Summer 2004

Sailing down a mighty river of type

Dutch Type

By Jan Middendorp. Design: Peter Verheul and Bart de Haas, 010 Publishers, € 62.50

Over the past five centuries the Netherlands has become an extremely densely populated country and the number of Dutch typeface designers has increased at an even more furious pace. Fortunately, typeface designers do not take up much space, since they focus on a very small area: just two lots of 26 characters, ten digits and a few bits of punctuation.

Jan Middendorp’s book about the development of Dutch type over this time span is a must. It took him seven years of extensive and thorough research to complete the book and he is a smooth operator. From 1997 to the end of 2003 he moved quietly through the offices of Dutch type designers, graphic designers and other places, where he listened, asked questions and collected information. The result is a 320-page 1.5kg book, packed with colour illustrations, that gives a full picture of the Dutch type design scene.

Reading the book is a little like travelling along a great river of type, and it has a structure to match. It starts off telling the story of the past at a rapid pace but as it comes closer to the present, the stream of information widens, and the tempo of the book slows down, to end in a wide delta of contemporary Dutch typeface designers.

There are a few omissions. I missed Gielijn Escher, for example, but then Escher is famously uncooperative with those seeking to write a history of his graphic work. Nevertheless, his is a name we should remember.

Piet Zwart’s work is also not shown enough. Zwart trained as an architect, moved into the direction of industrial design and became a very important graphic designer in the 1920s. His architecturally built typography inspired many designers in The Netherlands and aboard, which is why his name is often mentioned in the text. But his work is seldom seen in this book: the heirs and their lawyers have made it difficult for Zwart’s work to be reproduced in books such as this. There is a danger that this important graphic designer might disappear from design history altogether.

Middendorp has a great enthusiasm for his subject and the breadth of his mental bandwidth is truly impressive. The author effortlessly puts himself into the different minds of type designers in order to inform the reader about their opinions and ideas. His approach is non-judgmental, and he respects and treats all as equals.

Showing and telling all has the effect of neutralising the influenceof the canon, and this is another of the book’s strong points. It gives airtime to names and projects that often don’t get a mention by design historians under the influence of suffocating peer pressure that dictates to them what work is cool and what is not. Though Dutch, Middendorp lives in Ghent, Belgium: maybe that is why he is able to bring a refreshing distance to the subject.

The book gave me the chance to finally read about some of my secret type loves. The choice of images is impressive: there are a lot of fresh new images, many of them in colour, and print and scan quality is high.

However I have a minor quibble with the typography and the layout of the book. The point size is small, the lines are pretty long, and the use of only one typeface throughout the entire book, placed in a simple grid, makes the pages repetitive and lifeless. But as an archive of five centuries of Dutch type sweat it can’t be beaten.

Middendorp succeeds in his mission and serves up pages packed with well documented information. A warning: the book is like a big box of very tasty type treats. If you try and eat them all at once, you will certainly get sick.

Just take a few once in a while and you will stay in good shape. I think this book will blow type designers away, now and in the future – especially those starting out in their careers. While providing a great source of inspiration it will also make young designers ask: ‘what can I contribute to this very wide and crowed delta?’

In an article in 5pts, a magazine published last year by the Dutch / Finnish type designers Underware, I pointed out that type designers these days only focus on dressing up the basic letterforms, but forget to think about what these forms do. I think there is room for further and deeper exploration of type as a phonetic topic. For example the aspect of language is completely neglected. I hope that future designers will take note. For now, though, many Dutch men – there are few women – are busy exploring the form of only two sets of 26 characters.

A book with ‘Dutch’ in its title is timely. It is going to become increasingly hard to keep Dutch type Dutch when type designers are using the same software to produce their fonts for the various media and when exchange is a key word. Think about the Web, email, or printed matter flying to other continents. All kinds of cross-connections with other foreign type designers will make the national rivers end in a huge body of water. But that is the future, and this book is the present.

If you haven’t already gone out and bought this book my advice to you is do so straight away. I have just one piece of advice to those who own the book: dive into it.