What’s your type?

David Carson turned to me, long-faced. We were standing at Kings Cross Station waiting to board the London to Edinburgh train. He was facing five-and-a-half hours with only a four-pack of Worthington’s Bitter and a flapjack for sustenance. “Wouldn’t it be quicker to fly?” The year was 1993, and we were on the final leg of a lecture tour that came only a few short months after his previous visit to the UK. The earlier trip was organised under frenetic circumstances: “Carson’s in Europe… Ring him up… Hire St Bride’s… Do a poster no one can read.”

Six days later, almost 200 people came to have a poke and a prod. This was as white-knuckle as type talks could get. The Typographic Circle committee (then as now) was a mobilised and passionate feels-good-lets-do-it collective. We were capitalising on the curious popularity of a breed of design which used what Michael Johnson described as “knackered type”. After several years of sputtering, these often ill-conceived and ugly typefaces had reached such ubiquity that magazines were awash with articles on the Apple Macintosh versus everything, craft liberalisation, and whatever happened to typographic principles?

It makes you wonder what the monks must have thought of Gutenberg. That is to say, whatever the era, the result of such rapid and fundamental change is a feeling of uncertainty. The same mood pervades the 20th century – a mood that Carson served to perpetuate. Carson became the embodiment of Apple Macintosh-fuelled self-indulgence at a level that had not been possible, or even desirable before. The annals of late 20th century type contain innumerable faces designed as both a conscious reaction to and embrace of change (Barry Deck’s Template Gothic), and many more belched forth as a result of low-fi jiggery pokery.

Paul Renner, designer of Futura, would have found the ease of the digital machine age stimulating, having spent most of the Twenties and Thirties wrestling with the diktats of a political system that used typography to reinforce national identity. His rejection of gothic, and persistent use of roman type led to his arrest by the Nazis (just a short time after Jan Tschichold). The Nazis went on to reject gothic in favour of roman, believing world domination would be impossible using gothic script. (Hitler banned “swabacher” (gothic) type scripts in the belief that no one understood the term.)

Renner’s purpose remained the design of type and books for public consumption and understanding. Counter to this, Herbert Bayers’ Universal alphabet certainly attempted to express the industrial, mass produced and automated spirit of that tumultuous age. Fatally, it lacked soul, and Futura, with its comparatively humanist curves won the hearts of foundries and designers the world over. Since the Twenties, Futura continues to be one of the best-selling typefaces of this century.

Modern type design didn’t lose sight of such fundamental beliefs, and lest we forget, every era has had its grunge typefaces. Even amid the carcasses of ephemeral alphabets, beautiful and functional type is still being designed for mankind and machine. Meta, designed in the Eighties by Erik Spiekermann, remains the closest we have come in the Nineties to a “typeface for our time”. Like Futura it was designed intelligently and fit for a purpose.

Reports on the health of typography vary. The many typographic horrors of the Nineties have by no means gone toes-up. Like the worst excesses of the display typefaces of the 19th and 20th centuries, there will always be, in the words of Peter Fraterdeus, “market forces seeking to bypass the rational mind with the use of jumbled and degenerate typography”. This is a view echoed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who suggested that anyone who talked about theory in relation to commercial typography was “talking out of their bum”.

Typography and type design are in rude health. André Gide captured the Nineties type melodrama best in this statement from The Counterfeiters when he said, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” If that’s the case, would whoever’s rowing make sure they know the way back. And could they drop Mr Carson off at the Firth of Forth? n

Patrick Baglee is chairman of The Typographic Circle

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