Typography: The Best is Yet to Come

My wife, Claire, and I just recently moved. A neighbor came over to meet us and we began discussing career paths, schooling, and hobbies. Eventually we got on the topic of typography. This new neighbor was shocked that I have a passion for typography because he was under the impression that the best of the art had already passed us. I tried to explain why I disagreed, but fell short of my goal and the conversation ended unsatisfactorily. This post is part one of three in an attempt at explaining where our culture stands with type and where I think it yet has tremendous room for growth.

“…the ongoing proliferation of type shows no sign of abatement; if anything, the complexity of the modern world encourages continued growth.” – Karen Cheng, Designing Type

I recently read a quote about web design that I feel like very appropriately applies to digital typefaces.

“It’s time to throw out the rituals of the printed page, and to engage the medium of the web and its own nature.” – John Allsopp

There are three typographic paradigms that I’ve found people have because of improper education or a poor introduction to the nature of digital typefaces. In an attempt to minimize the frequency of these encounters, I’ll present each paradigm, attempt to dispell it, and replace it with the hope and optimism that I see for the future of this beautiful art. Along the way, we can “throw out a few rituals” remaining from the days of letterpress, and engage in an entirely new view of such an aged art.

Part 1: The Genre Paradigm

Most of my work (lately) has been for a company in Springville, Utah, where I was hired for a rebrand but have stuck around as their art director with a team of designers and photographers. One of owners of the company recently asked that I send a “logo file” to a print shop down the street. She hurriedly explained, “I tried to tell him (the print shop employee) to just use the big tall font, but he insisted that I email him a .PDF or .AI file.” Rather than wanting to precisely portray the identity, my manager expected any font within the genre would suffice.

Just a few months prior, while rebranding the company, I had spent many weeks developing a custom titling font for this company. Not to sound like the girlfriend who isn’t getting the attention she deserves for recently getting her hair cut, but I was surprised by this owner’s inability to recognize the significance of something specifically unique. Lately this kind of font genre misunderstanding, where any “big tall font” will suffice, is becoming more and more common. Much like my new neighbor, this manager thought that all of typography’s mysteries have long since been unraveled. The big tall font was made long ago, and there’s nothing I can do to improve upon it.

“Custom typography is an excellent way of ensuring the visual identity you’re creating will be unique to your client.” – Jon Stapp

An Old Fight: Helvetica Vs Arial

If I may, I’d like to use that interaction to illustrate some of the dangers of this paradigm. A typeface is not its height, nor its curves, nor its width, but rather the sum of many small parts. This was the mistake Monotype made in the development of Arial. Arial certainly matches Helvetica in genre, but will never stand the test of time that Helvetica has.

You might ask, “What don’t designers like about the diagonal terminal strokes and legs, rounded bowls, and fuller counters in Arial?” They’d love for you to believe that they’re actually that attentive.

As a designer there really is no time to individually examine each feature on every font bought. All they have time to know is that when the type is laid down, Helvetica always looks better than Arial. How many designers could tell the differences between Rockwell and Museo Slab, in quick passing? Very few. This Genre Paradigm is certainly at the forefront in misunderstanding the breadth and depth of typography. Typography becomes enormously oversimplified when each typeface can be summed up as a genre.

Let me try to further push the issue using three similar identities: Pinterest, Path, and The Phillies. Each has an icon of a singular script (genre alert!) P, a white and red color scheme, and more specifically an overlapping back terminal on the P counter.

Somehow, each logo is distinguished and each P is unique. They are not interchangeable even to the most uninformed viewer.

Herein is the beauty that typography claims as her own. Each character carries more than the burden of speech, the character of genre, and the form of handwriting. These days, each character becomes a part of the identity. The subtle curves of the P for Pinterest carries the weight of an entire identity based on pins. The curvy, yet consistent and precise, appearance of the P for Path is responsible for reminding its users of life, and activity, and drawing them back and be faithful to the app. Finally, the P for Phillies stands a little bolder, with terminals that hint on the side of blackletter and remind its fans of America’s long history with baseball.

No longer are we bound by the plates available at the local printing shop. Each designer has the opportunity and responsibility to go beyond a simple typeset and into the finer details. This alone speaks for a nearly infinite opportunity for growth in our outlook on type.

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