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Building your office

Good typography shouldn’t have to rely on ornamental crutches to stand tall. Yet despite all the tools and knowledge available to us, we readily embrace a flourishing, decorative typography, with cheap tricks used in a misguided attempt to make it “pop”. This ancient art may rapidly be gaining popularity, but are we paying it the respect it deserves?

Take a snapshot of the visual culture that surrounds you—magazines, movie posters, packaging, websites—how much of it relies on typography? How much of the typography around you is actually well considered? Chances are you’ll find a handful of beautifully crafted typographical designs competing with an avalanche of visually “rich”, image-heavy creations. Typography is then relegated to the role of “necessary evil” in order to display text, or ill-considered typographic pieces, where the meaning of MS WordArt has been interpreted a smidgen too literally… Why?

It’s fair to say that the global webdesign community is experiencing a typographical renaissance. Revolutionary technologies like Typekit, Fontdeck, the introduction of the @font-face tag, and online licensing for professional typefaces are all encouraging type enthusiasts around the Web to transcend the shackles of common type. Furthermore, clever use of CSS and JavaScript are allowing us to mimic a range of typesetting techniques (though admittedly some basic typographical controls are still frustratingly infantile).

But with such power comes great responsibility. And even though modern tools give us the opportunity to do so many things, doing a great deal of these things isn’t always a recipe for beautiful design. Just because we have many options opening up to us doesn’t mean we need to employ every single one of them in the hope of developing a design that stands out—and most likely for all the wrong reasons.

That’s not to say typographic design can’t be ornamental, complex or even illustrative. But centuries of working with movable type has left us with principles on which to base our typography, and it’s our duty as designers to understand them (at least if we’re aiming to break them). A good place to start is to look at what those who came before us have done—even the briefest throwback into the annals of typography and design history will help.

Consider Milton Glaser’s “I love New York” logo from 1977, commissioned as part of a marketing campaign by the New York State Department of Commerce. Glaser, who did the work pro-bono, wisely avoided skylines, figures of people holding hands, or flowery ornaments by using only a simple heart shape to represent the key word of the mark: love. We all know the subsequent success of the logo, as it has been brandished on millions of white t-shirts, inspiring countless knock-offs since its inception.

And if the heart-symbol of Glaser’s work seems too pictorial in this context, how about Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture? Originally created for a Museum of Modern Art Christmas card in 1964, this iconic piece of type shuns imagery altogether, relying only on the power of letterforms (arguably based on Clarendon) to ignite our compassion.

The approach advocated by modernist typographers is one of clarity and legibility. Scientific methods (let’s call it early “A/B testing”) were utilized in the quest to find the perfect typeface—not in terms of aesthetic, but rather efficiency for communicating—and rigid systems were developed to achieve ideal reading conditions. In the strictest sense, typographic beauty is not to be gained from the letters or ornaments themselves, but should come as a natural result from an “invisible” type that unselfishly honors the words and content.

However, movements of any kind invariably inspire counter-movements, and the modernist ethos was to be thoroughly challenged towards the end of the last century, most notably by David Carson (b. 1954), Peter Saville (b. 1955) and Neville Brody (b. 1957). While earlier designers sought to communicate the messages they were setting as clearly and cleanly as possible, these young contenders wished to push the boundaries of legibility and normality, so that the emotion and idea wasn’t delivered via what the words represented, but how the words were seen as objects separated from their meaning.
These three designers were to shape the face of contemporary typography with their groundbreaking work spanning magazines, newspapers, film titles (Carson and Brody) and record sleeves (Saville). They helped pioneer experimental typesetting in the 80′s and 90s’, throwing the modernist rulebook out the window, yet retaining the communicative authority for letters and words.

Nowadays it’s easy to argue that their use of type did indeed include a great deal of flourish and extras. But seen in the context of the post-modern era, it’s clear that this was not simply an attempt to “beautify” their work. On the contrary, the disrespect for clarity and to embrace “grunge” were design statements opposing the impersonal coldness of the modernist designers… they were adding emotion to the words they were communicating, which also reflected the cultural movement of the time.
Jan Tschichold might have turned in his grave at brash expressions such as these, but the power of typography seemed stronger than ever. Their work showed that there is an infinite number of ways that typography can be used to communicate a message.

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