STEPHEN COLES WALKS THROUGH SOME OF HIS FAVOURITE EXPERIMENTAL TYPE
When it comes to boundary-pushing type, it doesn’t get more inspiring than the extraordinary curated collection of lettering, typography, calligraphy and graphic design housed at San Francisco-based Letterform Archive. The ever-growing museum and special collections library boasts over 40,000 items, chronicling the history of written communication from medieval manuscripts through to today’s explosion of digital type. Work from design legends past and present - Piet Zwart, Massimo Vignelli, Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Irma Boom - is preserved alongside fascinating specimens of graphic design, stretching back through time and across different cultures.
Matthew Carter, Walker, 1995.
“Carter specialises in pared-down and elegantly utilitarian designs like Bell Centennial, Georgia, and Verdana. He treads more experimental waters to make this typeface with snap-on serifs of various lengths and shapes which – in the innovative hands of the Walker Art Center’s Laurie Haycock Makela – made up the institution’s distinctive identity of the late 1990s,” says Coles.
Susan Skarsgard, 26 of 26: Twenty-Six Alphabets, 2009. “This
set of prints demonstrate Skarsgard’s expressive reinterpretation of Latin letterforms through lettering and calligraphy,” says Coles. “Many of the pieces play with extremes in proportion and legibility. This is an exception to our other selections. As alphabetic compositions, not typefaces, they are final representations of artwork rather than typographic tools.”
Wim Crouwel, New Alphabet, 1967.
“One of the few alphabets to be ‘acquired’ by the MoMA, Crouwel’s idea was not just a typeface but a radical attempt to rethink the very shapes of Latin letters. His code-based forms were designed to be read by computers. In the end, New Alphabet was a commentary on the mechanised nature of modern communication, and not really intended to be used, but designers like Peter Saville (see Joy Division) have embraced its futuristic aesthetic,” says Coles.
“To experiment means to risk. Risk takes courage. Without courage, there would be no creativity.” ASTRID STAVRO SAWDUST CO-FOUNDER beauty that results from it.”
Of course, fusing together two fonts – while ensuring the characters worked together as a system – was challenging. The shapes, stem widths and proportions of the counters, for example, were different in the Regular and Bold weights, so modifications were needed. “It wasn’t only about putting one weight above the other; the interaction of the two weights had to be thought of as well. It was a challenge,” explains Mello.
His first task after receiving Stavro’s sketches was to modify FS Sally Regular to be closer to the Modern style, increasing its contrast, elongating the top serifs to become more in tune with the higher contrast, and adding ball terminals to some of the lowercase characters. “Then we merged this new Regular weight with the existing FS Sally Bold, which already had chunkier serifs,” says Mello. “The dividing horizontal line is slightly above halfway of the x-height: to the top we have a high contrasted, delicate type; and below it we have a firm and solid, bold type foundation. The nice aspect to it is that these two parts are in tune, and work together as a system. A bit like having two faces – like Batman’s enemy, or conjoined twins.”
FS Sally Triestina is now available to buy and each purchase comes with a beautiful limited edition, screen printed poster designed by Stavro, in which she graphically explores the experimental nature of the typeface. “We tried to make it more aesthetically pleasing by adding coloured backgrounds, treating each letter as if they were illustrations,” she explains.
Out in the wild, FS Sally Triestina is doing well: the typeface won Platinum in the Graphis Typeface Design competition and Stavro has spoken before about her surprise around its success. It was the first highly experimental typeface she had conceptualised, and she had found the split design unsettling at times during the design phase. “There was something odd about it; something that created a jarring sense of unease,” she recalls. “That’s precisely what makes it powerful.”
As a display font, FS Sally Triestina enjoys more freedom from the constraints of traditional type design rules than other categories of font. After all, as Coles points out, fonts are essentially tools. “They aren’t generally intended to be final works in themselves;
they are only alive when they are used,” he says. “So, to me, the most interesting examples of experimentation are those that are not just innovative in their appearance, but use experimentation to provide some sort of function not possible with conventional type. Then, in use, a unique aesthetic is derived from that functional experimentation.”
For this reason, two of his favourite projects in the Letterform Archive are Matthew Carter’s 1995 typeface Walker – a sans serif with optional serifs for certain letters, special ligatures, joining strokes and a flexible underlining system – and Wim Crouwel’s 1967 New Alphabet, a parametric font that uses only horizontal lines in an effort to rethink the shapes of Latin letters.
“A more recent example of this are new ideas stemming from variable fonts, a new format that allows type to be more dynamic,” continues Coles. “Most of these experiments have not seen practical use, but they provide a playground for testing the possibilities of the new technology. For example, what if fonts react to user interaction by changing weight, width, but also shape?”
While designers like Crouwel, the famed Dutch graphic designer, have long experimented with the idea of parametric and variable fonts, it’s only relatively recently that the technology to make and reproduce these fonts has become accessible – setting letters and language free from their static shell in the process.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for type design. And this digital backdrop takes us back to SPIN’s deliberately analogue Adventures in Typography. “The notion of customised typography and it being so prevalent right now – it’s got a huge amount to do with computers,” reflects Brook. “It’s easy, it’s immediate, it’s not as expensive as maybe an illustrator might be, or a photographer. There’s just a lot more type around. So for us it’s about accepting that, and thinking: ‘what if we bring the analogue, the biological, the world out there, into our typography?’”
One of the biggest challenges (and opportunities) of working in an experimental space is not knowing what the final outcome will be. This can be terrifying, but it can also be liberating. Stavro says that FS Sally Triestina forced her to leave her comfort zone, which helped her grow as a designer. “To experiment means to risk,” she explains. “Risk takes courage. Without courage, there would be no creativity.”
Brook agrees. He describes Adventures in Typography 2 as a “journey into typography’s darkest recesses”, driven by a “desire to go into the scary room”. It’s about trying to put yourself into a position, he elaborates, where you’re not so comfortable or sure about what you’re doing and challenging your aesthetic taste. It’s something we’ve become more and more comfortable with, the notion of experimenting, trying things out and making new things.”
Crucially for SPIN, the notion of play takes on a significant role, enabling the team to experiment and push the boundaries in a supportive environment, without fear of failure. And the project has had wider repercussions for the studio as a whole. Design
Left and above Astrid Stavro and Fontsmith’s Fernando Mello spliced two contrasting fonts together to create FS Sally Triestina, an experimental commercial font.
Above Adventures in Typography 2. Body Text saw the SPIN team attaching tape to their fingers to make an alphabet. “It’s funny how you know something so well but you can’t actually work out how to make it,” laughs Brook.