The Right Type

Writer Young Angevin Castro published Design Quarterly (Issue 31). Published in 2008.

When it comes to graphic design, there are many tools and techniques that can be applied to great effect. A recent trend towards typographic exploration and exploitation, makes us ponder – just how do you choose the right type?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many typefaces available on your home computer, all of which basically do the same thing? Each and every one of them, in fulfilling their most primary function, allows us to string words together, and communicate in a non-verbal manner. Yet, what does the rounded boldness of Garamond express, that the casual gait of Comic Sans does not? This, of course, is a very simplistic view of the field of typography, and few would argue against the power of type in graphic design. But how did this need for endless numbers of typefaces evolve and how has it impacted Australian graphic design?

According to Dr Anthony Cahalan, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Charles Sturt University and author of Type, trends and fashion: A study of the late 20th century proliferation of typefaces, the first commercial mechanical typesetting system dates back to the linotype machine created in 1896. By the 1960s, the printing industry was using photo typesetting, and the first digital storage technology was introduced several years later. However, Cahalan explains that it is the advent of the Macintosh computer, introduced by US company Apple in 1984, which marks a critical point in the field of typography.

“The Macintosh made typography democratic. People talk about the ‘democratisation’ of typesetting because it made it available to everybody who had access to a desktop computer. Prior to that, it was really a specialist area of the printing trade, and the average person on the street would have had very little idea of how type was produced in books or newspapers.” According to Cahalan, whose PhD thesis was the first in Australia to explore the field of typography, the power of typography exists when the meaning of the written word intersects with its visual form. “As designers, if we work only with content of the words, we lose visual power. If we concentrate only on the visual power of the letter form, we lose the content. So if we can strike a balance between the two, that’s where the most powerful typography exists,” he said.

One of Cahalan’s concerns is the growing trend to default to the use of the same typefaces, resulting in what he terms as the ‘sanitisation’ of typography.  “The wonderful thing about the democratisation of typography is that it allows graphic designers to customise a piece of visual communication for their client, which allows it to stand out amongst their competitors. What l find extremely sloppy and lazy about a lot of typography is this adoption of pervading trends and fashions. If there are 100,000 typefaces available, why would we keep using the same typefaces that are on everyone’s computers, because they are not going to allow us to stand out from our competitors.”

Cahalan is not alone in this opinion. Graphic designer Stephen Banham, of Melbourne-based studio Letterbox, is equally concerned about the lack of typographic diversity in our surrounding environment. In 2001, Banham published Grand, where he documented the typefaces used across 1,000 metres of Melbourne’s CBD. “I took note of every single instance of typography along eight city blocks. The point of the exercise was to determine if there was a correlation between the types of typefaces used in affluent and less affluent areas of the city, and whether typography responded to socio-economic factors of the environment.”

As he walked through the city, Banham discovered that the diversity of typography decreased as he moved from the street into privately run spaces, such as department stores. “As you enter these privately- run spaces, you are subject to style- guiding, and the variety within the visual landscape is reduced. Since style-guiding is something we do as graphic designers, it poses the question: what is our responsibility, as graphic designers and typographers, for creating a flattened visual landscape?”

While Banham acknowledges that the demands of the general public are partly to blame, he also believes that designers play a significant role in holding back the ‘expressive potential’ offered by typography. “There are certainly enough typefaces out there for designers to select from, but they’re just not being used. Part of the responsibility of a graphic designer is not to just to respond to commercial projects, but to also contribute to the visual environment of life, in the same way that artists, furniture designers, car designers and architects do.” Banham describes his own passion for typography as both a “gift and a curse? His obsession with using the right typeface is such that he is prepared to create a new typeface if he is unable to find something suitable for the project he is working on. However, he explains that the process is not an easy one, and is driven, first and foremost, by a need to fill a gap. “Every typeface we design is borne out of the need for that typeface to exist. Unless there is a need for that typeface, l can’t see much use going down the incredibly laborious task of designing it.” Taking approximately nine months to complete, Banham explains that the design process is dominated by the need to perfect the functionality of the typeface. “Developing a typeface is a very complicated thing. A lot of people think that producing a typeface is just about producing the form – the look of it – but that’s only 5–10% of the job. It’s certainly the fun part because it’s the creative part, but then there’s all the back-end stuff. There’s no use having a typeface that looks fantastic in a character set if it looks awkward when you combine it into words, so what you’re designing is not just a look, but an entire system.”

Despite the hard work, Banham continues to be driven by his passion for understanding the social and cultural aspects of typography. “I’m still exploring why typography is not accepted as a cultural force, just as architecture and car design are. I think there is some ignorance about the role typography plays in our lives. People register it in a subconscious way, but not consciously. And perhaps the more they understand the ‘essence’ of typography, with all its nuances, the more they will begin to appreciate it as a cultural force, like any other.”