We don’t need new fonts…
It seems to be a golden age of type design—not only are there more type foundries now than ever before, not only is distribution easier and more direct, not only is type a hot topic for numerous specialised blogs and magazines, but even the general interest media are in on the conversation, (if only occasionally). New type design courses are opening regularly, churning out legions of type designers. And there are now over 150,000 fonts available for direct download.
In spite of all the attention to type and the unprecedented conditions for type designers, the vast majority of new fonts desperately lack originality. Just as in the music industry, where cover versions and remixes are often more popular than new music, font designers seemingly prefer to exploit successful models from the past rather than strive for new solutions. Scant decades ago, new typefaces underwent a rigorous review procedure to ensure that they met the publisher’s artistic and technical criteria. Today, self-publishing has eliminated such processes, and there is little critical review, little effort to add something new to the evolution of the profession. Mediocrity abounds as quality control dwindles. Dozens of blogs (as well as the print media) simply republish press releases without distinguishing between marketing and independent reviews, praising uninspired fonts and institutionalising the average. Many design awards do the same, perpetuating a false idea of what constitutes superior quality. We don’t need new fonts like this.[signup]
In my decade of experience teaching at Type & Media I have seen many students enter the course with no previous experience in type design. Over the eight months of the course they learn the structure of letterforms and the principles of construction that allow them to create well-designed typefaces, (not always terribly original, but convincing executions without obvious mistakes). Having mastered the formal execution of type, they can then move on to think about how to apply their skills. Obviously, creating type that is too closely related to existing models doesn’t justify the effort involved. Or as my Type & Media colleague Erik van Blokland says: “If an existing typeface does the job, there is no reason to make a new one.”
Many people drawing type today have solid drawing skills, but no desire to advance the field (let alone rebel against it) by creating original solutions. Can we call them type designers? I think not, at least not any more than we can call every fast, accurate typist a writer. Content is at least as important as form, the ideas we express as important as how we express them.
Still, there are typefaces which haven’t been made yet and which we need. Type that reacts to our present reality rather than being constrained by past conventions; type for non-Latin scripts that gives its users more choices; type that brings readers from previous media to new ones. It is time to think about why we design type, not just how we design it.