Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Typo Expo à Go-Go 2

It’s easy – and fun! – to cast aspersions at Toronto’s “world-class” perceptions, but sometimes that debased term is more or less accurate. [In April 1996], Toronto’s world-class design mausoleum, the Design Exchange, played host to a genuinely world-class event, the Typographic Exposition, featuring some 17 world-class speakers (well, most of them were) offering presentations on type design, graphic design in which typography is the main element, and business and ethical issues.

As elsewhere in le monde du design these days, speakers in the Exposition, presented by the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, were divided into two camps that could be variously described as conservative/radical, traditional/avant-garde, sacred/profane or conventional/postmodern. And as is normal in discourse on typography today, there was no acknowledgement of the fact that those camps, which have existed in varying forms at least since the Bauhaus and Russian constructivist eras of the 1920s, are not a matter/antimatter combination: It’s entirely possible to appreciate and practice both schools of design. Both have their merits, both aren’t even remotely easy to do well (don’t believe otherwise), and both are resolutely essential to contemporary typography.

While the radical/avant-garde/profane/postmodern designers produce occasionally stunning and effective work (see my analysis of Exposition speakers in that faction), the conservative/traditional/sacred/conventional camp is clearly far more learned and fluent with centuries of printing, typefounding, and the graphic arts. There are, by definition, way fewer flubs and design atrocities in this camp: Practitioners, like speaker Gerard Unger of the Netherlands, recognize that the typefaces they create are based on all the other typefaces ever created. (Do the pomo kids understand this?)

David Pankow, an American printing historian, opened the Expo with a ponderous speech on the linkages between the tools available in type design of a certain era and their impact on the type designs that emerge from that era. Drawing examples all the way back to 1470 and using performances of the Brandenburg concerti as played on contemporary and “original” instruments as a parallel, Pankow attempted to show how early type designs had blemishes clearly attributable to the technology of the time – blemishes that would be too slavishly replicated in future “revivals” of those types even if then-current technology could get around the original limitations.

Confused? Join the club. Just as even the most basic concepts in graphic design are invisible to most people, rendering those people unable to understand what the hell you’re talking about if you even bring up the subject, the basic concepts of 15th-century type design were clearly all but unknown among the 265 graphic designers and others at the Expo. At one point Pankow summed up his presentation thus far with “The foregoing is, I hope, a not-too-tedious telling of a history I’m sure you know well.” Nope! Next time, try explaining the history and then interpreting it.

Matthew Carter, a seasoned type designer from Boston, again proved that you can be a fortysomething artiste and get away with wearing a ponytail – if you’re credible. Carter described his creation of three variants of Caledonia, a 50-year-old book typeface, for Time – one design meant for text sizes, another for subheads, and a third for jumbo-sized headlines. (It’s really only now that the desktop-publishing era is addressing the fact that a single design of a font will not look good at all conceivable sizes.) Carter, who is spending a lot of time creating screen fonts for computer displays these days, showed his drawings of a bigger, more legible version of Walbaum (designed circa 1800) for Wired. And as proof of the fuzziness of the radical/conservative divide, Carter ran slides of a whiz-bang and truly postmodern font he designed for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which comes complete with “snap-on serifs” that you can add to any character in any combination. Matthew Carter is the Mr. Fix-It of contemporary conventional typography, applying established precepts to modern tools for modern reading.

At a poorly-attended seminar at the end of the Expo, French type designer Jean-François Porchez described his own work in creating separate typefaces for Le Monde and the Paris Metro, as well as for his own use and for the Agfa type juggernaut. Porchez’s English is much better than he thinks, but his language worries caused him a considerable degree of effacement and hesitancy in delivering his remarks. He was nonetheless successful at making the point that certain typefaces, like Univers and Helvetica, are more “vertical” in stress or orientation, while others, like Frutiger (check a Canada Trust sign or anything connected to the CBC) or some of his own faces, are more “horizontal.” Porchez sees horizontal fonts as more legible and agréable than vertical ones in many contexts, and it’s hard to argue with him. Through side-by-side comparisons on some very tidy and concise slides, Porchez caused this reporter, who’s been following typography for 17 of his 31 years, to wonder why this wasn’t dead bloody obvious before. The charming and erudite Porchez is himself only 31 and can whip up startlingly complete drawings for a font in an afternoon or two. This, in the type biz, is called talent.

Designheads who see real-world issues as more important than dabbling marks on a page in the hopes of landing a gallery showing or contracts with Nike to design ultra-cool ad campaigns were offered a hero in another speaker, Jorge Frascara of the University of Alberta, who showed slide after slide of misleading or dangerous graphic design – a 3M contact-cement package with black or gold type on red whose instructions and warnings were about as big as a grain of salt; a department-store flyer that claimed an appliance was $14.99 when, on closer inspection, it really said you could save $14.99; American banknotes (“a currency that breeds crime!”) that all look the same. Frascara also showed some “activist” graphics created for striking rail workers in France, though he failed to mention the well-known Gran Fury design collective that provided the cool and effective graphics for the AIDS group ACT UP in the late ’80s. “Personally,” he said, “I am not interested in the debate between modern and postmodern... or computer gimmicks. My concern is the welfare of people.”

OK. So what are the concerns of the radical faction? .

[Originally published 1996 |
Updated here 1999.07.19, 2003.11.01, 2007.03.19]

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