Published on March 4, 2014
Introduction to Typography 1 VDIS10020 : Lecture 4 Tutor Cal Swann A brief history of typographic form
Visible language, that is, the written word, may be said to have begun in the Mesopotamia region some 6,000 years ago. Attempts to make lists for records, for business, for religious purposes and government administration, required a more refined system than just pictures to tell a story. Impressing clay tablets with a stylus, painting/drawing hieroglyphics, were precursors to writing, leading to the development of the western alphabet system that finally recorded speech.
Early Greek capitals and then the immaculate Roman capitals carved on ceremonial columns brought the Latin alphabet to fruition, a superior system to the runes in northern Europe (nothing magical about runes), which nonetheless continued side by side with the Latin forms for centuries.
For several hundred years, scribes in the Middle Ages were the recorders of the official communications. Mainly religious documents were produced by individuals and teams of monks cloistered away in monasteries. They made everything themselves, stretched and cured the pigskin (vellum), cut their own pens and manufactured their inks, binding the pages into the codex (book) form. They used grids to guide the page layouts, pricking tiny holes through the vellum from a master overlay, sketching in the frameworks as they went –taking a lifetime maybe to turn out a few copies. Their painstaking work eventually evolved into the miniscule letterform (lower case) around the ninth century. That took another four hundred year or so to be refined as the Humanist roman in Italy.
Johann Gutenberg revolutionalised all that scribbling in 1442, to invent a factory book production system that could print hundreds of copies in months. In addition to creating single units of metal type, he adapted a wine press to do the printing. His 36 line bible (above) imitated the written books of his time, using a very condensed Gothic letterform with hand coloured illuminated initials. Gutenberg’s invention allowed each line to be adjusted to ‘square up’ both sides of the block of text by varying the space between the words. The traditional layout of the book was the layout for everything – odd sheets, proclamations, papal indulgences, and so on, all followed the centered layout. Modern book formats continue the manuscript conventions, even in e-book pages which we ‘turn’ in virtual simulation.
The black Gothic letterform gave way in Italy to the rounded Humanist roman, generally credited to the Italian scribe Poggio Bracciolini around 1406 (Ullman 1960). Printers like Jenson and Manutius were quick to establish fine printing factories in the new roman type fonts. Italy was in the midst of the Renaissance and the typography was strongly related to the round forms of the architecture and designs of the times – just as the narrow Gothic letters had emulated the tall and condensed architecture of the Gothic cathedrals. Fifteenth century Italian book production is regarded by historians as perhaps the first ‘classic’ epoch of typographic excellence.
It was another three hundred years for the mainly calligraphic letterform, to evolve into a more precise, engraved form appropriate for type cutting. Giambatista Bodoni (c. 1800) took this font to perfection and typifies what is perhaps the second classic period of clean and clinically precise typography. However, not before John Baskerville in England (c. 1750) had cleared the way with his transitional roman and the introduction of a smoother paper to print the sharp type characters upon.
The industrial revolution changed everything. An urban community required new letterforms that competed in the visual marketplace. The Victorians invented totally new type faces – sans serif, square serif, fat faces, extra extra bold, and so on. There was no real concept of design, it was up to the compositor to start at the top and work down, inserting big type for the headings. Still a bookish title page approach. John Parry painted the London street scene above in 1837, capturing a visual environment that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.
Things did begin to change toward the end of the century however, ‘artistic printing’ (top left) became prized and and printers started to compete and make big efforts to achieve an art look – enabled by advances in more accurate printing on machines like the Arab platen press, for example. Advertisers began using artists to sell products, the beginning of commercial art. Lautrec among many others, created lasting images around the turn of the century. It became the trendy thing to make memorable images by using well-known artists. Generally however, there still wasn’t much idea of design, even with the photographic process of half tone reproduction. The main pictorial output was through lithographic drawings on stones, printed offset. But governments as well as industry, were employing more sophisticated selling strategies to get their message across.
10 The modern age began in the twentieth century. Art was in revolution and new movements sprang up all over Europe. Partly spurred by the Great War, reaction was fierce against the old conventions. Many artists and architects were forging new principles to harness the machine age. The Bauhaus was set up in 1919 and grouped together a number of influential thinkers and doers. Herbert Bayer used photography and type very effectively. He also created a universal alphabet, a reaction against the then German practice of over using capitalisation. The design of the invoice above shows that all the modern concepts for business and functional stationery were in place by the 1920s, at least in the minds of the leading designers. Jan Tschichold (among others not of the Bauhaus) formulated ‘Die Neue Typographie’ and was a dominant influence on design throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.
11 England was slow to adopt the new typography and design approaches. William Morris had been influential in the revival of design consciousness but tradition died hard in the print shops of Blighty. Even so, international companies like Monotype, were creating and supplying fine new typefaces to the world and Stanley Morison supervised the introduction of Times Roman, for example. Beatrice Warde was an influential promoter for traditional design, coining the Crystal Goblet metaphor. Eric Gill was also one of those who produced a range of fonts for Monotype, most famously, Gill Sans and Perpetua. His purist (and somewhat archaic) approach to typography and even word spacing was espoused in his book above (1935). At the same time, Hitler was adhering to the Gothic fonts and very successfully branding Nazism with a vast range of quite deliberate propaganda and tight specifications for typography. Organised and strategic graphic design had arrived.
12 Post war design in England still swam along the art and crafts spirit while America and in particular Switzerland, were absorbing the influx of the Bauhaus practitioners – most of whom had been forced to exit Hitler’s Germany. The Swiss Typography, also known as the International Style, became the biggest influence around the world. Fully articulated in the 60s, the Neue Grafik journal, TM (Typografische Monatsblatter) and the Ulm (the new Bauhaus) journals all promoted systematic grid formulas. A lot of us became Gridniks. Worth noting – many typographers regard the 60s Swiss Typography as the third era of ‘classic’ typography, for its purist layout and precision printing. Swiss Typography was certainly more than style, it expounded legibility in mainly sans serif fonts, organised systematic photographic illustrations, all with an unabashed Modernist credo. The new graphik was good for you and everyone.
13 Karl Gerstner, Muller Brockmann, Hans Neuburg and many other Swiss artist/designers were prolific in their output of fine graphic works. This approach was exemplified in Armin Hoffmann’s ‘Graphic Design Manual’ (1965), and Emil Ruder’s classic ‘Typography’ (1967), both designers and teachers at Basel School of Design. Their pedagogic approach was a massive influence across the world.
14 The relationship of typography with the architecture of the day is always apparent. They reflect the design zeitgeist in visual expression, perhaps because both are also based on modular units and a systematic assembly methodology. Glass and concrete, text and paper, economic systems for the maker and user, repetition and pattern... less is more.
15 While the organised Swiss were wooing method designers in Europe, from across the Atlantic came a totally different breath of graphic air. Advertising, the staple of American commerce, ruled the waves across the US to the Pacific. Big, bold and brash, no hint of a grid in sight, the word was the image. Combining the two elements of image and type, American graphic design and advertising was about impact and communication. Gone were the cool aesthetics of European continental design, here was message making in the raw. And very effective with it. US designers had learned from the Bauhaus migrants who had escaped there from Hitler’s Germany, the Americans adding their pound of capitalist ‘we can do it’ credo. Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Gene Frederico and many more – plus those Volkswagen campaigns by Doyle Dane and Bernbach – made graphic history. We in Britain didn’t know which way to look.
16 Lou Dorfsman had a massive influence on a generation or three of designers. His creative work for CBS was seminal for corporate advertising. I had the privilege of seeing him present his work at the ATypeI Conference in Paris in 1967. His American adapt and publish-and-be-damned approach sparked a fight in the audience between the conservative continental type designers and Dorfman’s supporters. Fists flying and all that. Passions over-flowing in typography. Great stuff.
17 Metal type, the mainstay of letterpress until well after WW2, lost out to film in the 60s/70s. The Monophoto machine was doing all the typesetting, with offset printing as the production outlet. Film/photography was also being exploited by designers, not just for superimposing type on photographs, but using the lens to distort fonts and create visual messages. Franco Grignani in Italy (right) was an inspiration to all. TypoPhoto, the integration of type and image, was another graphic tool with which to make visual impact.
18 Computer generated graphics developed rapidly in the 80s, particularly in the film and TV world. The Ministry of Defence exploited the new technology for simulations in war games. The ‘Paintbox’ became the next big thing. Then in 1984, Macintosh launched the Apple Plus, doing for text and typography what the paintbox did for graphics and animation. A whole generation of digital designers marched into the 90s, sweeping away the few remaining constraints imposed by the old letterpress system. Designers born before the desktop revolution had to become digital migrants overnight or sink out of sight. Among others, April Greiman (ex student of Weingart in Basel), radicalised graphics in America. It was all change again. Coming to the fore, somewhat in place of the Swiss reputation, was the work of the Dutch typographers. Their brand of anarchic text, yet still embodying the best and the more flexible principles taken out of the Swiss modern movement, was fresh inspiration.
19 While the digital revolution was underway, advertising continued around the world to refine the American model. This anti-drink-driving campaign I photographed in South Australia in the mid 90s is typical of the exploitation of the word and image technique. Strong words that make sense when allied to the visual image. Communication is culture dependent. Unless you know that the Cooper’s beer is clear until you shake the bottle before pouring, this ad for Cooper’s Ale doesn’t make much sense.
20 Aside from advertising, Wolfgang Wiengart (who had replaced Ruder in Basel), trained a new generation of ‘Swiss/International’ graphic designers who spread around the world without any regard for the modernist conventions. Postmodernism was in, every and any style was melded in a new aesthetic and the ‘Typography of Order’ was decidedly out. The ‘Hundertwasser House’ apartment block in Vienna typified the total disregard for modernist square towers. Typography followed suit. Everywhere, the new technology offered incredible freedom to the typographic arts. Neville Brody in London, Jeffrey Keedy and David Carson in the US broke every rule in the typography book to the despair of the old ‘modern’ guard. Text was extra extra condensed, stretched and thrown across the pages in haphazard abandon. This was rejection of ‘ordered legibility’ with a vengeance. The Crystal Goblet shattered in uncaring disregard.
21 Emigre (California) and journals such as Eye (London), promulgated the discourse for the new and the old approaches. Designers took sides vehemently. Cranbrook College in US (Catherine McCoy) was foremost in exploring the notion that typography could now realise Derrida’s concept of multiple meanings of text. Layering of phrases over each other was supposed to allow the reader a choice of interpretations. Of course, it did the opposite, anchoring the reader to those the designer had already decided to present in artistic profusion. London had finally moved out of its doldrums of the 50s and prospered as a design centre from the 60s/70s/80s onwards, blending all approaches with verve and creativity. The eight innovative issues of the journal ‘Octavo’ enjoyed the opportunity to express all that was new in a subtle blend of modernism and postmodern digital wizardry. Their tongue in cheek version of Bridgit Wilkins’ historical expose was a parody of multiple meanings (they printed the article ‘properly’ at the back of the issue).
22 This very brief survey inevitably omits vast numbers of examples and typographers who have exerted influence in the development of typographic expertise. I’ve tried to highlight the main movements as I’ve seen them, condensed and entirely selective in this format. I’ve not tried to cover the impact of the computer and TV screen on the reader, for example, this is a whole field on its own, initially influenced by the printed word but then having an effect in reverse. Where typography is now is a blend of all styles, some intended to shock and some creating messages within the expected conventions, graphic standards are high in Australia and most parts of the world, and the profession has matured. The future is bright if highly competitive. You are expected to conduct your own further research to absorb the history of typography through books and magazines. A recommended reading list is alongside, most are paperbacks and the New Horizon editions are particularly well illustrated and concise. The timeline history chart next page is from the highly recommended Alan and Isabella Livingston’s Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers (2012). This excellent chart telescopes a lengthy history and indicates the prime movers and shakers succinctly. Also a must to watch is the film ‘Helvetica’ by Gary Hustwit (2007) Swiss Dots Limited. This 50 year anniversary of the Helvetica typeface, features rare glimpses of many of the key graphic designers and theorists discussing the way fonts have enormous influence on contemporary life. Graphic Design: A Concise History Richard Hollis 2001 Meggs’ History of Graphic Design Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis 2011 The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers Alan Livingston, Isabella Livingston 2012 Graphic Design: A History Stephen J. Eskilson 2012 Graphic Design, Referenced: A Visual Guide to the Language, Applications, and History of Graphic Design Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio 2012 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design Steven Heller, Veronique Vienne 2012 Graphic Design and Architecture, A 20th Century History: A Guide to Type, Image, Symbol, and Visual Storytelling in the Modern World Richard Poulin 2012 Type. A Visual History of Typefaces & Graphic Styles Cees W. de Jong, Alston W. Purvis, Jan Tholenaar 2013 Graphic Design Theory: Readings from the Field Helen Armstrong 2009 Five Hundred Years of Printing S. H. Steinberg, edited by John Trevitt 1996 Typographic Milestones Allan Haley 1996 Graphics: A century of poster and advertising design Alain Weill 2004 New Horizons Writing: The story of alphabets and scripts Georges Jean 2000 New Horizons Signs, Symbols and Ciphers: Decoding the message Georges Jean 1999 New Horizons The Origin and Development of Humanist Script B L Ullman 1960 ACLS e-book
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