Typography, The Australian, April 1995.

Friday 29 April


Since the advent of desktop publishing, it seems everyone’s a closet typographer. If only it were true.

Armed with a swag of fonts and folders full of formatting devices, simple documents have become complex typographic forms. Well, sometimes. Mostly they’re just more evidence of the growing visual pandemonium of contemporary life.

As with most empowering tools of communication that are increasingly available to many of us, we tend to forget about the immediate pre-history of these devices — and the skills that went with them. Who really cares why Max Miedinger and Edouard Hoffman invented the ubiquitous clear-cut Helvetica typeface in 1957? Should it really concern us that the ever-popular Times Roman typeface was commissioned exclusively for The Times of London in 1931, before being released to the world at large in 1933? Probably not.

However, in the absence of such background history, we could well be in danger of losing a specialised knowledge about the precise ways that type conveys powerful and subtle meanings. This might sound a bit stuffy, but it’s true to say that at a time when the availability and variety of type is on the rise, our general knowledge of their history, form, and associated meanings is on the decline.

Selecting and specifying the right kind of type for the job used to be a skilled task performed by trained typographers, typesetters and graphic designers. It still is. It’s just that nowadays many of us think we’re experts.

Typography is essentially a matter of visual communication, of using letterforms to add non- verbal impact to words. A good knowledge of the range of types available, their constructive principles, legibility and emotional associations makes typography more than just a matter of squeezing words into columns. It’s about the creation of an image. Whether it’s a poster, handbill, book, magazine spread, a record cover or a three-dimensional application, the point is to communicate an appropriate message.

Signage can take an almost abstract sculptural form. Tokyo-based Takenobu Igarashi’s brushed steel street address for the offices of Nike looks like a perfectly engineered bank vault door. Except it’s not. Designers like Pentagram’s Alan Fletcher have even stretched and squeezed letters into tall metal gates. Others, such as New York’s Fred Woodward, are happy filling an entire book cover with letters that become the illustration. In such instances we get the non- verbal meaning of the typographic arrangement before we even read their literal meaning. This century is full of examples of text that makes sense as image first and language second.

This is exactly what Brody Neuenschwander argues in his recent book “Letterwork: Creative Letterforms in Graphic Design” (London, Phaidon, 1993). Neuenschwander is a calligrapher and graphic designer who is probably best known for is collaboration with Peter Greenaway on “Prospero’s Books”. You might remember the quill-like letters that sweep the screen have a distinctively Shakespearian appearance (the style is purportedly derived from what little is known of the Bard’s own hand). But they were created using a combination of hand-lettering and sophisticated computer technologies.

Neuenschwander is not afraid of computers, let’s get that straight. His book is full of examples of lettering and typography created using digital machines. His main complaint is therefore not about the “desktop revolution”. It’s about what he sees as the increasing marginalisation of calligraphy and typography as a consequence. Experimentation has continued no doubt, “but often without the formal background that could guide it and give it purpose.”

The book is filled with examples of what he considers to be the best in the current spate of type-based work. Not all the designers included may have had the kind of formal training that Neuenschwander advocates, but their work is nonetheless exemplary. From the austere yet playful compositions of Berlin’s Ott + Stein to the “deconstructionist” artwork of Michigan’s Joan Dobkin, we are led through the wide variety typographic approaches available in the nineties. Unlike the Moderns, we have no problem appropriating and combining styles from any moment in history. The combinations just have to be legible (whatever that is).

Dobkin’s recent posters and leaflets for Amnesty International are a great example of how our understanding of legibility is being transformed. The viewer of these works must reconstruct the fragmented messages, overlaid texts, and scribbled letters according to their own experience. The frustration we might have at the “illegibility” of such posters is actually appropriate to its subject — conveying the political terror, repression and anxiety experienced in many countries.

Whether the same holds true for current (almost universal) trend to splatter all manner of different sized and shaped type across the page without thought of context and meaning is another matter altogether. It’s enough to bring the retiring typographers back out of the closet.

Ross Harley