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


The start date of this thesis, 1987, is the year that PostScript, the device-independent digital typesetting technology, became widely available. Quickly taken up, by the early 1990s PostScript had become the typesetting industry’s standard technology. Significantly, PostScript software allowed type to be designed and set on relatively inexpensive equipment that could sit upon a desktop. As an outcome of the introduction of that technology, the activities of type design and typesetting were able to escape traditionally defined professional bounds. Type began to emerge from a wide range of contexts, becoming an extremely varied and unevenly textured practice. The purpose of this thesis is to explore some of these contexts, and in doing so to offer a broad model within which to understand the typographic forms that have emerged in the first decade of device-independent digital typesetting. By placing particular typefaces within an appropriate cultural context, this thesis aims to piece together an interpretative map of contemporary type design practice: a map which will draw on typographic history, design history and also the broader body of work that is gathered together under the heading cultural studies.

Embarking upon this project in September 1993, I was drawn to the subject by the evidence all around me of an excitement that had gathered around the business of type design and typography. In magazines and newspapers, on billboards and even television screens, new typefaces were becoming visible at a marked rate. No sooner had a typeface appeared than it was taken up by large but diffuse community of users, leading to repeated and marked changes in the contemporary typographic environment. As a graphic design historian I found this phenomenon a little bewildering: from where had these typographic forms emerged and what forces had prompted their dispersal? Offered the broad brief of exploring the impacts of new technologies on graphic design, I chose to concentrate on these new faces. My original aim being to acquire a grasp on a phenomenon that threatened to escape me; to place emergent typefaces in a relevant cultural spectrum.

I was confirmed in this quest by the apparent paucity of the existing commentary on the subject. For the most part reviled by the traditional typographic community, these typefaces had received scant and dismissive commentary from established typographic critics. With a few worthy exceptions (the debate conducted through the pages of West coast-based Emigre magazine immediately springing to mind), very little attention was being paid to this significant area of design activity beyond a fairly meaningless buzz created by the design press. As an outcome of the lack of secondary source material dealing with the recent design of type, I have had to seek information direct from the designers themselves. This has meant conducting a large part of my research at the site of the design process, interviewing designers within their working environments. These have ranged from suites of studios to spare bedrooms housing Macintosh computers, offering physical demonstration of the variety of circumstances within which contemporary typefaces are designed. These encounters have been uniformly productive, and without the support and interest of the community concerned with the design of new typefaces this project would not have been possible.

I conducted the first designer interview with Barry Deck in June of 1994 and the last with Jonathan Barnbrook in March of 1997. I rushed to talk to Deck at the outset of my research because of the high visibility of his typefaces, particularly Template Gothic, at around that time. This interview proved very useful and set the agenda for much subsequent research. In particular, Deck made it clear that the activity of type design carried with it a great deal of cultural baggage and that there was an established typographic culture of which he did not feel part. I came to Barnbrook last because, as a neighbourhood designer and friend, I trusted him to remain accessible and knew that we would have the chance to mull over the range of issues that had been raised during the bulk of the interview process. Conducting more than 30 interviews in around as many months, I tried as far as possible to keep to a consistent set of questions. These questions were refined over time and often prompted wide-ranging discussions which strayed far beyond the bounds of the original enquiry. Designers did not just contribute information about their own practice, but in many cases helped me to construct a broader picture of type design. The historical and contextual understanding of designers such as Erik Spiekermann and Jonathan Hoefler proved invaluable as I began to draw together the strands of this thesis.

Coming fresh to the subject of type design, at the outset of this project I had a great deal of enthusiasm for the flood of new letterforms that had appeared since the late 1980s. Over the course of my research, during many hours spent at St Bride Printing Library, my attitude shifted and I came more and more to appreciate traditional typographic craft. I do not accept the notion of absolute typographic perfection promoted by some traditionalists, but exposure to the work of individuals such as Matthew Carter and Robert Slimbach awoke in me an admiration for the skilled execution of traditional typographic form. Over the last six years, and thanks to the many designers who have given me their time, I am pleased to have arrived at a catholic and heartfelt appreciation of typographic form.

While I was required to seek out primary information regarding the design of type, a secondary literature did exist concerning certain topics related to that subject. For example, debates regarding the impacts of new technologies, actual and possible, have been pursued in numerous books and articles. These debates have been explored in some detail over the course of this thesis (mainly from Marshall McLuhan onward, but with the occasional nod to theories emerging earlier in the twentieth century) and have shed significant light upon approaches and attitudes toward type design in the digital age. Also important to the construction of the arguments put forward within this text are the interpretative schemes drawn from the field of design history and the broader territories of cultural studies. Work from these disciplines informed the questions that were asked of the primary material that has been collected together here, and in some cases offered models within which to set that information.

A synthesis of a broad body of primary and secondary research, there are a number of questions that unite the body of the thesis. Exploring the contemporary practice of type design, one of the central questions of this text regards the relationship between the culture that gathered around type design and typography in the decade 1987-1997 and the culture that sustained those practices in the past. This in turn prompts a discussion of whether it is productive to speak of a coherent typographic culture at all, either contemporary or historical. Raising questions concerning the cultures of production and the production of culture, these are debates that have been central to the discipline of cultural studies. They are pursued in this thesis, but are inflected by a recognition of the particularity of the subject in hand.

The early part of this text deals with historiographic and methodological issues: the first section establishing existing models of typographic history and criticism and the second exploring how these models relate to those of the broader discipline of design history. Both these sections attempt to place this thesis within existing bodies of work, indicating how these have been built on or synthesised within this account. Following those introductory sections, the first chapter chronicles the development of device-independent typesetting: from anticipatory technologies, through the technique’s earliest days, to the point at which it became the industry-standard typesetting technology. The purpose of this chapter is to establish the technological context of this enquiry and to emphasise just why it is that these technological changes are of such significance.

The next four chapters offer a map of contemporary type design practice. Concentrating on four global centres of type design activity – the East and West Coasts of the United States, London and the Netherlands – a guiding question is whether the practice of type design is uniform across these centres, or whether it occupies a different place within each of these geographically defined cultures. These sections explore whether the forms of contemporary digital alphabets, many of which do have a global currency, are in some way inflected by factors specific to the locale of their design.

Characteristic of the decade that is the focus of this survey, is the emergence of the small-scale type designer/distributor. The proliferation of these individuals is, to a great extent, the outcome of the introduction of device-independent digital technology which has permitted the design and distribution of typefaces from the desktop. Conducting primary research in the characteristically diminutive outfits maintained by these type entrepreneurs, naturally the question arose as to whether their concerns would prove to be more locally-based than those of the large-scale international corporations which formerly dominated the business of type design. No longer a practice dominated by a well-regulated group of individuals working for a global market, type design is now in the hands of a scattered and diverse group of individuals; no longer a profession, it could now be called a post-profession. The aim of this thesis is to present an accurate picture of the activity of type design in its first post-professional decade, and in turn to offer a satisfactory model within which to interpret the contemporary letterform.