Everything is Designed
A Forward to the Exhibition, What You See Is Not What You Get
Typefaces are intentional objects of design.These objects employ form-making, linguistics, and technology. WYSINWYG reveals human activity in a domain traditionally taken for granted. Below is an excerpt from the TypeThursday exhibition catalogue written by Commercial Type contributor, Jack Curry.
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Nearly everything you interact with in the built world has been considered and touched by a human being. Everything is designed.
The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa was quoted saying that “[the] door handle is the handshake of the building.” He was undoubtedly speaking to the experience that a building can evoke — a concept that’s referred to in architecture as phenomenology — but you could also view it as implied recognition of the level of consideration that must go into every single piece of the built world. Dieter Rams, in one of his oft quoted “Ten Principles,” puts it another way by saying that design is “consequent in every detail.”
Taking Things For Granted
We take a lot of things for granted. We live in a world of convenience: we want things cheap, fast, and we’re quick to make it known when we feel our expectations have been let down. Who hasn’t at some point used a something and wondered, “why on earth did they do it that way?” or exclaimed, “even I could do this better!” But the shoes on your feet and the chair you sit at every day didn’t just appear out of nowhere — somebody had to make them (even the shoes and chairs which aren’t that great); nearly everything you interact with in the built world has been considered and touched by a human being. Everything is designed.
When you begin to peel back the layers of any one object, you begin to appreciate the shoulders of the giants upon which it sits — the sum total of all the combined energy of human endeavor is tremendous.
Going a level deeper, there’s a cumulative history embedded in every object: concrete goes back to the Romans; printing has it’s roots in Ancient China; glass-making goes back to Mesopotamia five millennia ago. The majority of things in the built environment have been improved over the ages by countless innovators and tinkerers that sought to make something that little bit better or differentiated — so while a concrete sidewalk may be laid by a team of construction workers, there are nearly four thousand years worth of people who contributed to inventing, testing, and improving such a seemingly simple material. When you begin to peel back the layers of any one object, you begin to appreciate the shoulders of the giants upon which it sits — the sum total of all the combined energy of human endeavor is tremendous.
Letterforms are no different. Even before the advent of movable type in the Western world, scribes, artists, stonemasons, and designers have been constantly rethinking different ways in which to render the fifty-two upper and lowercase letters of the alphabet, exploring new typologies whether because of prevailing style, regional taste, or a desire to make them “better.” Over time there are letterforms that have been canonized into styles that we would all recognize walking down the street: classical humanist styles such as Bembo or Garamond, the “Modern” style of Didot and Bodoni, sans serifs like Akzidenz Grotesk and Helvetica, or the (seemingly) geometrical style of Futura.
This deep well of history embedded in letterforms can be used by type designers either as a springboard of inspiration, or as a foil to actively work against. James Edmondson’s Hobeaux and David Jonathan Ross’s Gimlet, for instance, are what we would call revivals: a close examination of an older typeface which is then totally reworked, redrawn, and updated to suit modern tastes or technologies. In a similar vein, Miguel Reyes’s Canela began as an investigation of the types of William Caslon, but through the design process began to transform into something wholly separate and distinct from its original source. And further afield there are families, such as Roxane Gataud’s Bely, that take bits and pieces of inspiration from a wide array of different typefaces throughout the ages and synthesizes them into something completely new and fresh.
Seen in this light, type becomes less of a stylistic frivolity and more of an indispensable resource.
Serving Non-Latin Communities
This doesn’t even begin to mention the work that’s going on beyond the Latin alphabet: all the Arabic, Devanagari, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Cherokee, Cree, Cyrillic, and many other untold scripts used by millions of people around the globe. Users of type in the West have been spoilt for choice, but in many other countries around the world — both now and historically — the availability of high-quality typography has been difficult to come by. In the past, the limitations were technological: it was difficult, for instance, for companies like Monotype and Linotype to take the systems of mechanical reproduction that they developed for the Latin script and apply them to complex joining scripts such as Arabic, or to the vast character sets of scripts such as Chinese. Digital technologies have certainly made these hurdles less onerous, but the scarcity of designers working on these scripts in the past has meant that there’s relatively less momentum going into the development of new non-Latin typefaces in the digital era.
That’s not to say that there aren’t people working on developing new and interesting non-Latin typefaces. There are designers that work specifically on designing and developing typefaces their native scripts, such as Ilya Ruderman and Panos Haratzopoulos with their work on Cyrillic and Greek, respectively. Other designers like Fiona Ross and John Hudson have spent the better part of their careers working on typefaces in non-Latin scripts. Erin McLaughlin is one of a new crop of designers that can be counted in this latter group, with an express desire to, in her words, “look toward populations of people who have minority languages or scripts…[and] create fonts and resources for these scripts.” Seen in this light, type becomes less of a stylistic frivolity and more of an indispensable resource.
There is beauty, humanity, heart, and soul in the details.
Points to Consider
When looking at typefaces, it’s worth remembering that somebody sat down and drew every single character in each one of those typefaces. They labored over the micro details — like the precise nature of every curve — as well as the macro ones, such as the relationship of the different weights when compared to one another. A type family also isn’t always necessarily the result of a single person, but many times a team of designers, technologists, and friends also lend their eyes, expertise, and opinions to help bring a family to fruition. And if we take Erin’s sentiment to heart, it can most definitely be said that type is not only made by people, but also very specifically for people, as well.
Living in a large city — or even just in contemporary society, for that matter — one can become a bit jaded. Surrounded by a swarming mass of tall buildings and colorful characters, it’s easy to forget exactly how amazing and strange and difficult it is to live in the modern world. We can begin to see everything as gestalt: we no longer discern the multitude of small details, but rather only the whole. But there’s beauty, humanity, heart, and soul in the details. After all, we shake the hands of innumerable buildings — both real and figurative — every single day.
When you think about it, the act of shaking hands is just as much about recognition as it is about acquaintance. We’re all likely to be acquainted with the artifacts around us, but who among us can say that they also truly recognize them as compatriots in the feat that is modern day living? Slowing down and recognizing the details not only gives us a greater appreciation for all the objects that we interact with on a daily basis, but perhaps also greater empathy for the people that went through the hard graft of putting them out into the world.
So next time you’re walking down the street, pause a moment to take heed of the the quiet, unseen things around you — a building facade, a door hinge, a neon sign, an air conditioning unit, or the lettering on a sign — and consider of all the people that it took to conceptualize, develop, engineer, and actualize that single artifact. Because as crazy as the world may seem at times, an appreciation of the little details makes the whole all the more astounding.
See the exhibition until November 15: Learn more at typethursday.org
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