As I announced in my previous report of the 2016 edition of Typographics NYC, certain common themes became apparent during the series of lectures, along with overarching threads. The first of these was problem solving in typeface design, more specifically optimizing fonts for screens, building connections in a script without using alternates, and tackling reverse contrast in a serif text face.
Typeface design as a problem-solving endeavor
Tobias Frere-Jones opened the proceedings with the statement that typefaces are solutions, yet we keep running into new problems. One of the recent challenges in typeface design is text on screen. In his efforts to make rasterized letters on screen look like the forms he originally designed, Tobias discovered he could approach them as the optical sizes from the days of metal type. He applied the mechanics used in his design of the Retina type family for the Wall Street Journal to retool shapes and changing details in order to make the letters on the screen ‘feel’ the same as their counterparts in print.
Victoria Rushton recounted the genesis of her upcoming script typeface release. Victoria set out to create a casual connected script with as few ligatures and alternates as possible – a tougher challenge than you would expect. She had to go through countless iterations, because many solutions to optimize the connections between characters created new, unforeseen problems. This resulted in a seemingly endless string of permutations that ultimately led to a successful design.
Nina Stössinger guided us through the creation of Nordvest, her upcoming release with the Monokrom foundry. Nina investigated what happens when you isolate verticals and horizontals in a typeface and invert the stress. Her aim was to design a serif text face with subtly stressed horizontals that would not look weird but simply work, avoiding cowboy clichés in the process. To achieve this goal Nina had to cheat a lot, and learned that rules had to be broken gently. She had to devise well-considered new rules, to carefully make the results work.
Typefaces without borders
Another focus in the type design presentations was non-Latin scripts and the internationalization of typography, with lectures about the Bengali, Thai, and Chinese scripts. Dr. Fiona Ross stressed that newspaper publication keeps playing vital role even in the digital age, specifically when it comes to the development of typographic solutions for non-Latin scripts. She discussed the challenges of transferring the Bengali script—used in India by as many as the entire population of US—to Linotype typesetting machines. This involved the development of not only fonts, but also software able to handle the wide and deep forms typical for Bengali. One of the main difficulties was how to input over 300 glyphs, which was addressed by a phonetic keyboard where sequences of hits created compounds. Her story touched upon the first Bengali newspaper using digital typesetting in 1983, and the current conversion to OpenType of Bengali fonts.
Anuthin Wongsunkakon lamented how little people know about Asia, a fact exacerbated by the wrong image painted by the tourist industry. His examination of the way type behaves in the urban environment revealed how computer technology all but killed the rich vernacular lettering tradition in Thailand. Showing examples combining Latin and Thai–in both loop and loopless style–proved that traditional and modern typefaces can peacefully co-exist. Anuthin’s main takeaway was that if you see problems as opportunities, you will find you have a lot to do.
YuJune Park & Casper Lam started by dispelling some misconceptions about the Chinese script. They are currently developing Ming Romantic™, translating the oldest continuously used writing system to the screen. Tackling tensions between hand/machine and type/image, Yujune and Casper explore alternative approaches using modular units instead of brush strokes as basic construction elements. Working within the constraints of the screen has led to an organic simplification of the forms. Because of the staggering amount of glyphs needed, their typeface is developed gradually, like software, with version control.
Open Source fonts, typeface selection, and a little history
Not only typeface designers were present, also representatives of font foundries and type experts took the stage, talking history, open source fonts, and type selection. Riley Cran, founder of Lost Type Co-op, explained how the International Typeface Corporation, commonly known as ITC, changed the game for type design and distribution. By separating the typefaces from technology, their designs could easily be adapted to a succession of typesetting systems. The fact that typefaces were once connected to machines was the main cause of piracy. ITC was not only known for the typical aesthetics of their designs (large x-height, tight spacing,…), but also for their values: crediting designers, paying royalties, adapting to new technologies, and encouraging aesthetic innovation.
Rob Giampietro reminded the audience that typography is the greatest invention since the wheel, as it accelerates information. Graphic systems often develop through solving typographic problems. He showed some of his work, drawing parallels with historic examples and making interesting connections. Rob then introduced the new Google Fonts directory, where many typefaces are currently being revised and expanded to meet the requirements of current typographic practice.
Indra Kupferschmid advocated for using new, contemporary parameters for selecting typefaces instead of the classic ones. These include readership and reading circumstances, types of content, size and proportions, material and production, and licensing. Type and lay-out are very important on the web because all viewports look the same. When asking users for their reasons for choosing overused typefaces, no replies were related to aesthetics or design. This is why it is so important to inform users of alternatives, with use cases. Indra gave enlightening examples, delving into the little-known area of license plans and prices to inform the selection of fonts.
Typefaces as the voices of media and publications
The media and publication world had a clear presence at the conference, showing how design and typography can help overcome the shifts in the media landscape. Eduardo Danilo showed how his studio designs publication experiences, drawing on 25 years of experience working on over 2000 media projects. After a first self-designed typeface, Eduardo started commissioning Font Bureau custom typefaces for these projects. Design is still an answer for media who have been disrupted by move to digital, and Eduardo recommended to design for a brand experience across platforms. Because type is 80% of the design experience, make type both the voice and the personality of the brand—more than simply conveying information, it also conveys atmosphere and feelings. Eduardo wrapped up with the slogan for the conference: everything begins and ends with type.
Tracy Ma did a portfolio presentation about her work as Deputy Creative Director for Bloomberg Business Week. With Christian Schwartz’ Neue Haas Grotesk as the corner stone of the typographic palette, she created designs that were type-driven, full of irony and in-jokes. Talking about irony–her presentation glitched at the very moment she showed an issue designed with Comic Sans. Tracy didn’t shy away from controversy in her typeface and design choices. Because she never treated the audience like idiots, Tracy’s work was polarizing and exposed her to the anger of internet bros. Her goal was to make work that is either hated or loved by people.
Francesco Franchi doesn’t believe in the vaunted end of print. We live in a golden age of magazines, where we need to rethink the value of print magazines. Because print is expensive, the content needs to be worthwhile. The designer is now also organizer and planner. Francesco’s design for IL, the monthly magazine of Ideas and Lifestyle by Sole 24 Ore, looked both to the past and to the future, rethinking workflow and language. His portfolio presentation revealed a clear emphasis on typography and information design.
Typography as art, on and off the page
Another category were the designers who use type in exemplary ways, and who wowed the audience with dazzling portfolio presentations. Pentagram partner Emily Oberman showcased her work in the entertainment industry, with each time the end of one project leading to the next job, like some sort of common thread. Marta Cerdà Alimbau is not a type designer nor an illustrator, but uses both in her work. The common thread in her eclectic work is the urge for expression. The projects she showed made connections between illustration, calligraphy, lettering, and type design. Stephen Doyle likes it when words get up off the page and enter the world. His work exhibits a dynamic tension between words and objects. Stephen’s guiding principle is that designing without borders is so much more rewarding than staying within a channel.
Gabriele Wilson showed book covers and other design projects where type was primordial. She posited that there should always be a connection between the art and the typography. And when you get stuck during the design process and you don’t find the answers, you simply need more information. Jakob Trollbäck told how he began as a DJ, bought an Apple Macintosh and books, and started experimenting under the monicker Par Avion. After being hired by Greenberg Associates, he started typographic explorations for the TED conference idents. His mantra is “Discard everything that means nothing”. Douglas Riccardi quipped that there are fonts that say pizza, and then there are certain fonts that will never say pizza, no matter how much drop shadow and peperoni you add. In his food branding he looks for connections between letter forms and cuisine. Whereas previously culture and geographical location steered his selection, nowadays emotions tend to define the typographic palette.
The socio-economic role of typography
Type and typography cannot be dissociated from the world surrounding it, and these speakers looked at it from a holistic viewpoint. Juliette Cezzar pointed out some worrying things have been happening in publications in the last years. After giving a brief overview of the history of newsapers and explaining what impact they had on our world view, she compared them to our current reading experience on digital devices. Typography matters because it expresses itself at any scale and creates identity: typesetting changes the perception of what you are reading. The current times are moments we only dreamt about, with an unheard-of sophistication of type online. You can do things on the web that you simply couldn’t do in print. Yet publications tend to go where the advertisement money is, and these days that is Apple, Google, Facebook, and so on. News stories are served on platforms that look like themselves, with no differentiation through type. This evolution reduces the need for new fonts, and investments for improving publications are stopping. Juliette painted a pretty bleak future for type design.
Elizabeth Carey Smith stressed the importance of the role designers play in the environment, visually and sustainably. Our sense of place is tied to the typography in the landscape. This typographic identity is for example what makes the difference between Europe and the United States. Elizabeth pondered how this changes when taken out of context, and what happens when it is applied to typeface design. Going through her collection of lettering ephemera showed that type is immortal, but its use has a lifecycle. Ghosts signs give us a voice from the past. Elizabeth contrasted these with today’s ‘jarring bullshit’, courtesy of corporations who have hijacked and homogenized our environment. Because corporate branding is stuck in Modernist principles that follow simple, strict guidelines, the branding of buildings creates problems when applied in the urban landscape. We need to fundamentally rethink these scenarios as cities cannot thrive in homogeneity.
Finally, Dan Rhatigan explored what is there before we design, when we open a blank document in an application. Dan believes in democratic approach to tools, and that what is considered good or bad is a very murky area. When we examine the decision-making in type selection, the main reason for the ubiquity of Helvetica and Times New Roman is the feedback loop created by major marketing efforts. Dan explained how the narrowing space in people’s assumptions reinforces associations and patterns. When all else fails, the default is what you see. Yet the limited palette of type choices makes people think harder about micro-typography. His parting tought was “What you have to say is important. Think about how you want to say it. Don’t let the tools say it for you.”
A great 2016 Typographics conference
This second edition Typographics was excellent, with a jam-packed program that began and ended at a reasonable hour, so you didn’t get that sense of conference fatigue that usually creeps in after a while. I was quite impressed by the quality of the programming. At most conferences there is a somewhat lesser talk here or there, but the lecture series on both days of Typographics formed a tense arc that transported the audience from one high point to the next. Alternating between informative, inspirational, and entertaining, the presentations left everyone energized and eager to go back to work after the two days.