The New Grotesque

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Pa­trick Wit­ton

When it was de­cided ear­lier this year that the Monthly would un­dergo a re­design – from the mast­head down – there were meet­ings. Ideas were floated, per­cep­tions were ques­tioned, things were said, and (as al­ways hap­pens when dis­cussing con­cepts) hand ges­tures in­ten­si­fied. For 12 years the magazine had os­ten­si­bly looked the same; changes thus far had been in­cre­men­tal – a drop cap here, a dinkus there. This time, how­ever, even the type­faces were to be re­freshed: a change from Baskerville to Gara­mond for the text you’re read­ing now, and a brand-new cre­ation – dubbed Schwartz Grotesque – for ti­tles and pull quotes. Dis­cussing over­all de­sign is one thing, but when it comes to the par­tic­u­lars of a type­face (the gen­eral look of a char­ac­ter set) or a font (the par­tic­u­lar size and “weight” of those char­ac­ters), nomen­cla­ture us­age peaks. It’s in this realm that lan­guage does a 580-year U-turn and peo­ple start talk­ing of “bevels”, “lig­a­tures”, “pothooks”, “barbs”, “spurs” and “frak­turs”. It is a world dom­i­nated by the likes of Her­mann Zapf (of Palatino fame) and Paula Scher (to whom even de­sign schools turn when they want a new look). Here, the el­e­ments of a by­gone era’s ma­chin­ery-filled, inky fac­tory mesh with those of to­day’s pixel-pre­cise desk­top.

“Look at me and ig­nore me” is not easy to get right, but it is dread­fully easy to get wrong.

The skill in de­sign­ing a type­face is twofold: mak­ing a state­ment with the shape of the let­ters with­out de­tract­ing from the words that they cre­ate. As Si­mon Garfield writes in his com­pre­hen­sive paean Just My Type (set in Sabon MT ), a type­face “should merely pull you in; once it has cre­ated the de­sired at­mos­phere it does well to slink away, like the host at a party”. “Look at me and ig­nore me” is not easy to get right, but it is dread­fully easy to get wrong, as the sci­en­tists who dis­cov­ered the Higgs bo­son in 2012 found out when they made their his­toric pre­sen­ta­tion in the

much-de­rided Comic Sans. One Twit­ter user likened it to “play­ing JS Bach on a ukulele”. What’s more, any word-pro­cess­ing pro­gram boasts a drop-down menu of hun­dreds of type­faces: old, new and ridicu­lous. This is, as Garfield says, “the spill of his­tory”, and surely in­cludes a style for any sit­u­a­tion, from baby-shower in­vi­ta­tions to ran­som notes. With this in mind, Fabian Harb, who was tasked to de­sign the Monthly’s new type­face, knew that it was nec­es­sary not to rein­vent the wheel but to echo and en­liven that which had gone be­fore. Di­namo, Harb’s type foundry in Basel, Switzer­land, looks about as un­foundry­ish as a busi­ness can: a shopfront hous­ing long desks and white walls, with nary a cru­cible of molten metal. From here he has worked with busi­ness part­ner Jo­hannes Breyer on type­faces for Bri­tish record la­bel Warp and the Es­to­nian pav­il­ion at the Venice Bi­en­nale. For the Monthly’s new look, the cheery 30-year-old’s start­ing point was a type­face called Times Gothic, which he de­scribes as “a re­al­ist sans serif by clas­si­fi­ca­tion, and one of the ear­li­est Grotesques”. These are the fam­ily of solid, head­line-friendly de­signs that be­came pop­u­lar in the early 20th cen­tury as news­pa­per publishing tech­nol­ogy ex­panded. Harb orig­i­nally thought Times Gothic had a con­nec­tion to the more fa­mous Times New Ro­man, cut in 1931 for Lon­don’s Times news­pa­per, but some ar­chive-dig­ging at the Klingspor Mu­seum of book art and ty­pog­ra­phy, just out­side of Frankfurt, re­vealed that Times Gothic pre-dated Times New Ro­man by at least two decades. Where the de­sign for the Monthly’s type­face de­parts from Times Gothic, Harb ex­plains, is in its “di­a­met­ric an­gled ter­mi­nals” – the end­points of lines in a let­ter’s de­sign (the base of a “t”, for ex­am­ple) are cut on an an­gle in har­mony with the rest of the let­ter. Giv­ing a let­ter this treat­ment “opens up the coun­ters [the open area within a let­ter, such as the white round of a ‘d’] and in­creases read­abil­ity”. He points out that there is al­ready so much com­plex­ity em­bed­ded in the al­pha­bet – “bor­ing let­ters like ‘I’, ‘l’ or ‘o’ are sit­ting in be­tween crazy and dy­namic ones” – that a poor de­sign, one that doesn’t con­sider all el­e­ments, would too eas­ily “make you feel and read the type­face more than the words and the con­tent”. His de­sign for the Monthly aimed to be a lit­tle on the heavy side – firm and sturdy. To achieve this, he in­creased the con­trast a lit­tle in com­par­i­son to its his­toric ref­er­ence, giv­ing the new type­face a “me­chan­i­cal char­ac­ter”. And it is at this stage that Harb’s de­scrip­tions move from dispassionate ap­pear­ance to con­cepts of per­son­al­ity and be­hav­iour. He hopes the type­face has a “feel of hon­esty and self-con­scious­ness – that it doesn’t do any tricks to make it­self look any bet­ter than it is”.

“Words have mean­ing and type has spirit, and the com­bi­na­tion is spec­tac­u­lar.”

For read­ers, this new type­face may catch their eye, and per­haps be jar­ring ini­tially, but if its pres­ence even­tu­ally bows to al­low the text to per­form its role, then the ob­jec­tive will have been met. As Paula Scher fa­mously (in cer­tain cir­cles) said, “Words have mean­ing and type has spirit, and the com­bi­na­tion is spec­tac­u­lar.”

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