Let­ter­form clas­sics

STEPHEN COLES WALKS THROUGH SOME OF HIS FAVOURITE EX­PER­I­MEN­TAL TYPE

Computer Arts - - 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.”

LIV­ING LET­TERS

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?’”

TAK­ING RISKS

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.

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