writer Stephen Banham published Utopia Oblique (2009) and delivered as a talk at Heide Gallery accompanying Emily Floyd’s Far Rainbow exhibition (2014)

‘Why do we need another typeface?’ It’s a question that anybody who works with type hears a lot. And it’s a perfectly valid question. Why do we need another addition to that ever-lengthening font menu? Interestingly enough we don’t hear people saying ‘We don’t really need another car do we?’ or ‘Another dress! Can’t they stop making those things!’ or ‘Not another building, aren’t there enough?

So why is public sentiment so stacked against the humble practice of typography? Perhaps the answer to that lies in the fact that unlike cars, dresses, buildings and other forms of design, people generally don’t see the social connection between type and the society that surrounds it. And this is curious given that if anything is sculpted by who we are as a society, it is our modes of communication – spoken  language and written language (typography). Far from being neutral or utilitarian, typefaces emerge from and express a social condition, a time and a place. Even a cursory glance at design history tells us this – from the machine-like austerity of Modernist Germany came Futura (1927); from the Swiss fascination with Internationalism came the ubiquitous Helvetica (1957); and running in tandem with the new profession of advertising one finds the bold and brash Cooper Black (1921).  So as typography runs alongside the unfolding of history, suggesting, reflecting or reinforcing the spirit of a time, it is perhaps during these times of pessimism and fear that an expression of optimism is needed more than ever. For sheer optimism you can’t go past the utopians – those brave individuals who, though often derided as mere dreamers, offer us their unique visions that open up new and imagined possibilities. This article pays tribute to a selection of utopians who have embraced language and typography as an expression of their vision and spirit. Let us call this vision Utypia.

Thomas More’s Utopia
Imagine living in an island society where no locks are needed on the doors of the houses, where the houses themselves are rotated between the citizens every ten years and unemployment is completely non-existent. On this island all citizens only need to work six hours a day and are encouraged to apply themselves to learning in their leisure time. Private property does not exist and there is almost complete religious toleration1.  Such a place was first described in 1516 by the English lawyer, author and statesman Thomas More. His most famous and controversial work On the Best State of a Republic and on the New Island of Utopia, more commonly known as Utopia, describes the political arrangements of an imaginary island.

Of particular interest within the imagining of this island was the creation of the Utopian Alphabet, a complete set of linguistic symbols which enabled the inhabitants to communicate with each other, presumably excluding those beyond its coastal boundaries.The fact that More went to the considerable effort of creating a typeface for these imaginary island inhabitants suggests that language, and indeed typography itself, was viewed by More as an important social extension of this ideal existence. Looking at this alphabet almost 500 years after its creation, it could be speculated that this curiously geometric and codified alphabet expresses the needs and aspirations of an island community happily remote from the greater outside world. On Utopia life would have been orderly, even regimented. So this is reflected in the graphic simplicity of the symbols with which the citizens communicate.

E.W. Cole’s utopia
The connection between language and an ideal social harmony carried a strong resonance for other utopians. Best known for the creation of the extraordinary Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne, E.W. Cole (1832-1918) was driven by a belief that knowledge and literacy could encourage tolerance and understanding between people of all nations. As one of his slogans proclaimed: ‘The happiness of mankind, the real salvation of the world, must come about by every person … being taught to read and induced to think’. He founded the eclectic, exciting and curious Cole’s Book Arcade as a ‘Palace of the Intellect’. Under a cathedral-like iron and glass ceiling, one could wander past towering ferns, caged monkeys, screeching parrots and cockatoos through departments selling books, perfumes, musical instruments, confectionery, toys and ornaments. One department, entitled Wonderland, featured optical illusions and funny mirrors. This environment was an expression of Edward Cole and his unique ideas and passions.2 If Edward could picture the future of a harmonious utopia, then the Arcade was its blueprint, mapping out the way it could be done.The later editions of his most successful publication Cole’s Funny Picture Book in 1879 included jokes, verses and slogans on his theme of the inevitability of a federated world with one religion. Of particular poignancy was Cole’s prophecy for the year 2000. Amongst many eerily accurate predictions, he stated that ‘one federated and comprehensive language, with English as a base, and enriched with the best and most expressive words adopted from all other languages, will be spoken generally throughout the world’.

left Raised in Quebec, William Shatner’s Esperanto pronunciation in Incubus (1965) was criticised by speakers as having too strong a French accent. right The Esperanto Flag.

Zamenhof’s universal language
What Cole was predicting was in fact being put into practice at that very time, albeit on the other side of the world. His notion of a universal language was being developed by another utopian, the Polish Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof who, writing under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, created the utopian auxiliary universal language of Esperanto in 1887. Esperanto literally means ‘one who hopes’ and although it is often referred to as a dead language, there are claimed to be up to 2 million speakers in the world.The challenge of locating fellow speakers was overcome in 1893 by the development of a lapel pin to discreetly identify each other. Like the Esperanto flag produced in 1905, the pin featured a five-pointed star within a circle to symbolise the five continents of the world coming together. The social discretion amongst Esperantists proved to be very wise. As a language for international understanding, Esperanto attracted more than its fair share of suspicion and persecution. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin denounced it as a ‘language of spies’ and made it illegal to speak it from 1937 to 1956. In Nazi Germany the fact that Zamenhof was a Jew gave rise to Esperanto being described in Mein Kampf as ‘the type of language that would be used by an International Jewish Conspiracy once they achieved world domination’. Although the Esperantist community was targeted during the holocaust, Zamenhof’s family were particularly singled out for execution. During the 1950s in the US, Senator Joseph McCarthy, known for his anti-communist speeches, considered knowledge of Esperanto to be ‘nearly synonymous’ with Communist sympathies. More recently Saddam Hussein felt  so threatened by the language that he ordered the only Esperanto teacher in Iraq be expelled from the country. Only two full-length Esperanto films were ever produced – Angoroj (1964) and Incubus (1965), the latter featuring a young William Shatner who had to learn Esperanto for the starring role.5 Esperanto was used for the ghetto signs in Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Great Dictator while the language also featured in the loudspeaker broadcasts in Gattaca.

A micro-utopia
Although Esperanto was never adopted as a national language of any recognized country, the utopian micro-nation of Rose Island sought to have Esperanto as its official language in 1968. Situated eleven kilometres off the coast of Rimini, Italy, this self-proclaimed republic was in fact a 400 square metre platform supported on nine pylons. Rose Island’s ‘President’ Georgia Rosa declared independence on 24 June 1968 under the Esperanto name Insulo de la Rozoj. It featured a number of commercial establishments including a restaurant, bar, nightclub, souvenir shop and a post office. Some unconfirmed reports also mention the presence of a radio station. It did not take very long for this fledgling nation to attract the suspicion of the Italian government which, after sending across a group of four police and tax inspectors, took control of the Island. Rosa sent a telegram to the Italian government protesting ‘the violation of its sovereignty and the injury inflicted on local tourism by the military occupation’. This protest was ignored, the island sealed off and the entire structure blown up by the Italian Navy. The only Esperanto-speaking nation lasted less than a year after its formation.


A new society requires a new language. And this involves both spoken and typographic communication. But utopias come in all shapes and sizes. Although most type designers may deny the label of utopians, they wouldn’t undertake the laborious task of creating a new typeface without a strong personal conviction that they are, even in a small way, contributing to an improvement of the world. By creating a new typeface they are offering a new tone, pitch or volume of human communication.  Over hundreds of years and thousands of typefaces, type designers have shown us their own interpretations of the alphabet, their own ‘variations on a theme’. The relationship between typography and social context can be observed in the following timeline. The optimistic spirit takes many forms – from the pragmatism of a marketing promise right through to those who truly wish to offer society a new and re-imagined voice.

Pantographia (1799)
Widely considered to be the first universal typeface project, Edward Fry’s ambitious and meticulous cataloguing sought to bring together all existing alphabets in the world into one unified collection. It is a curious precursor of the current project by Johannes Bergerhausen to collect, document and acknowledge every linguistic symbol in Unicode. www.decodeunicode.org

Deseret Alphabet (1854)
The Deseret Alphabet emerged from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the stated intent to help simplify the process of learning and spelling of the English language. Unfortunately, church members never fully accepted the new alphabet. Some critics have also claimed that this alphabet was intended to cloak Mormon writings from outside view. Soon after the death of its creator Brigham Young in 1877, resources and funding for the project came to an end. Recently included in Unicode, the script was adopted by the comical republic of Molossia as its national language. www.molossia.org/alphabet.html

Universal (1927)
Herbert Bayer’s seminal geometric sans-serif typeface that, as the name suggests, aspired to model an alphabet for universal use. Bayer reacted to the Germanic use of capitalization for all nouns and the Bauhaus teachings of simplicity by abandoning the uppercase. It was revived in 1997 by Freda Sack and David Quay of The Foundry and re-released as Architype Bayer.

Alphabet 26 (1950)
Prompted by a question from his inquisitive son whilst teaching him to read – namely why does a letter have one sound but often two symbols to represent it (an upper and lower case) – Bradbury Thompson’s Alphabet 26 is a unicase alphabet whereby each letterform represents a single phonetic sound. It recommended the use of only one symbol for each of the 26 letters. Our conventional alphabet contains 19 letters with dissimilar upper and lower case symbols (such as ‘A’ and ‘a’) and 7 letters (c-o-s-v-w-x-z) with symbols that are identical.

Optima (1953)
Although seeming to reflect the economically optimistic 1950s, the naming of Hermann Zapf’s Optima was actually not his idea at all. ‘It is for me too presumptuous and was the invention of the sales people at Stempels’, said Zapf. Some fifty years since its creation, the optimistic implication of the typeface’s name was brought into the public spotlight with its adoption as the signature typeface for the ultimately unsuccessful John McCain 2008 presidential campaign.

Univers (1954)
When the Swiss-born typeface designer Adrian Frutiger developed Univers, the first completely planned type family with its 21 variants described as a comprehensive numerical system, its name seemed appropriate. During the 1990s, Frutiger worked together with Linotype to expand the Univers family to some 63 different weights. Regarding the naming of the font, Frutiger has his own reflections. ‘I liked the name Monde because of the simplicity of the sequence of letters. The name Europe was also discussed; but Charles Peignot had international sales plans for the typeface and had to consider the effect of the name in other languages. I suggested Universal, whereupon Peignot decided, in all modesty, that Univers was the most all-embracing name!’

Utopia (1989) 
The Adobe workhorse typeface, Utopia, was designed by Robert Slimbach in 1989. No indication of a philosophical basis to the naming of the font has been found.

1. All religious faiths are tolerated, except atheism. Thomas More theorised that if a man did not believe in a god or in an afterlife he could never be trusted, because, logically, he would not acknowledge any authority or principle outside himself.