New Faces (Chapter Three: The East Coast)

Essays by Emily King
8 987 words45 min read

A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999)

(i) Historiography
(ii) Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models
Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene
Mapping Contemporary Type Design
Chapter Two: The West Coast
Chapter Three: The East Coast
Chapter Four: London
Chapter Five: The Netherlands
List of Interviews

Chapter Three: The East Coast

While I have looked at the type designs emerging from the West Coast in the light of technological innovation, on the East Coast, other models become more appropriate. The designers whose work will be addressed in this section, the Boston-based trio David Berlow, Matthew Carter, Tobias Frere-Jones and the New Yorker Jonathan Hoefler, may use technologies identical to those employed by their West Coast colleagues, but they are not using them in the context of recently established software companies or radical type ventures. Rather, these designers have been applying the opportunities offered by digital type design and typesetting technologies to one of the East Coast’s best established activities, magazine and newspaper publishing. Although none of the group of designers discussed in the following section has worked exclusively for the publishing business, each of them has derived a fair amount of income from this kind of work. The West Coast designer Sumner Stone has called his Boston and New York counterparts “the East Coast publishing mafia”.[382] It is not fair to suggest that these designers enforce exclusivity with mafia-like tactics, but effectively they have operated as a cartel, hoovering up a large part of the type design commissioned by American publications.

Employed by the East Coast’s magazine publishing houses, type designers such as Berlow, Carter, Hoefler and Frere-Jones have been engaged in the task that has been the preoccupation of those businesses over the last few decades: how to attract and maintain a target audience for their products. Working with these type designers, the successful art director Roger Black has been a key player in the pursuit through design and typography of a particular audience segment. Black was amongst the first designers to use type as an active ingredient in the identity of a publication with his innovative art direction of Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. During the 1980s publication explosion, when a large number of new publications hit the shelves each with a carefully defined target readership, Black acted as an art director or consultant art director on a great many magazine launches and redesigns, each time employing type in order to craft identity. Using type in a considered manner throughout his career, when in the late 1980s technology rendered it relatively cheap to commission typefaces for the exclusive use of particular publications, Black was unsurprisingly quick to exploit that opportunity. According to the type designer Matthew Carter, since the adoption of device-independent digital design and typesetting technologies, Black “can’t look at a publication without commissioning a typeface.”[383]

Not just a key player in terms of commissioning and using these typefaces, Black also has been active in encouraging the broader supply of new fonts. Alongside the type designer David Berlow, Black is a partner in Font Bureau (which also employs Tobias Frere-Jones), a Boston-based company established in 1989 with the original aim of supplying custom-designed faces. Involved at every stage of typographic activity, Black’s treatment of type has been significant in that rather than intending letterforms to be broadly communicative, he has employed them to speak selectively. Using type to talk with a distinctive accent to a defined community, Black’s task departs very much from the typographic traditionalist’s pursuit of neutral, absolutely communicative perfection.

The magazine in America

What has happened to type in the hands of Black and other magazine art directors who have been working in a similar manner is a reflection of broader developments within the publishing business of the East Coast of America. This is a well-established business, which first emerged in the major cities of North East America (Boston, Philadelphia and New York) in the eighteenth century. Much of the publishing business of the United States remains based on the East Coast, if anything becoming increasingly concentrated in New York during the last century. It is necessary to qualify this regionally-based account by noting that geographically specific publications have been an important part of the targeted publication boom that began in the 1980s, for example Texas Monthly or Southern Living. But while these publications might be intended to speak to local audiences, often they are produced under the auspices of a large New York publishing concern[384], providing evidence of the global/local nexus at work.[385]

Although it has remained attached to its geographical roots, through its history America’s publishing business has been subject to many changes. These have been particularly dramatic in the decades since the Second World War. Tracing the development of the American publication in The Magazine in America 1741-1990, the media historians John Tebbel and Mary Ellen Zuckerman argued that since the early 1950s the industry had experienced what amounted to a “transformation”, engendered by technological, economic and cultural change.[386]

While the publishing business of the East Coast is related to some extent to the area’s long-established patrician, literary culture, it is much more strongly bound to the more recently founded opportunistic advertising and marketing cultures of Madison Avenue. This relationship was cemented in the post-war decades to the extent that, in the early 1960s, the New York Times advertising columnist Peter Bart was prompted to remark that “the concept of the magazine as a marketing entity rather than as an editorial entity has gained predominance.”[387] The increasing concern of magazine publishers with the pursuit of advertising revenues was prompted by an acceleration of the competition both for that income and for readers from other media. In the early 1950s the profits of the publishers of mass market magazines were falling dramatically, and these businesses were considering a number of new strategies to defend their territory. Through the 1960s and 1970s the trend was toward magazines which courted specialised audiences.[388] This trend was continuous, but reached increased space in the 1980s. In that decade, the response to ever more intense competition amongst magazines and between magazines and other media was the launch of an unprecedented number of finely targeted publications.

Magazine design in the late twentieth-century

Overall in their history of the American magazine Tebbel and Zuckerman paid very little attention to the design of publications. Where they did address layout, they suggested that it had become “a vital tool” in the “intensely competitive magazine world” of the 1980s.[389] Arguing that the magazine art director had assumed a role of much greater importance with more broadly defined responsibilities in recent years, Tebbel and Zuckerman implied that this new breed of art director was expanding upon tradition established by the elite band of mid-century art directors, chiefly Fortune magazine’s Henry Cleland and Alexey Brodovitch from Harper’s Bazaar.[390]

Tebbel and Zuckerman’s emphasis upon Cleland and Brodovitch is not unusual. These New York-based art directors of the 1950s have become the looming figures within the history of the design of the commercial magazine. Joined by their colleagues from the 60s and 70s – Milton Glaser, Walter Bernard, Roger Black and Fred Woodward – they are the individuals who stand out in the international historical survey Magazine Design by the graphic design historian and critic William Owen. Although Owen did acknowledge the influence of European trends, for Owen the story of the magazine is essentially one which is located on America’s East Coast. Owen’s emphasis upon American publishing can be read as a reflection of the commercial and cultural weight of the East Coast’s publishing industry: magazines and newspapers emerging from that area not only dominate American markets but are also extremely influential internationally, both in terms of design and editorial.

In characterising New York art directors of the 1980s and 1990s as the inheritors of the traditions of Brodovitch and Cleland, it is vital to remember that they are working in economic and cultural contexts radically different to those their 1950s counterparts. The publishers of the East Coast may still lead the world of commercial magazines, but they have retained that lead through constant adaptation. The “transformation” of the American magazine industry in the post-war decades has had a profound impact upon the manner in which publications emerging from that industry are designed. In the highly competitive magazine world of the 1980s and 90s, every design or editorial development is assessed in terms of immediate commercial impact. Against this background, the era in which Brodovitch was at Harper’s Bazaar and Cleland was at Fortune, has been remembered romantically as a “golden age” of magazine design.[391]

The freedom given to Alexey Brodovitch during his 24 year reign (1934-1958) as art director at Hearst Magazine’s fashion publication Harper’s Bazaar has no equivalent in contemporary publishing. A refugee White Russian, Brodovitch had come to the United States via Paris in the early 1930s bringing with him an understanding of European graphic trends. His designs for Harper’s Bazaar, and also for the parallel, more experimental publication Portfolio, which combined to great effect dramatic full bleed photographs, dazzling yet elegant typographic composition, and a previously unheard of extravagance with white space, have become the icons of magazine publishing.[392] Henry Wolf, Brodovitch’s successor at Harper’s Bazaar, continued the tradition established by his predecessor. Known for the attention grabbing graphic puns (definitive examples of 1960s graphic wit) and the striking photography with which he filled the magazine’s pages, Wolf used these to dramatic effect against a background composed from an extremely minimal typographic palette.

Like the work of Brodovitch and later Wolf, the work of Henry Cleland and his successors at Fortune magazine from the early 1930s to the mid 1960s has also been held up as an example of magazine art directing at its height. Amongst the qualities shared by Harper’s Bazaar and Fortune was a typographical coherence that broke with the former magazine design convention of employing a different typeface for each story.[393] At it launch, Cleland used solely Baskerville in three weight variations upon the pages of Fortune. Typographic restraint is one of the qualities most strongly associated with the magazines that were the outcome of the highly revered “golden age” and it is one which endured within American magazines through into the early 1960s.

Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar and Cleland’s Fortune were authoritative publications, assured in their ability to attract readers and advertisers. Both were elite publications, but in the 1950s even magazines intended for a more general mass readership spoke with a confident voice to an assumed homogenous audience. Significant amongst publications of this sort were the illustrated news magazines Life and Look. Having covered the Second World War for a American audience, these magazines continued to tackle serious subjects of national importance. Discussing the fortunes of Look in the post-war years, Tebbel and Zuckerman called the decade between 1955 and 1965 the magazine’s “golden years”, during which it covered issues such as racial tension in the South and made room for extensive discussion of foreign affairs.[394] In design terms, the editorial weight of the magazine was emphasised through a straightforward, consistent style, using a traditional typographic palette in combination with clear pictorial grids. This approach was taken one step further when, from 1966 onward, Allen Hurlburt and his assistant Will Hopkins turned down the typographic volume of the magazine even lower. Self-proclaimed disciples of the post-war Swiss style, they emphasised powerful pictorial narratives with systematic, modular typography.[395]

But even while the format of Look was reaching maturity in the 1960s, graphic trends and economic and political events were working together to undermine the foundations upon which such a magazine was based. During that decade all the photographic news magazines lost a large part of their readership to television, and that twinned with the slackening of pace of that economy in the 60s and 70s took its toll upon magazines. Both Look and Life had expired at the end of 1971, by which time the idea of a mass, politically unified American public that they had reflected in their heyday had begun to seem somewhat dated.[396] During the years of the Vietnam War there emerged a number of alternative publications the purpose of which was to actively challenge the politics of the American government and the values of mainstream America. The graphic idioms favoured by these magazines were far from the spare, clean, authoritative styles that had been associated with the magazine’s “golden age”. Instead a new generation of art directors chose to embrace vernacular and revivalist typographic and illustrative styles.

Amongst the magazines communicating radical views with vernacular type was Fact, designed by Herb Lubalin. Set in a varied, robust typographic palette, reminiscent of nineteenth-century printed ephemera, Fact magazine published articles on controversial subjects such as abortion, police brutality and the excesses of America’s foreign policy.[397] The typography employed by Lubalin was appropriate to his task because it offered a strong contrast to the American variant of modernist typography, a style which in the post-war years had become strongly associated with the nation’s paternalistic corporate capitalists.[398]

Emerging a few years after Fact, the popular music magazine Rolling Stone is possibly the publication which is remembered best for the use of vernacular and revivalist typographic styles in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Art-directed by Roger Black, it is also the magazine which best exemplifies the contradictory sentiments implied by the use of those graphic idioms. Launched in 1967, by 1973 the magazine had developed from a foldover tabloid newspaper into a glossy publication with a worldwide circulation of half a million.[399] The design of the magazine relied heavily upon the use of a host of decorative, revival letterforms and ornamental type rules and borders. Although the design of Rolling Stone flew in the face of the modernist styles associated with corporate America, William Owen has argued the references made upon the pages of the magazine to a national vernacular were an adequate expression of “the style of the blue jean generation”, reflecting their “underlying conservatism.”[400] The rejection of the international modernist graphic language has been interpreted simultaneously as a gesture of a radical anti-corporate sentiment and of a conservative insularity.

Milton Glaser, a contemporary of Herb Lubalin, was another the graphic designer promoting vernacular and historic styles in the mid to late 1960s. A founding member of the Push Pin studio in 1954, Glaser has argued that the rebellion against disciplined modernist graphics in favour of more clamorous typographic styles was the equivalent of a desire amongst the American public for a “greasy burger”.[401] Rather than associating the graphic styles of Push Pin with political radicalism, Glaser’s analogy implies a form of rootsy American patriotism, a rejection of high ideals imposed from outside in favour of a celebration of gritty, commercial reality.

Many of the designers most associated with the new graphic idioms of the late 1960s and early 1970s have had very successful long-term careers. Like Roger Black, whose career was touched upon earlier, Milton Glaser also became extremely influential as an magazine art director and later a design consultant in the 1970s. His approach to magazine design strongly reflected his self-proclaimed pragmatism. With the design of New York magazine in the early 1970s, Glaser claimed to have rejected “beauty” in favour of the kind of immediacy that must “grab potential readers by the lapels”.[402] Milton Glaser has acted as art director or design consultant on a large number of magazines since the mid 1970s and in 1983 he teamed up with fellow art director Walter Bernard to form WBMG. Through the activities of that company, these New York based designers have had a huge influence on publications across the United States and in Europe. It is within the work of designers like Glaser that the graphic styles that were once ambivalently allied to American radicalism became associated unequivocally with the increasingly desperate struggle on the part of publications to attract the attention of readers and advertisers.[403]

As well as crafting new graphic idioms to reflect changing economic, social and cultural climates, in the late 1960s and early 1970s art directors such as Glaser, Black and Lubalin were also responding to the new demands and new possibilities that were created by changes in print technology. The photographic typesetting methods that had become widespread by that time prompted the creation of a varied typographic palette and allowed type to be set in newly condensed, overlapping and colourful formats. Interlocking responses to market conditions and technological change of this kind are characteristic of the publishing industry and emerge as a significant theme in the story of publishing over the 1980s and through into the 1990s.

Magazine publishing since the 1980s

Since the mid-1980s, cultural, commercial and technological factors have combined to bring about a number of notable changes to the industry. The market for magazines and newspapers has further fragmented, segmented and became more and more fast paced. Increasingly severe competition for readers has not acted to dissuade those intent on making a new launch and in the face of falling circulation numbers there has been what amounts to a boom in publications.[404] This has been in part the outcome of technological change; desktop publishing technologies have meant that costs for launching a new magazine or re-formatting an old one have fallen significantly. The direct effect of this has been a blossoming of small-scale publishing activity.[405]

Desktop publishing technologies have also had an impact upon the more mainstream end of the business. As a wave of new magazines have flooded the news stands, the identities of existing publications have come under intense scrutiny as their market position in relation to their competitors has become subject to constant shifts. Typically a new launch from an emergent low-budget publisher has caused those within the established side of the industry to reassess their own activities, and possibly to offer an equivalent. In the early 1990s this led to the creation of a growing number of publications, coming from both the independent and mainstream sectors, which targeted the interests of particular subcultures. Significant amongst these has been Time Warner’s Vibe magazine launched in 1993. This magazine, which was intended to document the culture of rap and hip hop, can be seen as a direct response to Urb, the product of a one man designer/editor/publisher outfit which covered a similar area.[406]

In the turbulent market for magazines of the last decade, the graphic and typographic identities of publications has become the focus of a great deal of attention. Design has been cast as a potent force in determining the success of a new venture, or in improving the fortunes of an ailing concern. Audiences are thought to have become increasingly sophisticated and demanding in their reading of and identification with graphic and typographic styles. This belief is very much reflected in redesigns that hark back to historic styles. Particularly significant have been the very straightforward references to their own histories in the redesigns of the magazines Harper’s Bazaar (Fabien Baron, 1992) and Rolling Stone (led by the art director by Fred Woodward 1987). Recalling the golden age’s of their publications (Harper’s Bazaar in the immediate postwar years and Rolling Stone’s in the early 1970s) the art directors of these magazines are communicating a spectrum of nostalgic impulses (for the sophistication of the 50s, or the uncomplicated rock and roll of the early 70s) as much as anything else. Assuming familiarity with certain graphic idioms, the reprise of historic graphic styles within Rolling Stone and Harper’s Bazaar are intended to appeal to a new generation of graphic literates.

The changing role of typographic identity

Looking at examples of late 80s/early 90s redesigns, it becomes apparent that the nature of the quest for a typographic identity has changed a great deal over the twentieth century, and particularly in the decades since the Second World War. This change can be illustrated in the extreme by delving back into early twentieth-century typographic history to refer to what is possibly the best known historic venture in determining the identity of a publication through type: the redesign of The Times newspaper, steered by Stanley Morison in the late 1920s. In order to determine the most appropriate typeface for the newspaper Morison undertook a programme of research into legibility. The rigour of these researches has been questioned by typographic critics, but this appears not to have affected the conviction with which subsequent generations have adopted the outcome conclusions.[407] The product of Morison’s investigations was the Times Roman typeface, a highly condensed face, suitable for printing at small sizes and robust enough to survive poor quality production. Times Roman was presented as the perfect newspaper type, and the assumption of its paramount legibility has been enough to persuade the huge number of designers (and more recently design amateurs) who throughout the century have continued to employ it as a default text face.

But while Times Roman remains an international best-seller, the business of designing and redesigning newspapers has moved on dramatically. Recent newspaper designs (such as the redesign of Britain’s Independent on Sunday early in 1997) have focused upon the introduction of typographic variation rather than consistency. Newspapers are now brimming with various headline and text faces which are scattered through layout devices such as side bars and supplements. These new formats are intended to cater for audiences who habitually draw information from the television screen. Throughout the print media it is possible to observe significant concessions to a screen-centred culture. No longer the authoritative, conservative vehicles of fact assumed by Morison and his generation, newspapers in the age of CNN vie noisily on the stands for the customer’s attention. The pursuit of typographic identity was understood by Morison to be the search for a perfect and stable typographic solution. By the end of the twentieth century it has become the creation of a set of temporary typographic signifiers which are believed to have the potential to attract the most demographically desirable readership.

Graphic and typographic identity in the late twentieth century

No longer speaking with a single authoritative typographic language, the design of newspapers reflects broader changes in the manner in which graphic and typographic identities have come to be conceived of and applied in the late twentieth century. These changes can be characterised positively: the silencing of the dominant voice ought to allow for quieter, minority voices to be heard. This view implies the assumption that shifts in graphic mode are a signal of broader social and economic change. For example, in the case of the graphic identities of corporations, the monolithic modernist identity programmes from the 1950s of companies such as General Electric or IBM are often characterised as a accurate reflection of the paternalist, inflexible values of those companies, values which were strongly identified with the of the American governments of the time.[408] In turn, the more complex, and in theory more responsive, design systems of the late 1980s are promoted as reflections of corporations who are more sensitive to the demands of their customers. In his book Corporate Identity, the designer Wally Olins suggested that the success of a design system hinges on its ability to invest the products of the company with a “life” which will prove attractive to a specific group of consumers.[409]

In the same book, Olins argued that a corporate identity would only be successful if it accurately represented the ideology of a company.[410] The implication of this statement is that design is able only to reveal and emphasise existing values, it cannot conceal or disguise.[411] Olins’s project was to answer the critics of the elaborate, multipart identity systems offered by corporate design companies in the late 1980s. While writers such as Robin Kinross argued that they were incoherent and expensive, Olins implied that they were evidence of companies that were genuinely more in tune with the needs of a heterogeneous society. However, it does not take much delving within Olins’s book to discover the limits of the ability of the corporation to take into account the needs of a diverse population. Writing in the late 1980s, Olins felt justified insisting that, in order to combat difficulties that might arise from “employing people of differing ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds”, employees ought to be required to demonstrate their “commitment” through conformity in “appearance and behaviour”.[412] Given a chance, Olins might well choose to rephrase this suggestion in the late 1990s. Quoted here, it is significant in revealing that corporate design systems are prepared to acknowledge diversity only amongst an enfranchised, consuming public. The right to be different must be bought.

Looking at a range of publications which cater through editorial and design for minority audiences, similar doubts arise. The extent to which these publications actually meet the full spectrum of tastes and views is questionable; in order to attract the notice of the publishing industry a minority community must be able to consume. The suspicion arises that, rather than accurately reflecting an heterogeneous society, the range of graphic and typographic identities on offer actually represent an a more sophisticated exploitation of marketing opportunities.

Another criticism of the late twentieth-century publishing industry, intent as it is on meeting every consumer preference through fine tuning graphic and editorial identities, has been that of cultural relativism. Writing about American book publishing in the volume of essays Dumbing Down, the author Kent Carroll noted an “absence of gatekeepers” within this former preserve of high culture. Addressing in particular the proliferation of manuals of self-help, Carroll argued that America’s publishers had mounted “a retreat from elitism” and no longer would “assume the moral authority that [their] position demands.”[413] Obviously the magazine has never carried the cultural weight of the book, but Carroll’s criticisms can be extended to contemporary magazine publishing: it is a business within which editorial and design are not judged against any kind of absolute standards, but where the flexible rule of the marketers is applied.

Those who subscribe to the notion of critics such as Carroll that culture is in the process of being “dumbed down” have argued that the diversity of information offered to audiences in print and on screen is actually illusory. James Twitchell, author of the book Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America, has suggested that, rather than genuine alternatives, we are actually being presented with homogeneity masquerading as choice. In terms of graphic and typographic identity, the implication of this argument is that the spectrum of finely-tuned publications on sale are in fact no more than the same product dressed in different ways. This is a suggestion that is supported by an examination of the advertisements in the pages of those magazines, where the range of goods on offer is much narrower than the range of means by which they are promoted.

Related by Twitchell to the notion of a low-level, homogenous mass culture is the concept of “Adcult”. According to Twitchell, this late twentieth-century cultural form has arisen from the fact that, within the media, “if it can’t carry advertising, it won’t survive.” In an essay in the Dumbing Down collection, Twitchell offered a “thumbnail” history of magazine and newspaper publishing, claiming that “all the innovations in these media were forced on them by advertisers” and that the demographic specialisation of print in the 1980s was “direct result of the rise of Adcult.”[414] Amongst the perceived victims of the culture characterised by Twitchell has been America’s leading news magazine Time. Redesigned in 1992, the design educator and critic Michael Rock debated whether new format, with its ample room for interchangeable, demographically specific sections, was driven by editorial concerns or market research. Rock concluded that the transformation of a “sober, grey news magazine” into “jumbled tabloid” must be a response to the demands of the advertisers, a conclusions which led him to argue that “the aura of elite, erudite journalism has been fouled.”[415]

But, putting aside fears of a commercially grounded, relativistic plumbing of culture’s lower levels, to most it would appear preferable that the newsstands of multi-cultural nations such as Britain and the United States carry publications which endeavour in some way to cater to the diversity of their populations. Weighing up the pros and cons of recent events in the publishing industry, the question that arises is whether people are active or passive consumers of identity. That is, do they use the graphic and editorial identities of the magazines on offer as ingredients with which to construct a positive identity for themselves, or are they victims of these identities, forced to consume to keep in line with the images on offer? The stance taken upon this question will determine whether the quest for typographic identity, which consumes much of the time of the type designers working upon America’s East Coast, is viewed in a positive or negative light.

Font Bureau

Amongst the most significant of type design concerns on East Coast is Font Bureau, founded in Boston in 1989 by Roger Black and David Berlow (born 1955). Art director Black formed the company in the anticipation that there would be a burgeoning demand for custom-designed type in the wake of the technological developments that had dramatically lowered the cost of font design and manufacture. Developments in the technology of print and publishing appeared to be complementing the direction in which the industry was moving as a whole: the techniques of digital publishing were rendering demographically specific activity more and more accessible. Not only from publication designers, the demand for custom typefaces was also expected to come from corporations or software manufacturers. Black and Berlow envisaged that Font Bureau would cater to the newly emerging market for original typefaces in its entirety.

Starting his career in type over a decade earlier, David Berlow became a letter designer for established industrial foundries such as Linotype and Haas in 1978. Later, in 1982, he became one of the first employees of the maverick digital type company, Bitstream Inc. Bitstream could be seen as a forerunner of the Font Bureau in its intention to supply font software, in some cases custom designed, that would function upon already existing digital type setting systems. When Bitstream was founded it took full advantage of the technological capabilities available in the early 1980s and a few years later the company actively extended those capabilities by prompting Adobe to open the PostScript language.[416] Launched at the end of the decade, Font Bureau also were skilful in their exploitation of recent technological circumstance. This was reflected not just in the markets that the Bureau courted, but also in the very structure and fabric of the company.

Harry Parker, the present administrator at Font Bureau, has called it “the most virtual company I have ever come across.”[417] By this he means that a very small proportion of the activity associated with Font Bureau takes place within its physical headquarters, a small suite of offices on one of Boston’s most fashionable shopping streets. Rather, most of the company’s designers work from home, communicating digitally and meeting, if at all, at regular bi-annual get togethers. The Boston office functions largely as the company’s administrative base, housing only a small proportion of its actual design work.

The company evolved into this form over several years. At its launch, Font Bureau was based in David Berlow’s front room at Mount Vernon Street in Boston. The company expanded fairly rapidly, and because at that point it still seemed necessary to physically accommodate employees, Font Bureau in early 1992 moved to larger premises on Tremont Street. This studio space was the most conventional that the company ever occupied, and at that time the larger part of their design activity took place under one roof, a situation which Parker has described as “condensed”.[418]

After a few years working in this studio, David Berlow moved from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod, and began to operate from a studio within his house. Around the same time most of the designers working for Font Bureau followed suit, retreating into their respective domestic environments, and the administrative core of the company moved to its present address. This development can be seen as the outcome of modes of thought that went alongside the increasing accessibility of the internet during the early 1990s. As more and more people subscribed to the service, communication over the net became accepted as a fully formed and viable.

In the early 1980s the digital type foundry Bitstream had been founded in Boston to take advantage of the pools of skilled, cheap labour that were available in the city. The city is home to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Bitstream were able to hire graduate students to programme for them for as little as $8 an hour.[419] Bitstream were not alone in taking advantage of this resource, and Boston has remained distinct from other relatively depressed East Coast cities due to its concentration of technologically based businesses.

In spite of MIT, the East Coast’s high tech activity remains small scale in comparison to that located within Silicon Valley. By remaining east, rather than responding to pressure to move west, Bitstream were keeping a foothold in the sphere that was already occupied by the more traditional type businesses. From the start the major industrial type companies such as Linotype had been based upon the East Coast, a location which reflected their links with the area’s economic infrastructure, including amongst other things, the publishing industry. To some extent, as well as adopting Bitstream’s location, Font Bureau have also adopted their project: to take advantage of the new opportunities while maintaining established relationships. Significantly in the cases of both Bitstream and Font Bureau, Boston offered the opportunity to keep up with the latest developments of digital technology while still being entrenched within America’s print and publishing establishment.

Roger Black first commissioned a custom designed face for a magazine from Bitstream. Already a regular customer, buying faces from the Bitstream library to use within his work, Black persuaded the company to design a typeface for the exclusive use of Rolling Stone magazine. In the end the resulting face, the French inspired Cochin, was licensed exclusively to Rolling Stone for only six months and was then made available through Bitstream’s retail library. Matthew Carter, who was working at the company at the time, has remembered that even negotiating that degree of exclusivity took a great deal of arm twisting. [420] Demanding that a font become the sole property of a particular publication or corporation was still very unusual at that point. Possibly it was Black’s frustration at the fact that he was unable to claim the exclusive rights to Cochin that prompted him to launch his own foundry. For the art director, launching the Font Bureau amounted to a form of vertical integration; effectively he had taken charge of one of his suppliers.

In the wake of developments in type design and typesetting technologies, Roger Black can be credited with having formed a new understanding of the nature of typefaces and in turn reconceived the concept of typographic need. No longer free-standing sets of characters of intrinsic worth, for Black typefaces have become elements of customised, designed identities, deriving their value from their position within those identities. This notion contradicts the assumptions upon which the traditional type libraries, such as that of Monotype, were built. In the company’s heyday, those at Monotype believed that they could completely satisfy the demand for type by compiling a library of well-honed faces that would be able to meet every reasonable typographic need. In Roger Black’s scheme a free-standing library, however beautifully crafted, could not possibly cater to emerging demands. Typographic need is no longer viewed as the outcome of particular textual or design requirement – it is now seen as emerging from the demand for a specific, distinctive identity. Therefore, while those at Monotype would have assumed a set of absolute and stable needs could be met with their existing library, Black has effectively envisaged a set of relational and constantly changing needs that can only be catered for with responsive, customised design.

By the mid-1990s, with the greater number of type designers making a large part of their income from custom design, Black’s view could be said to have prevailed within the type design business. However when he launched Font Bureau in the late 1980s, it was decidedly revolutionary. Even the company who were at the cutting edge of type technology, Adobe, had assumed a much more conventional position by attempting to create the definitive library of quality PostScript fonts. In setting up a company with the specific intention of specialising in the business of custom design, Black and Berlow were running against some of the most cherished tenets of the traditional typographic establishment.

In spite of its original, revolutionary agenda, Font Bureau can be argued to have moved closer to a conventional type business over the course of the 1990s. Over those years, the company has paid more and more attention to the retail side of the business, an activity that was initially seen as no more than a by-product of the company’s custom projects. At first, Font Bureau’s retail library was built of typefaces which had once been exclusively owned by another party but for which exclusive rights had expired. Initially Font Bureau distributed these faces through companies such as Agfa and Fonthaus. Eventually, when the stock of retail typefaces became sufficient to merit an independent catalogue, the company began to handle their own distribution.

Once Font Bureau took charge of the retail of their own fonts, that side of the business began to play a more and more important role. By the mid-1990s the company was inviting submissions from outside designers and aiming to add new typefaces to their library at regular intervals. Jill Pichotta, the manager of Font Bureau’s retail library, has described the company’s selection criteria in what amount to fairly traditional terms:

“Is there a need? Is it utilitarian? Is it aesthetic? Is it well-crafted? Has it been done before? Could it be done better?”[421]

Harry Parker has argued that the retail side of Font Bureau is significant in providing a “steady and very predictable” source of income to insulate the company against the peaks and troughs that occur in the flow of custom design work. To that end, Font Bureau has applied themselves to that part of the business in order to provide themselves with an more effective buffer. This has involved building up a substantial library and establishing a well-targeted mailing list. Font Bureau’s considerable connections within the design industry have helped in the pursuit of both those goals and the relationship between custom and retail work has proved symbiotic.[422]

Alongside design for publication and for retail, Font Bureau also undertake custom work for OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). Major clients of this kind tend to be software companies and have in the past included Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett Packard. Tobias Frere-Jones, Font Bureau’s senior designer, has argued that this work is “more often than not mechanical production”, citing the example of Apple’s fonts for System 7 which were designed by David Berlow. When interviewed in mid-1996, Tobias Frere-Jones had spent most of that year designing not for publications but for screen, working on fonts for Microsoft to employ within their user interfaces.[423] Generally working within fairly tight technical constraints, Font Bureau’s OEM work cannot yet be said to involve the finely graded search for identity that is the task of their work for publications. Essentially a quest to find solutions within tightly defined limits, it could be viewed as more in line with the type designers task as it has been defined by the traditionalists.

As the technology improves, design for screen is likely to allow for an increasing amount of flair and idiosyncrasy. In spite of likely developments in design potential, in the mid-1990s type designers sustained the very real fear that, as the emphasis changes from print to screen, more and more fonts would become embedded within larger software programmes, and no longer would they be free-standing, importable items. Effectively this would mean that fonts would once more become proprietary, taken from the hands of designers and put into those of software manufacturers.[424] Taking a pessimistic view, this would lead to a reversion to some of the worst aspects of the old system, such as lack of independence for designers, with none of its advantages, for example those of secure, well-paid employment. Although many type designers fear that eventual dominance of screen over print is going to bring to an end their independence, designing for print does remain a healthy concern, particularly for well-placed companies such as Font Bureau. With Roger Black’s well-established connections in the publishing industry, Font Bureau has enjoyed a consistent stream of commissions from the publishing business since its earliest days.

Amongst the first Font Bureau typefaces was Belizio, commissioned in the late 1980s for Roger Black’s redesign of California magazine and designed by David Berlow. Belizio can be viewed as fairly representative of the Bureau’s output in that it appears shamelessly bold on the page, yet reconciles that quality with an intelligent exploration of typographic history. The Belizio typeface family includes a real Clarendon italic (rather than a slanted version of the Roman), a venture inspired by the 1955 typeface Egizio, in which the designer Aldo Novarese undertook a similar task.[425] The sturdy appearance of the Clarendon-style face clearly brings to mind American jobbing printing of the mid- to late- nineteenth century, known to the large part of any potential audience through its recreation within cinema or upon television. In the case of California magazine, this face might appear to evoke the spirit of life at America’s western frontier. In tapping into that particular strand of screen-inspired nostalgia, Black and Berlow demonstrate their skill in negotiating existing webs of cultural association to target their designs directly to a specific audience. Belizio is an example of demographically driven design.


Another of Font Bureau’s early commissions was the Belucian typeface for Smart, a short-lived, upmarket men’s lifestyle magazine. Commissioned in 1989, this family of types was inspired by a headline face designed by Lucian Bernhard in 1925. David Berlow developed the headline style Belucian Demi from Bernhard’s designs and then went on to expand the family by adding a Book and a Book Italic version. Since it was first released, the Belucian family has been augmented with Demi Italic and Ultra faces.[426] Supplying variants of a face to meet demand is characteristic of Font Bureau’s policy; rather than completed sets, typeface families have been seen as growing entities. With its high contrasts, looping strokes and flyaway serifs, Belucian is a distinctively decorative family. It retains a 1920s flavour, again negotiated for most of us through a host of subsequent revivals, and is able to evoke the idea of some kind of pre-depression, moneyed innocence. Arriving at the very end of the 80s, as recession bit the tail end of the decade, Smart’s typography and editorial content might have seemed dated. Elegant though the magazine undeniably was, it folded after a single year.

One of Font Bureau’s best used typeface families has been Bureau Grotesque. These faces were developed in 1989 and licensed to Roger Black Inc. (Black’s design consultancy), The Tribune Companies (a newspaper group), and Newsweek (the well known weekly news magazine). Later the entire family was sold to the extremely high circulation magazine, Entertainment Weekly, who commissioned a number of extra weights, and by 1993 it had been expanded to include twelve fonts.[427] The design of Bureau Grotesque was based on that of nineteenth-century sans serif faces, particularly models drawn from the catalogues of the Stephenson Blake foundry. Text in the Font Bureau specimen book suggested that these faces had “tooth and character”, which presumably distinguishes them from modernist sans serifs, many of which were making explicit bids for anonymity.[428]

Within popular American magazines the Bureau Grotesques refer to a robust traditionalism, a brashly commercial straightforwardness, but used in other contexts they begin to take on very different meanings. The Bureau Grotesque family has been employed by the German design group Cyan within the former East German design journal, Form + Zweck. Appearing in tightly set, often coloured, blocks against Form + Zweck’s layered and extremely dense pages, the Bureau Grotesques become an element within the complex set of meanings that are being communicated through the journal. Since the unification of Germany, the pages of Form + Zweck have been devoted to exploring the forms of modernity that were promoted by the former regime.[429] In those circumstances, the use of a pre-modernistic sans serif face immediately implies a questioning stance. While the faces of the Bureau Grotesque family are always distinctive, their resonance is not singular.

Roger Black has had a long standing connection with the men’s magazine Esquire and in the early 1990s commissioned a typeface family for that magazine. The result was the Village series, inspired by a typeface family of the same name designed by Frederic W. Goudy in 1932. Font Bureau’s Village, designed by David Berlow, includes niceties such as an Italic Small Caps Titling version and was intended to be used throughout the magazine for both text and display purposes.[430] Flicking through the pages of the August 1997 issue of Esquire magazine, the Village typefaces appeared in a variety of typographic modes. Sometimes they were set within three well-behaved, ruled columns and at others they were part of looser layouts which flow freely around pull quotes and illustrations. Typographic texture and the magazine’s liberal use of illustrations and photographs notwithstanding, the consistency of Esquire’s typographic palette does seem to suggest that the magazine has a textual emphasis, and so allows it to make a bid for the upper end of the market. This typographic approach is in marked contrast to other men’s magazines, for example Details where quirky graphics are used to break up blocks of text, the emphasis being firmly upon the sound-bite.

Roger Black has described his own art direction as “traditional magazine design with a heavy helping of 1920s book typography.”[431] This approach is reflected in the design of Esquire, where the quiet and bookish sits alongside the clamouring and commercial. Black pioneered this double-headed approach on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, the typographic style which William Owen argued simultaneously pandered to the nostalgia and the conservatism of the blue jean generation.[432] This is a generation of which Black could be considered a part, but rather than viewing his references to traditional typography as the outcome of an underlying conservatism, more charitably they could be viewed as the product of a genuine passion for type. Black has been a long-term collector of historic type specimens and other typographic ephemera and his type-driven art direction could be seen as a means of putting into practice a connoisseurship of the most traditional kind.

The numbers of subtle variations of typeface demanded by Black for the pages of his magazines could be seen as the result of his devotion to the letterform. Even on the pages of the most mainstream of publications that have fallen into his hands, typographic subtlety abounds. For example in the pages of Premiere magazine, a high circulation movie magazine for which Black commissioned the typeface family Eldorado from Font Bureau, elegant italic titling faces provide captions for standard, glossy shots of Hollywood stars.

In spite of Black’s evident passion for type, he is far from a through and through traditionalist. In some cases his disregard for convention has won him criticism. In his article on the 1992 redesign of Time magazine, the critic Michael Rock argued that the new format would make “typography lovers squirm”. Rock lamented the passing of Time as a serious news magazine, suggesting that the introduction of new typographic styles was accompanied by the displacement of the discussion of current events by tabloid-style reporting.[433] In justification of the design of Times Text, the face used after the redesign, David Berlow argued that it was intended to be “newsy, authoritative and relaxed”. This is a phrase which, although positive, does reflect the lightening of tone that was being pursued through the redesign.[434]

When commercially appropriate, Black has been happy to tamper with some of the most cherished values of American publications. Black’s approach to magazine design, and that which guides Font Bureau’s activities in the area, has always been led by a consideration of the market. This approach, which might be considered an anathema to those who hold with the idea of absolute typographic value, is one which corresponds very closely to developments within publishing industry as a whole. It is appropriate to view Black’s attitude to type as a product of his long-term involvement in that industry.

Tobias Frere-Jones

Since joining the company in 1992, Font Bureau’s Senior Designer Tobias Frere-Jones (born 1970) has tended to divide his time between custom design work of the kind described above and other self-driven activity. A graduate in graphic design of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Frere-Jones became interested in type well before he reached design school. At RISD he was disappointed by the lack of attention given to type design within the graphics syllabus and so built up his own course, inserting his own typefaces into other projects and independently seeking out criticism from established type designers. In this way Frere-Jones came into contact with the designer Matthew Carter, who was at that time working at Bitstream, and in turn Carter encouraged him to approach David Berlow with a request for work experience. The outcome of this request was that Tobias Frere-Jones began working for Font Bureau immediately on completing his degree at RISD.

Frere-Jones has described his early days at the Font Bureau as being akin in some ways to a traditional apprenticeship: “picking things up as I went, looking over David’s shoulder.”[435] However he has acknowledged that the quantity of design experience that he was able to gain from the outset is incomparable to that of designers in the era before PostScript. Beginning his career in the 1950s, the designer Matthew Carter had to wait ten years before he was given access to the tools to create a functioning typeface.[436] That the designers of Frere-Jones’s generation have had the means to design and distribute their own fonts even as students has dramatically changed the relationship between traditional typographic lore and actual design practice. Frere-Jones has remarked that often he would “stumble across principles on my own”, a kind of serendipity that would probably have been curtailed in the drawing offices of the industrial typesetting manufacturers.[437]

In the 1990s, Tobias Frere-Jones was unusual amongst his generation of type designers in that, rather than being an independent, he was a full-time waged employee of Font Bureau. In spite of that status, which has become almost an anachronism in the contemporary type world, in many ways he has shared an agenda with other young designers. Frere-Jones’s work has displayed an engagement with the vernacular letterform that has been a concern of young designers internationally, including Barry Deck and Jonathan Barnbrook. Frere-Jones has designed three typefaces for the Font Bureau retail collection that pursue this theme: Interstate, Garage Gothic and Cafeteria.

Interstate, designed in 1993 and available in twelve versions, is based upon the signage alphabets of the United States Federal Highway Administration. The Font Bureau specimen book suggests that the familiarity of the Interstate letterforms might render the face extremely legible, the suggestion being that, even taken out of context, this alphabet retains the qualities that it has derived from its position on roadside placards up and down the nation.[438] This argument seems somewhat disingenuous, Interstate proves a comfortable text face largely because of the subtlety of spacing and other design work put in by Frere-Jones. While a typeface such as Deck’s Template Gothic aim to jar readerly expectations, with Interstate Frere-Jones has skilfully recast a set of vernacular letterforms into a smooth, workable face. The typeface has proved very popular, and is particularly well used within art publications. As the text face of the catalogue to the graphic design exhibition ‘Mixing Messages’, Interstate offers a perfect example of the kind of graphic ambiguity explored within the show.[439] Plucked out of context, familiar visual idioms are able to present audiences with entirely new sets of meanings.

Frere-Jones’s other outings into the vernacular are more straightforward celebrations of the quirks of the everyday letterform. Garage Gothic, designed in 1992, retains the “irregular contours and rough alignments” that were characteristic of its source, tickets distributed at city parking garages, and Cafeteria, designed a year later, is an outing into the animation of the amateur hand-painted sign.[440] Again, these faces are very different to comparable ventures by his contemporaries. Unlike designers Deck or Barnbrook, who venture into the extremities, Frere-Jones has always retained a concern with the “disciplined and restrained.”[441]

As well as exploring the contemporary vernacular, Frere-Jones has also mined the typographic canon for material, sometimes offering direct digital revivals. Frere-Jones’s sources have ranged from early European modern typography (in 1993 he designed a digital version of Nobel which was based upon a 1920s Dutch sans serif) to the Font Bureau favourites: nineteenth-cen