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


One of the purposes of this thesis has been to challenge the dominant model of typographic history: a model which has emerged from professional practice and has remained somewhat insular. Described in the first section, traditional typographic histories are often exhaustively rich in their accounts of form, but have tended to exclude any discussion of context – social, economic or cultural. They acknowledge technological change only inasmuch as it has had a direct influence on the letterform, for example the relationship between the development of metal punchcutting techniques in the mid-nineteenth century and the hairlines of the Bodoni types. The starting point of this account was the emergence of device-independent digital typesetting in 1987. Taking that cue, it has been emphasised throughout this text that digital technology, not simply a determinant of form, has revolutionised the commercial and cultural circumstances of type design. The new typefaces of the late 1980s and early 1990s are the output of an entirely new typographic scene. Some of these typefaces share various formal characteristics, but it is not enough to map these formal traits onto the technology. To gain an understanding of type design it is necessary to explore the broader context of contemporary practice.

Writing a history of type design from outside the profession has necessitated exploring new ways of describing and accounting for letterforms. This has been a daunting task in the face of established professional vocabularies: a specialist terminology that acts to exclude. Taking heart from Roland Barthes’s attack on the conventions of French literary criticism, Criticism and Truth, this pursuit of a new language can be characterised as an assertion of the vigour of type and typography: a refusal to allow the subject to become embalmed in an arcane terminology. Barthes argued that, in their guise as literary defenders, his colleagues were rejecting the “words and new meanings which appear in the world of ideas.”[684] Equally, in their respect for typographic sanctity, many writers on the subject risk hiving it off from the broader contemporary discourse.

Employing new analytical frameworks to question specialised bodies of knowledge and critical orthodoxies has been a commonplace activity amongst design historians of the last 15 years.[685] In that context this exploration of type design is part of a wider re-evaluation of designed form. Beyond contributing to a design-historical debate, it is hoped that this thesis will also strike a chord amongst contemporary designers and users of type. It was one of the aims of this thesis to describe typographic form and account for typographic meaning in a manner that might appear germane to these practitioners, most of whom have had no formal induction into the profession. This is not mindless populism. Rather than lowering the tone of the typographic debate, the aim has been to shift its site. It is necessary that typographic form should be assessed using terms and in a context that are of genuine relevance.

The development of a non-professional typographic community over the last ten years has been permitted by the emergence of device-independent digital typesetting technology, a technology which allows the individual to design and distribute typefaces independent of the industries concerned with the manufacture of typesetting equipment. Mapping developments in the wake of this technological change brought with it the task of stressing the profundity of this change while avoiding becoming the victim of hyperbole. To summarise, type design was never housed in the cloistered community that writers such as Jon Wozencroft have imagined:[686] major contributions have come from graphic designers and even naval architects.[687] Nonetheless, that typefaces can now reach the market without passing through the filter of the typographic industry, consisting of firms such as Monotype, firms under whose auspices the typographic profession was born and flourished, amounts to a very significant development. The professionals have lost their hold on the typographic environment.

Their grip loosened in the late 1980s, and in the next few years the typographic profession was blown apart. While in the 1950s and 1960s type’s professional organisation Association Typographique Internationale (ATypI) aspired to police the typographic world, by the 1990s this association had lost all authority. By that time the limit of the Association’s ambition was to offer a platform to the international celebrities of type. A study of the professional bodies associated with type over the decade 1987-1997 would have told a story of dramatic rupture. On the other hand, with its focus on the activity of design rather than the machinations of professional groups, this thesis has tended to emphasise continuity above change. Organised within geographical chapters and setting typographic form in a local context, in many cases designers have been responding to factors that have remained relatively constant in the face of change – the most obvious example being the Dutch equation of designed form with social good.

The geographical framework of this thesis emerged from primary research. It was the outcome of the realisation that recent typographic technologies have permitted a concern for the small-scale and the local at the same time as they have promoted the faster and more extensive circulation of typographic information. A typeface such as Martin Majoor’s Scala illustrates this point perfectly: designed for use within printed material for the Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht, it has subsequently found global application.

Proposing four areas as centres of typographic activity, this thesis argues that this activity has a different focus within each of these regions. Situated within the global capital of technological innovation, designers on the West Coast of the United States are concerned explicitly with the intersection between technological change and typographic rules. This concern is exhibited very differently within the radical work of Emigre and the deeply historical output of the Adobe team, but nonetheless these designers share a preoccupation with the contradictory forces of innovation and tradition. Crossing the United States to the East Coast, the focus of typographic activity turns to the business of publishing (traditionally print, though many of the same issues apply to the screen). Designers in Boston and New York are making type that is being employed to create precisely-defined, marketable identities in the increasingly competitive world of magazine publishing.

Moving to Europe, several of London’s designers have been keen to take advantage of the tools which allow them to design and distribute type from the desktop and type design is now located within the small-scale creative businesses that are characteristic of the capital’s media scene. Since they were established in the early 1960s, these businesses have displayed a keen appetite for style (translating even the apparently dry forms emerging from the European modernists into disposable pop). In the post-punk period this appetite has been inflected by a sense of the ironic (and also politicised to a certain extent), but it remains keen and is evident in the new faces that have emerged from designers such as Jonathan Barnbrook or Rian Hughes over the last decade. In contrast, the typographic question in the Netherlands is not one of the ephemeral currency of style; rather Dutch designers have maintained a belief in the lasting relationship between designed form and positive social good. Emerging from academies which concentrate on the practice of type design, Dutch type designers draw on a uniquely coherent tradition and ideology. They are numerous and prolific and are sustained by a culture which views their project as one of significance.

Touring American and European centres of type design, and mapping out the varying positions of that activity within local cultures, this thesis runs contrary to traditional typographic histories. While such histories propose that typographic value is transcendent, emerging independent of context, here typographic worth becomes contingent. Of course, typographic and graphic form can be evaluated in a manner that pays no heed to the circumstances in which the letterforms employed in specific pieces were created. For example, an interpretation of Barry Deck’s Template Gothic as it appears on London’s club flyers does not necessarily require an appreciation of the typeface’s West-coast origins. In such a case, it might be more valuable to look at such an object in terms of how it is received by its audience. Travelling along typographic design’s food-chain, different modes of analysis become appropriate; what remains is the necessity of a contextual understanding.

While each chapter concentrates on the local and specific, there are several themes that nonetheless run through the entire body of this thesis. For example, uniting the previous chapters are questions about the impact of technological innovation. It has been argued that the device-independent typesetting technologies that were introduced in the late 1980s have encouraged diversity amongst type design practitioners. While typographic traditionalists such as Walter Tracy might fear that this diversity comes at the expense of professional skill and expertise, this thesis shares the assumption of most writers on new technologies that diversity is generally positive (and also that encounters with mouse and screen are no less authentic or worthy than those with pen and paper).[688]

Welcoming the variety that digitisation has brought, this thesis acknowledges that the potential of new technologies to promote positive outcomes has been somewhat compromised. Technological utopianism must be tempered by the recognition that, in itself, technological innovation cannot overcome established inequalities. Unfettered, it may well aggravate the gulf between haves and have-nots; issues of access (not just to technologies, but to education and opportunity) become ever more pressing. Also, while properties inherent to digital technologies might appear to favour diversity, monopolistic practices on the part of the businesses involved in developing and distributing these technologies might act to curtail any genuine choice. If a large part of the technologies which we employ to communicate information come under the control of any single corporation, Microsoft or the Murdoch empire being the obvious candidates, difference is likely to become no more than cosmetic and considerations of capital gain will certainly overshadow those of social good.

A related theme which runs through this thesis is that of post-professionalism: patterns of type design practice that have emerged in the wake of the established type profession. This profession, one which evolved over the century since the introduction of mechanical typesetting, was the victim of the changes in the structure of the type business that were the outcome of the advent of device-independent typesetting. No longer sponsored by large industry, type design fell into the hands of a scattered and culturally diverse group of individuals. This development is positive in that many of the barriers that might have prevented individuals exploring type design have been removed, but it is not without negative implications.

Type design has become a financially insecure business; there are no guarantees that a particular design will sell. Furthermore, given the prevalence of software piracy, it is impossible for designers to ensure that they are rewarded for even the most successful of their fonts. Also, there is now very little investment in new type design, and for the most part it is the designers themselves that fund the development of new faces. This has obvious ramifications for new generations of type designers. Existing practitioners suffering from uncertain incomes are in no position to train and encourage new generations. To offset this bleak picture, it is important to remember that individuals have continued to design engaging and significant typefaces over the last ten years. Put upon the desktop and into the hands of varied group of visual communicators, type has become the object of a heightened interest. With luck, this will continue to be enough to offset the problems that face those hoping to make a living from its design and distribution. With even more good fortune, the existing independent type design practices that have been documented in this thesis will survive the expanding power of the monopolistic global corporations.

Another discussion that has been implied throughout the body of this thesis, one that arises in virtually all discussions concerning graphic and typographic form, is that of style and communication. Often presented as opposing goals (style vs. communication), the aim of this thesis was to suggest that typographic style and typographic communication are related. To summarise, it has been assumed that there is no communication without style; neutral, communicative form does not exist. This is not to say that all style can be justified in communicative terms, and that all style promotes positive communication: it is possible that style can be devoid of significant communicative purpose. Throughout this thesis judgements about style, communication and content have been made on a case-by-case basis. It is important to remember that the content of form is heavily dependent on context, constructing any kind of fixed hierarchy would be inappropriate.

A contemporary debate arising around style and content takes the theme park as its trope. Addressed in the collection of essays Variations on a Theme Park (Michael Sorkin ed. 1992), the suggestion is that forms that were once associated with meaningful social and cultural experience have been reduced to elements in a marketing exercise. Eventually the world becomes a shopping mall and cultural diversity is no more than a themed overlay mounted on commercially instilled uniformity. Applied to debates about typographic form, it is easy to see that formal variety might be used to disguise an underlying conformity. Welcoming the breakdown of existing typographic hierarchies, it is important to remember that there are still significant judgements to be made regarding typographic value.

The decade 1987-1997 has witnessed major changes in the practice of type design, and also in typographic form. A product of these changes, the typographic scene of the late 1990s remains in flux. To a certain extent there has been a consolidation – the explosion of novel typefaces that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s is over. Distributors such as FontShop have slowed the rate at which they release new fonts through their FontFont range and the type world in general has become more cautious than it was in those giddy years immediately after type design and typesetting technologies were made widely accessible. The most pressing issue in the contemporary type world is that of the transfer of a large part of typographic activity from print to pixel. Type designers have to deal with and strive to overcome the limitations of screen technology. Moreover, now that typefaces have become software, these designers must negotiate a position whereby font software is recognised to be of significant value. It must be acknowledged that the design of such software is an activity worthy of nurture and financial reward.

One of the premises of this thesis was that broader access to type design and typesetting technologies have made type the subject of increased attention. Qualifying this premise, it is important to remember that, while many individuals are offered the chance to choose the typeface that they use, most simply go for the default font. Unless some kind of typographic awareness is instilled into new generations of users, choices other than the default option might cease to exist. In asserting the value of type, it is less appropriate to attempt to rebuild collapsing typographic hierarchies than to re-assess the role of typographic meaning in contemporary visual culture.


[684] . p.48, Barthes, Roland, 1987, Criticism and Truth, (trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman), Athlone Press, London

[685] . This process is described in the introduction to this thesis.

[686] . Editorial, Fuse 1, Summer 1991

[687] . Mike Parker, 1/6/96

[688] . For example, see Being Digital (1995) by digital evangelist Nicholas Negroponte.