Digested on November 1, 2005Posted by David Earls
Should we expect digital typefaces to last forever, this is the question posed by Adobeís Thomas Phinney in his recent blog entry. I started to read the article and stopped myself getting beyond the first few paragraphs for two reasons. I wanted to have a stab at the subject without having outside influences affecting it, and more importantly, I think a blog discussing a blog would be just a little bit nerdy even for me, and I donít trust myself not to react to his opinions rather than forming my own. So thats the last reference Iíll be making.
What is a typeface? Is it software, or is it a creative work, or is it a machine, or a tool? It is all of these things, but of course our choice of label for its defining characteristics, its USPs to give a passing embarrassed nod to the marketeers on which our economics works, is key. What is a typeface most to you? Let us get the first myth out in the open for what it is straight away. If I listen to music on my iPod, the qualia created in my mind as a result of that music is not created by software. Software is, according to the data retrieved and displayed (and this transformed into information) within Mac OS Xís dictionary software, ďthe programs and other operating information used by a computer.Ē. Data, on the other hand, is ďthe quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer, being stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals and recorded on magnetic, optical, or mechanical recording media.Ē It goes on to clarify that slightly nebulous description with a usage note of, ďData is now used as a singular where it means 'information': | this data was prepared for the conference. It is used as a plural in technical contexts and when the collection of bits of information is stressed: | all recent data on hurricanes are being compared.Ē. That qualia is created by information, by ďwhat is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of thingsĒ. Typefaces are a lot like music. Typeface arenít software either.
I suppose you could argue that in being an integral part of a system that creates the end output, typeface data (and for that matter, music data) could be classed as the ďother operating information used by a computerĒ, but, well, that is like saying that a song is just part of a violin. Typefaces (and, you guessed, music) are a specific form of data, theyíre ideas, they are the result of solving creative problems, they are inspiration and beauty, and as such are an expression of life, of humanity. Does that sound like software to you? I remember being lucky enough to visit Jeremy Tankard at his former studio in London when he was kind enough to grant me an interview. I remember feeling about 4 inches high as he told me he had just spent 3 weeks solidly kerning a weight of Bliss, hour after hour, day and night. Was that all just for the sake of software?
Why am I ham-fistedly hammering this point home with clumsy Welsh hands? I think it devalues high quality typography to label it as software, even if the designers themselves who label it so may be only doing so in order to obtain financial or reputation protection under antiquated and ill-fitting intellectual property law. By doing so, and by necessity of that IP law having to reject notions of typographic worth beyond that which can be measured or quantified in order to be tested under law, it strips away and devalues the humanity and beauty contained within a typeface. Iím a dreadful typeface designer, Iíve no style, Iím technically pretty ropey and everything is quite frankly obsessively geometric and pattern based, but so long as I am careful enough in FontLab, I can create a typeface that, in purely neat quantifiable software terms, is as good as the one in this siteís masthead above. Calling typefaces software discounts the gulf of knowledge, skill, creativity and flair between my infantile efforts and JFPís, for instance. Worse than that, in doing so we teach by example to those that come after us the wrong lessons about what motivates us as creatives to begin with, and how we see the value of our work within a wider societal context.
Of course, what calling a typeface software also does rather neatly is allow those who are not interested in what is not quantifiable (or to put it another way, those who care only about sales not beauty) to mis-apply the rules intended for the purely quantifiable to that which is not. Iíll come back to that later on in Part 2.
I donít think I need to spell out that I think typefaces are creative works, so lets talk about tools and machines. I am a graphic designer, so within that context I would argue that my computer is a machine that I use to create artworks, and that gives me access to specific tools, such as DTP packages, typefaces, image editors etc. Calling a typeface a tool in this context makes sense to me - I use the tool to shape and give certain properties (often designed to invoke specific qualia) to parts of an overall design created within a machine. This isnít new - my last sentence would work equally well when describing letterpress after all.
Letterpress, however, wears out. It is one thing to reject the idea of fonts as software, it is another to assume that fonts last forever, but we need to be clear, honest and upfront to begin with. As noted above, there is a Part 2 to this piece, where I want to discuss further the concept of type as a tool, and what it means to those who need to make a living from providing those tools, and those whoís living is made using them. Iím also going to discuss how I think that we should look again at the business models that are currently engaging with, and start instead to build a more sustainable model for our activities based not on the concept of product, but of service.
But for now, here is a photo from my trip away from grimey old London, to somewhere far more agreeable, followed by the words of a chap who is always more agreeable...
by Yves Peters
Youíll have to excuse me but I donít really feel like doing a full review of ATypI 2005 Helsinki - On the edge. One might be tempted to do a little comparison though. You may remember that David and the Typecon people had an almost-altercation a little while ago, both here and on Typophile. Now that Iíve experienced both conferences first-handed, I can attest that Tiff was spot-on in her blog entry. Yes, thereís more meat to the bones at ATypI when it comes to ďpure typeĒ, but the three tracks were sometimes too much if you have a broad range of interests ó I often felt like I was missing out on something else when I was attending a presentation, similar to what you can experience when youíre at a rock festival with several stages. On the whole it was a successful, interesting and highly enjoyable conference, with loads of social activity, very nice food and some kick-ass partying. And I was humbled by the amount of people that showed up for my presentation, especially since I was competing with the House Inc. superstars on Track 1. And whaddayaknow, now I finally have proof itís not all partying I do at conferences.
Two minor gripes though. First, Erik Spiekermannís impromptu fourth track should have been located somewhere near the main hall, not on some lost floor. That really was a missed opportunity. Second, as the T-shirts were already stuffed in the goody bags, you didnít have any say on what size you were getting. To my regret I can practically swim in mine (hey, thereís a reason I didnít call my column Bald Extended) which means Iíll probably never wear it. The Typecon system makes so much more sense: pick your size out of the appropriate box when receiving your goody bag.
So much for the conference experience. Before I dive into my reviews, thereís something Iíd like to clear up. People might start to think I have a vendetta against some of the majors, a secret agenda of some sort. That is so not true. Then again, I mean, come on, admit it, letís be honest, when you look at the two recent releases below ó theyíre asking for it!
First ITC releases ITC Avant Garde Gothic Pro in feature-rich OpenType version. Brilliant news for all you Seventies-fetishists out there (yes you, you know who you are, you just canít get enough of all those kewl geometric ligatures, can you?). Well, the bad news is they completely botched the oblique. Big time. Read this Typographica report by the ever-great Mark Simonson and weep. Iím not going to spend any more words on this slapdash job.
Then Linotype announces its new Bodebeck family (it was actually developed in 2002) by Swedish type designer Anders Bodebeck. To put it diplomatically ó itís not very good. Bodebeck looks like somebody slammed Trajan into Perpetua, reassembled the debris to piece together new glyphs, arbitrarily adding some Zapf curves (that uc D!) and then blurred the lot with a PMT camera. I find it difficult to understand that a foundry that boasts to be ďThe Source of The OriginalsĒ publishes such a derivative piece of work. As David correctly remarked when I was discussing this design with him:
ďIt would be unfair to describe this as a train wreck of a font, but itís certainly one Iíd be shunting into the buffers sooner rather than later. Itís all over the fucking shop, thereís no balance. Look at lowercase e, itís, you know, cute and all, but is it in the same typeface family really?ĒMy thoughts exactly. If this is representative for Swedish type, I dearly miss Stefan Hattenbachís refinement or Peter Bruhnís playfulness.
Frankly, Iím disappointed, and I resent having to have a go at the majors yet again. These are two mainstays, two type foundries with a rich history and ó up until recently ó an excellent reputation. I really donít get how they are willing to tarnish that very reputation and squander the goodwill of the type-loving community. And donít get me wrong ó Iím not saying all this to score points with our readers, but out of concern. Concern for the way in which major foundries release and market their fonts. This influences negatively the perception by the audience at large of the whole type industry. So, and I hope they donít take this personally, I feel it is my sacred duty to point them out whenever theyíre releasing crappy fonts. Consider this an attempt to coax them into being more self-critical.
A perfect example of how to do it right is the FontFont Library. Thanks to the Type Board which reviews any submission to the library, the collection is of a consistent quality, with hardly a hick-up. As a result of its success, FontFont has grown into the largest independent type collection, and boasts some undisputed best-sellers.
One of these best-sellers is FF Dax. Every time I see new additions to that face, the words of The Jamís Going Underground ring through my head: ďThe public gets what the public wantsĒ. You canít really blame FontFont for cashing in on this success story, but itís not for me. Itís all a tad too austere, too clinical. Although, the main problem I have with this family is that it is so insanely popular and so overused that thereís no way on earth I could use it. Donít get me wrong, Iím certainly not implying this is a bad type family, itís just that I feel enough is enough.
This time around, the Dax family gets augmented with a text cut: FF Daxline. Itís about time, because the number of times Iíve seen FF Dax used poorly as a text face... donít get me started. Surprisingly, FF Daxline salvages the family for me. It is more generous in width, with larger capitals and optically equal weights. This makes it into a real grotesque face. It somehow manages to lose that overly stylised, rigid atmosphere without abandoning those typical Dax characteristics. The new cuts are warmer and more inviting. Iím even inclined to say I like it quite a bit.
Another best-seller that gets expanded is FF Meta. The new Headline version comes in regular width, Condensed and Compressed. After ITC Officina, it was to be expected that FF Meta would get the headline treatment as well, as both presented numerous problems when tracked tightly in display settings. All those problems were addressed by tweaking the letter forms, and by introducing some alternate glyphs. Again, admirably well executed by Christian Schwartz, but how much FF Meta can one handle? We get the impression that Erik is going in ever narrowing concentric circles ó compare this one to FF Unit, a point I brought up in a Typographica article ó closing in on the ideal, perfect typeface. Is that even possible?
Christian Schwartz also releases a family of his own: the all uppercase FF Oxide. I donít get this guy, and I mean that in a good way. Heís freaky talented, but still manages to alternate his ďgourmet facesĒ (Amplitude, Farnham, ...) with seemingly casual reinventions of archetypes. For example he turned the geometric sans inside out with the high-brow Neutraface series, reinterpreting two related models into one family: Futura (Neutraface Alternate) and its improvement Avenir (Neutraface). Christian says about FF Oxide:
ď[The typeface] was really just something I had lying around on my hard drive that I decided to release because I realised there was some demand for it, and because I remembered that I had some fun using it back when I still did graphic design work. Itís a silly stencil face.ĒThe face explores the strict geometry of Agency, Bank Gothic and the likes. It obviously doesnít strive to be a ground-breaking design; itís content with being a relaxed, well-balanced, pleasant little family with just a smidgen of playfulness. And a beautiful A, Q and & by the way. If anything, this release proves that certain designers have stuff ďlying around on their hard driveĒ thatís simply better than what other people release as if it was Godís gift to typography.
Talking about Christian ó we were sitting next to each other during the presentation of the new Berling Nova type family by ÷rjan Nordling at the ATypI conference. The new digitisations looked absolutely brilliant. Everything was peachy until the last slide popped up onto the screen, showing some venues they wanted to explore with the family. Amongst them was ó you guessed it ó Berling Nova Sans. As if weíd rehearsed it, both Christian and I looked down, muttering: ďOh no...Ē When ÷rjan said he imagined Karl-Erik Forsberg looking over his shoulder and wondered what he would say, we ó again simultaneously ó spoke under our breath, with a wry smile: ďDonít do itĒ.
This just to say that I generally donít like people chopping off or adding serifs to existing typefaces. Itís not the same as when itís planned ahead ó the Dutch type designers get away with it more often than notó but when itís done afterwards it just feels like diluting a perfectly fine design. As with movies, the sequel is rarely as good as the original. Also using co-ordinated type systems is not that exciting at all and often results in safe, corporate-like design. Whatís wrong with combining a serif with a sans that are not of the same family? Use your imagination, for crying out loud!
FontFont are known for their co-ordinated families, and this release includes both an example of how itís done, and one... of the other kind.
The successful one is FF Absara Sans, a sans variation of FF Absara. This face by up-and-coming French type design star Xavier Duprť is inspired by the renaissance, and displays his pronounced personal style. Xavier clearly knows how to adapt a serif face to a sans variation, as his FF Absara Sans is not at all burdened by the serif forms itís derived from. His distinctive signature g is present, as are the recurring subtle Dutch influences. I particularly like the calligraphic, slightly angular details in the italics and the tense, open curves. A colourful multi-purpose family with a nice range of weights and all the typographical goodies one might need.
The one I like less is FF Signa Serif. Already I wasnít too wild about FF Signa for the same reasons Iím not very fond of the aforementioned FF Dax family Ė itís all quite cerebral and aseptic, and ultimately a bit boring. If I have to pick a Danish tech sans, give me FF Max any day. When examining FF Signa Serif from up close it becomes clear quite a bit of thought was invested in this serif version. Placement of serifs, stroke modulation and contrast ó everything looks well thought out. Itís a shame the end result is so strict, so rigid, it even borders on the aggressive. Seeing the different weights in a list, I couldnít help but thinking of a military parade, with the characters lined up like soldiers. Also, I donít understand why the family is marketed with the uprights and the italics in separate volumes. Personally I think this is a somewhat redundant expansion of a family thatís already spread out too thin.
I was always told to keep the best for last. In this instance that would be Veronika Burianís FF Maiola. This typeface, well... how can I put it? Itís ridiculous. Itís frustrating. And itís discouraging.
Itís ridiculous how much talent is on display here. This is a gorgeous face, showing a strong sense of nationality, referencing historical models but undeniably of the now. A peculiar trait is that I think this must be the first typeface where I somehow ďfeelĒ it was designed by a woman. Thereís feminine touches in some stroke endings and curves that are really refreshing. As Tiffany Wardle commented: ďMost men couldnít design with that much nuance. Or finesseĒ. Whatís odd is that it so obviously contradicts some of my preferences in type. I donít like sharp typefaces. Check. FF Maiola passionately cuts through the paper with its subdued angularity, the sharp serifs hook themselves in your subconscious, and those italics ó oh man what splendid italics they are ó bring it up a notch with their calligraphic quality. Iím not fond of Zapf typefaces. Check. Veronika ever so subtly references ó knowingly, or is it just my imagination? ó several Zapfisms, but that doesnít irk me. Thereís also some Veljovic and some Trump in there, all in the right doses.
Itís frustrating to see a first typeface thatís so accomplished, so complete and so incredibly well executed. Hey, weíre talking fully featured, multi-language, multi-script OpenType here! Sometimes, I secretly dream of having a go at type design myself, only to be dissuaded by the knowledge of what an incredible amount of work it actually is, and by seeing mind-blowing typefaces like this one. And lastly, itís discouraging to have to critique it, as it makes me feel inadequate and in way over my head, at loss for words and lacking the academic knowledge needed to properly analyse it.
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