New Faces (Chapter Two: The West Coast)
The second chapter of Emily King’s doctoral thesis which focuses on typeface design in the United States, England and the Netherlands between 1987 and 1997.
A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of Kingston University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (1999)
(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 Two: The West Coast
North America has been home to the greater part of the debate around new technologies. This is largely because the United States have been responsible for a lion’s share of the technological innovations of the last century, but it is also a reflection of the fact that enthusiasm for the new is built into American culture. While not all of the accounts of new technologies have been positive, most American authors working in this field have acknowledged that they are writing against the background of a popular technophilia.
It is appropriate to look at the typeface designs that have emerged from the West Coast directly in the wake of technological innovation against a background of current debates about new digital technologies. These designs can be seen as significant elements of a technologically driven culture and as such interpretation of them ought to be inflected by an understanding of that culture. In turn these typefaces offer evidence as to the nature of the cultures that surround certain technologies, and therefore could be used as evidence in challenging existing accounts of those cultures.
A significant early participant in the current North American debate upon technology was Alvin Toffler. Toffler’s first best-seller Future Shock was a stirring account of the rapid changes being brought about by the irresistible tide of technological change. Published in 1972, it described a state of affairs in which we must all paddle with the tide, or drown. Written eight years later, Toffler’s second influential book The Third Wave attempted to offer a more systematic account of how society must harness innovation for the good of all. In this book Toffler’s emphasis was upon the adoption of a flexible stance, a stance which would be able to accommodate change.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, at the moment when futurology was at its most glamorous and Americans thrilled as the waves of innovation crashed around them, Toffler’s proposals appeared exciting and liberating. More recently, Toffler-style arguments in favour of the unfixed and the fluid have been adopted by a new generation of techno-libertarians. But in an age when we been hardened into indifference by the apparent pace of technological change, these suggestions seem to have more to do with pandering to the needs of global capitalism than those of enabling each of us to surf into our own individually rewarding destiny.
By the mid-1990s, popular writers addressing the effects of digital technology upon the broader cultural sphere have tended to adopt one of two positions: either they suggest that new technologies will liberate, breaking down existing, oppressive hierarchies and rendering individuals free; or they believe that new technologies will foster new levels of control, engendering a society in which each of us is reduced to a set of data to be marshalled in the pursuit of the ultimate consumer society.
A well-known prophet of the first is Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte is the director of the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an academic organisation devoted to exploring the means to best exploit new communications technologies, and was also one of the founders of Wired Magazine, a consumer magazine established in 1993, intended to bring the good news of technology to every home. Negroponte’s book, Being Digital, (1993) is a summary of his position.
“The change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable,” announced Negroponte who goes on to document North America’s enthusiastic uptake of new technologies. Assuming that Americans will continue to adopt new technologies at an increasingly fast rate, Negroponte predicted that soon they shall all “be digital”. In Negroponte’s digital nation, schools would “become more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world” and people would inhabit “digital neighbourhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant.” Negroponte brought this news to us in a traditional printed form primarily because it is the crusty old readers of print who most desperately need to be convinced of these truths.
Negroponte’s optimism about the effects of digital technology never once flags. Never does he pose apparently basic questions, such as who is going to fund the adoption of sophisticated technologies in schools, and how are the possibilities of global communication going to help a disaffected, underprivileged twelve year old who has not yet learnt to read. The assumption appears to be that technology itself will make all possible. Problems of accessibility will be solved as the cost of technologies continues its downward trend and problems of educational motivation will be solved simply by the apparently irresistible lure of the glowing screen.
Negroponte concluded that “a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices.” For him, proof of the “harmonizing effect of being digital” was making itself felt as enterprises which had previously been in competition began to collaborate. Here, Negroponte almost certainly was referring to the increasing co-operation between various software firms with the aim of making products compatible. This co-operation is to the commercial advantage of each firm and could very well have the negative outcome of reducing quality and choice. To read what might in fact be a case for investigation by those who look at monopolies and mergers as a great breakthrough for humankind requires an absolute faith in the redemptive powers of new technology, a belief that the best of all technologies will always come to the fore and those that do will always be used to the maximum advantage.
Negroponte’s support for new technologies is very much determined by his position at the border between the academy and the corporation. The research projects at the Media Lab are largely funded by those with a commercial interest and it is in Negroponte’s interests to woo these sponsors. A less interested voice of support is that of George Landow, a professor of English. In his book Hypertext he discussed the confluence between post-structuralist literary theory and the communicative possibilities offered by new technologies. To Landow, the theorists’ proposition of an all-encompassing hypertext appeared to be a likely outcome of the widespread uptake of digital communications technologies. Landow suggested that, whereas industrial culture created machines which reinforced rigid linear structures, these are now being replaced by “poetic” alternatives, “machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture the anarchic brilliance of human imagination.”
Not wholly a technological determinist, Landow acknowledged that the ways in which technologies are employed is in part a function of political context, but nevertheless he celebrated what he believed to be intrinsic properties of digital technology. Arguing against “Marxist” beliefs that products which emerge from the existing capitalist system will inevitably be used to extend the networks of control operated within that system, Landow contended that it is possible for certain technologies to have an inherent political bias. Digital technologies, he insisted, promote the politics of multivocality and as such are democratic. Landow argued that new communication technologies resists co-option by an autocracy because they destabalise “the very conception of a permanent centre.”
Concerning the production of textual meaning, Landow believed that new technologies function positively by restructuring the relationship between the authoring of a text and the visual representation of that text. Breaking down existing divisions of labour and class, writing is no longer considered a cerebral activity, elevated above concerns of presentation and distribution. As well as breaking down hierarchies of production, Landow argued that the emergence of hypertext could also be expected to reduce the autonomy of the author. The reader hears the author’s voice against a clamour of background noise. In light of this disturbance, his authority over the text is inevitably reduced.
What Landow has characterised as the creation of democratic space in which a variety of voices can claim equal weight, others have viewed as the birth of a babble in which meaning is lost. Neil Postman made these kinds of accusations in his book Technopoly, published in 1993. Postman railed against the technologically-driven society that he believed America has become. Arguing that there are three distinct phases in the relationship between a society and its technologies, the “tool using”, the “technocracy” and the “technopoly”, Postman suggested that North America had entered the third and most debilitating stage. Distinguishing between the technocracy created by the industrial revolution and the newly emerging technopoly, Postman argued: “Technocracy does not have as its aim a grand reductionism in which human life must find its meaning in machinery and technique. Technopoly does.”
For Postman the most significant victim of a technopoly is America’s “cultural life”, a life he viewed as being assembled from traditional religion and canonic literature. The value of Postman’s argument rests upon the assumption of a distinction between genuine culture and any product that might be associated with new technologies. Directly contrary to Landow, Postman deplored the fact that “popular literature now depends more than ever on the wishes of the audience, not the creativity of the artist.” The less authoritarian voice that was celebrated by Landow, is, according to Postman, denied the ability to participate in the creation of cultural value.
Postman argued that North America is particularly vulnerable to the onset of a technopoly because of the unthinking enthusiasm for the new that is shared by the large part of the nation’s citizens. One outcome of technopoly is increasing credulity, denied reference to “social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual bases for knowing” people are open to accept “what is beyond belief.” Particularly, Postman believes that Americans have become highly susceptible to statistics, inclined to believe the ridiculous if it is supported by apparently scientific research.
In Negroponte’s vision of the future, children are empowered by new communication technologies, follow independent enquiries and are able to form valid judgements. In Postman’s dystopia, the technology that is at the schoolchild’s fingertips cannot offset the fact that he or she has become a passive recipient of a mass of worthless statistical information and that any evaluative frameworks which might have existed have rotted away. “Technopoly”, argued Postman, “is a form of cultural AIDS.” This kind of analogy between viral illness and a cultural erosion is widespread. The implication of such a comparison is that the “grand narratives” of history and the shared notion of “transcendentant purpose” that Postman mourns are the societal equivalents of a functioning immune system. But while for Postman the pursuit of the new endangers the health of society, for Negroponte the assumed goal of any healthy society must be that of innovation. For one new technologies are an illness; for the other they are a condition of good health.
Like Negroponte’s, Postman’s views represent an extreme, but he is not alone in having reservations about the possible impact of the current very fast uptake of new technologies. A more measured critique than Postman’s emerged from the cultural critic Theodore Roszak in his book The Cult of Information. Roszak claimed to be interested not in the technologies of the computer but their “folklore”, a statement which implies a belief that technologies must be a part of a culture of some kind, contrary to Postman’s insistence that they are an acultural element. Roszak’s goal was to unpick the myths surrounding new technologies, and the associated concept of information so as to allow for proper evaluation of their effects.
Roszak’s main complaint about the reception of new technologies by North Americans was that mechanical computational activity had been conflated with the human activity of thinking. In line with many leading thinkers on artificial intelligence such as Joseph Weizenbaum, Roszak stressed the need to reclaim the art of thinking. “We may see a generation of students seriously hampered in its capacity to think through the social and ethical questions that confront us as we pass through the latest stage of the ongoing industrial revolution”, he warned. Roszak’s aim was to characterise the computer as something with the potential to be a “reasonably valuable public servant.”
Suggesting that we are in danger of creating “messages without meaning”, Roszak noted that:
“Thanks to the high success of information theory, we live in a time when the technology of human communications has advanced at blinding speed; but what people have to say to one another by way of that technology shows no comparable development.”
Contained within this argument is the assumption that technological means do not always lead to a predetermined end. But not always as pessimistic as above, Roszak also believed that technologies could be used to achieve long-term humanistic goals that pre-dated their invention. This is contrary to the both the gung-ho technophiles, who insist new technologies forge a bright new future, and the doom-laden technophobes, who argue they undermine beyond repair the values of the past.
Roszak was writing about these issues several years earlier than commentators such as Postman and Negroponte. The Cult of Information was published in 1986 at a time before technology had entered the mainstream political debate. The need to take a firmly pro or anti stance did not weigh as heavily upon Roszak as it did upon commentators a few years later. By the early 1990s the libertarian values associated with new technologies had begun to appeal to many politicians, particularly those from the radical right such as Newt Gingrich. The argument of Gingrich and others was that digital communication technologies would offer the poor ample means for self-improvement. Technophilia was not firmly allied to the right, many conservatives had reservations, believing that new technologies sowed the seeds for the destruction of traditional institutions such as the church and the family. But in spite of this uncertainty of alliance, the adoption of issues of technology by politicians led to the debates becoming increasingly highly charged.
Sherry Turkle, an experimental psychologist who has explored how people interact with computer technologies, has remarked that while her own project is not firmly in favour of those technologies, she is often cast as a proponent and set up against vigorous opposition. Turkle has argued that the popular media has taken a “Hate and the Hype” stance on questions of new technology which have prevented it dealing with non-partisan, questioning approaches. Turkle’s most recent book Life On Screen explores how subjects interact in multi-user domains (MUDs), spaces where one computer user can communicate with others. The thesis of the book is that these environments allow participants to take on a spectrum of interleaved identities, able to slip easily from one to other. Turkle argues that such notions of the self can be positive, but recognises that those most heavily absorbed in MUDs can be avoiding problems that have emerged in their real lives, which some of the most involved see as “just another window”.
Alongside Turkle, many other commentators on new technologies are attempting to resist media pressure and carve out a sophisticated, non-sensationalist stance. Coming from an academic background in English and Cultural Studies, Andrew Ross wrote Strange Weather, a book intended to encourage the consideration of questions raised by technological innovation with particular reference to increasing environmental concerns. Ross’s project was to explore how thinking about science and technology had been moulded by intellectual and political technocratic elites and to address the challenges that had been presented to these elite languages by other groups. Ross believed that rampant technophobia amongst cultural critics was leading to a failure on their behalf to address important questions concerning the shaping of the future. Ross’s account of the cultures that are associated with and responsible for technologies is wide-ranging and historically based. He goes from a mapping of alternative cultures of the 1960s which spawned the 1980s New Ager, to a discussion of contemporary international geo-politics. Understanding technology as a cultural artefact, for Ross the question of pro or anti is inseparable from a full understanding of context.
Also examining the context of technology, but adopting a different emphasis, the sociologist Judy Wajcman revealed her aim in the title of her book: Feminism Confronts Technology. In that book Wajcman’s project was to establish how technological innovation had promoted or impeded the cause of feminists. Drawing largely negative conclusions, she argued that technologies tended to reinforce existing social and gender inequalities. Characterising technology as a “masculine culture”, she suggested that technologies of the workplace had encouraged the employment of an unskilled female workforce, that technologies of reproduction had put the business of childbirth, once the sphere of midwives, firmly into the hands of the predominantly male medical profession and that technologies of the home effectively had transformed women into domestic slaves. Acknowledging that her account might appear “profoundly pessimistic”, Wajcman was firm in her rejection of the essentialists position: that technology is necessarily anti-feminine. Her argument was purely with the ways in which that technology had been employed. According to Wajcman, women’s problem is not technology itself, “women’s problem is men.”
While Wajcman offers a straightforward, empirically-based history of the relationship between gender and technology, other writers have constructed radical narratives which have attempted to find a position for women at the heart of scientific and technological change. These stories often have a liberational intent. Donna Haraway, author of A Manifesto for Cyborgs, has become a cult figure in this quest. Haraway’s Manifesto aims to reinvent nature by recognising it as part of a discourse which also embraces technology. “Technology has determined what counts as our bodies in crucial ways” she has said. Recast as Cyborgs (hybrids of machine and organism), Haraway’s aim is to “locate myself and us in the belly of the monster”, that is within the sphere of heavily militarised, communications systems based technoscience. By taking this stance rather than adopting a directly oppositional position, Haraway hopes to locate herself in the most appropriate site for contestation. Her assumption is that we can take on and transform technology.
Donna Haraway has been extremely influential. Amongst her followers is Sadie Plant, a British theorist who attempts to plot a radical new course through what she sees as a drastically restructured world. But while Haraway’s Cyborg is a political agent, crucially aware of the narratives of history, Plant offers us a sensationalist account rooted in techno-hype rather than any historical understanding or political consciousness. Effectively placing technology in the role of metaphor – for example, in the statement “rotted by digital contagions modernity is falling to bits” – Plant entirely fails to assess the ways in which the technological, biological, political and cultural actually interact.
Another feminist strategy for dealing with technology has been to slot it into psychoanalytical accounts. In her lecture Backwards and Forwards: Psychoanalysis and the Dialectics of Expectation, Clare Pajaczkowska argued that technologies offer us a future that we tend to characterise as ideal. Conceiving of the future in this way, we unconsciously slip into the “regressive fantasy of infantile omnipotence.” Viewing the male-dominated pursuit of technological progress as an infantile activity might be intended to make it appear less threatening, but it does not address the very real ways in which it effects our lives.
The psychologist Robert Romanyshyn has made a more sustained attempt to explore how technology interacts with the psyche in his book Technology as Symptom and Dream. In that book, Romanyshyn suggested that the nature of technological development could be explained by referring to changes in our psychological selves, arguing technology amounts to a shared cultural dream. Romanyshyn took a long-term perspective, beginning his story with the invention of the vanishing point in visual representation, an invention which he saw as symptomatic of man’s perceived separation from nature. Historically responsible, Romanyshyn constructs a convincing argument, yet his account seems to deny the possibility of individual agency and so reads as rather bleak. Unable to escape our collective dream, effecting positive change appears beyond us.
Those who don’t believe that technology will inevitably destroy us all (Romanyshyn’s book ends with speculation about nuclear holocaust), must still face the fact that it constantly disappoints. A sense of disappointment is characteristic of the many empirical case studies of particular applications of technology, which are intended to throw light upon more general relationships between technology, society and culture. For techno-enthusiasts the recognition that the full potential of certain technologies is far from being realised is hard to escape. Prompted to explore how computer technology was being used in the work place by a belief that it ought to be increasing levels of responsibility and involvement amongst blue-collar workers, Shoshana Zuboff found herself forced to acknowledge that new technologies were being used to replicate and reinforce old patterns of work. In her book In the Age of the Smart Machine, Zuboff had to conclude that positive change might have been made possible, but was rarely being achieved.
Any successful examination of the relationship between culture and technology must acknowledge the complex web of economic, social and political (and possibly even psychoanalytical) forces that determine the nature of that relationship. While most existing accounts, like Zuboff’s, are motivated by a pre-determined stance on the issues raised by new technologies they must set out a framework in which assumptions can be questioned. The lack of this kind of framework is why the determinedly technophilic and technophobic arguments of Negroponte and Postman fail. Without abandoning all reservations about the actual and potential impacts of new technologies, the rest of this chapter aims to argue that new technologies can be employed to create a space in which individuals and organisations can effect positive interventions. The following account of the typeface designs that are emerging from America’s Silicon Valley is in part intended to provide evidence to support that position (and also the accompanying reservations).
Each of the accounts mentioned above addresses the role of digital technologies in shaping the broad social and cultural climate of (mainly) North America. Alongside these wide-ranging discussions, there also exist a number of volumes which deal specifically with the cultures that have emerged around the production and distribution of these technologies. The large part of these cultures are located in the area of Northern Califonia which has become known as Silicon Valley. Identifying an area with a mineral element traditionally would have implied its geological home, but in the case of Silicon Valley the relationship is more tenuous. It has been factors such as the existence of certain educational institutions and industrial structures that have encouraged the exploitation of silicon in the Valley. Accounts dealing with the culture of the area include business histories, such as Steven Levy’s Insanely Great, a history of the Macintosh, and fictional accounts, for example Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs.
For the most part written by enthusiasts, these books tend toward the biographical and anecdotal. Much is made of the nature of the individuals involved, who are largely characterised as lone geniuses, non-conformists and pioneers. Explicit in his concentration upon character is Robert Cringely, author of Accidental Empires. Later made into a television series titled The Triumph of the Nerds, the book focuses upon Silicon Valley’s unlikely millionaires. Cringely’s thesis is that the innovators at the cutting edge of digital developments are spurred on not by the desire to make millions, but more by the need to show off borne of an unhappy adolescence. Whatever the truth of this thesis, Cringely did have to reconcile it with the fact that the successful enterprises of Silicon Valley have without exception been neatly tailored into a series of convincing corporate cultures. This Cringely explains by alluding to a number of commercially minded interlopers who have invaded the pristine domain of the digital.
Cringely’s factual account coincides to a large extent with Douglas Coupland’s fictional one. Coupland describes the life of a group of young software programmers who lead unhappily incomplete lives. Rooming in shared houses and eating junk food, they work ridiculously long hours for no other goal than the creation of software code itself and the very distant hope of praise from the MD/guru of their company. While explicitly critical in their characterisation of software workers as nerds, Coupland and Cringely obviously romanticise a great deal. But although they expose themselves to the accusation that they are being unrealistic about the actual nature of the enterprise that goes on behind their computer screens, Cringely and Coupland do seem to get some way towards accounting for the extraordinary atmosphere that exists within Silicon Valley’s corporations.
Rarely older than fifteen years, and for the most part operating within a building erected in the last five, these business appear to be situated at a point where everything is up for grabs. While in fact the software companies of Silicon Valley have had to conform a great deal to the world beyond, for example in terms of adopting conventions of corporate style and marketing, it is still possible to read into them something of the spirit evoked by Cringely and Coupland.
Adobe Systems’s move to a new office block in San Jose in 1996 represented a significant step away from the increasingly rambling series of buildings that the company had occupied in Mountain View since its launch in 1982. Adobe’s new building fits seamlessly into the landscape of corporate America. The imposing double height lobby is encased in the glossy substances that have come to signal wealth and power: marble, reflective glass and blond wood. Yet, in spite of this emphatic display of material authority, the staff slope through the high tech security systems and along the shiny floors slightly unconvincingly. For the most part wearing jeans and t-shirts (at least 30% of which display the Adobe logo) they seem to deny the imposing corporate language spoken by the surfaces around them.
Robert Cringely introduced his book Accidental Empires with three statements about Silicon Valley enterprise:
“1. It all happened more or less by accident.
2. The people who made it happen were amateurs.
3. And for the most part they still are.”
One’s initial impression of Adobe appears to support these statements. It is difficult to imagine that the group of self-effacing individuals that shuffle around the corridors of the company have had anything to do with the creation of this corporate edifice.
Later on, in the Adobe staff canteen, things become a little clearer. Alongside the tables of jeans-clad programmers, there also sit groups of people dressed in a manner more customary within large international corporations. Although these employees are dismissed as marketers by those who are directly involved with the creation of software (animosity between marketers and programmers is a theme of Silicon Valley is explored by Douglas Coupland in Microserfs), it becomes clear that they are working consistantly to maintain the empires that Cringely has insisted were accidental. Adobe Systems appears to support two completely distinct cultures amongst its personnel. Occupying different floors of the building, moves to bridge these cultures seem to be limited.
There is no doubt from which culture the founders of Adobe emerge. John Warnock and Charles Geschke were both previously employed at the Xerox research centre, Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Founded in 1970, PARC was built upon an academic model; researchers were largely drawn from universities and were placed in a campus setting far from any other Xerox facility. Their explicit task was to consider ways in which Xerox could maintain its dominance as the office became paper-less, but they were also there to absorb some of Xerox’s absurdly high profits. Most of the projects being pursued at PARC had no immediate commercial application. At PARC John Warnock developed a computer language called Interpress that was able to describe words and pictures to Xerox laser printers. In 1982 he left PARC with his boss Chuck Geschke after having failed to persuade Xerox to develop the language into a commercial project. Together the pair founded Adobe and in 1984 they launched PostScript, effectively an evolved form of Interpress.
Robert Cringely characterises Warnock and Geschke as “tweedy and professorial” and certainly pictures of the grey-bearded pair confirm that impression. Cringely’s suggestion is that, not slaves to the market, the aim of the founders of Adobe was to create extremely high quality products that customers were not yet aware that they needed. Writing in 1992, he argued that “Adobe is not a marketing company”, citing as evidence the rather inept handling of Adobe Illustrator, called Illustrator 88, yet still on sale in 1991. But that was the early 1990s, and a few years later it would be very hard to support the suggestion that Adobe’s marketing is anything but extremely professional. Maintaining an extremely significant stable of software products (enhanced when the company merged with Aldus, the distributor of PageMaker, in 1994), Adobe have skilfully milked customers by offering yearly upgrades of very widely distributed programmes such as Photoshop and Acrobat.
The late 1980s and early 1990s, when Adobe’s marketing of graphics software products was still a little creaky, was the period in which company’s concern with typeface design was at its height. There was an alliance between the company’s initial lack of concern for the mass marketing of software and its early interest in high quality type. Releasing 1,000 fonts digitised from existing designs in 1986, the company went on to launch its Originals range about 18 months later. Burwell Davis of Adobe describes a situation in which a typeface void was created by the launch of PostScript, the creation of a new system to describe digital type led to an enormous demand for fonts in that format. Adobe were excited by the immediate profitability of PostScript type, and were also keen to maintain the initiative in the design of original digital type. Davis remembers the period between 1989 and 1991 as the “glory years”, “when type revenue was going through the roof.” But those days were shortlived, and by 1992 the limits of demand for new type had become apparent. Combined with the fact that Adobe were now competing with other firms who were also manufacturing Type 1 fonts, this led to a dramatic fall in profits from type.
During the “glory years”, Adobe supported a significant type design programme, at that point employing a type team of 22. In 1992 the type team was cut to twelve, and while Adobe continues to release Originals the company is no longer a particularly significant producer of original digital faces. Dan Mills, currently the Type Manager at Adobe, describes a situation in which the tail has begun to wag the dog: type was Adobe’s first retail product, and in the beginning other software applications were viewed as a sideline. But over the years it has become obvious that products such as Illustrator and Photoshop are the company’s cash cows and type has become increasingly marginalised.
The relatively esoteric culture of the early Adobe might have been more to the liking of Warnock and Geschke. Profiting largely from the wholesale of PostScript interpreters and from the retail of type they were not immediately concerned with the mass marketing of software applications. The section of the type market most assiduously courted by Adobe at that point was the high end – those professionally involved in the production of quality printed material. While the retail of software applications is now Adobe’s main business, type does remain profitable for them, but to keep it that way the company have made increasing efforts to attract the low end of the market. While Tami Donohoe, a type marketer at Adobe, has argued that efforts are made to maintain the link between Adobe and the notion of quality type, these now have to be reconciled with the company’s goal of winning the custom of the casual type user. Persuading new type users to buy their type, Adobe’s type marketing has increasingly conformed to the conventional software models.
The continued existence of inelegantly clad computer programmers at Adobe is evidence that the company do still retain a part of the esoteric research culture that was an important founding element. But while these people might continue toil away on new applications in nerd-like isolation, the goals of the firm are now defined by the smartly dressed marketers. In a company governed by the needs of the market, whatever Warnock and Geschke’s own feelings about the significance of developing quality original digital type (and Burwell Davis does believe the Originals project was close to their hearts), they will always come second when ranked against the pursuit of profit.
Type Design within Adobe Systems
Currently the Adobe type team are housed together in a small part of the seventh floor of the Adobe tower. While the team suffered a dramatic cut in numbers in 1992, those that remain form a remarkably stable crew, for the most part having worked at Adobe for the better part of a decade. This stability is uncommon in the software industry, in which staff turnover is usually very high. Retaining skilled staff does not seem to be a high priority amongst software firms, which for the most part are happy to get a couple of years programming out of a talented individual before he or she moves on. Programming skills are highly transferable between companies, and there is no sense in which long service with a particular firm is seen as a virtue. Type design skills are of a very different nature, accumulated through experience and even the new breed of whizz kid type designer (for example Tobias Frere-Jones or Jonathan Hoefler who will both be discussed later in the thesis) will admit to having a lot to learn.
Not only a function of the nature of typographic skill, the composition of the type team at Adobe is also a direct offshoot of the coherent, tightly knit crowd that formed in America around digital type in its relative infancy. One of the most significant manifestations of this scene was the two year masters course in digital type established at Stanford University. Intended to be a collaboration between the University’s computer science department, in which Donald Knuth was developing Metafont, and the art department, which had appointed the type designer Chuck Bigelow, the course only ever ran once between 1982 and 1984. Dan Mills, who took the course between those years, believes its failure to be the fault of the University authorities’ inability to fully understand and support a truly interdisciplinary course.
But in spite of the fact that the course did not survive, its single running span produced a core of people who were to be extremely influential in the early years of device-independent digital type. As well as Mills, Adobe type designer Carol Twombly was also in the class of 1984. Immediately after graduation, both Mills and Twombly went to work for Chuck Bigelow and his partner Kris Holmes developing the Lucida typeface (a digital typeface intended to combat the problems presented by low resolution printing). From there each of them moved on to work for Adobe, Dan Mills in 1986 and Carol Twombly in 1988.
Alongside Mills and Twombly, also in place by 1988 were Fred Brady and Robert Slimbach. Coming from commercial backgrounds (each had already had experience in the production various kinds of proprietary digital type) they shared an interest in the creation of high quality digital design. Dan Mills credits Sumner Stone for persuading Adobe to put together such a high calibre team. Stone, who was the first Adobe employee hired specifically to deal with issues of type design, had come to the company with a background in lettering. His commercial goal was to satisfy the needs of the high-end print market, to prove that digital type could match and overtake traditional type in quality. In the early days Adobe’s vision of type was strongly allied to the personal vision of Sumner Stone. Ambitious and to some extent elitist, it is a vision that could be expected to appeal to the ‘professorial’ pair Warnock and Geschke. Sumner Stone left Adobe in the late 1980s to set up his own foundry (which will be discussed later in this chapter), but the type team that he established at Adobe remained to a great extent in place.
The type team at Adobe have remained true to Sumner Stone’s vision. In spite of the savage staff cuts, those who have stayed in place have been allowed to continue to work on the production of extremely high quality printing types. This is even more remarkable in light of the fact that even the surviving traditional type companies have for the most part dispensed of their in-house design teams. Adobe is the only company that continues to offer full-time, waged employment to designers of original typefaces.
Two members of Adobe’s type team, Carol Twombly (born 1959) and Robert Slimbach (born 1956), are engaged in design full time. Twombly came through an art school background, studying first at Rhode Island School of Design, and going on to the Stanford Masters course that has been discussed above. She was encouraged to specialise in type design first at RISD and later at Stanford by her teacher Chuck Bigelow, an established type designer who was very interested in digital developments. Robert Slimbach had no such mentor. Initially designing and making greetings cards to sell at street fairs, he taught himself to be sufficently proficient at lettering to get a job at Autologic redrawing typefaces for digitisation in a proprietary format. Starting at Autologic in 1983, Slimbach was employed by Sumner Stone who was at that point in charge of their drawing office. Later, in 1987 Stone was to employ Slimbach again, orginally to edit existing designs but soon to work on the Originals range at Adobe.
While Twombly is grateful for the quality of her teaching, Slimbach prizes having been largely self-taught. He has said, “I would rather do something and learn that way and develop my own style as opposed to following some master.” But in spite of their different roots into type design, both Twombly and Slimbach are engaged on similar kinds of projects. Each tends to explore the design of historic letterforms by digging up and offering interpretations upon original sources, and both emphasise the calligraphic basis of letterforms.
Cornerstone projects for Adobe have been the design of the Originals versions of the well-known faces, Caslon and Garamond. Carol Twombly designed Caslon, using as her primary model a specimen sheet printed in about 1738, showing type hand-cut by William Caslon. Robert Slimbach, who designed the Garamond, enlarged photographs. Adobe’s Garamond and Caslon were designed at the initiative of Sumner Stone and released in the late 1980s. By choosing to offer intensely researched and scrupulously crafted versions of already widely used faces, Sumner Stone was taking on the traditionalists. Within the type world, many saw these faces as offering the longed-for proof that new digital technologies could compete with their predecessors.
Other widely used Adobe Originals include Carol Twombly’s Trajan, Lithos and Charlemagne. Another of Sumner Stone’s ideas, these sets of capitals were intended for display use. Based on Roman stone inscription, Greek stone inscription and eighth-century manuscripts repectively, the designs were described in a specimen book as being “inspired by three stylistic peaks in letterform development that occurred before the invention of movable type.” In offering these faces, the Adobe type team were attempting to cover as comprehensively as possible the whole of the history of the letterform. This implies a belief that for a new technology to prove its worth it must meet every possible challenge that can be thrown up by the past.
In the same vein is the more recent Adobe Jenson. A two axis multiple master typeface, Robert Slimbach had a strong personal commitment to the project, working on it for two years before it was put upon the official production schedule. The types of Jenson have historically been regarded as an all time high in the evolution of the letterform. Slimbach’s Jenson was undertaken against a background of extensive examination of historical material, and was marketed alongside the Garamond and the Caslon as offering a “digital interpretation of the best designs in typographic history.” But to combine meticulous research with the use of new multiple master technology could be seen as audacious, and possibly even foolhardy in the eyes of hardened traditionalists.
Multiple Master technology was launched by Adobe in 1992 and the first Adobe Original’s Multiple Master typeface was Myriad. A collaboration between Twombly and Slimbach, Myriad was a friendly sans serif typeface that explored the possibilities offered by the technology. Multiple master technology allows a typeface to be manipulated between two or more sets of outlines along given axes of interpolation. The technology allows the user a flexibility of form that would have been impossible with traditional technologies, but the rest of the type world has been slow to adopt it because it is extremely difficult to work with. To some extent the Multiple Master is an anathema to typographic traditionalists because it facilitates the creation of letterforms not anticipated by their designer. But whatever the attitude of others in the type world, the designers at Adobe are committed to working with this and other new technologies because innovation is key to the company’s prosperity. Designing a Multiple Master Jenson, Adobe could be seen as possibly making a bid to win round the established typographic community.
As well as designing around high-end technological challenges such as those presented by Multiple Masters, the designers at Adobe must always consider the low end technological constraints. Specifically, they must always design with the low-resolution 300 dpi printer in mind. Slimbach claims to consider this within even the earliest drawings. The need to work with the limits of a particular technology is one that has presented itself repeatedly to type designers over the centuries. In the eyes of traditionalists there seems to be a qualitative, almost moral, difference between designing in the face of technological constraint and designing to meet expanded technological capability. The latter is often seen as the cause of typographic excess. For example, it has often suggested that the new type cutting possibilities of the mid-nineteenth century led to a number of unforgivably mannered designs.
The most pressing technological challenge that currently faces type designers is the screen. In their present form, computer screens do not offer a conducive environment for elegant, legible type. Predictably, staff at Adobe are considering this problem: web software is an important growth area and it seems likely that type will play a significant part in any successful package. But while Fred Brady, a designer/administrator in the type team at Adobe, is looking very closely at the development of typefaces for the screens, Carol Twombly is prepared to wait until the technology comes up “to meet the standards of our existing faces.” At Adobe, the potential for close contact between designers and software engineers has meant that designers, rather than simply working around a technology, feel able to make demands on it. If Slimbach finds that a technology is unable to meet the needs of a design then he will attempt to persuade those responsible to revise that technology. Occasionally designers outside Adobe are sometimes given the opportunity to test new technologies, but proximity of the designers at Adobe to the development of the tools of the trade is unique.
In parallel with Twombly and Slimbach, Adobe also employ several freelance designers to contribute to their Originals range. Amongst these is Michael Harvey (born 1931), a British designer based in the small Dorset seaside town, of Bridport. Harvey trained as an apprentice under the letter carver Reynolds Stone in the 1950s, for the most part helping Stone complete the large number of war memorials that were commissioned in the period. In the 1960s he moved away from carving and became more involved in lettering, mainly for book jackets. Harvey began to design typefaces as a freelancer in the early 1960s, working for Monotype amongst other companies. In 1990 he met the Adobe type team in Oxford at that year’s ATypI meeting. At that point it was becoming hard to find traditional distributors for his typefaces because by the late 1980s, Monotype and the other established type companies had virtually ceased investing in new faces. Keen to concentrate upon type design, Harvey seized upon the opportunities offered to him by Adobe. Since then, he was been working fairly consistently for the company, who pay him both to develop new faces and a royalty on sales.
Michael Harvey is primarily a designer of display faces. His training with Reynolds Stone, who in turn trained under Eric Gill, has left him well acquainted with the history of the letterform, but he considers the inspiration for his designs to be a matter of visual intuition rather than any systematic historical enquiry. Harvey has been encouraged by the Adobe type team to extend into complete character sets many of his earlier lettering designs. As a result, while Harvey’s designs do retain much of the spontaneity of hand-drawn lettering, faces such as Mezz do have a unmistakable period quality.
Other freelance designers include Jovica Veljovic, originally a calligrapher and well known for fluid script faces such as Ex Ponto, and Jim Parkinson, who worked in publishing and explores vernacular typography through friendly display faces such as Jimbo. The Adobe Originals freelancers come from a range of disciplines, lettering, calligraphy and stone-carving, and each of them was already well-established in their respective areas before coming to work for the company. As a group, they play an important part in Adobe’s assertion of authority in the field of typography. As a new company in type design, Adobe have covered a great deal of ground in claiming their stake in this territory. But while they have convincingly got to grips with the depth and range of the existing history of the letterform, they do not seem to have considered themselves in a position to innovate. Adobe’s design project appears to have been to convince the old guard of their worth, rather than to prove they can offer something new.
Distribution of Adobe Originals
Michael Harvey has talked approvingly of Adobe’s efficient scheduling of their typeface designs. Throughout the process he is given a series of deadlines for proofs, which are in turn met with prompt feedback. Comparing this to the situation at Monotype, where Harvey has recalled that a typeface would languish untouched for many months, the typeface production line at Adobe appears extremely zippy. However, held up against other distributors, the eight month to two year production period of an Adobe Originals face seems very extended. This is largely because a company such as FontShop will only consider a face for inclusion in their FontFont range when it is already on the border of completion. Adobe’s level of commitment to the development of typefaces has become extremely unusual in a industry that has become increasingly involved in responding to the whims of fashion.
Although a considered period of development has always been at the heart of Adobe’s thinking about type, these protracted lead times do sit oddly in a software company, where the prompt shipping of product is the paramount concern. Dan Mills has argued that the Adobe Originals range does still make profits for the company, but he recognises that these are comparatively small and Adobe’s continuing support for the project in its present form is not being relied upon by any member of the type team. Cuts in Adobe’s commitment have already been experienced. Heavily regretted by those in type is the discontinuation of specimen books for the faces within the Originals range. Based on traditional specimens, these beautifully produced publications offer a short history of the typeface, samples of the face in use and technical information. The last Adobe Originals specimen book was printed to accompany Robert Slimbach’s Kepler typeface, distributed in 1996.
The type team at Adobe have made limited attempts to keep up with broader thinking about type throughout the company. One of these was the release of the Adobe Originals Wild Types, a series of novelty faces. Making a bid for the ground occupied by digital type design innovators, such as those associated with Emigre, Wild Types actually look a little tired. They are cheesy, but not cheesy enough to be interesting. Adobe designer, Robert Slimbach believes the Wild Types to have been a mistake, but by writing off ventures of this sort out of hand the whole team are aware that they risk appearing locked in an ivory tower.
After spending time talking to the type team on the seventh floor, going up to the eighth floor to meet Tami Donohoe in marketing is like entering another world. The price points and target markets that litter Donohoe’s conversation appear to have little to do with the design process as it is discussed on the floor below. While Adobe do still boast of being a bastion of typographic quality, much of the behaviour of the company calls that claim into question. They are becoming increasingly involved in the marketing of low-quality typefaces through their sister company, Image Club. Also, within the Adobe catalogue Adobe Originals are frequently offered as part of cut price packages or bundled as free gifts with other software applications. These kinds of activities directly undermine the notion that a typeface is a product that has its own worth. In a more subtle vein, Adobe are constantly revising their typeface prices downward. This corresponds with trends in general software pricing, but to typographic traditionalists seems inappropriate. While there is a general acceptance amongst software buyers that an application is more valuable when it is new and hot, that is not the case with a good quality cut of Caslon. Typefaces are not subject to the same rate of obsolescence as other software packages, but software models dominate regardless. Adobe’s type team may be right in feeling beleaguered, perched precariously as they are in somewhat unfriendly corporate structure.
It could be argued that Adobe’s parallel concentration upon type for high-end print production and the technologies that appear to be undermining that kind of activity is contradictory. Nonetheless it would be impossible to write off entirely Adobe’s project. In the decade that the company have been involved in the design of original digital faces they have made an extremely convincing bid for typographic authority. Adobe’s Garamond is said to account for around 80% of the current use of that typeface, and a number of the other Originals have become extremely familiar.
Traditionalist typographers might see the Adobe Originals project as self-defeating, because while you might be crafting quality digital faces you will be for the most part distributing these to a group of unskilled type users. Adobe designers admit to having been pained by seeing their typefaces not used as they would like. Those who believe that digital technology will necessarily lead to lower standards often focus on the fact that these technologies have undermined a large part of the skilled workforce who, in the old days, would have been behind any piece of printed material. But setting absolutes of good and bad typography aside, it is impossible to ignore the snobbery and conservatism that is involved in the judgement that only a traditionally trained work-force is able to produce successful printed matter. That the standards formerly set by those in the printing industry have come into question is without doubt; whether what has replaced them is worthless remains in debate.
Other arguments against digital typesetting are based on more fundamental objections to the media. There exists a suggestion that the technology is responsible for a “mass collective hallucination”, due to the fact that each image is reducible to a set of dots upon the screen. As such, digital typefaces cannot be anything other than simulations of the real thing. For all its consideration of the small indents made by the cutting burr upon Jenson’s original punches, Robert Slimbach’s Jenson will remain a digital sham, no more than an illusion. These a priori statements about the nature of the technology border upon other assumptions which concern the loss of tactility implied by the digital. Within art schools, novice typographers are often denied access to the computer. The thinking behind this ban is that, without physical contact with the materials of typesetting, it will be impossible to develop a real sense of the medium. Making this claim involves the questionable assumption that physical contact with a mouse and a keyboard are negligible, nonetheless it is far from uncommon.
With the Adobe Originals, Adobe crafted a library of typefaces which to many is seen as having proved Sumner Stone’s point: digital technology is not irreconcilable with quality. Undeniably the company has assembled an impressive collection, but that aside, many would insist that they can also be held responsible for the long-term demise of high-quality print production. Only a small proportion of this kind of printing activity has survived the introduction of desktop publishing technology, and many view it as ultimately doomed. Adobe has laid itself open to the accusation that their typefaces are no more than an ineffectual gesture.
The Stone Foundry
Sumner Stone, the founding member of Adobe’s type team, left the company late in 1989. At that time type was still an extremely profitable business for Adobe. The increasing success of company’s type venture had led Stone to become more and more involved in administration rather than design. Finding himself jealous of the full-time designers that he had hired, Stone left the company to set up an independent digital foundry, Stone Type Foundry Inc.
Stone (born 1945) comes from a background not unlike that of many of his former staff at Adobe. Taking a supplementary class in calligraphy at Reed College taught by the Johnston enthusiast Boyd Reynolds, Sto
- New Faces (abstract): type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)
- New Faces (Bibliography)
- New Faces (Chapter Five: The Netherlands)
- New Faces (Chapter Four: London)
- New Faces (Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene)
- New Faces (Chapter Two: The West Coast)
- New Faces (Conclusion)
- New Faces (Historiography)
- New Faces (Introduction)
- New Faces (List of Interviews)
- New Faces (Mapping Contemporary Type Design)
- New Faces (Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models)
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- New Faces (abstract): type design in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting (1987-1997)
- New Faces (Introduction)
- New Faces (Historiography)
- New Faces (Typographic History in the Context of Broader Design Historical Models)
- New Faces (Chapter One: Technological and Industrial Change: Setting the Scene)
- New Faces (Mapping Contemporary Type Design)
- New Faces (Chapter Three: The East Coast)
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- New Faces (Chapter Five: The Netherlands)
- New Faces (Conclusion)
- New Faces (Bibliography)
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