NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 33

Design Today

Future Type: A Semiotic Turn

Pouya Ahmadi

The spoken language — hence its written representation — is first and foremost a communication system whereby emotions ( per Plato’s and later on Rousseau’s argument ) or logical thoughts ( per Kant’s debate ) are conveyed. Type — as a mechanical form of reproducible letterforms — is merely a set of symbols, therefore bound to the regimes of semiotics. Its anatomy — albeit universally agreed upon — is inherent in its very basic shapes. Yet, it has transformed and overhauled over time. Jan Tschichold’s 1929 Universal Alphabet portrays an attempt to attain the Modernist utopia of universal aesthetics by reducing letterforms to constructed, geometrical shapes. His amongst others ( Herbert Bayer, Wim Crouwel, Kurt Schwitters, and Cassandre ) attempted to do away with serifs and capitals. Replacing or altering the basic shapes of letterforms was all for naught over the course of time. The modernist’s aim at neutralizing the visual language and somewhat exclusive dogmatism is well versed in Tschichold’s essay of 1948: “Personal typography is defective typography. Only fools can demand it…” and, “Since typography is aimed at one and all, it offers no latitude for drastic changes.” Much of Tschichold’s view on typography was supported by personal experience rather than research. Likewise, Stanley Morison in his First Principles ( 1951 ) wrote: “Type design moves at the pace of the most conservative reader.” Both Tschichold and Morison believed that the modification of basic letterform shapes must be so subtle that it is almost invisible. They intended to establish a foundation of what Bringhurst refers to as “inherently good type.” Hence, principles such as legibility became their ultimate mantra. Tschichold’s ( Sabon—1967 ) and Morison’s (  Times New Roman — 1932  ) brainchildren attest to their effort in realizing their convictions. After 80 years, Times New Roman remains, the most widely used typeface to date.
The Modernism that gave birth to International Swiss typography in the 1960s and 70s was questioned by its successors. Emigre and FUSE became the conceptual playground for postmodernists. This might be the very birth of the semiotic turn in typography and type design. FUSE was launched by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft in the 1990s. In their first issue, Wozencroft described it as “a new sensibility in visual expression, one grounded in ideas, not just image.” Brody and Wozencroft became the avant-garde idealists who fought against what appeared to them as a repressive establishment of Modernist typography. They designed typefaces for the sake of rejecting functionality, ranging from formal exercises to completely abstract shapes that replaced letterforms. Although these efforts — highlighting the 1980s and 90s visual culture — reflected the technology of the time by employing glitch-derived and grunge qualities, they were rather obtrusive to the process of reading. The more conservative approach of that time — which took the extreme opposite direction — was Matthew Carter’s humanist typeface Verdana ( 1996 ). 
Verdana was designed to be legible at small sizes on computer screens with the help of manual hinting done by Thomas Rickner for each individual size. Bell Centennial ( 1976 ) was another typeface of Carter’s which addressed a similar problem for printed matter by emphasizing ink traps as the major structural component. In both cases, the type design addresses capabilities of the medium for which it is displayed, be that paper or screen. In stark contrast to the FUSE typefaces, functionality is still the core philosophy of Verdana and Bell Centennial.

Technological improvements of the early millennium has resolved many of the past technical constraints of type design. Sub-pixel anti-aliasing and auto-hinting process have become the most basic feature of every on-screen typeface. The invention of high pixel density displays has reduced the gap between print and on-screen rendering of type. This very fact allows type designers to draw significantly refined and complex on-screen typefaces. Additionally, it has made the technical aspect of type design less of a concern, allowing designers to focus on formal and conceptual aspects of typography and type design. The idea of Futuretro, for instance, has become a popular theme where a type designer appropriates a typeface from the early 1920s, 1930s, or earlier, and combines it with a touch of contemporary niche. For example, Multiple Sans ( 2011 ) — designed by Marc Schütz — is a single typeface based on an oxymoronic concept of unity and variety in glyph shapes. Each glyph incorporates both geometric and humanistic attributes that allow for a well-balanced typesetting. Multiple Sans challenges the notion of distinct style and the historically rejected idea of combinations within one typeface. A similar example is the typeface Karloff ( 2012 ) by Peter Bil’ak and Peter van Rosmalen. Per Bil’ak’s statement “Karloff explores the concept of irreconcilable differences — how two ex-tremes could be combined into a coherent whole entity.” It was originally based on two diametric extremes: Bodoni ( considered the most beautiful typeface in existence ) and Didot typefaces, and an eccentric typeface from the middle of the Italian Industrial Revolution most widely criticized as ugly. The typeface includes three styles: Karloff Negative, Karloff Neutral, and Karloff Positive. The result demonstrates a direct relationship between stroke contrast and aesthetic values of a typeface. Both Multiple Sans and Karloff illustrate a rather uncommon approach in type design — one that sets value in concept and process. The recent approaches in type design signify a new turn in process and methods of the art.
As we move forward, international trends transform into paradoxical, objective individualisms that motivate future movements. Pre-modernist subcultures become the new source of inspiration, and Futuretro appropriates the aesthetics of the ever growing virtual / web culture. The anti-aesthetics of today’s “avant-garde” turn into commonly accepted conventions. Critical approaches to type design conception and creation processes are considered true innovation, as opposed to formal aspects. HM Tilm ( 2010 ) by Till Weideck and Timm Haneke is an example of an experimental and conceptual monospace typeface that was designed in a self-set time frame of 24 hours. This 240 glyph typeface features a combination of functional and simple playful details.
Multiplicity in form — granted by opentype exhaustive features and appropriation of abandoned styles — integrate into the basis of this new type culture. Counterfeits are largely valued and the notion of original is long abolished. Type design tools and software take charge of the technical aspects of the craft, hence the role of the designer is significantly reduced to merely “concept developer” and “decision maker.” Letterror ( 2013 ) by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum is an example of this shift towards software and computer literacy in type design process. In the case of Letterror, the designer is creator of the tool that produces and interprets the outcome ( typeface ) itself. Therefore, he is no longer involved directly in the process. Contrarily, a new modernism or excessive appreciation for extremely neutral typefaces is rejuvenated by projects such as Neutral. 
Neutral ( 2005 ), the typeface by Kai Bernau ( published by Typotheque ) claims to help the reading process by assuming no stylistic associations.
Our type culture is one of constant change. It refuses to assume a unified form, and yet it moves towards a rather paradoxical utopia where contradicting philosophies coexist and reniform one another. Its technological integrity postulates a redefinition of the type designer and typographer role solely as “meaning generators” in the creative process; hence a semiotic turn.

Pouya Ahmadi

is a Chicago-based typographer and art director. He is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago—School of Design—and an editorial board member ​of Neshan magazine focusing on contemporary graphic design and the visual arts. Pouya's work has been showcased by It'sNiceThat, AIGA Eye on Design, People of Print, Grafik, Etapes,​ ​Type Directors Club, Print Magazine, and many others. Pouya holds a MA/MAS degree in Visual Communication from the Basel School of Design in Switzerland and an MFA in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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