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Inventive typography has only a brief history on television. Until 1964 in the UK, standard television resolution was 405 horizontal lines to the screen, which allowed for only the crudest lettering treatments. The type was often made with paper cut-outs or hand-lettering, and was moved up the screen on a roller, or at best was animated with a film rostrum camera. After 1964 the resolution was stepped up to 625 horizontal lines, TV sets got better, and graphic design began to emerge as a discipline at the large networks, with around 40 designers employed in-house at CBS and NBC in the US by 1967.

At this time, too, art directors in the print advertising industry started to realise the aesthetic potential of colour reception and higher resolution, and typographic inventiveness emerged in the commercial breaks, with cel animations making type clamber across the TV for the first time. Largely, however, the role of typography was to introduce the title of a programme or the name of a product being sold in a commercial and, occasionally, to emphasise certain aspects of the voice-over.

By the late Seventies computers were beginning to be used to control rostrum cameras and create animations such as the Brazilian channel TV Globo’s pioneering station identity. As the decade ended, the effect of computers on design became more noticeable. Digital paint systems like the Quantel Paintbox, still favoured by many designers today, allowed for more complex compositions. These could be set into motion by heavy-duty computer animation technology, such as the proprietary software at Bo Gehring Aviation in Los Angeles used to animate Robinson Lambie-Nairn’s classic 1982 Channel 4 identity, or, later, the Quantel Harry. This was the dawning of the age of flying metallic logos, still in vogue today at big networks – particularly in sports programming.

Over in commercial breaks, the idea emerged to use computer-controlled rostrum cameras to animate the unique selling points of products by weaving them in type through the live action. Arguably, Tibor Kalman’s New York design group M&Co first developed this idea in 1988, in a music video for Talking Heads that had the band framed and pushed around by the lyrics of the song, Nothing But Flowers. In the commercial breaks, the appearance of lines of type revealed a rumbling battle between viewer and programmer. Now that televisions were equipped with mute buttons, jaded viewers were armed with a new weapon with which to silence the advertisers. The advertisers responded by delivering their messages silently with type. M&Co even volunteered its Talking Heads technique to the commercial world, launching a generation of car commercial clones embellished by floating words with its type in a spot for Subaru.

For all its painful ubiquitousness, this floating type technique represented a key development in the relationship between image and word on screen. Instead of using type to simply emphasise aspects of the narration, art directors were beginning to use moving typography to illustrate, and sometimes contradict, the voice-overs, introducing a fairly complex semantic game. This game has a richer history in experimental film, where directors were perhaps more keenly aware of the relationship between moving image, word and sound. There are two choice examples from 1967: Jean-Luc Godard’s occasional explosions of type between scenes in the interminably brilliant Weekend, and the opening sequence of DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back, which shows the young Bob Dylan performing Subterranean Homesick Blues by holding up hand-scrawled cue-cards to the screen marked with words from the song – along with words that are patently not from the song.

Today, moving typography has assumed a major role on television, in trailers, show openings, music videos, and commercials. Each television discipline feeds the other with ideas. For instance, the floating type technique of commercials, now developed to the sophisticated level of Goodby Silverstein’s Norwegian Cruise Line campaign, which continually wins the One Show awards (the British Design and Art Direction awards for US ads), appeared this month in a nationwide Public Broadcasting Service poetry series. The series, called The United States of Poetry, a multimedia-matic composition of image, graphics, type, spoken word and loud music, was created by a design direction team straight from the MTV camp (including Emily Oberman, the graphic designer who worked at M&Co on Nothing But Flowers).

With the appearance of the Macintosh, and increasingly accessible means of font creation and desktop animation, television has become the playground of contemporary typography. Twisted, eroded and degraded typefaces like designer Barry Deck’s Caustic Biomorph and P Scott Makela’s Dead History appear in commercials for training shoes and in programme trailers on the children’s cable channel Nickelodeon. The 29-year-old designer Jonathan Barnbrook, who supplies original typefaces and treatments for TV commercials, sees it this way: “An ad needs novelty to carry on selling, and type is used to give identity to increasingly bland products.”

Barnbrook’s elegantly twisted typeface Manson (renamed Mason) recently cropped up in a trailer for a sports channel, ESPN2, which specialises in showing activities such as skysurfing, street luge and in-line skating. “Sports have changed and the way that they’re portrayed with sports graphics has changed,” says Patrick McDonough, whose company PMCD Design created the ESPN2 trailers. “We’ve been seeing a lot of sports graphics influenced by Ray Gun, Bikini, and David Carson.”

In many ways, the development of animated typography on television anticipates the convergence of interactive media with television. On the Internet’s World Wide Web, which originally was a text-only medium, people are beginning to realise that less text makes for a better page. The image-based television has discovered type, and the text-based Web has discovered the image. The designer, in theory at least, is the one who provides the graphic devices and type treatments that make TV have more impact, and the Web more digestible. Until, eventually, the cable, phone and satellite networks meld and they become the same thing. On the 500 channel information superhighway, animated type will then provide a wayfinding system through the chaos. Or add to it.

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