Sample chapter

Chapter 6

Emotion or information?



This is a draft of a chapter that has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in the forthcoming book Typography: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Luna due for publication in 2018.

We are surrounded by a typographic environment. Typography is present not just in the printed matter that we read, but also in all our interactions with computers and mobile devices, with street signs and shop fronts. Architects add letters to buildings; brands present themselves with distinctive word marks and alphabets. Typography has multiple personalities. As well as identifying and imparting information, typography is associative, and designers use it to influence our view of the messages we are reading. In this way, typography can be considered a creative endeavour:
Type is saying things to us all the time. Typefaces express a mood, an atmosphere. They give words a certain colouring. (Rick Poynor)
Typography is also the mechanized presentation of language. In this way it is subservient to the structures of the messages it presents:
Nobody should forget that typography is the least free of all the arts. None other serves to such a degree. It cannot free itself without losing its purpose. It is more strongly bound than any other art to meaningful conventions and the more typographers heed these conventions the better their work will be. (Jan Tschichold)
How can we reconcile these different aspects of typography?



Design as an ideal and as a compromise


The wayfinding designer Paul Mijksenaar attempted to describe the aims and outcomes of the design process by considering the relationship between function and aesthetics. He looked back to Vitruvius’ three attributes of architecture: durability, usefulness, and beauty, which he translated into reliability, utility, and satisfaction. By profiling designed objects or systems against all three of these attributes, he sought to establish priorities for individual products that were specific to their making and use, thereby avoiding ‘dogmas’. By this he meant either too narrow an interpretation of functionality on the one hand, or of aesthetic value on the other. He concluded that ‘function can have any form’.

The writer on design David Pye (1914–93) divided the designed world into things for use (he cited buildings, vehicles, tools, and clothes) and things for contemplation (pictures and sculpture). He thought that the word ‘function’ should not be regarded as an intrinsic quality of a designed object, for example, because of its shape; the test of whether an object is functional is in the hands of the user. A thing is functional because it does what the user wants, not because it is made with a certain look or feel. Design for reading seems to sit firmly in the ‘things for use’ category, but, like much useful design, its products cannot escape sharing many of the formal visual qualities of those ‘things for contemplation’.

Pye sought to cut through this paradox, that we want to design things to work but inevitably design things to give us pleasure when we contemplate them, by pointing out the limitations of what we can and can’t design in a physical world. If a designed object cannot be perfect, we must choose its achievable attributes: and it seems that imparting beauty (or ‘workmanship’, or ‘design for appearance’), although dismissed as useless work, has always been high on the list of what is both desirable and what can be achieved. On fulfilling the user’s requirements for functionality, he takes the example of a dinner table, and suggests:
Nothing we design ever really works. We can always say what it ought to do . . . Our dinner table ought to be variable in size and height, removable altogether, impervious to scratches, self-cleaning, and have no legs. . . . Every thing we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional.
By improvised and provisional, Pye does not mean badly designed, far from it; but he is pointing out the distance between what is really desirable and what we can do with the limited resources at our disposal, and to the intractability of much physical production. This needs to be considered alongside the superabundance of opportunity that the digital word seems to offer: the mobile phone, originally just a phone, is now our most powerful personal digital device, our highest resolution camera, and our point of access to almost all the world’s recorded music.

Taking a line of thought from Pye, a book, for example, should simultaneously open flat without the need for restraint when we want it to, be capable of being held in one hand, be large enough to show images at a realistic scale, be light and convenient to pop in a bag to read on the train, have type that can be read in any light, never scuff or tear—oh, and be cheap to buy, too. We can see that these are contradictory attributes, and no real book can promise them all. What a well designed book can do, if the designer has done their work, is to fulfil the most likely needs of its most likely readers: the particular profile of reliability, utility, and satisfaction required of it. A smart phone, for all its amazing technologies, is still a Swiss-army-knife affair: we accept the trade-off of its cramped virtual keyboard and limited battery life for its host of apps. Typographers have always been aware of the constraints on design and the trade-offs required: in the days of metal type, you were forced to work with the existing sizes of type available, and build designs around them. There are still physical constraints in print: the grain direction of paper determines how easily and neatly sheets can be folded and bound, and this will influence the choice of format. So compromise and accommodation, while still seeking the ideal, is the natural state of design.

In fulfilling the needs of its readers, our imaginary book will be constrained, not just by economy but also by style, in the sense we have encountered in Chapter 4, the need or expectation that a piece of design will fit into a recognizable genre, or risk being misunderstood by its readership. This has been put rather grandly by the engineer Marco Aurisicchio: ‘no design works unless it embodies ideas that are held in common by the people for whom the object is intended.’ Pulling back from individual genres, we can perhaps see three overarching reasons for written material: for pleasure, for information, and for persuasion. Design needs to address all three needs.


Reading for pleasure


To immerse oneself in an writer’s work, with no concern to take any action as an immediate consequence of the reading act, is perhaps the closest we can get to reading for its own sake. This is the kind of reading that the publicist Beatrice Warde (1900–69) wanted to support when she talked of typography as a ‘crystal goblet’—a pure, transparent vessel that hides none of the content and imparts as little of its own character as possible; or the otherwise-revolutionary designer Jan Tschichold, when he wrote in 1928 that ‘the old form of the book is perfectly suitable for such literature . . . there is no need for change . . . only modifications in traditional book design are possible.’ They had in mind a page, possibly in a novel, that has no hierarchies of text, an even block of linear-interrupted prose. But beyond its page design, such a comfortable book requires a large number of physical qualities to be just right, both in the book itself and in the reading environment. In this way we can see that the ideal page size, margins, and type size need to be allied to an ideal paper shade and a binding that opens perfectly—and as important are the comfort of our armchair, and the quality and direction of our reading light. Both Warde and Tschichold, of course, knew of and promoted good design for all manner of complex printed matter, so their concern for the calmness of the ideal book page was a concern for the reader, not mere fuddy-duddiness (Tschichold in the same book printed heavy black bars beside the paragraphs he wanted his readers to notice most). The opposing view to the crystal goblet analogy is that we cannot prevent the form of the book (or whatever object) coming between the text and the reader, which we will come to again later in this chapter.


The most urgent form


The German new typography of the 1920s that Tschichold developed and promoted aimed at reforming design for the modern age, primarily to communicate information. He believed that typography should eschew decoration and instead match ‘inner organization (the organization of contents) and their outer organization (the means of typography)’, and thereby ensure that a communication appeared ‘in the briefest, simplest, most urgent form’ (1925). In his books he showed many before-and-after examples, often radically simplifying advertising and promotional material to show how much more ‘urgent’ the message could be. In particular, he acknowledged that the photograph was the contemporary form of illustration, and that in all kinds of printing new ways had to be found to make type and photographs to work together. His solution was to stop treating photographs as if they were wood engravings—small, laid out symmetrically, and with fancy borders—and use them as part of dynamic asymmetric compositions. Tschichold argued strongly for the adoption of standards (such as the German, later international, standard paper sizes), and of planning rational design systems—something he was able to put into effect in his work standardizing the typography of Penguin Books (1947–8).

The ideas of the European avant-garde moved to the USA after 1945, and another European modernist influence on American design for commerce in the 1950s was the Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar (1897–1976), whose American work was firmly corporate: his studio designed business identities, catalogues, exhibitions, and stationery systems. His work, although quirky, was informed by the need for modularity and standardization, and in particular displays an understanding of visual flow from page to page. The modernist style was taken up by advertising and corporate designers in America from the end of the 1950s: advertisements such as Doyle Dane Bernbach’s campaign for Volkswagen (1959–) were stripped down to a simple arrangement of provocative headline, brisk copy, and a black-and-white photograph. In their deployment of white space and the consistent use of Futura type, these advertisements were a far cry from the folksy, illustrated ads so effectively mocked by Marshall McLuhan in The Mechanical Bride (1951). The 1960s also saw the rise of the typographic word mark in corporate design. Often set in one or other weight of Helvetica, these logos replaced traditional graphic forms, such as the florid signatures that announced the products of Ford or Kellogg’s. But despite advertising’s adoption of the visual ideas of modernism, there were voices of dissent.


Calls to action


Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto, collectively signed in 1964 by a group of visual communicators, accused advertising of claiming to be ‘the most lucrative, effective, and desirable means of using [designers’] talents’, and sought to draw design students in particular away from that industry’s grasp. (The manifesto was rewritten and reissued by Adbusters magazine in 1999.) It went on to argue that it did not ‘want to take any of the fun out of life’, but that there were more socially responsible areas of design activity than ‘the high-pitched scream of consumer selling’. These included signs for streets and buildings, books, instruction manuals, educational aids, films, and scientific publications—a set of design challenges that today we might bring together as ‘information design’.

In 1964 many of these things were only just beginning to come into the range of the (newly art-school educated) designer, having long been handled by engineers, production managers, and printers themselves. In this sense the manifesto was part of the British design profession’s coming of age, but its open-hearted sense of social responsibility and its desire for design to make a lasting contribution to society strike a powerful chord. Was this sense of responsibility found in the emerging discipline of information design? Communications expert Karen Schriver identifies the three specific needs that a reader has of a piece of information: to be able to assess, to do, and to learn to do. Information design, then, needs to support reading which results in an action, a sequence of actions, or even a new behaviour. In this way it is different from reading for pleasure, and actually more akin to design for persuasion.

The similarity between advertising and information design is that they both include a ‘call to action’; the difference is that the action from an advertisement usually involves a suspension of rational thinking and an acceptance of the advertiser’s claims, whereas in information design the action, however persuasively presented, should be a rational choice on the part of the reader. To use Mijksenaar’s analysis, the profile of a piece of information design should always be strong on utility, while an advertiser may be able to rely on generating a feeling of satisfaction. This puts a particular onus on the designer: if they are truly empowering the reader, they have to design for multiple appropriate and rational responses, whereas the advertising designer can declare with a straight face that ‘one size fits all’. Structurally, this means that much of persuasive information design is like an algorithm—presenting the path by which a reader comes to decide that this action is the right one for this set of circumstances, so that they can navigate complexity.

As we’ve seen when discussing language and house style, the rhetorical tone of voice of the text is as important as its typographic presentation in these circumstances. This is recognized in the various plain-language and simplification initiatives that have grown up to make necessarily complex items such as legal documents more accessible. The information designer and writer need to work in the closest collaboration if clarity in such documents is to be achieved.


Because we can


The implied closeness to persuasive design also indicates that the rhetorical approach of information design need not (indeed maybe cannot) be neutral. Or rather, it may be neutral in presenting alternative options fairly, but it still needs to engage and guide the reader through its pages—concern for the reader is the essential stance of this kind of typography. We can define its rhetorical approach through Tschichold’s dicta of matching the appearance to the content and presenting information in ‘the most urgent form’. This is why the British typographic critic Robin Kinross argued in 1984 that Bonsiepe was mistaken in characterizing a classic piece of information typography—the railway timetable—as being ‘innocent of all taint of rhetoric’. Kinross shows two different presentations, one fusty with rules and boxes, the other presented cleanly with the addition of a route map; both designs have a rhetorical aspect. The latter aligns its originating organization with the reduction of forms, removal of ornament, and content-driven arrangement that are key components of modernism and of the new typography; the former implies an older sensibility, more concerned with fitting information into predetermined patterns. Both immediately announce something of their originating organization’s approach to the traveller: after all, in a visual world, we only have the immediate impact of a document on our eyes from which to form a judgement. The branding designer and information designer both need to be aware of the rhetorical value of their designs. They both have the same tools and they share an aim of presenting their client’s message in the best possible light.

We certainly cannot escape designing in the world we live in, a world where many of our daily interactions are commercialized, and where, to slightly rephrase Karl Marx, ‘the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class’. We can ensure that our design objectives are more than simply commercial, and that our professional position is an open, pluralist one that regards the most likely reader’s most likely needs as the purpose of all our work. And, as Pye argues, we should make anything we design invoke a sense of visual pleasure as part of this endeavour, even when many other desired objectives cannot be realized, because we can.


Typography and wider culture


Typography has always engaged with the wider visual culture of the day. Indeed, the various printing processes used to multiply images—copper engraving, etching, lithography, wood engraving—were used by artists as well as practical printers, with considerable visual overlap. As a result, stylistic developments in typography can be described in relation to Western art movements: Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, art nouveau. A direct and dramatic influence of visual artists on the form of typography came with modernist movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. The designer Herbert Spencer (1924–2002) explains that the modernist revolution
was carried through by painters, writers, poets, architects, and others who came from outside the printing industry. They seized on printing with fervour because they clearly recognized it for what it properly is—a potent means of conveying ideas and information—and not . . . a kind of decorative art remote from the realities of contemporary society.
The artists of the various modernist movements sought to convey ideas with words and photographs are well as through painting and sculpture. Their innovative use of collage, montage, elemental forms, primary colours, and the dynamic use of space could be rendered through graphic design and typography, and multiplied by printing. In many cases these experiments cut right through typographic norms—Dadaist publications throw together type with a disregard for linear reading, in an attempt to recreate the emotional power of the sounds of language. Designers such as Jan Tschichold, however, saw the graphic purity and drama of the modernist visual vocabulary as a way of liberating typography. This vocabulary of elemental forms, primary colours, and geometrical grid systems offered a way of organizing type that was both logical and visually exciting, and allowed the integration of type and photography in a new and practical way.

Did typographic modernism lose its way in the post-1945 period, and become simply a one-size-fits-all corporate style? Typographic modernism certainly took a particular course, aligned more to the development of modernism in architecture than in literature. While literary modernism embraced techniques such as simultaneity, word-play, and the disruption of narratives, typographic modernism rejected ambiguity, adopting an almost neoclassical severity. In doing this, typographic modernism developed a formalist, rather than an anti-form stance. This was the accusation of advocates of a more eclectic, postmodernist approach. Postmodernism spread to graphic design and typography in the 1980s, with clear stylistic and conceptual links to other areas of postmodern expression in architecture, art, fashion, and pop music. Designers in all these fields played with genres in a knowing way, expecting their readers to be aware of their visual references. As well as recognizing the fact that ‘the medium is the message’, they often gave the visual impact of the medium priority over the clarity of any text it might contain—after all, the look of the medium was what the reader immediately responded to. This threw a rather awkward spanner in the narratives of those who considered modernism, in the post-1945 international version of the Swiss approach to design, as the apogee of typographic styling. Postmodernists such as Jeffery Keedy claimed that modernist typography was a ‘zombie’, dead but still claiming adherents; in turn, they were criticized by typographers such as Robin Kinross for designing for an audience of like-minded designers, and for producing design that was difficult for a wider public to relate to. Did this debate reveal a degree of introversion within typography and graphic design? After all, concrete poets and conceptual artists had been engaging with typographic language for decades, and those whose practice lay in publishing contexts had long played with genres and subverted readers’ expectations as part of that practice—as evidenced by publications such as the multimedia magazine Aspen (1965–71). And typographic postmodernism’s playground was music, youth culture, and fashion, all areas whose audiences are expert in recognizing styles, allusions, and trends; it was hardly an assault on the legibility of railway timetables or wayfinding systems.

So while mapping developments in typography to art historical movements can help explain something of the visual culture in which printed objects were produced, it needs to be put alongside consideration of how typographic design developed, at the same time, in response to the changing demands of authors and readers, or indeed to intellectual ideas outside the visual arts. The focus of some graphic design histories is on a limited canon of graphic objects that have achieved iconic status, by virtue of their authorship or by seeming to represent their period. Such selections provide a series of signposts for the beginner, but the best writing on graphic design takes a critical approach that understands the complex interplay of forces in visual culture. Broad, international historical surveys by Richard Hollis and visual criticism by Rick Poynor fall firmly into this category. The role of design criticism is also to point to inconsistencies and wishful thinking in the practice of the subject. Edited by Rudy VanderLans, the magazine Emigre (1984–2005) was an outstanding exponent of this approach, a slap in the face for glossy compendiums of commercial and advertising design ‘masterpieces’. By inviting writers to interrogate design, and then designing their texts in ways that brought out discrepancies and paradoxes between content and presentation, Emigre reminded both parties (and their readers) that any design frames the reader’s view of a written text. The claim by Adriano Pedrosa in Emigre 35 that ‘design kills writing’ is a dramatic but welcome overstatement of the truth that all design intercepts and re-presents writing, and thereby changes it: the writer’s words can only be read through the typographer’s design.


Learning from the everyday


What alternatives are there to seeking a canon of designed artefacts or heroic practitioners? Historical approaches to typography that focus on purpose, use, and readership (while fully recognizing the visual, cultural status of the objects and the context in which they were made) may show us cogent differences and similarities between the printing of the past and the multimedia typographic universe of today. Some of this work was done in the 1950s and 1960s, when John Lewis (1912–96) and Maurice Rickards (1919–98) turned to collecting and cataloguing printed ephemera—‘the minor transient documents of every day life’—and helped preserve and popularize a stratum of printing below the books and periodicals that were assiduously collected in libraries, but which in reality constituted the bulk of printed matter that the population at large encountered: price lists, menus, maps and timetables, circus and theatre bills, packaging labels, tickets, and receipts. A parallel can perhaps be drawn with the way that in their 1977 book Learning From Las Vegas, the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown looked at the vernacular, blatantly commercial buildings of the Las Vegas Strip in order to understand urban environments in ways that were not accounted for by purely ‘rationalist’ modernist design.

Printed ephemera can range in style from the visually sophisticated (that is, matching the dominant visual ideas of their time), through the rebellious (again, sometimes aligned with alternative cultural movements), to the quite untutored and ad hoc manifestations of what ordinary people thought printing should look like. Looking at ephemera lets us trace ideas about the relationship of graphic form to language with an evidence base of voices and approaches far wider than those of books or even magazines, and forces us to confront the visual meaning of items which don’t have a convenient, prejudged, iconic status.


The look of the thing


How can we evaluate typographic design where the visual embodiment, the look of the artefact, and perhaps not the text, has the primary communicative function? These are objects whose profile, in Mijksenaar’s analysis, lays most emphasis on the reader’s satisfaction, their emotional response. Such things are not new: a medieval book of hours was as much (perhaps more) of an object for its owner to gaze upon and enjoy than a religious text to be read. Precise visual relationships were immensely important to highly practical book designers such as Tschichold and Hans Schmoller (1916–85). Both would probably have concurred with the dictum of type historian Stanley Morison (1889–1967) that ‘the enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim’, but that did not prevent them from designing pages where the placement of every element is judged to perfection.

In contemporary graphic design, the typographic work of Jonathan Barnbrook straddles commercial work and personal expression, but always makes the visual form embody the idea to be communicated. His work for David Bowie (1947–2016) on the album Blackstar (2017) offers a visual analogue of Bowie’s songs. Barnbrook uses specially created typefaces, star symbols and patterns that have a particularly typographic quality, and precision black-on-black printing techniques. They seem to resonate with Bowie’s elliptical lyrics rather than explain them or simply present them to be read (they are barely legible). His typefaces, such as Bastard, an extreme reworking of black letter, show technical skill and historical awareness. They are fully functioning digital fonts that are commercially available, but which reflect a highly personal view of design history. He uses them in Barnbrook Bible (2007) in a way that echoes the jewel-like coloured pages of a book of hours, and resembles the Victorian bible of decoration, The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (1809–74). This is typographic pattern-making that is intended to be enjoyed for its own sake.

The use of typography by conceptual and visual artists can be either abstract and distancing or highly concrete. The work of Lawrence Weiner often take the form of typographic texts, applied at large scale on to walls or glass panels, and set in industrial-looking typefaces. Weiner was influential in the development of conceptual art, where an artwork consists of ‘language + the material referred to’. Such an artwork need not have a definite physical form: instead it can be a concept with which the viewer engages. Consequently the typographic presentations used by Weiner have a neutral, almost accidental quality. Although the arrangement of the type may emphasize or reflect in a slightly obvious way the meaning of the words, the visual qualities of the typefaces used do not always seem to be part of the message. In contrast, Hansj√∂rg Mayer, who has a family background in printing, builds images from letterpress-printed type, with repetition and overprinting emphasizing the multiple quality of a printed product. In his work, as with the work of letterpress printer Alan Kitching, the materiality of type, and its imperfections, comes to the fore.

Over the course of the twentieth century, books produced by artists became less concerned with the reproduction of images, and more with the making of texts, as the acts of writing, production, and publishing became central to art practice. In this area we can see something of how text typography is exploited by visually aware artists who are not primarily typographers, and how quite subtle disruptions of the norm can make strong visual statements. Some contemporary artists choose to present work using ordinary materials of commercial publishing. Ed Atkins’s A Primer for Cadavers (2016) is a collection of unsettling essays that has the appearance of a classy but still normal paperback. This use of a superficially familiar visual genre has a parallel with his practice in videos, where he uses all the hyperreal, high-definition technologies of television advertising to make disturbing narratives. In a work that juxtaposes a familiar form with impenetrable content, Jeremy Deller collaborated in 2016 with typographer Fraser Muggeridge to produce an edition of Utopia by Thomas More (1477–1535). It is set entirely (and therefore unreadably) in More’s invented Utopian alphabet—a series of geometrical signs which replace the normal twenty-six letters of the Latin alphabet. Again, the physical book, in its paper and binding, feels like a contemporary paperback—albeit one with a Day-Glo yellow and pink cover.

Choices made by graphic designers in their more personal work, and by artists themselves or in collaboration with designers, are not the same as those made by designers working for industrial or commercial clients, but can be equally rationally based, as they seek to embody the essence of the work through typographic means. Genres and norms of legibility may be purposefully subverted, and typeface choices deliberately eccentric. In these ways, designs that are intended to be looked at rather than read offer conventional typographers a means of questioning their rationality as practitioners, and provide further evidence that the visual form of printed communication is never accidental.