Look at this page. Do you see anything that stands out to you? Perhaps not consciously, but if you’re a regular reader of VIEW, you might subconsciously be aware of the look of the words on this page. This typeface communicates a multitude of thoughts, messages and ideas, but also contributes to the identity of the organisation expressing them. In this quiet way, type is incredibly powerful. But how did we reach the point where there are so many ‘types of type’ on our screens?
“If we look at the history of type, almost everything is out there,” says Lars Harmsen, a Professor of Typography and Design at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Dortmund. And he’s right – a quick Google and you’ll discover the ‘scriptoriums’ of the 6th Century, where monks would painstakingly write and copy manuscripts, creating ‘illuminated’ pages, decorated with beautiful borders or illustrations. A search for ‘the first printed words’ brings many hundreds of thousands more results on the invention of the Gutenberg press and the printing revolution.
Gutenberg’s ‘moveable type’ was more than just words on paper – it was the catalyst for the era of ‘mass communication’. At the time this meant little more than dozens of people having access to the printed word which, in the context of a world where we can communicate with space stations, sounds absurd. But at the time widespread distribution of ideas was limited to word of mouth (which, ironically, even today we recognise as a fundamentally flawed way model of sharing information). The availability of the newly printed word caused political unrest, progressive thinking and, critically, a marked increase in literacy. It was a pivotal point in human history, beautifully captured by the first words of Genesis from Gutenberg’s infamous bible: “In the beginning…”
Several hundred years later, words are everywhere and for Lars this is where it all starts to get really interesting. He speaks animatedly about what he calls the “democratisation of the typeface industry” that has come with the internet. “We have this ‘AC/BC’ [‘after computer’ and ‘before computer’] area, depending on which generation you are. And with the arrival of personal computers it was possible to create typefaces very easily.” All kinds of platforms popped up and there has been an explosion in the options available to graphic designers all over the world.
“A student can easily design a typeface and publish it without a distributor – the distributor is the internet. You can just start from scratch and create your own business,” explains Lars. “There are thousands of small independent type labels that make brilliant work and have a huge impact on the market. This is really fantastic because it gives us a very rich bouquet of designs.”
As a result, type has become far more than just function – conveying written information – it also communicates a sense of difference that is necessary in a crowded world. “It’s important to have a deeper understanding of type designs, as it’s very much connected to our culture. Just by the look and feel of a typeface, we can express a lot about ourselves: the identity of a company, our language or a region.” With a global army of designers creating new typefaces, we can clearly align the look and feel of type to time, to industries and even to socio-political shifts. Type, and the way it is used in graphic design, is as much of a marker in modern history as art, say, or even economics.
Comic Sans – If you love it, you don’t know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don’t know much about typography either.
“Way too long and never again”
Sounds easy, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. “I think there is a quote from German type designer Erik Spiekermann that says, ‘you need to be mad to design a typeface’. It’s so demanding, but typeface designers very often totally underestimate how long it takes. If you ask how long it took they always answer, ‘way too long and never again’”.
Every variation must be considered: uppercase, lowercase, numbers, symbols, italic, bold… and that’s without considering non-Latin alphabets. Each typeface is like a symphony, in that every slant and curve of a letter has a considered relationship with the others – how they meet, the distance from each other. When you consider how much can potentially be involved in creating a whole font family, it’s mind-boggling that anyone undertakes it in the first place. Which is why todays type designers often work in teams, or simply create abridged designs – a headline type, without numbers, for example.
When hand-scribing bibles became too arduous and limiting, Gutenberg invented moveable type. If he lived today, he may well have pushed the limitations of type design through Artificial Intelligence. Algorithm-driven design isn’t new, but machine learning can help us to analyse the ways we interact with type and subsequently create designs that are more comfortable and natural to read. And for graphic designers, IDEO takes the AI-driven ‘font identifier’ concept further, by creating an interactive tool that ‘maps’ fonts based on their common qualities.
Ultimately, type is as type does
“For me, it is beautiful to mash up different typefaces together, and create a kind of tension. In my work, I’m interested in this kind of competition and struggle between typefaces,” says Lars. “The important message is that when you know the rules, you can break the rules and that creates something interesting. You could have a typeface like Comic Sans that everybody hates, but there are designers who make beautiful posters with it because they are very skilled and know how to use it. It’s the skill of the people that makes something good and nice. Like everything in life somehow.”
Places of worship: links to beautiful type and resources