New Faces (Mapping Contemporary Type Design)

Essays by Emily King
942 words5 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

Mapping Contemporary Type Design

The next four chapters of this thesis offer a series of explorations of contemporary type design practice from four geographical regions. These investigations are discreet, yet where there are overlaps in argument this has been made clear and it is hoped that the reader will cross-refer from one to another.

Each of the four regions that have been assigned a chapter within this thesis is being proposed as a centre of type design activity. The locations of these centres emerged from primary research. Using the criteria described in the introduction to select designers worthy of particular attention, it became obvious that case studies tended to cluster in certain areas, working in a manner that could be analysed in local terms. Obviously, type designers have been and are active outside of the geographical regions addressed in this thesis. Some of these are mentioned in the following text, for example Erik Spiekermann, whose practice is based primarily in Berlin, and Cornel Windlin, currently working in Geneva. The typographic contribution of these designers, Spiekermann in particular, is far from negligible. Also, like this thesis’s case study designers, the nature of much of the work of their work could be associated with the geographical location of their practice. The reason that they have not been examined as case studies here is that they are not working alongside a cluster of designers who could be discussed in related terms. Major geographical centres of type design have been given precedence over some of the towering personalities of the field.


The discussion of the recent design of non-Western types is another obvious and significant omission from this thesis. This is not a reflection of the levels of activity in this area over the first ten years of device-independent digital typesetting. Writing in 1992, Robin Kinross proposed that “the digital revolution will have its greatest effects outside Western typography.”[263] Kinross’s predictions have been borne out and non-Western developments such as Sang-Soo Ahn’s digital reworking of the Hangul (the Korean alphabet) have posed radical challenges (possibly more profound than those of their Western counterparts) to established modes of written communication.[264] The purpose of restricting the discussion of this thesis to the West was to enable the placing of contemporary practice within a properly defined historical and cultural context.

Within each geographically defined chapter, the discussion concentrates upon three or four designers or design teams. This number of case studies promoted the discussion of a range of work, variety amongst case study-designers was actively pursued, but also allowed for the work of particular designers to be explored in some detail. Also, by looking at roughly the same number of designers from each region, the aim was to achieve a discursive balance, giving each section of the thesis equal weight. Asserting centres of type design activity, but also establishing the practice of type design within a specific local context, the concept of mapping type design that has been employed within this thesis is not singular. It is the purpose of the text that follows to plot the hot spots of Western type design activity, but equally the aim has been to establish type design’s place within a culturally-specific, geographically defined context. Throughout this thesis it is assumed that the nature of and meaning of type and type design is contingent rather than absolute.


Each of the designers that are discussed in this thesis has created accessible, or at least visible, typefaces during the last ten years. With one or two reticent exceptions, they are well-known upon the conference circuit. Equally, all of them have received some attention in the media, albeit for the most part in the specialist press. The world of type design that I describe over the next four chapters is not a complete one, but it ought to be recognisable. Not only should it appear familiar to designers, but also to consumers of type and typography. Many of the typefaces illustrated here will be common to those who have had access to contemporary Western print and screen media over the last ten years.

As a concluding remark, I am compelled to recognise that women are underrepresented within these case studies, making up less than 20% of the designers who are discussed in detail. Of the three women whose work is addressed in this thesis, two of those are working upon the West Coast of America (Zuzana Licko and Carol Twombly – Freda Sack is based in London). This seems to fit well with the ideas of social and cultural mobility that are associated with the pioneering ethos of that area. In general, it does seem incredible that while the activity of type design has been restructured and for the most part fallen into fresh hands, the one element that survives from its previous incarnations has been the virtual exclusion of women.


[263] . Kinross, Robin, ‘The Digital Wave’, pp.26-39, Eye, 7/1992

[264] . Sang-Soo Ahn, ‘Hangul, the typographic possibilities’, Message Board 12, January 1998