Face values

Typography is in danger of losing touch with its true purpose – to communicate effectively. This must be rectified argues Patrick Baglee

Typography, not for the first time in its long history, is in glorious turmoil. A once grimy, clandestine profession, with proud unions and a practical interest in its heritage, has changed. Type design is now a glamorous option for students whose jostling output becomes the fodder of advertisers and art directors, keen to capture the Zeitgeist. To the casual observer, the liberation of type design has produced nothing more than a generation of enthusiastic and competent display face designers, with few showing the necessary discipline to produce either text typefaces in a classic tradition or type for a purpose. In all its definable forms typography is losing its way, and as we tumble to the turn of the century we are not even sure what to call ourselves.

No one really knew exactly how typography would change through the Eighties and Nineties. All we knew was that the machinery would get quicker, the typefaces more numerous and the screen would become a dominant medium. And few of us now would dare predict where and to what end typography will move, such is the liquid state of most of its basic aspects. The profession has fractured into a number of schools: so while capitalist elements busy themselves with discussions of the opportunities afforded by changing technology, academics indulge in fascinating discourse on the nature of language and what effect typography has on written and verbal communication and on common sense. Of these, the latter debate is the more important if typography is to sustain any degree of integrity.

Professionals involved in typography day-to-day fuel the academic debate while providing market research for the future of technology. As the individual becomes the focus of the industry, a formerly delineated profession finds its edges irretrievably blurred as own goals are pursued instead of those of a common cause. We must apply ourselves to the application of type design and typographic layout and, over time, its redefinition.

The continued and enthusiastic democratisation of type design will prove nothing more than a blip in type history. Custom font technology has allowed the masses to put their burgeoning ideas and amateur ability on paper, window-dressing the world with abstractions, oddities and mutations more akin to cave painting than a new visual language. We all know the horrors, and are still thankfully familiar enough with the classics to recognise their timelessness. Other designers have been liberated and empowered, and it is this same technology which is allowing their talent to blossom.

Where communication through applied type is concerned, charitable assessment suggests that people don’t purposely fail to communicate – they do it by accident. Providing graphic designers with the means to create their own type stops them thinking about the wealth of material still available and the reason why most of it was designed – to communicate effectively.

What is more worrying is the effect such type and its poor application has on common sense. Ultimately, if we are not to lose sight of the end-user, the quality of theory and typographic training needs to be maintained. Those educating the students of typography must create an understanding of what it is like to be the recipient of typography. The value of education has to be maintained; if its legacy is not to be a generation of inept stylists, the emphasis must be to pursue this understanding and explore the past of Antony Froshaug, Mller Brockmann, Adrian Frutiger and Charles Dickens.

For typeface production, the rebirth of modest foundries continues, but a return to a golden era is unlikely. On the back of the disaster of bran tub type, designers have had to keep overheads down and work for themselves. But as the layperson wonders why we need anything more than Times, perhaps that same person would not begrudge a typeface designed for the purpose of getting them round an airport effectively. It is a question of what the priorities of type should be at the end of the millennium.

In its application we should worry less about the quality of type on-screen and think more about the quality of the words actually being written and the method we are asked to do it in. The utopian ideal of typographers as visual editors is a worthy one, but is this generation capable of ensuring a linguistic tradition is maintained? Narrative is fluid and the multi layering of text has demanded a swift rethink of the organisation and theory of communication.

In the midst of excited pioneering we have become information pugilists bestowing flimsy Post-Modern admiration on the creators of type and design symbolising society’s decay. We should be clarifying society, not confusing it further, and remembering that the technology that blurs, snowstorms, shadows and rotates can also create type for a purpose – a route which type design needs to pursue with vigour.

So what does the future hold? Expect to see a consolidation of small collectives producing type and typography. There will be a rebirth of interest in the art of communication, but its true exploration will be restricted to a small minority. As home use of the Internet grows (an estimated 38 million users in Europe within five years) people will seek clarity of communication, reacting against the confusion of badly realised interfaces in web and digital design. The thinkers and organisers of information will be influential, and the reward for helping organise daily life will be the continuance of daily life.

In the end, typography must identify its primary function. The discussion of this “revival” and that “experiment” are nothing compared to the responsibility of ensuring the world communicates effectively in the 21st century.

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