Type facing the future

Patrick Baglee is seriously concerned for the future of typography. We need to embrace technology and re-assess the value of type, he says, or face-up to the possibility of an era of darkness for design. Patrick Baglee is design editor at MetaDesign, Lon

In terms of the technology required to produce work of good, bad or indifferent quality, typography has come full circle. We again find operators having to surround themselves, as an economic necessity, with an ever-expanding kit list which has offices replicating scenes akin to the glory days of phototypesetting. Not long ago, print offices bustled with specialists – type was designed, turned into masters, put on to “discs” shot on to film, processed, proof read, made up, and then printed – and both training, apprenticeship and trade union law dictated each process was carried out by an individual. With indecent haste, this whole process became the responsibility of one person, and it showed.

As typographers and type designers we now find ourselves part of a dependent system of upgrades and add-ons: a result of the commercial requirement to stay ahead, though staying ahead doesn’t mean solving a problem any more successfully. We are approaching, in the sage words of MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, “digital obesity”. His statement is relative to the lack of thought put into the design of software, but the phrase neatly encapsulates typography’s dalliance with new technology, and signals a need to believe and trust, again, in specialism.

Type designers are one of a range of specialists, whose “black art” had the lights switched on for the best part of the Eighties and Nineties. It seems that, till now, no one took a serious look at what was suddenly made visible, so random and transient were the results.

As a fundamental element in communication, type design is finally re-establishing itself.

Regrettably, as fast as the profession regains its status, it is still faced with fundamental problems. Well before postscript, typefaces had forgotten their three-dimensional roots. Now, a typeface’s “physical” manifestation, before it reaches the printed page or flickering screen, is flimsy (what once lived in hundredweight cabinets is now no more than a computer language). It is this flimsiness that constitutes one of the primary concerns for the typographer and the type designer, and one that has remained consistent over the last few years: font software piracy.

Piracy is having a profound effect on more and more of the small foundries, which, of necessity, market their own creations – they find themselves increasingly victimised by the trend. In a time when many people’s first direct experience of type is free fonts with a software package, the devaluing of the craft might not be surprising, but, it remains extremely damaging to the perceived value of type design.

Perhaps people assume that because type constitutes communication, we have a right to own the means of doing so. Not so. Yet I hear no rallying cry from the manufacturers to counter any of the above concerns. Making clear that they themselves had to pay for a licence to bundle those fonts on to your computer would at least establish some notion of value. The result is that a large majority of the user-base have no understanding of type: to the majority, type has nothing to offer but itself.

In the midst of this, two kinds of font have evolved: fonts you can use, and fonts you can play with. The problem most commonly experienced is that the fonts you can play with have so much personality that by the time you’ve spent two days bashing them into place, the old workhorses suddenly seem very solid, simple and practical again.

When the door opened and the light went on, we saw that DIY type presented a new opportunity. Fortunately, in the context of the craft, there are designers who draw a sensible distinction between their creation (a designer making type) against the work of the specialist type designer. The inevitable fallout from this period of DIY and bewildering pluralism, characterised in part by the remarkable Fuse experiments among others, is the re-kindling of interest in the workhorse fonts. Back again come the Egyptian, grotesque typefaces: Consort Bold, Hellenic Wide, Fortune Light, West Behemoth Clarendon to name but a few.

But we should turn to teams like Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum working as LettError to find some of the most vibrant developments. Their determination to pursue new thinking forces them to have a complete understanding of technology. This is not aimless knob-twiddling, but informed discussion and debate in seeking the next step for typography, in its application, and in its design. Their discussions about type on the Web are not the standard “doesn’t it look terrible” railing: they are developments of, not reactions against, the history of type and might well be a basis for the next stage of evolution of typography and its place within new technologies.

I certainly hope that typography and type design are elements in what might broadly be described as a return to specialism where there is acknowledgement, reward and appropriate protection for the result of craft skills.

I feel jaded when I use or read expressions like “the worst excesses of the digital era” because every era has its excesses – so what’s new, and why should we worry? The problem with excess is that although on occasion it can be wonderful, it can also serve to exclude the traditions and practices that somehow maintain themselves alongside popular trends that by their ubiquity are an apparent act of defiance against craft.

As typography and type design move towards the next medium, we have the chance to educate and develop an understanding of past and present, and to speculate on the future. If we do not grab these opportunities, would the last person to leave the garret please turn off the light.

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