After a decade of type jumble, piracy and quickly boring fads, the use of type in graphic design is beginning to show signs of stabilising. Liz Farrelly looks at the latest developments

FontWorks’ latest published price list contains a manifesto. Pre-empting the inevitable question “why do we need more…?” from prospective customers faced with more than 20 000 typefaces, FontWorks adopts a disarmingly philosophical stance, throwing the question back to the doubter.

“Why do we need more books, more poems, more paintings, more wines? A typeface is simply the result of human creativity.” There’s no arguing with that declaration of unadulterated, good-vibe positivity. But then the writer of the FontWorks manifesto goes on to point out the age-old contradiction between art and commerce, explaining that typefaces are “the result of highly focused and complex artistic endeavour”, but are intended for commercial applications. Nothing unusual there.

But in the case of typeface design, the complicating contradiction is more oblique, because, by their nature, typefaces verge on the intangible. To the average punter a piece of type is simply words, and the fact that a message is communicated more efficiently or emotively because of the typeface used goes unrecognised. On the other side of the fence, the graphic designer thinks of a typeface as part of the tool-kit, a very necessary item that is often and easily traded, “like cigarette cards”, rather than legitimately licensed, ie purchased.

Not so long ago, when typefaces were hand drawn and took years to perfect, and the lumbering giants of a monolithic industry controlled the technology, price and distribution networks, the choice of typeface was limited to whatever was on the typesetter’s mainframe. But since the mid-Eighties, with the changes to working practices led by the Mac and software innovations such as PostScript and Fontographer, typefaces have became a fashion item, easily consumed pirate-fashion and not very durable.

Demand for novelty led to system abuse and young, creative typographers saw their handiwork misused. By scanning or “auto-tracing” printed letter forms it was possible to reconstruct and re-use a variation of a typeface without the consent of the originator. When this happened to Jon Barnbrook there was little he could do: “I had no legal redress”, he says.

The answer was to go into business. If a type designer could show that a particular “product” had been stolen or counterfeited, laws concerning software piracy, copyright infringement or even issues relating to “look and feel”, “unfair competition” and “confusion in the marketplace” could be called upon. And that’s exactly what one of the first of the new wave, independent type foundries did. The self-proclaimed “combative” Californians at Emigre sued SWFTE International, a PC software company, back in May 1993, and won an undisclosed settlement.

Being techno-friendly individuals, typeface designers realised they could run their global cottage industry via the omnipotent computer. With a mailing list of adoring fans, lots of media attention in international design magazines, a budget printed catalogue in which to show off various applications of the typefaces and, of course, the Internet, orders come in by phone, fax and e-mail, and go out on floppy disk or CD-ROM, at a newly affordable price.

Scaling-up the operation, distribution deals between boutique-foundries and larger distributions have caused the entire scene to mushroom. Now you can be sitting on the opposite side of the world and get one-hour delivery on a typeface designed in Chicago, Barcelona, Berlin or London. FontWorks alone distributes the “establishment type foundries” of Adobe, Agfa, Berthold, Bitstream, Linotype-Hell, Monotype and “the innovative and influential names” of Emigre, Font Bureau and T-26, as well as generating exclusive designs via FontFont and the typo-magazine Fuse. With the recent publication of a CD-ROM from the International Typefounders, a further 30 indies and “dozens” of individual designers have joined the roster.

Of the truly independent foundries, one of the best packages comes from the master of jazzy-sub-cult design, Ian Swift. His Swifty fanzine Command Z comes with a poster and two “funky fonts” on CD-ROM. At the other end of the taste spectrum, The Foundry, run by David Quay and Freda Sack, offers the Architype range of classic modernist typefaces, taken from original drawings, and now available digitised.

Launching this summer, Jon Barnbrook’s long-awaited Virus foundry offers ten typefaces for sale, the majority of which are exclusive new releases. As most of his time is spent producing animated type sequences for TV commercials, Barnbrook is using the Virus promotional catalogue as a forum for expressive print design, enjoying the luxury of being his own client. Showcasing each typeface within a page of self-penned text and images, his intention is to reveal the message behind the face.

The plus side of all this activity is choice, a cornucopia of grooviness available to the masses. With that comes recognition for the originators, and monetary reward. But fashions change, and the once flavour-of-the-month typeface is soon replaced. More fundamental drawbacks for both the design profession and the wider audience is confusion that can come with over-abundance and inappropriate usage, and the fact that simply reaching for another typeface can stifle real innovation.

Not seeing the wood for the trees, novelty-hungry designers have foregrounded the importance of typefaces within a design solution at the expense of other elements. But a stylistic shift is occurring, an acknowledgement that graphic design is a combination of many variables – text and image, colour, paper and binding in the print medium, and editing, animation and music in time-based media. Cooler, calmer solutions are replacing the typo-jumble, generated by expertise and skills which can’t be bought off- the-peg. Does this signal a re-evaluation of the role of graphic designers? Could they be about to creep out from behind the monitor after ten years of techno-fever? Type isn’t going to go away, but it may be about to be put into perspective.

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