Prosit Neujahr! You might be wondering where that new science-related project is I’ve been writing about. While working on it, progressing with 3D, I got heavily sidetracked by a realization; “My knowledge of typography is clearly insufficient for what I’m aiming at.” I’d already spent quite some time studying people like Müller-Brockmann, Cullen, Samara, Spiekermann, and Kane to improve my layouting and typesetting skills, but it just wasn’t essential enough. I needed to be humbled, so I spent the two weeks of holidays to do little other than research and learn about type.
I took with me not only a manically eclectic, boiled down, assortment of professional and commercially ready typefaces, libre, open-source, and bought, but also enough information to feel like I could probably, given the effort, create a reasonably decent typeface. Even if I’d probably just be put in my place yet again. Sensibilities towards everything written, additionally, have further increased drastically. I’d never actively noticed how sloppily companies design text on many everyday products, even the premium variety. Especially consumables and literature. I almost want to bin half my library. Finally, this research has instilled in me a serious respect for the, often discredited and de-valued, work of typographers, many of which seem to resort to designing type as a passion project, for economic reasons, in order to still honour what they love.
The following is a note on design as a practice.
“Why improve what already works perfectly fine?”, something I’ve found myself thinking when questioning why anyone would even need to still bother learning typography. Massimo Vignelli’s famous selection of not-ugly typefaces had already been hailed as the be all end all in that regard. This is something I’ve seen in many other parts of design as well. Things differ, when compared to art, in that design needs to ultimately solve a problem, and as such can be mechanical, even predictable. You’d think there is a formula to derive from all the present knowledge about the harmony of shapes and colours. One you could then stick to for the best in all viable design solution. No need to remake the wheel, after all.
Except if the roads change.
The conlcusion I’ve come to, at least so far, is that nothing stays fine forever. Technology keeps eating the world, and with her we evolve. What may have worked splendidly when printing newspapers and posters in the 60s may simply not translate well to a computer monitor sporting measly resolution. And still, resulting problems are often the very same ones older generations of typographers also ran into. Things change, but never entirely. Many of the holy-grail-typefaces are affected by this, which is why they are being continuously renewed, rediscovered, and revived by modern, fully digital foundries. Realizing this was a pain to me, being an admirer of faces such as Baskerville and Garamond, which can easily be troublesome on screens and won’t work in their delicate traditional forms. The design community is overflowing with affection for the classic Swiss and German typefaces, Univers, DIN 1451, Futura, Helvetica, and Optima among them, which many people enjoy criticizing for their ubiquitousness and conservative connotations. Web designers stray even more basic, for lack of a better term, in order to ensure usability. I’m not experienced enough to have a real stance on this yet, but while I agree there is a certain no-nonsense standard for graphic design work you’re getting paid for that needs to be upheld by every pro, it also seems to me that it is part of a designers job to make sure things don’t get too tried and true, or worse yet, stifling. Even if you can afford to pay for the quality fonts, using them to produce good work is another discussion altogether. That being said, I dream of purchasing Walbaum, Heldane, and Maelstrom one day. Didones are a personal pleasure, so is the ludicrous.
Be it Neville Brody’s spiritual rebellion, or the utilitarian conviction of Italian design, like language, typographic newness isn’t going anywhere.
God, I hate seeing my old work.
Back to that project.