially, it carries the irrefutable authority of print. The cry of “legibility” masks a reactionary attitude against progress, change or critical intervention. Meaningful critical debate can only proceed if we disentangle typography from craft and establish its role within culture.

Michèle-Anne Dauppe, Design historian and lecturer, Portsmouth College of Art, Design and Further Education

Image (top) by Jon Barnbrook.

First published in Eye no. 3 vol. 1, 1991

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