New Faces (Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models)

Essays by Emily King
8 861 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

Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models

In the article ‘The State of Design History', first published in the journal Design Issues (No.1, Spring 1984) and republished in the 1989 compilation Design Discourse, the writer Clive Dilnot suggested that contemporary design history had two antecedents: the history of the decorative arts, and the model established by Nikolaus Pevsner in his 1936 book The Pioneers of Modern Design. Dilnot was dismissive of the former historical activity, suggesting that its purpose in establishing the provenance of decorative art objects and in encouraging connoisseurial appreciation of those objects was to bolster the value of items “collected in museums, preserved in the country houses, and above all, sold through the antiques trade.”[106] In turn he looked more favourably upon the Pevsnerian approach, one which amounted to the justification of modern design through the foundation of an historical pedigree. Dilnot approved of the Pevsnerians because of their worthy aim to act “in the service of design principle.”[107]

Whatever Dilnot’s sympathies toward the moral position of Pevsner, the purpose of his article was to call for a form of history that moved away from that model. Pevsner charted progress in design through the achievements of a series of individual designers, a method that according to Dilnot still dominated design historical activity in the 1980s. Questioning Pevsner’s approach, Dilnot’s argument was that design historians should avoid emphasising the individual and instead adopt a socio-historical approach, whereby design activity could be examined in its economic and cultural context. Dilnot’s position was not unique amongst the academic community who were applying themselves to the history of design in the 1980s. Published in 1986, Adrian Forty’s Objects of Desire characterised the writing of design history perjoratively as an activity steeped in connoisseurship the goal of which had been to erect the canon of the great authors of designed form. In that book Forty aimed to counter that tendency by emphasising that “the history of design is also the history of societies.”[108]

Since Dilnot and Forty made those contributions, their preferred approach to design history has flourished. Over the last decade, for the most part, academic design history has not been involved in building either the connoisseurial canons favoured by the histories of decorative arts, or the heroic modernist canons promoted by Pevsner and his followers (for example as Herbert Spencer, who to a certain extent adopted Pevsner’s model within his 1969 study of modernist graphic design Pioneers of Modern Typography). Connoisseurship thrives still, but this is largely in the context of museums, auction houses and publications destined for coffee tables. Similarly, within design journalism canon building carries on unabated, but the design hero has become a trope of popular rather than academic writing about design.

The move away from canons within academic design history is a reflection of the fact that its practitioners, like those of most disciplines, have shied away from the task of establishing absolute value. Now design history has the apparently more neutral goal of uncovering the meanings embodied or created by designed form, a pursuit which has involved the adoption of the methods pioneered within cultural studies. Drawing a good deal upon the British model of that discipline, this culturally-driven design history has in fact been subject to that model’s implicit value system. Heavily influenced by Stuart Hall’s work in the 1970s at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, the values within this model derive from Hall’s own brand of Althusserian Marxism. The manner in which this value system is mobilised is exemplified within the writings of Dick Hebdige. For example, in Hebdige’s 1979 publication Subcultures, various subcultural articulations are commended for representing a genuine British working-class response to the invasion of American mass culture.

In Subcultures, Hebdige’s focus is upon the manner in which members of youth cultures have established their identity through dress, hairstyles and accessories. The book pays little heed to the graphic image, only mentioning in passing the graphic style associated with punk.[109] In a later collection of essays titled Hiding in the Light, Hebdige revealed what amounted to an outright suspicion of the graphic image. Discussing The Face magazine in the essay ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring Up to The Face’, Hebdige derided the magazine, in effect arguing that striking graphic style precluded worthwhile content.[110] Hebdige’s implicit assumption was that, while the material culture of dress empowers, the culture of images offers only superficial pleasure and ultimately confusion or even oppression; exposed to seductive imagery, audiences are powerless to resist. Hebdige’s views have not stood uncorrected. Teal Triggs’s recent work on Riot Grrl fanzines has upheld the validity of negotiated responses within graphic design, championing the cultural and visual codes established in the face of mass culture by a set of young women in the post-punk era.[111] Significantly, Triggs’s focus is upon grassroots graphics. Her research makes room for an exploration of whether it might be possible for individuals to create positive identity for themselves through the imagery offered to them by commercial graphic design activity.

Since the late 1970s the British cultural studies model has expanded to absorb new lines of enquiry. This has involved the adoption of bodies of theory including the structuralism and post-structuralism of high modern French philosophy,[112] psychoanalytic modes derived from Freud and Lacan, and in some cases a hybrid of those two.[113] Nonetheless, as John Docker noted in his account of the development of British cultural studies in Postmodernism and Popular Culture (1994), the discipline has tended to return repeatedly to its politically driven, more empirical foundations.[114] In parallel to developments within cultural studies, British design history might have flirted with high French theory, but its staple has remained the account of empirical research, inflected by cultural populism and the politics of the left.[115]

While the broader field of design history has recast itself as a variant of cultural studies in order to reveal how social and cultural meaning is revealed and created through designed form, the history of type and typography has not been subject these kinds of revisions. Certain characteristics specific to the nature of the subject might have contributed to this. In the first place, while type historians might have tried to erect authorial canons, their task has not been easy. Those canons that do exist have been recognised to be of limited scope. Because of the shop-based nature of type-founding in the pre-mechanical age, the anonymous contributor must be the staple of any history of type or typography and so the historian cannot rely upon authorship as a criterion of value. Having to arrive at an authoritative notion of typographic worth without hanging the concept upon a series of notable individuals, the connoisseurial type historian has had to come up with an alternative scheme. Within traditional type histories, for example those associated with the early twentieth-century typographic reformation by figures such as Beatrice Warde and Stanley Morison, it has not been the contributions of particular designers which have been lauded as transcendent, rather it has been their very task. Implied within the large part of typographic history is an abstract notion of typographic perfection, a goal of which all designers are in pursuit.

Constructing the notion of the transcendent task, typographic historians have referred to the highest authorities. William Bevington, director of the Herb Lubalin Study Center at the Cooper Union in New York, has argued that typographic activity is tantamount to the transcription of the Word of God.[116] Mike Parker, formerly of Linotype and now a freelance type designer and historian, put forward the more Darwinian view that “frozen language” is “what separates us from the primates.”[117] Whether a gift of god or an evolved skill, both Bevington and Parker agree that the written word is a defining quality of humanity: those who reproduce written texts find themselves charged with a significant responsibility.

Typographic history has been and remains one written by practising professionals. The purpose of this professional history is to assert shared values. Constructing typographic history, bearing in mind the notion of the transcendent typographic task, historians have selected the contributions that they feel to be worthwhile according to certain shared professional criteria. These criteria have not remained constant, the post-war period, for example, saw a broad acceptance amongst typographic professionals of sans serif text types which previously had been reviled. But reworked to accommodate significant shifts in design practice, typographic history’s big story – the pursuit of typographic absolutes – has remained remarkably resistant. If typographic certainties have been upset in the last decade, it has not been due to the design of dramatically new typographic forms. Rather it is because of the challenge to the coherence of the typographic profession which in the past has taken the responsibility for constructing these certainties.

The field of typographic and print history is not without its connoisseurs and rare printed materials can fetch high prices. Nonetheless it is probably fair to say that, unlike many histories of the decorative arts, typographic history has not been constructed with the aim of raising the value of objects sold through dealers and at auction. A history written to bolster the esteem of professionals rather than the wealth of collectors, it has been treated kindly even by those who have been highly critical of traditional design writing. Clive Dilnot’s article ‘The State of Design History’,[118] although dismissive of what was termed “decorative history”, singled out traditional typographic history for praise in spite of its equally overwhelming emphasis upon form above social context. Dilnot commended the history that had been nurtured by typographers for praise on the grounds that it had produced “an international typographic movement of great sensibility and deep concern for typographic history.”[119] Typographic history’s value has been seen to derive from its role in informing practice.

The course of typographic history has been mapped out in the previous chapter. Developing over the last hundred years from the hobby of a set of “great amateurs” to a practice sponsored by the manufacturers of the mechanical means to set type, the history of typography in recent years has been told through a fragmented set of monographs, glorified marketing exercises, journalistic accounts and occasionally more sustained practical enquiries. It is a history that does not stand alone, and a number of the ventures that are encompassed within it draw on and have ramifications for areas beyond its bounds. For example, Herbert Spencer’s construction of an unarguably impressive canon of modernist typographers in the 1960s was part of a widespread contemporary exploration of the early twentieth-century European avant-garde within Britain.[120] More recently, the empirically meticulous, yet morally driven project of Robin Kinross can properly only be viewed within the context of a broader campaign to sustain the aims of modernism.[121]

A number of histories are related to that of type and typography, most significantly, the history of the book which includes major contributions such as Febvre and Martin’s The Coming of the Book. This impressive empirical study of the nature and quantity of publications in the first three hundred years of the book’s history deals with matters of design and typography in a single chapter headed ‘The book: Its visual appearance’. In this section Febvre and Martin charted the evolution of book design, noting the point when, after one hundred years or so it assumed “an appearance which is essentially the same as the one it has today.”[122]

Attempting to gauge the role of the book in the great cultural events of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Febvre and Martin suggested that their work could go under the alternative title “The Book in the Service of History”.[123] This title is revealing. Febvre and Martin’s assumption was that the book acted as the servant, rather than a cause of cultural change. Reacting against this notion was the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein, who dealt with the book within her broader account of the first centuries of print technology, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Eisenstein described the advent of print as a “fifteenth-century communications shift.”[124] With a nod to the McLuhanite assumption that technologies can be an agent of change (although, unlike McLuhan, Eisenstein was careful to point out that they cannot be “the agent” of change[125]), Eisenstein’s project was to unravel the cultural outcomes of the introduction of print technology.

Addressing the subject of typography and design, Eisenstein’s assumption was that the introduction of typographic standardisation had acted subliminally in support of cultural and intellectual uniformity.[126] This was put to work within early modern nations in their attempt to assert an identity in the face of the church of Rome. In these instances “a ‘mother tongue’ learned ‘naturally’ at home would be reinforced by the inculcation of a homogenised print-made language mastered while still young.”[127] In turn, Eisenstein believed that the manner in which ideas had become fixed through the medium of print itself had encouraged typographic standardisation. Noting the decline of idiosyncratic letterforms and the polarity between “Gothic” and “Roman” fonts in the sixteenth-century, she credited that trend in part to the publication of written and illustrated accounts of those styles.[128]

Eisenstein’s suggestion that typographic style can play an active role in the creation of culture has been echoed in recent design criticism. Largely emerging from America, this criticism has tended to concentrate upon graphic design, but has touched upon typography. Notable contributors have included Ellen Lupton whose writing (for example in the 1996 Cooper Hewitt catalogue Mixing Messages) reveals the assumption, derived from cultural studies models, that graphic and typographic form communicate and create cultural meaning. Working in a similar vein is Lorraine Wild, an academic at the California Institute of the Arts. Wild’s task (for example in her contributions to the Walker Art Center’s catalogue Graphic Design in America, published in 1989) has been to locate the history of graphic design within a broader cultural context.

Operating within a broader emergent school of graphic design criticism, essays by both Lupton and Wild have appeared in the compilation books Looking Closer, published in 1994, and Looking Closer 2, published in 1997. The essays brought together in these volumes previously appeared in a variety of design publications, for the most part from the United States though there are some European contributions. As a result they are extremely inconsistent in tone and approach, but many of them offer historically grounded and theoretically convincing argument. Like practitioners of British Cultural Studies, those engaged with graphic design criticism have been attracted by the models established by late twentieth-century philosophy. These have been reworked variously into justifications of certain modes of practice,[129] and into accounts of graphic and typographic form. Exemplifying the latter trend are the essays published in the three volumes of Visible Language published in the early 1990s that were devoted to the application of theory to design. However, as the 1990s have progressed there has been a move away from this heavily theoreticised approach to writing about design. Demonstrating this shift, the overall tone of the essays collected in the second volume of Looking Closer is markedly less sympathetic to these critical modes than that of the first. For example, in the essay ‘Electronic Typography: The New Visual Language’, the graphic designer and critic Jennifer Helfand argued that “as a comprehensive model for evaluating typographic expression deconstruction proved both heady and limited.” Suggesting that in the mid-1990s these analytical devices appeared “arcane”, Helfand called for designers to learn a “new language” that would enable them to communicate effectively with emergent technologies.[130] Helfand aimed to offer useful advice, an approach that informed much of the writing in the book.

Coming from within Britain there have also been some significant contributions to the broader field of graphic design history. Amongst them is Paul Jobling and David Crowley’s 1996 publication Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation Since 1800, which covers two hundred years of European graphic design history within a series of self-contained chapters. While Jobling and Crowley’s areas of focus are sometimes idiosyncratic, their aim – to socially locate graphic design practice across an ambitious historical scope – is commendable. Alongside Jobling and Crowley’s mapping of the cultural history of graphic design, there has also been a British bid to construct a sustained body of graphic design criticism. Former editor of the graphic design magazine Eye, critic Rick Poynor has striven to promote a coherent critical model. Poynor’s own writing, gathered together in the 1998 publication Design Without Boundaries, is driven by the desire to champion practice that he believes to be of cultural, theoretical and formal worth. While Poynor does not refrain from making explicit value judgements, these are always made with reference to the cultural context of design practice.

In the manner of the critics and historians of graphic design mentioned above, the assumption of this thesis is that graphic design and typography can only properly be assessed within a cultural context. The rejection of the notion of free-standing, absolute typographic value and the related assumption that typographic perfection is a cultural construct, implies a move away from traditional typographic histories of the kind described in the previous chapter. Equally, responding to the work of established design historians such as Clive Dilnot and Adrian Forty, this thesis avoids the construction of canons, connoisseurial or heroic, that was once the task of the design historians. Unlike traditional typographic histories, it is not the aim of the text that follows to evaluate type design against eternally valid criteria of any kind. That said, it is important not to devalue the contribution made by these histories. A knowledge and understanding of their contents is essential for the proper interpretation of typographic form. Also, a historical awareness is essential in order to appreciate the implications of the circumstances within which contemporary type produced. In avoiding writing an insular history, it is important not to disregard a significant body of specialist writing.

To some extent building upon specialist histories, but also drawing from the terminology of cultural studies that has become current within design history, the concern of this thesis is the culture of production. The sociologist Paul du Gay edited a series of essays titled Production of Culture/Cultures of Production that was published in 1997. These essays offer a series of models through which to address issues raised by cultural production, such as globalism, the interaction of production and consumption through marketing and the cultures of the workplace. In his introduction to this book, Du Gay insisted that the processes of production are “cultural phenomena”, a belief which will be supported emphatically within this thesis.

Du Gay placed the activity of production within a “circuit of culture”, suggesting that it interacts with ‘consumption’, ‘regulation’, ‘representation’ and ‘identity’ in the creation of culture as a whole. Adopting this circuit, it becomes essential to study the culture of production in order to assess the manner in which cultural meaning is constructed and communicated. In the case of this thesis, the exploration of the culture that surrounds the production of typefaces might shed some light upon the ways in which type acts to create cultural meaning. As with the essays contained within Du Gay’s book, the context evoked will certainly not conform to any strict sociological model, but will be a selective sketch of social, cultural, economic and technological circumstances.


It would be inaccurate to suggest that traditional typographic historians have avoided the discussion of cultural context altogether. Referring to a vaguely conceived zeitgeist, they have often argued that letterforms reflect and are bound to the spirit of their times. For example, tracing the history of blackletter type, the type historian Yvonne Schwemer Schneddin has argued that the contemporary use of blackletter fonts must be devoid of worth because those letterforms can only be meaningful within the cultural context of their original design.[131] The notion of type as a manifestation of the zeitgeist has involved the promotion of unfocused impressions of cultural mood and a failure to elaborate upon the specific ways in which design and culture might be bound together. For example, brandishing his typographic cube as illustration, Gerrit Noordzij has argued that the entire evolution of the culture of mankind is represented by the various developments of the letterform.[132] This style of argument has entered design journalism and it has become a trope of writing upon type to suggest that the unconventional typographic forms of recent years are a reflection of a broader cultural crises. Moving away from these very loosely conceived notions of cultural climate, this thesis will attempt to explore the specific routes and mechanisms by which certain ideas and influences come to bear upon typographic form.

Technology as a catalyst of cultural change

The questions behind this thesis were prompted by technological change. Technology influences the manner in which culture is produced and also carries and creates a culture of its own. The aim of the project has been to map the modes of commercial type design that have developed since the widespread adoption of device-independent type setting in the late 1980s (which has divorced the act of type design from the manufacture of typesetting machinery) and desktop publishing technologies (which put typesetting equipment into the hands of non-professionals). But in spite of this technological premise, the discussion will bear in mind that technology might be a cause, but is not a determinant of cultural and social change.

In Understanding Media published in 1964, Marshall McLuhan argued that technology “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” and that technologies themselves have a “content” in that they are bound to promote particular outcomes.[133] Discussions around digital technology have often revived McLuhan’s conviction with the assumption that specific technologies determine certain forms of social change. Commentators have tended to credit those technologies with an independent facility to work for good,[134] or ill[135]. Avoiding the value judgements and the determinist assumptions of both the digital seers and the neo-Luddites, this thesis will conceive of technology as a single element within a complex picture that takes into account broader social, cultural and economic factors. This does not mean that the discussion will put culture against technology in an attempt to assess their respective weight of influence, rather the position will be that technology is a cultural product and that culture and technology cannot be discussed in isolation from one another.[136]

Looking at the manner in which shifts in print technology had effected profound intellectual and cultural change in the period between medieval and early modern times, Elizabeth Eisenstein was critical of approaches which attempted to map intellectual and cultural change onto social and economic transformation without acknowledging the technological realities at work.[137] The simplistic procedure of matching of technological causes with social and cultural effects which Eisenstein was criticising remains evident. Nicholas Postman’s Technopoly, a vaguely sketched, techno-driven nightmare, offers an example of how the technique has been employed in discussions about recent technological change. In an attempt to avoid this error, this thesis deals only with a particular technological shift and attempts to map out the social and cultural formations surrounding that shift. In this way, I hope properly to assess the mechanisms through which technology might contribute to cultural and intellectual change.

The role of the individual in production of culture

A large part of the research behind this thesis has been conducted through interviews with individuals. The purpose of this has been to assemble an overall picture through the stories of selected members of the contemporary typographic community. This approach implies a stress upon the contribution of the individual that runs counter to the argument prevailing within cultural studies that artistic production is largely a collective enterprise. For example, in her book The Social Production of Art, the sociologist Janet Wolff’s avowed goal was to “demystify the concept of creativity” and hence undermine the notion of the “individual genius”.[138]

The fervent emphasis upon the collective nature of artistic production by Wolff and others who promote the idea of art as a social product has been largely tactical: a direct counter to the figure of the lone creative genius that had been the prevailing construct.[139] Within type design, empirical evidence would appear to run against this critical trend. New technologies have made typefaces increasingly the output of single authors. No longer are sketches interpreted and refined by drawing offices full of anonymous contributors. More often than not the contemporary designer is solely responsible for a face: from the first marks upon paper or dots upon the screen to the finished product.

Not only has technology appeared to promote the design author, but also within the field of graphic design criticism calls have been made for re-evaluation of the concept of authorship. For example, Michael Rock has addressed the notion of graphic authorship in his essay ‘The designer as author’. In that essay, Rock acknowledged the theoretical challenges faced by the figure of the author which have come not only from sociology/cultural studies, but also from French philosophers such as Roland Barthes, whose argument that the birth of the reader must come at the expense of the author has become extremely well known.[140] In the context of these debates, Michael Rock characterised the design author not as an creative authority and a cultural hero, but as an individual who takes responsibility for the content of their work: social, political and artistic. According to Rock, by becoming authors, graphic designers could escape the perceived limits of their profession and no longer be merely the crafters of neutral form. But, whatever the position and responsibilities of the designer or the actual processes involved in contemporary type design, it is important to place the contribution of the individual into some kind of setting. While a designer might be able to claim certain faces as their own, type design is emphatically a socially and culturally situated act.

Ideology and the cultural product

The notion of the creative act as social rather than individual is one that is supported by Janet Wolff. In conceiving of art as a social rather than an individual product, the meaning of that art appears to become an expression of a society rather than that of a single creative author. The belief that there might be a set of societal values which are expressed through its cultural product leads to the notion of art as ideology and brings with it all the complexities and ambiguities that are attached to that term.

Janet Wolff defined the theory of ideology as belief “that the ideas and beliefs people have are systematically related to their actual and material conditions of existence.”[141] However, as Wolff did acknowledge, this definition is complicated by the manner in which the term has actually been applied. In particular, the term has often been used to refer to sets of beliefs that are held to be false. For example, in the attacks upon mass culture authored by members of the Frankfurt School, who as exiles from Nazi Germany identified the workings of American capitalism with those of the European dictatorships, popular culture is characterised as an ideological agent, creating and nurturing false needs. The concept of false needs could be derived from the work of the entire Frankfurt school (for example, see Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1947 essay ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’[142]), but is particularly associated with Marcuse. In the publication One Dimensional Man, Marcuse argued that the false needs that are satisfied through acts of capitalist consumption obscure real human needs which remain unmet.[143]

Alongside the assumption that ideologies must be false is the notion that to be ideological a belief system necessarily must be dominant. In his book, Ideology, an introduction, Terry Eagleton took issue with this argument, pointing out that the existence of a number of competing ideologies in the late twentieth century, such as those of the various fundamentalist religious groups, demonstrated that ideologies need not be singular.[144] Similarly, Eagleton rejected the idea that people could be “ideological dupes”, and insisted that in order to be effective ideologies must make sense of people’s experience and “conform to some degree with what they know of social reality from their practical interaction with it.”[145]

Not only are theories that rely upon the notion of ideology prone to characterise the consumers of culture as highly gullible, but also interpretations of culture that employ the concept tend to slip into the mode of analysis that cultural historian Mica Nava called “Fordist” (a term she borrowed from the cultural critic Martyn Lee).[146] In her essay ‘Framing Advertising’ Nava argued that the Fordist framework assumed the mechanical production of a monolithic culture, while failing properly to assess the actual circumstances of cultural production. Regarding advertising, Nava suggested that empirical research demonstrated that the production of advertisements was a piecemeal and random process and to conceive of that process as the systematic creation of the single ideology of multinational capitalism was inappropriate.[147]

Faced with the evidence of the heterogeneous nature of the production of culture, a belief in the existence of a single, systematically manufactured ideology does begin to appear to be the territory of the conspiracy theorist. Just as Nava discovered in her study of advertising, the research involved in this project revealed a wide spectrum of circumstances behind the design and use of type: to attempt to interpret typographic form in the light of any single ideological system would seem incorrect. While I am committed to the notion of design as a social act, and cultural meaning as a societal construct, it becomes necessary to look at particular circumstances of production to consider how typographic meaning is actually created. In this case, interviews with designers of type are not intended to be exaltations of individual authors, but a means of assessing the specific contexts behind the design of the letterform.

Cultural leadership and the concept of the avant-garde

Just as Wolff’s emphasis upon the role of the group above that of the individual in the creation of works of art was tactical, so too is Nava’s retrieval of the concept of authorship in her discussion of the production of advertising. Whereas the authors of fine art and literature have received a great deal of recognition, the creators of mass culture for the most part have been ignored within the academy (although the professions tend to have canons of their own). Discussing the role of individuals in the creation of popular culture, Simon Frith and Howard Horne argued that there exists an “assumption that mass media exclude real creativity”. In their book Art Into Pop, they overturned that assumption, stating “that people embedded in particular ideologies and experiences shape communication technologies and thus shape mass culture. This is not to deny the power of capital but to assert that, nevertheless, cultural producers can and do make significant decisions.”[148] Their aim was to acknowledge social context while simultaneously giving the individual credit for the power to create cultural meaning.

In discussions of mass culture, for the most part it has been the consumers, not the producers of culture who have been credited with the creation of meaning. In formulations offered in the late 1970s by authors such as Stuart Hall[149] and Dick Hebdige[150] significant mass cultural meaning was assumed to be the outcome of a series of negotiations, the focus of their accounts being the subculture or counterculture. Since that time, the gap perceived between the acts of production and consumption has closed. For example, in his book Cultures of Consumption, Frank Mort constructed a picture in which producers and consumers collaborated in the active construction of the notion of masculinity in late twentieth-century Britain. Mort did not shirk from the idea of cultural pioneers in his account, offering a “Gallery of Talented Individualists”[151] and crediting them with “cultural authority”. However, in the parts of his book that are related to graphic design, chiefly his section on Neville Brody, this approach lends him the tone of a breathless fan. Reproducing large sections of Brody’s self-serving publications, Mort does not question Brody’s own account of his rebellion against the establishment and his pioneering of revolutionary graphic style.[152]

Mort’s discussion of Brody’s attack upon tradition, and his broad acceptance of the notion of cultural authority could be said to evoke the spectre of an avant-garde. Not a fixed concept, Renato Poggioli offered a typology of avant-garde attitudes in The Theory of the Avant-Garde, first published in Italian in 1962. In that book, Poggioli argued that nihilism, agonism, futurism and decadence are all typical ingredients of the avant-garde’s rejection of established culture.[153] Employing Poggioli’s typology, the term begins to seem particularly applicable to certain strands in contemporary type design, the explicit aim of which is to challenge typographic tradition. For example, all these characteristics are manifest the designs emerging from the digital magazine Fuse, a project initiated by Neville Brody himself (see the discussion of Fuse in Chapter Four). Also, bearing in mind Poggioli’s qualification that “no work of art is avant-gardistic in an absolute sense precisely because it is substantially based on already existing values.”[154] (a qualification which anticipated Rosalind Krauss’s revelation of the avant-garde myth of originality[155]), the concept does appear to have some application in a discussion of the reworking of alphabetic templates.

But qualifications of the nature of the originality of the avant-garde notwithstanding, the notion still implies the existence of an independent, progressive cultural trajectory. Mapping such a trajectory is not the task of this thesis, and while some contemporary designers aim to move beyond the conventional typographic boundary, the work discussed here will not be assessed upon its claims to the new. The task of this project is not to chart the progress of a group of designers as they make daring forays into untrodden typographic territory, rather it is to construct a convincing picture of contemporary typographic culture. Criteria for inclusion did not hinge upon the perceived originality of a designer’s contribution.

Constructing a history of production

In the selection of individuals to discuss within this thesis, I hoped to cover the large part of significant contemporary typographic activity in Europe and America. I assessed significance in terms of perceived impact upon the contemporary typographic environment. Of course claims toward impartiality of choice must be qualified. I cannot deny that in some areas my choice of specific candidates was guided by my own enthusiasm, or that in other cases pragmatism played an important role. Also prompted by practicality was the choice of interviews with designers as the primary method of research. With little published material other than a few articles in the design press, factual information about contemporary type design must be sought from those directly involved.

Designers were chosen as case studies on a number of interrelated criteria. For the most part, at least some of their typefaces were offered for sale within the type catalogues that would be available to any desktop publisher, for example the FontShop Catalogue or the AgfaType Collection. In that sense they all could be considered to be part of the typographic milieu that had emerged around device-independent digital typesetting technologies. Narrowing down the choice, preference was given to designers whose work was considered to have had a significant impact upon the contemporary graphic and typographic environment. Gauging this impact was not a formal process, but a case of keeping abreast with the typographic modes current in print and on the screen. The aim was to explore the circumstances behind the production of some of the most widely used new faces of the decade between 1987 and 1997. Designs that spring to mind in this context are Martin Majoor’s Scala and Barry Deck’s Template Gothic, both of which are explored in depth later in this text.

Some of the designers who have been addressed in this thesis, for example the East Coast designer Jonathan Hoefler, do not produce many typefaces for retail. Hoefler does sell a few of his own typefaces independently, but by far the larger proportion of them are custom designed for a range of clients. In that particular case, Hoefler qualified for inclusion in part because his designs have been so visible and highly influential, for example his work for the American fashion house Calvin Klein or the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. It also seemed appropriate to address Hoefler here because the kind of custom design with which he has been engaged is decidedly part of a recently forged typographic scene. He has been employed to create fonts for clients such as magazine publishers who, on the grounds of expense, would have been unlikely to commission typefaces before the emergence of device-independent digital typesetting technologies.

Also influential upon the choice of designer case studies was peer review. Designers who were invited to speak on the conference circuit and within design schools became prominent candidates, as did those who received coverage within the specialist press, for example Emigre or Eye magazines. As research progressed, I was constantly checking my own map of type design with those of the designers themselves. As such, the typographic world that I have described should be recognisable to those who appear within.

The concern of this thesis is with the production of type, although it would never be possible to separate entirely any discussion of production and consumption because the manner in which type is designed is actively influenced by the ways in which type is used and read. Offering a heterogeneous model of type production, it is hoped that this project would complement a study which tackled the complex nature of the consumption of type. Such a study would have to negotiate the two levels at which type is consumed: first by the graphic or typographic designer who employs typefaces within a particular composition and second by the reader who encounters them in print or on screen. The model would be further complicated as more and more typographic composition is taking place upon the desktop in the hands of those with no specific typographic training: designer and reader have become very much part of the same community.


The overlap between the designers and readers (the producers and consumers) of visual language is a feature of graphic and typographic design that predates current technology. The manipulation of graphic language has always fallen into the hands of a very diverse group. Through techniques such as hand-lettering, collage or photocopying, active access to certain visual codes has always been widespread. But, although it is part of a historical continuum, the recent emergence of desktop publishing has been an important factor in creating a significant shift in the relationship between the production and consumption of graphic design. Now using the same tools as their counterparts in the trade, the gulf between the amateur and the professional designer is narrowing. The categories of producer and consumer must be acknowledged as unfixed and explorations of the consumption of graphic and typographic material must not characterise production of visual language as a monolithic and undifferentiated activity.

The unceasing negotiations between the producers and consumers of graphic and typographic material suggest exciting avenues of research. Stressing consumption, there are various theoretical models that might be applicable to the construction of cultural meaning through typography. The semioticians’ framework of signs and signifieds would allow recognition of the non-essential nature of the connections between the letterform and associated meaning. For example, in an essay titled ‘McPaper’ published in Design, Writing, Research Ellen Lupton and J.Abbott Miller employed a related approach in their exploration of the manner in which the information graphics employed in popular American newspapers created meaning through a set of broadly accepted visual codes.[156] Alternately, a sociological approach would enable the location of typographic meaning within a specific social context. For example, within Teal Triggs’s study of Riot Grrl fanzines, typographic meaning is assumed to be a function of the cultural negotiations made by particular group of young women who have grown up with the consumer culture of the 1980s.[157] Within this thesis, rather than offering a unified model of any single theoretical persuasion, I hope to acknowledge the many factors that might be at work in the derivation of typographic meaning. Given the emphasis here upon the production of type, I will concentrate on those that are a function of the way in which type is produced.

Geographies of Design

Looking for a model upon which to base a discussion of the production of type, one is immediately faced with the traditional system of type classification. Established by professionals in the mid 1950s, this scheme employs a hybrid set of historic and descriptive terms and is considered by most to have failed to encompass the diversity of contemporary design. The search for alternative methods through which to group type designs immediately raised the concepts of generational and geographical boundary. Looking first at the notion of generation, material gleaned from interviews with type designers demonstrated that there are some distinctions between designers who began their career before the introduction of desktop publishing equipment and those who have been able to take the technology for granted. Albeit that, in general, the older designers were more suspicious of the impact of new technologies,[158] attitudes across generations were not consistent and these distinctions would not merit being the foundation of this examination.

Moving on to geography, the decision to construct this thesis around such a framework was one that emerged from primary research. Focusing upon particular designers according to the criteria described above, it became clear that type design activity tended to be concentrated within a few geographically defined areas. As research progressed, it became apparent that while the type business was thoroughly international, pockets of designers have tended to cluster in specific areas and have worked in a manner that could be considered in local terms. This is not intended to be an assertion of the existence of specific national typographic styles. That was the territory of traditional accounts of the history of type design, such as D.B. Updike’s History of Printing Types published in 1922, and geographic terminology remains current in discussion of historic letterforms. Turning to contemporary alphabets, while one might be able to guess where they came from, geography would never account for their defining formal characteristics. In the case of this thesis, rather than talking about geographically determined form, I am proposing that there are locally generated modes of practice.

The use of geography as the organising scheme of this thesis might appear to run contrary to suggestions that culture is now being constructed on a global scale. Arguments of this kind often propose that new communications technologies are the engines of emerging forms of global culture. For example, in the early 1980s the advertising executive Theodore Levitt argued that widespread communication reinforced by the accessibility of international travel had led to a world of increasing standardisation and homogeneity.[159] Qualifying Levitt’s arguments in an examination of the concept of the global, the cultural historian Kevin Robins pointed out that even hard-line globalists have been forced to acknowledge “the persistence of local differences.”[160] But while Levitt has characterised surviving local differences as “vestiges of a hardened inherited past”[161], Robins insisted that negotiations between local and global elements are “what the reality of globalization is all about.”[162]

Discussing the nature of the relationship between the local and global, Robins employed the phrase “global-local nexus”.[163] This thesis offers an example of the way in which this nexus might be manifested within a certain cultural sphere. All the designers whose work is addressed in the following chapters employ the same technologies: computer software programmes that for the most part were designed on the West Coast of the United States. But, while the technologies to design and set type have become uniform world-wide, the fact that these digital typesetting programmes have allowed designers to create type independent of large corporations has encouraged the emergence of more locally specific modes of type design. In this way, the global uptake of a single set of type design and typesetting technologies has actively fostered locally based practice.

Also in line with Robin’s arguments concerning the global-local nexus, is the fact that the geographical areas addressed here do not conform to national boundaries.[164] Conceiving of territory divided into regions (the East and West Coasts of the United States) and cities (London) as well as nations (The Netherlands), this thesis reflects newer economic and social maps. These are geographical schemes which recognise that although the interaction between the global and the local might have led to the decrease in the importance of the nation-state, in turn it has encouraged the promotion of concepts such as the global region or city: locales which, independent of their national site, attempt to assert their significance throughout the world in order to attract investment and tourism.

In not using nation as the major organising concept, the geography of design proposed within this thesis is significantly different to many of those offered by existing geographically defined accounts. These include histories of designed artefacts which are intended to act as testimony to a particular national character. For example, in The American Design Adventure 1940-75, the author Arthur Pulos employed the story of the evolution of American design as a means to relay the triumph of the American spirit in the post-war decades. Suggesting that, through design, objects could reach a “typeforms” upon which there could be no improvement, Pulos proposed a series of late twentieth-century American consumer objects as “typeforms” of this kind. Pulos’s argument was that the United States had proved “particularly fertile ground” for that “intuitive spark and an innate capacity for synthesis” that leads to the perfection of design.[165]

While Pulos supported the commonly held notion of the conquering American adventurer, other commentators have used accounts of national design in order to challenge an existing understanding of national identity and replace it with an alternative. For example, writing in the late 1980s in the exhibition catalogue British Design: Image and Identity, the Dutch curator Frederique Huygen offset a discussion of the Britain’s domesticity and “anti-industrial” craft tradition with chapters on the nation’s commercially-driven design consultancies, its design-led retail boom and its thriving youth culture. Accounting for the first of these two with reference to the British ability to sell “design as a tool for solving management and marketing problems”[166], to find the roots of Britain’s streetstyle Huygen looked to “city slums”. Borrowing Peter York’s suggestion that style can be nurtured through deprivation,[167] Huygen’s Britain is a site of tension and conflict, not a place where class and tradition can be assumed to prevail. Surveying the illustrations within Huygen’s catalogue, Britain appears to have become a nation of slick marketeers and rebels – a characterisation that, in turn, has become a cliché.

Used both to support and challenge commonplace understandings of a national identity, most significantly nationally-based accounts of design have been employed to sell a nation’s products. In Spring 1998, the London-based exhibition ‘powerhouse:uk’ attempted to pose Britain as a nation of low-key eccentrics working at the cutting-edge of global culture. Critically derided because of its emphasis upon glib buzz-words and hot phrases above decipherable content – “babble” according to the cultural historian Judith Williamson[168] – the show was intended to encourage a global community to purchase British products and invest in British industry.

The issues that concern Williamson are not directly at stake in this thesis. Obviously, in this case the purpose of identifying what is particular to a locally specific mode of design is not a marketing exercise and equally by employing a regional framework for the discussion I am neither attempting to promote nor to undermine existing notions of national identity. Touching in some cases upon such questions of identity, as in the chapter upon the Netherlands, the task of the thesis in this case is to uncover how the existence, perceived or actual, of a national, regional or urban culture might have contributed to the very specific culture that has emerged in a particular region around the design of type. It is not the purpose of this thesis to use design as illustration of a broader national history.[169]

Basing the discussion upon various geographically defined areas, it would be wrong to take the notion of local typographic cultures too far. Within the chapters of this thesis, I have recognised relationships between various forms of practice in different parts of the globe and I intend the reader to cross reference. Also significant is the role that communications technologies have played in speeding up the distribution of typefaces around the world. For example, while it took Helvetica nearly a decade to come into use in Britain, faces are now visible internationally within months of completion: successful typefaces such as Martin Majoor’s Scala Sans or Zuzana Licko’s Triplex rapidly became prevalent throughout Europe and America. So while it might be possible to argue that there are locally specific modes of type design, this argument must be set against a recognition of the fact that the type industry has always been and remains a global concern.

Employing the phrase of Nicholas Negroponte, a seer of new communications technologies, those involved in the type industry are now “being digital”. In his book of that name, Negroponte argued that where once we traded in heavy, bulky, monopurpose atoms of stuff, in the future our business will be with immaterial, flexible digital bits.[170] This would certainly seem to be borne out by the type business, where it has become commonplace for typefaces to be sent on-line all around the world. The potential for rapid communication aside, it is important not to get too carried away with the techno-futurism of Negroponte and other prophets of the digital age. As Judith Williamson has pointed out, we are prone to “have a confused relation to the cool, cyber, digital universe – as if it wasn’t actually a real thing within the day to day physical world.”[171] Typefaces might be able to flit down wires, but to consume them still requires the existence of a set of physical objects: hardware such as screen, printer and page. The interdependence and tension between material and immaterial offers an echo of that between the local and the global: just as global companies must be manifest locally, so as we deal more and more in the immaterial, the fact of materiality seems ever more inescapable.

Mapping contemporary design practice

Employing geography both literally and as a metaphor, the purpose of this thesis is to offer a flexible map of contemporary type design practice. I was guided in my choice of designers and typefaces by a consideration of those faces that are available through retail to the ordinary type user: I have aimed to describe the contexts of production of the crop of typefaces that have become current since the introduction of desktop publishing technologies. While this map has had to be a selective one, it was not the intention to promote certain kinds of practice as more worthwhile than others. That said, while I have tried to withhold from making explicit value judgements, I have not maintained complete neutrality. Claiming value for certain type designs above others is not the purpose of the thesis, but I do not make apologies for preferring some designs above others. The need for one more qualification remains. In spite of deliberately shying away from the construction of a typographic hierarchy, I have had to accept situations that are the outcomes of other kinds of cultural hierarchies: largely, the regrettable fact that type design remains so much a male-dominated practice. Although new technologies have dramatically altered the contexts in which type is being designed, the assumption generated within art schools and the industry that type design is the kind of scholarly activity that is best suited to men appears to have remained remarkably powerful. The gendering of type is not something I have addressed specifically, but I hope that some suggestions as to the nature of that gendering could be drawn from this text.


[105] . Visible Language, Vol.29, No.1, 1995

[106] . p.217, Margolin, Victor ed., 1989, Design Discourse, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

[107] . p.218, Margolin ed., 1989

[108] . p.8, Forty, Adrian, 1989, Objects of Desi