Type cast

Once the preserve of experts, typography has gone mainstream with everyone getting in on the act. Yet there is still a place for design professionals to do it better, says Adrian Shaughnessy

Typography has never been more popular. There is even a hit book devoted to the subject. Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield is aimed at the general reader. At the time of writing it is number one in Amazon’s oddly named Humour > Encyclopaedias chart.

Evidence of typography’s booming popularity surrounds us. Erik Spiekermann has more than 100 000 followers on Twitter. The Helvetica film can be downloaded from iTunes. Type-based blogs thrive in abundance – there’s even one called Typography for Lawyers.

Typography, once shrouded in mystery and Masonic-like secrecy, has gone mainstream. It is now routine to have serious discussions with non-designers about the qualities of various typefaces. What was once the preserve of the trained practitioner is now a subject of near universal familiarity. What’s going on here?

In the non-professional world, the popularity of typography is usually explained by the ease with which typefaces can be used on domestic computers. Drop-down menus allow anyone to do what once required craft skills and, in the days of hand-setting, manual dexterity. Blogging software and the ability to alter typographic layouts on e-reading devices and websites further promotes the notion that typography is a malleable subject that anyone can participate in.

The democratisation of a craft that was once the exclusive preserve of experts is not restricted to typography: ordinary people now make credible moving-image sequences using cheap movie cameras and affordable editing software. Blogs allow pretty much anyone to publish text and images to a global audience.

Increasingly sophisticated music can now be made – and distributed – using free or low-cost software.

What about the growing popularity of typography in the professional world: how do we explain the blogs, the books, the seminars, the conferences, the research projects? Perhaps the reason is also related to its demystification among a non-professional audience. Think of it like this: as the typography becomes more accessible, the need grows for professionals to do it better and to offer more specialised knowledge, particularly in the online realm. In addition, to stay ahead of the pack, professionals are forced into areas where amateurs can’t follow them – hence the rise in decorative and fantastical letterforms, as well as the serious academic study of the subject at all levels.

It might also have something to do with the ongoing complexity of the term graphic design. Finding a definition of graphic design that expresses the fullness of the subject is becoming increasingly difficult: most people prefer the catch-all term branding; others see it as an increasingly dematerialised activity that is entirely digital. But as graphic design becomes more fragmented and less homogenised, typography emerges as the one constant that runs through all strands of the discipline.

My guess is that typography fulfils a need that designers of all kinds universally share: a love of craft and making. Despite the rise of user-driven communications (what would the master typographers of old think about Kindle readers being given a choice of fonts and sizes?); and the increased dematerialisation of the typographic process, there is still a thrill attached to rendering a raw manuscript into a cultured, ordered and typographically sophisticated document.

Oh, by the way, the Kindle version of Just My Type: A Book About Fonts is a typographic mess.

Adrian Shaughnessy is an independent designer, writer and broadcaster, and co-founder of publishing company Unit Editions

Latest articles