On (Adobe) Garamond’s Repeating and Juxtaposing Parallels in Relation to Contemporary Typography
In the mind of a young contemporary designer, serifs seem out of style. To be fair, it is not hard to see why that is. We are in an interesting time-frame where companies are starting to redesign their logos from their 1990’s predecessors — and nearly every large redesign has swiftly changed their serif faces to geometric sans-serifs. Why use Times when Helvetica still exists?
Even when serifs are used, designers gravitate towards a sexier face — e.g. something like Bodoni, with its vivacious curves and high contrast ratio. However, there is still a strong case to be made for those faces that the layman would not even name or recognize. Perhaps these are what some would call “the unsung heroes” of typography.
These faces are built upon the history of typographic design, and are made to be incredibly legible for body and paragraph type. Yes, they’re not as sexy as some display serifs of today, and they’re not as beautiful and clean as the modernist or neo-grotesque sans-serifs of the mid 20th century, but in a sense they are more important. To deconstruct this idea, let’s take a look at one specific typeface — a typeface that changed typography during its time, as well as having an incredible influence today. This typeface is, of course, Garamond.
Garamond is built upon the ideas of the renaissance, and much like the arts and sciences during that time, it is predicated upon Greek and Roman knowledge. Specifically, it is heavily influenced by roman type (though, perhaps not so heavily and as straightforward as Trajan). This is what we would call a revival, a rebirth, or… what was it in french? In any case, Claude Garamond, the namesake and designer of the Garamond face, had an incredible influence on type as we know it, as his work acted as a transition from blackletter type to a more elegant roman style.
This transition draws an interesting parallel to today, and is why Garamond can be seen as so important. It all ties back to the heavy use of sans-serifs in contemporary design, with the now current modularized and geometricized fonts. Due to the advent of the internet, design has reached a state of globalization. As such, the popularity of typefaces like Helvetica, Montserrat, and others of the sort has soared in the public eye. This is not to say any of these faces are bad by any means — Helvetica is an amazing and historic typeface — however, this trend has caused many brands and logos to completely lose their identity. How does the customer differentiate companies when every logo is a sans-serif geometric typeface spelling out the company name? In an odd way, this is a parallel juxtaposition of what Garamond did to blackletter faces. The blackletter faces were, without debate, beautiful, and this also applies to the current faces of today — however in the case of our current design trends we have seemingly gone in the opposite direction; rather than moving from blackletter to Garamond, we have transitioned somewhat surprisingly backwards.
The timeline of Garamond reflects a shift of the long struggle of form vs function. Blackletter, in this case, represents the form whereas Garamond is the function. In its inception, Garamond took the ideas of the great typesetter Aldus Manutius, and built upon it in the name of pushing typography into the future. While it may be odd to think about Garamond as a new and revolutionary figure in typography (his type is classified as old-style after all), it can ultimately be said that he transitioned us from the form of blackletter to the beautiful legibility and function of the now old-style type. It is interesting to look at the current trend and compare it to this. On the surface, it seems that is the way design is currently moving. Helvetica and other typefaces of a similar structure were of course made during the modernist movements of the 20th century, so by using them one would believe these current rebrands are reflecting the form follows function ideals held by the typeface creators.
In reality, it is just the opposite, though the designers themselves might believe otherwise. This, again, can be contributed to the quick spread of imagery and information thanks to modern technology. Trends now spread faster than ever, and design in turn falls into these trends at an exponential rate. It is easy for a designer to scroll through feeds of work and take large amounts of inspiration (This is not a blanket statement, but rather a substantial amount of design seems to happen this way, with many studios describing it as “market research”), which can ultimately lead to every brand’s form coming out similar, which in turn destroys the function of the design.
Garamond had an opposite effect — due to the fact it had a completely different function than creating a brand. Garamond (and most typefaces at the time) had a function of making sure the text was legible — and as such completed this function well. Much like our current design trends, Garamond made waves around Europe, and many type designers took inspiration and eventually evolved off of it. The reason this doesn’t ruin the function goes back to the aforementioned fact about legibility — Garamond succeeded in creating an easily read typeface, and it ultimately succeeded to make a majority of the typographic design more functional and more beautiful.
All this being said, let’s take a step back and look at the broader picture for a moment. One can say design is subconscious storytelling. The designer’s role is to tell the viewer a story without them even knowing it, rather they should intrinsically understand the story and, if the designer is successful, connect with it on a deeper level. A similar situation to this is audio editing in film — as truly successful audio is not even noticed, yet in turn pushes the story forward. This is what is meant when “the unsung heroes” of typography is said. Garamond accomplished its goals, and at the time of its creation received many plaudits about it. For the most part today, Garamond, to the non-designer, has fallen into the sea of serifs that are no longer in the public eye. Despite this, I believe Garamond has gotten more successful in its communication of its function, and even added to its functionality.
So how is this possible? It is thanks largely in part due to the constant revivals of Garamond and other old-style faces. For example, Adobe Garamond, which was created in 1989, has kept Garamond relevant in the computer age. As such, it is still used for typesetting and other various contemporary designs. Even now, the legibility and beauty of the face has been upheld. However, since Garamond has been revived now (and many times before), an extra dimension has been added to its function — this being historical context. Rather than having the history of being built from Roman forms, it now has added its own history of its constant revivals and historic transition to typographic legibility. This, of course, adds extra meaning to what Garamond is.
Ultimately, this is why Garamond is so important — and why we will probably see a shift back to its principles in the future. Design history has a strong tendency to repeat itself and constantly flip flop between its own ideals, and with the contemporary design space becoming so saturated, it is soon bound to reset, and Garamond, much like every other time a revival has happened, will no doubt be one of the vanguards leading the way.