In search of a comprehensive type design theory

Essays by Peter Biľak
1 154 words6 min read

Have you ever heard a conversation between two type designers? Even the most patient, well-intentioned outsider might find himself smiling embarrassedly, excusing himself and looking for an exit, dumbfounded. Type designers, like computer programmers, clinical biochemists, entomologists and agricultural scientists are marked by an unintelligible jargon and slavish devotion to their pursuits; what sets them apart, however, is the seeming unimportance of their discussions. We type designers might be convinced that our profession is vital to society, but we wouldn’t risk going on strike to test how indispensable we really are. Like printer cartridges or pen refills, fonts are undoubtedly very practical and serve their function, but the public seems to take them for granted and largely ignores them.

Writing about fonts is equally difficult as talking about them. Articles on type design rarely appear outside the realm of the trade magazines, probably because of their highly technical nature. (The development of type has always been inextricably connected to the development of printing technology.) Writing about type and typography in the mainstream media is somewhat of a rarity even in the Netherlands, a country which is renowned for its highly-developed typographic culture, not to mention other countries where type design is still waiting for any sort of recognition. Yet searching through the past year’s issues of The New York Times reveals a surprising half dozen articles on typography, and even weekly satirical paper The Onion, carried an article on type, ‘Helvetica Bold Oblique Sweeps Fontys’, thus confirming the public’s interest in type design. (Of course, this article, which reports on the winner of a fictional annual font award, appeared next to other ‘news’ like ‘Sheepish Secret Service Agent Can’t Explain How Vacuum Cleaner Salesman Got Into Oval Office’, which perhaps gives us a better perspective of the general public’s true level of concern in matters related to type.)


What is there to discuss about fonts for the outsider? Legibility studies have caused utter confusion even within the ranks of type designers. Aesthetic or interpretive evaluations of type are vague at best, and as far as functionality is concerned, every designer insists that his fonts work the best. All of which only leads to a larger question: how can we define criteria for good fonts? The French type designer Jean-François Porchez responds: ‘The only criterion I rely on is simple: a good typeface fits the need of the subject.’ This rather ambiguous answer points to the problem: how can a type designer design a typeface when he is not in control of the subject? Does it mean that we need to have an endless library of typefaces to fit an endless number of subjects? Can a particular typeface perform better than another particular typeface? The lack of clear values is dangerous, and together with the predominantly technical nature of the discussion, hinders typography in receiving the proper attention that is regularly given to other art forms.

It may seem that some kind of theory would help to facilitate discussion; after all, every self-respecting discipline has one, even obscure treatises such as Ludology Theory or Theory of Honest Signaling present comprehensive systems of accepted knowledge which are distinct from actual practice and help to explain some domain of inquiry. A theory can elevate the level of discussion as well as formulate the frame for such discussion. Type design, however, seems to resist attempts to establish an encompassing theory by its very nature. Type design is not an intellectual activity, but relies on a gesture of the person and his ability to express it formally. Even if a theory existed, it would not be very useful, since type design is governed by practice. There might be detailed ‘how to’ instructions, but those do not qualify as general or abstract principles for creating type.
Dictionary definitions of ‘font’ usually refer to the printing process, and although type is reproduced by other means as well, the essence of type is in its ability to be reproduced. Fonts are essentially modest semi-products; they don’t have much meaning until they are used. And although type foundries and distributors often attach adjectives to fonts before they are used, in reality new typefaces are like blank sheets of paper. They can be used to represent anything, and just as paper manufacturers cannot control what is printed on their paper, so type designers can hold no responsibility for what their fonts are used to communicate. This is not to say that font choices are purely arbitrary, but rather that fonts acquire meaning only through use, and that we judge fonts not only according to how they fit into the existing nomenclature of font classification, but by how they refer to our previous experiences.


So far, I have deliberately been focusing on the appearance of type, thus running the risk of separating the design processes involved in type development from the technical processes involved in production. But hopefully we have learned something from the valuable lesson of the British Arts & Crafts movement, which centered precisely on the impossibility of detaching design from craft. Design is an inseparable element of the quality of type, however the function of typefaces must also be considered and respected. Through mastering proportions, balance and optical corections, the type designer can achieve his aim, be it improved legibility, historical accuracy or originality of expression. In the end, most of the existing discussion of type chronicles the problem-solving aspect of typography. This also explains how many successful typefaces were created: they were creative solutions to existing design or technological problems.

But frankly, the fonts presented in our type collection solve no problems. There were no problems to begin with. One could go so far as to suggest that the primary motivation for making these fonts was the same as for making any art: the urge to create, to express oneself. While discussing typography amongst the general public is a relative rarity today, there seems to be a moderately increasing interest in typography among the general public. (I recently spoke with a writer, a confessed typophile who studies the anatomy of typefaces late into the night.) This interest in type can perhaps be attributed to a new level of self-consciousness, our attempt to understand even the smallest building blocks of our existence. Just as the purpose of DNA analysis is to identify the location and function of every human gene, so the study of typefaces can be seen as an attempt to understand the formal appearance of the smallest unit of the written word. And just as skeptics of human genome research argue that studying DNA will not shed any light on the true nature of human behavior, so studying type may not reveal anything about real communication. Still, an informed discussion of this often marginalized field may help to focus the attention of the professionals and inspire the general public.

  • bilak square 900

    Peter Biľak works in the field of editorial, graphic, and type design. In 1999 he started Typotheque type foundry, in 2000, together with Stuart Bailey he co-founded art & design journal Dot Dot Dot, in 2012 he started Works That Work, a magazine of unexpected creativity, in 2015 together with Andrej Krátky he co-founded, a font rental platform. He collaborates with the choreographer Lukas Timulak on creation of modern dance performances, and together they started, a foundation for interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. Peter is teaching at the Type & Media, postgraduate course at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague. Member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).