In your face

Type design has gone from hedonism to minimalism in the last decade, says Jim Davies. And Natalie Spencer finds designers have some odd favourites

Most people associate excess with the 1980s, but as far as typography was concerned the boom years didn’t arrive until a decade later. Fuelled by the advent of scanners and digital font packages, which reduced typeface design to little more than a kindergarten exercise in join-the-dots, there were so many weird, wonderful and not-so-wonderful new typefaces around that designers just didn’t know what to do with them all. So they just piled them on top of each other, layer after layer after layer of them. They laid them sideways and at impossible angles. They attacked them with knives, doodled over them with biros, threw acid on them, rescanned them and, just for good luck, distorted them a bit more in Photoshop.

In this context, letter forms became little more than compelling abstract patterns. They were intended to be responded to rather than read. Typography had become a substitute for illustration. Apologists explained that these typographic tableaux were a commentary on information-overload and technological acceleration, representing the miasma of confused messages coming at us from all directions in different media. This then, was the so-called “next wave” of typography which, according to the cover of Rick Poyner’s Typography Now Two, “encapsulates the spirit of an era more concisely than any other form of design”.

We were treated to a flurry of pretentiously titled books on the subject, which eschewed any serious criticism for page upon page of baroque graphic indulgence. David Carson, Carlos Segura and the late P Scott Makela came over on European “tours”. They rapped, beer in hand, to sell-out audiences, basking in rock-star adulation. The words “art” and “design” became strangely confused – indeed, Carson talked brazenly about “painting with type”.

Defying the innate nature of waves, however, the next wave wasn’t followed by the next wave and the next wave. This frenetic burst of activity had left the once sedate world of typography completely exhausted. It settled down, found its own level and graphic designers quietly got back to work. If there is a typographic tendency in the UK at the moment, it’s gone the other way – towards a kind of cod-modernism, espoused by design groups such as North, Farrow and Cartlidge Levene, not to mention the grand-daddy of them all, Peter Saville.

With hindsight, the typographic revolution was probably a good thing. Until then, typography and pedantry were rather too closely related. After all, it takes a certain kind of compulsive-obsessive personality to spend hours agonising over the precise slope of a serif, the level of contrast between thin and thick strokes, whether to include a spur on a capital G or not. Intellectual snobbishness was rife. Typography was far too clubby and needed a good shake-up.

The analogies with the music industry during the 1970s are manifold. Punk came as a welcome antidote to the ridiculous pomposity of the “super groups”, with their banks of keyboards and tedious ten-minute guitar solos. Admittedly, Punk was often ugly and brutish and discordant, but it was also vibrant, energetic and democratic. So too, was the next wave of typography. Anyone could – and seemingly did – have a go. Segura, founder of Chicago-based digital type foundry T26, revealed that “a lot of contributions [to T-26] are by people who aren’t trained in the craft. I realise there are a lot of people who find this offensive, but I believe they have energised the industry. Some of our font designers are bartenders; some don’t use a computer at all, they hand render the letters and then we’ll digitise them and make a font out of them.”

Just how many bartenders went on to become full-time typographers is unclear. A brief flirtation is one thing, but life-long commitment is quite another, even if your labours are mitigated by child-friendly technology. “People started to realise it wasn’t as easy as it looked,” observes typographic designer Jon Barnbrook wryly. So like Punk, the next wave lasted the requisite three minutes and then faded away. Or not quite. Many of the prevalent graphic tics and tricks of this era, some typefaces even, were assimilated into the mainstream, but by then they had become so diluted and decontextualised that they had all but lost their original intensity and personality.

Today, type has, for the main part, resumed its more subservient role. It generally plays second fiddle to illustration, photography, and even words. As a direct reaction to the indulgence of the recent past, there has been an upsurge in the issues of clarity and legibility. Signage and all things Swiss are more sexy than record sleeves and typographic “expression”. These days, the only time you tend to notice type is when it is handled badly. Recent notable fonts include Jeremy Tankard’s Bliss and Dave Farey’s Johnson Railway, which are both elegant and humanist in intent.

And just as one new technology saw type briefly elevated to hip cultural phenomenon, so another put it back in its place. As more and more graphic designers have been getting to grips with the niceties of designing for the Internet – and in particular the issue of default delivery fonts – so they have been forced to become less reliant on type as a crutch or a smoke screen. Information hierarchies, a well-developed structure – and God help us – an overriding idea, have returned to the fore.

Nevertheless, there’s always a place for rigorous new faces, and typographic designers will continue to produce them. The chances are, however, that they’ll be less throwaway and gratuitous than those produced during the latter half of the 1990s – very much products of their time, it’s telling that so many of them look dated already. After all, Pretty Vacant sounded great at the time, but how often do you blow the dust off it and put it on your turntable?

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