Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Something old, something new:
Graphic designers showcase type technology as interpreter of the past and augury of the future

[(The actual published title was “Master of tradition meets the font of youth,” 1993.09.16.)]

Two icons of graphic design and typography – one traditional, the other radical – came together in Toronto last week to discuss typefaces, the design process, and the influence of pervasive and ever improving technology. But the lessons of traditional typography as applied to contemporary technology were overshadowed by whiz bang graphics and philosophical ruminations on the role of designers in a digital future.

St. Lawrence Hall was the site of an International Typographic Event on September 8 featuring presentations by Matthew Carter, an experienced type designer and pioneer in adapting old typefaces to digital media, and Neville Brody, whose avant-garde designs for The Face, album covers, and other artifacts of popular culture spurred a rash of copycat designs worldwide. While Carter and Brody both concentrated on the application of today’s digital typographic technology (desktop publishing, laser printing, outline fonts, and the like) to design problems, the two took very different approaches to the role of electronic design.

Carter, a British expatriate now living in Boston whose background extends all the way from building molds for casting type in metal to mutable computer-based fonts that can contract and expand at the click of a mouse , opened the lecture by describing his efforts to bring the variety and nuance of yesterday’s type to today’s digital fonts. Through a series of slides and some engrossing off the cuff narration, Carter illustrated how he added to his Galliard typeface family, designed in 1978, what have come to be known as expert set characters – true small capitals, ligatures (connected characters, such as and ), and calligraphic, embellished letters for the beginnings and endings of words.

He brought these typographic flourishes to a new level in another typeface, Mantinia, inspired in large part by letters carved into the stone of the Boston Public Library, where adjacent letters join and meld into charming contracted forms. Mantinia’s conjoined characters, Carter said, “copulate on the page”; “it was glory for me,” he continued, to see Mantinia used for the catalogue of a show of work by artist Jeff Koons, whose subjects do some copulating of their own.

But Carter’s slideshow highlighted the irony of his work, which uses up to the millisecond computer technology (some of which hasn’t even been commercially released) to produce beautiful new typefaces that build on centuries of typographic experience. By contrast, Neville Brody’s funny and engaging presentation pitched the message that designers need to use contemporary technology to re-examine prevailing attitudes toward legibility and good design.

Brody, whose experimental typefaces and graphic design for the quarterly disc/hardcopy publication Fuse went on display at the Susan Hobbs Gallery on September 9, exhorted the capacity crowd to get involved in design for electronic media (thankfully, he did not use the debased buzzword multimedia) because if designers don’t do the designing, academics and techies will. Assuming the information highways we keep hearing about actually come to being, Brody said designers should be there working on how these highways should be used, concentrating on developing design idioms for documents that never get printed out as well as those that do. “I mean, most things are designed on screen, so why the fuck shouldn’t they stay there?”

At times Brody sounded like one of the evangelists Apple Computer sprung on the world when it launched the Macintosh. Brody’s studio will work only with clients (most of whom are in Europe and Japan these days) with Macintosh computers and in house designers. What’s happened with working on the Mac is it’s forced me to be less precious about my work, he says. As a deliberately blurry overlapped design was projected for the audience, Brody cited the Adobe Photoshop program – intended for manipulating photographs, not type – as an ideal tool for expressive and emotive typography – and a great mess, as you see here.

In Brody’s view, with the computer and its ability to overlap, colour, disfigure, transform, and infinitely replicate anything a designer cares to draw or scan in, type is no longer straitjacketed to produce legible typography for a small group of designers to show you how to use type. Here, though, Brody opened a can of virtual worms.

His work is bold and distinctive and abstract and deceptively easy to copy; in fact, one reason he started marketing his typefaces through the FontShop chain was to recoup at least some money from people ripping off his style. But Brody’s anti-legibility nihilism is a straitjacket of its own. At a purely pragmatic level, legibility is often required. Sometimes it’s even required in Brody’s own work. Conventional typography of the sort Matthew Carter practices is hard enough to do right, with its multitude of nuts and bolts rules and fuzzy heuristics that can be accumulated only through years of exposure. True enough, the young whippersnapper designer types who populated Brody’s audience have the historic good fortune of being on the ground floor of the onslaught of desktop publishing and electronic design, but they’re exactly the people who need to master the old rules before breaking them. And that’s a lesson Brody seems unwilling to teach.

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