Generic types

Michael Johnson examines the new ‘remixed’ edition of Lewis Blackwell’s anthology of 20th century type which has been given a design overhaul and has introduced some interesting new elements. Michael Johnson is design director of Johnson Banks.

Any passing Martian with an interest in typography would be guaranteed to find the type section of Zwemmers both daunting and liable to exceed the baggage allowance on his spacecraft.

For a generally quiet bunch of people, typographers haven’t been slow in coming forward about their craft. If you looked hard enough for a book on post-war Tibetan sans-serif alphabets you could probably find one. But there aren’t many documents that attempt to sum up what is a massive area.

That, presumably, is where publications like this come in. When first published in 1992, Lewis Blackwell’s stab at a summary of this century’s typographic achievements was a worthy, but essentially rather dull document. With a change of publisher and an overhaul of its design, 20th Century Type (Remix) comes out much closer to the millennium and offers a new take on the previous work.

A book’s second printing often changes little from the first, but this has changed considerably, at least on the surface. For a start, 50 pages have gone. And Blackwell’s main change from the original has been to ask a selection of designers to interpret the ten chapter/decade dividers.

So we have some groovy embroidered tags from Graphic Thought Facility for the Seventies, the word FUTURE written in Futura in cyan on red from Irma Boom for the Twenties and, for the umpteenth time, some pictures of Dirk Van Dooren of Tomato in his underpants for the Nineties. As a strategy, this gives the book a trendier spin than the original, but at the expense of indicating successfully to the reader where one chapter starts and another ends, because of the ten different design styles. It’s a neat idea, but dependent on the quality of the donated designs – and some of the contributors have obviously taken more time with their thoughts than others.

Angus Hyland’s redesign has achieved some nice white space at the expense of my eyesight by setting the text in what looks like three point Helvetica that will bring broad smiles of approval from London’s legion of Octavo collectors. But it leaves us poor readers (or indeed reviewers) with the dichotomy of a book on typography that is really quite hard to read. But as we all know, the only people who actually read books like this are the author, the author’s mum, book reviewers and students cramming for their typography dissertation. Perhaps the emphasis on pictures not words is just the editorial equivalent of knowing your market.

The biggest change has been to the cover, where Blackwell and Hyland have neatly © piggy-backed the current visible grid/cyber-modernist mood with a pretty straightforward homage to one of Wim Crouwel’s pieces for the Stedelijk Museum, originally designed in1968.

Why this particular design is symbolic of the 20th century is anyone’s guess but, after two books with David Carson, Blackwell is canny enough to know that the packaging of a book like this is as critical to its success as its actual content. So, if the cover of this book happens to tap into the typographic zeitgeist, who cares if it’s a reference point from 30 years ago. The success of Blackwell’s Carson books, Rick Poynor’s Typography Now series and the plethora of titles in your local bookstore are all testament to the seemingly insatiable appetite for new takes on this subject. Between them, Blackwell and Hyland have succeeded in making this look like a new book altogether.

The cover, dividers and microfilm body copy aside, the content is pretty much as before, albeit with a few less photos. Often Blackwell has to sum up a decade of type design with as few as 20 illustrations. This can be frustrating if you want to see more examples from some areas. But, as Blackwell himself points out in his text, the book only really serves as a primer for a huge subject. His notes on further reading at the back are a good jumping off point for a more detailed exploration of the subject.

As ever with historical surveys, you can play the “who’s ripped off who” game, and the book will doubtless serve as a plagiarism playground for a new generation of typography students. Blackwell’s research and dates are generally correct (apart from mixing up Imprint and Centaur). When condensed into a slim volume like this it’s fascinating to see how seminal thinkers – such as Wolfgang Weingart – have effectively steered the last 30 years of layout design.

The decision to reprint in full the key alphabets of each era is a logical, albeit dull decision. But it does force the reader to think about when certain typefaces did originally appear so we can track a typeface like OCR from its inception in 1965 through the rest of the book, and marvel at how a font like News Gothic can look modern 90 years after its inception.

So, I guess my advice to that Martian would be – are you looking for one book on type or 20? If the answer was the former, this slim volume would be a good candidate because it does a fair job of a difficult task, cramming 100 years of huge achievements into fewer than 200 pages.

Whether it’s of use to type-geeks like this reviewer is highly debatable – it merely serves to summarise the things I already knew. But, the truth is, I don’t think I am the target market.

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