A Typeface By Any Other Name Still Reads As Sweet

Originally published on DesignTaxi, 05 May 2008 (article link).

 Artwork by  Matt W. Moore

Artwork by Matt W. Moore

MADE IN HISTORY

An early childhood quirk I picked up was a refusal to read any book that was printed in a font I didn’t like. My theory was that if it wasn’t nice at first glance I probably wouldn’t like to read 500 pages of words dressed in it. 

This unfortunate mistake didn’t last very long, as you can well imagine, even as I disagreed with books printed in typefaces akin to the Times New Roman style. 
 
Since the digital age came around and gave every typographer a run for his money, it has been relatively easy for anyone to get acquainted with fonts, thereby nurturing subsequent misuses of Comic Sans MS in resumes worldwide. Obviously the thought process initiated here must have been to find a font that expresses your personality best. On the other hand, I would applaud a British youth who might have affected a similar hypothesis and arrived at the conclusion of applying Old English Text MT script. If typefaces could signal a reader a hint at your personality in a split second, perhaps it would work as well in indicating your nationality through a type’s design. 

Who could we chastise then, for inflicting upon us the myriad of choices that constantly befuddle those lacking adequate judgment? 

The printing process has a long, intriguing history to its name ever since people realized the ineffectiveness of hand-writing 100 volumes of the same book. In China, wooden movable type developed in the late 13th century is perhaps the first real “printing press”, as this technique allowed the production of texts on a larger scale. The process was widely adapted in Japan and Korea, and gave the basis for mechanical printing presses later developed around the mid-15th century in Germany. 

Type production techniques steadily progressed and paved the route for many a type designer, the pivotal impact of which was the emergence of the American Type Founders post-industrial revolution in 1892. Unlike a European scribe painstakingly imprinting elaborate strokes upon parchment pieces, the prevalence of mass printing allowed design to flourish on an unimaginable scale. 

EVERYDAY TYPE & YOU

Type is immersed in everyday life. It is in the bold advertisements at the train station on your way to work. It is in the sign outside the drugstore where you purchase your morning mints. It is even on the pack of morning mints. It has become nearly impossible to segregate or identify typefaces geographically speaking. Advertisements and posters flaunt thousands of typefaces that bear no geographical roots. 

Designers worldwide have at their fingertips a database of fonts pulled straight from an online foundry. The selection of a font for a particular advertisement, editorial or headline would first and foremost relate to its subject matter and brand image. All secondary specifics like whether or not it is targeted at the youth, yuppie, matured audience, or if it simply delights the client, come into play after the first has been considered. Rarely, I would think, a geographically-significant font comes to mind when bridging the same advertisements cross-continentally. 

Beverages are sold worldwide in a slew of multi-lingual languages, sparking off a few overzealous ambitions to collect such different packaging, like the Arabic or Chinese Coca-Cola cans. 

Personally, I would like the label on my beer bottle to hint the country in which it was brewed. 

cocacola.jpg

The image on the far right was created by Filipino teacher and author Christopher Sundita currently residing in Seattle. Baybayin is a script derived from Philippine’s ancient history. Ironically, he used a stylized Baybayin Tagalog typeface designed by Paul Morrow, a Canadian residing in Canada. 

More likely than not, a digitally designed contemporary typeface does not signal a geographical heritage in today’s burgeoning creative society anymore. The influx of information through various highly accessible mediums has inspired a new design process in its wake. A German man who migrated to France sitting at his desk facing the World Wide Web can be inspired by the African Ge’ez script to create a new typeface. But how far can you argue the authenticity of this new typeface’s African, French and German roots? 

A contemporary typeface is immediately identifiable, such as David Carson’s works or the Saul Bass style. However, these typefaces only hint at the environment in which these artists are immersed. They are not “purely American”, they are not “America” in lineage, but they reflect an American culture. And this culture is closer to you than you think, be it from a standing point in Japan or from Arabia, both of which are cultures respectively rich in heritage, and whose influence have not gone unnoticed in America. 

The script of a nation’s language implies significance of its heritage and traditions, an example to be found in the curving strokes of Chinese calligraphy or in the steady wave of the Arabic form. In context, the modern day design of a font is its designer’s own, whether it signals his identity or culture. Here, taking into consideration a nation’s script, a hybrid typography of sorts is born. Systematic mass production in the past now takes a backseat to the freewheeling creation of the digital age. 

HYBRID TYPOGRAPHY

Just as there are different reasons for creating a piece of art, typeface designs are not always derived from a need to embody culture or geographical elements. Microgramma, a futuristic-looking typeface, was first designed by Italian type designer Aldo Novarese in an all uppercase format that he later adapted into the now well-known Eurostile. Released in 1962, it is a modern, sleek font that displaces geographical identity and age. Its harsh, no-nonsense style now depicts words foretelling the future and other modern day advertisements. 

In the same vein, Talib was born courtesy of American designers Ben Wittner and Sascha Thoma. The font has been described as an “intercultural type research project dealing with the hybridization of Latin and Arabic typographic forms, exploring the effect of globalization on contemporary graphic design”. The designers were inspired from their one-year stay in the visually-stimulating Egypt. 

  Image courtesy of    Die Gestalten Verlag

Image courtesy of Die Gestalten Verlag

Hats off to the designers – their project’s scope and foundation are impressively rooted in the vein that spans both historical (Latin and Arabic) and modern (globalization) elements. 

However, this project does not come significantly new to me. Although gravely lacking in-depth similarities with the Talib project, I cannot ignore the integration of faux Chinese typefaces into modern culture. Surely, who can turn a blind eye to many a Chinese restaurant signboard in America splayed with this endearingly nostalgic typeface? 

  Image courtesy of    San Diego Daily Photo

Image courtesy of San Diego Daily Photo

  Image courtesy of    The City of Austin.com

Image courtesy of The City of Austin.com

THE ABC OF TYPE

I believe we will be seeing more of hybridized typefaces that would herald the future with its design rather than delve into the past. At face value, many of these hybrid fonts already bridge well known cultures with a near-instinctive, pop cultural intuition that is engraved onto many people in this modern day global village. 

Most ancient scripts like the Indus or old Turkic script retains less mystery these days with the multitude of research being poured into it. Years from now when we look back at hybridized fonts encompassing various influences, what feelings will we encounter first and foremost? The modern day design process has nearly eliminated this mystery and fostered a global village identity. In the future, hybridized typefaces may no longer bear geographical implications, but perhaps bear the identity of an era.