When the Museum of Modern Art decided, at the beginning of this year, to expand its purview and include typefaces among the artifacts of modern design it collects, it was a moment of celebration not only among the type designers whose works were selected but among all of us in the design community who care about type. The notion that a museum of art, especially one as august as MoMA, rather than a museum of history or technology had stooped to recognize type design as a culturally significant activity was thrilling. However, the feeling of elation quickly gave way to puzzlement over the specific fonts that were chosen and the multiple rationales proffered for their inclusion.
The roster of twenty-three inductees* into MoMA’s Font Hall of Fame includes:
OCR-A (American Type Founders, 1966)
New Alphabet (Wim Crouwel, 1967)
Bell Centennial (Matthew Carter, Mergenthaler Linotype, 1976–1978)
ITC Galliard (Matthew Carter, International Typeface Corporation, 1978)
FF Meta (Erik Spiekermann, FontShop, 1984–1991)
Oakland (Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1985)
FF Beowolf (Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, FontShop, 1990)
Template Gothic (Barry Deck, Emigre, 1990)
Dead History (P. Scott Makela and Zuzana Licko, Emigre, 1990)
Keedy Sans (Jeffery Keedy, Emigre, 1991)
HTF Didot (Jonathan Hoefler, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1991)
FF Blur (Neville Brody, FontShop, 1992)
Mason (nèe Manson) (Jonathan Barnbrook, Emigre, 1992)
Mantinia (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Type, 1993)
Interstate (Tobias Frere-Jones, Font Bureau, 1993–1995)
Big Caslon (Matthew Carter, Carter & Cone Type, 1994)
FF DIN (Albert-Jan Pool, FontShop, 1995)
Walker (Matthew Carter, Walker Art Center, 1995)
Verdana (Matthew Carter, Microsoft, 1996)
Mercury (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler & Frere-Jones, 1996)
Miller (Matthew Carter, Font Bureau, 1997)
Retina (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 1999)
Gotham (Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Hoefler Type Foundry, 2000)
According to the criteria outlined in the January 24, 2011 MoMA press release, the chosen fonts fall into four groups: functional, technological, historical, and cultural/aesthetic. “We chose some of these typefaces because they are sublimely elegant responses to the issues of speciﬁc media,” it says. In other words, some fonts were selected because they were designed to accomplish a specific typographic function: OCR-A for optical character readers, Bell Centennial for telephone directories, Verdana for computer screens, and Retina for stock listings. The press release continues, “We have tried to form a comprehensive collection of the most elegant solutions to typography design in the midst of the digital revolution….” Thus, some fonts qualify for inclusion on technological grounds: New Alphabet, Oakland (one of the inaugural bitmapped fonts by Zuzana Licko), Beowolf (the random font by LettError) and again, OCR-A and Verdana. Other fonts were selected because they “visually reflect the time and place in which they were made.” Hence the inclusion of Template Gothic, Dead History, Keedy Sans, FF Blur, Mason, Meta and Walker — typefaces which exemplify the upheaval in the small world of type design (and the larger world of graphic design) in the 1990s. These are fonts that were notable for their aesthetic experimentation. Finally, the new MoMA collection includes a number of fonts that bear no visual signs that they are digital or even that they were designed in the last forty years. These fonts are ushered into the modernist temple on the grounds that they “most inventively distill the essence of historical examples to give it new, contemporary life”. This historical rationale embraces three groups of fonts: revivals of metal typefaces (ITC Galliard, HTF Didot, CC Big Caslon, Miller, Mercury, FF DIN and Interstate), revivals of past lettering (Mantinia and Gotham), and parodies (Dead History, Keedy Sans and Mason).
All twenty-three of these typefaces are worthy designs, but not all deserve the singular honor of being the first fonts collected by MoMA. Using each of the museum’s four criteria, there are many other fonts that are not only equally worthy of inclusion but a number of which are more deserving‡. On the technological front, MoMA failed to include any fonts from the five companies that pioneered the digital revolution in type: Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell, URW, Bitstream, Adobe Systems and Apple. From a cultural standpoint, Remedy (the answer to too much Helvetica) and Thesis (the largest type family to date) are among the no-shows. And among historical revivals, Adobe Garamond, the font that did more than any other to make digital type palatable to the design community (especially book desigers), is missing in action.
At “MoMA Embraces Typography,” a panel discussion sponsored by AIGA NY at the Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli, the museum’s Senior Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, answered questions about the new font acquisitions. One factor in deciding which were in and which were out had nothing to do with their design merits. Instead, it was the legal issues surrounding fonts once they become part of the museum’s permanent collection and are expected to remain accessible to curators and the public in the distant future. She said that wrangling over EULA’s (end-user license agreements) scuttled the inclusion of Chicago and other city fonts from the first Macintoshes. Jonathan Hoefler, one of the panelists, said that the legal negotiations Hoefler & Frere-Jones went through were complicated but resolvable. On the other hand, panelist Matthew Carter, said that they were not particularly onerous. No one provided details, other than to indicate that the sticking point centered on the view that fonts today are not physical objects or images but code.
When asked about oversights that did not involve legal issues (especially the glaring omission of any fonts from Adobe), Antonelli sheepishly said, “Think of us as ignoramuses.” Although her candor is to be applauded, the statement is damning. It implies that the museum did not do its homework, despite having empaneled a group of experts (among them Steve Heller, Rick Poynor, Emily King, Michael Bierut, Khoi Vinh, Peter Girardi, Tarek Atressi and Matthew Carter) in 2006 to advise the Department of Architecture and Design on its future design acquisitions, fonts included. Antonelli said that the current font selections were an outgrowth of the discussions among those experts, though she did not say — other than herself — who was involved in the final decisions.
The twenty-three fonts were not the first to be acquired by MoMA, according to Antonelli. Instead that honor goes to the Helvetica, specifically the metal fount originally loaned by Lars Müller for “50 Years of Helvetica,” the small exhibition the museum mounted in the wake of Gary Hustwit’s film. Antonelli also stressed that the museum would be adding more fonts to the collection in the future, possibly as early as 2012. This first group will be joined by others and any mistakes made this time may be rectified.
“Standard Deviations: Types and Families in Contemporary Design”, the exhibition designed to showcase the new font acquisitions, was curated by Antonelli and Kate Carmody, Curatorial Assistant. The installation was overseen by Julia Hoffmann, MoMA’s Creative Director for Graphics and Advertising, and others in the museum’s design department. An exhibition on type for a general audience is a difficult assignment, especially one devoted to digital type. Type is esoteric and, unlike type in the past, digital type is ephemeral. Yet, type is both universal and ubiquitous. And, as a result, more and more people are familiar with fonts — witness the unexpected popularity of “Helvetica: the Movie.” Antonelli recognized the problem and chose to solve it by lumping typefaces with other objects already in MoMA’s collection on the grounds that they shared the concept of “families.” This was a fatal decision.
The first problem is that Antonelli does not fully understand the concept of family as applied to type and, although the exhibition includes a glossary, “family” is not among the words defined (nor are italic, weight or width). “Some of the clearest examples of family in design are digital typefaces,” the introductory panel exclaims, “which each comprise several dozen related sizes, styles, variations, and behaviors.” This is an inaccurate description. And no examples, either verbal or visual, are provided to clarify the concept, especially for the average museumgoer. The type family has changed over time and a simple chart outlining its evolution — from the pairing of harmonized roman and italic types by Simon de Colines in 1528 to the addition of bold romans in 1830s England to the full blown concept of a type family by American Type Founders with the extension of Cheltenham (from one typeface in 1904 to twenty-one in 1914) to the eighteen-member pre-programmed Univers family of 1957 to the standardization of families by International Typeface Corporation in the 1970s to the widespread acceptance of the superfamily (in which serifs, sans serifs and other styles are mated) in the 1980s and 1990s — would have been immensely helpful.
Having established family as one of the governing themes for the exhibition, Antonelli failed to follow through in the typeface samples. No italics are shown (other than the pairing of an HTF Didot italic k with its roman counterpart), which is a shame given the radical aspect of ITC Galliard Italic. A number of fonts are displayed in their heavier weights (FF DIN Medium and FF Meta Medium; Keedy Sans Bold, Template Gothic Bold, FF Blur Bold, Mason Serif Bold, Gotham Bold; and Interstate Black), but without their regular or roman version for comparison.
More importantly, the increasingly complicated notion of family that has sprung up during the digital era is not addressed, though it could have been. Even with the absence of Lucida, ITC Stone, Rotis and Thesis — four of the pioneering superfamilies — there are fonts in the exhibition that exemplify this slippery topic. For instance, only the Bold Listing of Bell Centennial, the least representative member of this unusually named family is shown. There is no Address, Sub-Caption or Name & Number. Similarly, Mason Serif is present, but Mason Sans is not. And Oakland is presented without its siblings Emperor and Emigre. To be fair, the artifacts that accompany the font specimens do, in some cases, show other members of the type family. But are general museumgoers going to do anymore than glance at them?
Antonelli’s idea of showcasing fonts alongside furniture, toy robots, early Macintosh computers and other objects is a strange one. She sees “serial manufacturing and customization” as their common ground, but exactly what is meant by this is unclear and the exhibition itself is no help. The installation is confusing. The furniture, the toys and the industrial items are not integrated with the type but isolated. A mishmash of chairs, dressers and lamps is planted on a platform in the middle of the gallery with two additional lamps hanging above. The three walls to the left, behind and to the right of the pile are covered in type specimens (truncated character sets and apposite quotations set in each font) with printed samples of each font propped up on a narrow shelf and, sometimes, accompanied by a small screen playing videos illuminating technical aspects of the fonts or interviews with their designers. The fourth wall, contains a glass vitrine full of old Macintoshes, toy robots, messenger bags and other industrial products; to its right the original series of sketches that led to Milton Glaser’s iconic I [heart] NY design; and, further right, the title and introductory statement about the exhibition. The title and subtitle are printed on four narrow panels, perched sideways on a narrow shelf.
To a museumgoer entering the Architecture and Design Gallery from the escalator bank — the most common direction — the title of the show is invisible. Instead, the viewer is confronted by the pile of furniture and the three walls of type specimens. There is a sense that one is looking at two exhibitions, a not unreasonable expectation given the habitually cluttered nature of that section of the museum. Only when — and if — the museumgoer turns around is the title and introductory panel seen. Even then it is unclear whether it is referring to the I [heart] NY designs, the items in the vitrine, the island of furniture, the typefaces on the other three walls, or to the whole shebang.
One wonders if Antonelli’s inclusion of the furniture and other design objects was done to disguise her lack of knowledge about typefaces. She has included a glossary of type terms to help the viewer understand the esoteric world of type design, but the list is woefully inadequate and several terms are severely bungled. Descender is defined as, “The part of a letter that reaches down below the baseline of the font, in g, p, and q, for example.” This definition is slack. It not only leaves out j and y but it could include the tail of Q which descends but is not considered to be a descender. Furthermore, ascender, descender’s more significant counterpart, is not included. Other terms that are deficient include cathode ray tube, font, joining stroke, ligature, and titling face. Definitions of point size, serif, typeface and x-height are flat-out wrong.
Point size is not the “size of a font, based on its x-height” but, in metal type, of the metal body bearing the character. This height was larger than the distance from the bottom of a descender to the top of an ascender. In digital type the measurement is similar, except that now there is no physical object, just a bounding box. Typefaces with the same nominal point size can have wildly divergent visual sizes. This concept should have been illustrated in the glossary. (Furthermore, it is only with Postscript that 72 points equal exactly one inch. In the Didot system, 72 points equals 1.186 inches and in the Anglo-American system — the one that dominated in this country until the advent of the Macintosh computer — it equals .9936 inches.)
“A short line that extends from the top or bottom of a stroke in a letter,” the first part of the definition of serif, is merely incomplete. But the second part — “It is a symbolic leftover from handwriting.” — is laughable. A serif is a tiny stroke (not necessarily a line) that terminates a principal stroke of a character. Serifs are not confined to letters and they may be found on horizontal and curved strokes as well as on vertical ones. They derive from formal lettering, not handwriting; and, although their functional value has been a matter of debate, they are certainly not symbolic holdovers.
Typeface: “A set of letters in different sizes and styles, united in form and look, that are designed to be used together. Also called a type family or face.” Originally, typeface referred literally to the design of the character on the face of a piece of type metal. From there the term has come to mean the design of a group of related characters (not only letters) “united in form and look” but not comprising “different sizes and styles.” A typeface is not the same as a type family. The latter is a set of related typefaces, most often various weights and widths of a roman and its companion italic. Increasingly, the definition of family has been stretched to include serif, sans serif and mixed serif variants. Getting this term wrong undermines the whole notion that Standard Deviations is about types and families.
Character is defined as, “An individual letter, also called a glyph or letterform.” This collapses the critical distinction between a letter (or letterform), a character and a glyph. A character can be a letter, but it can also be a figure (numeral), a punctuation mark or a symbol. Glyphs, in typography, are graphical units and as such they encompass and go beyond characters to include writing marks in non-Latin languages.
“The height of the lowercase x in a typeface, upon which the heights of all other characters are based,” is the definition of x-height. This is overly literal and it puts the cart before the horse. The x-height (the z-height in older American type books) describes the height of the body of a lowercase letter and is only meaningful as a guide to the proportion of the body to the ascender height first, the capital height second and the descender depth third. The height of the x (or the z) is merely a convenience and not what the type designer is really concerned about.
These definitions are crucial to the recent development of digital type and are precisely the sort of thing that Standard Deviations should have focused on.
It is telling that the image used to advertise Standard Deviations on MoMA’s website is “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory Chest of Drawers by Tejo Remy (Droog Design, 1991), a set of mismatched drawers precariously assembled together with a giant leather strap. This is a fantastic and fascinating design, but it is not a font. This image symbolizes the confused nature of the show and seems to be symptomatic of Antonelli’s and MoMA’s unwillingness to confront type on its own terms. Instead of displaying type in a direct and mature manner that, at the risk of being labeled boring or didactic, acknowledges the intelligence of the museumgoer, the museum has opted for sleight-of-hand tricks to entertain and distract him/her from the real subject of the exhibition. A prime opportunity to educate the general public about a niche area of design has been squandered.
*I have added the foundries who issued the faces or the clients who commissioned them to the list provided by MoMA. The names are those in existence at the time the relevant typeface was released rather than its current one. For instance, the Hoefler Type Foundry did not become Hoefler & Frere-Jones until 2004. I also added Zuzana Licko’s name to Dead History since she is usually credited as a co-creator, the person responsible for turning P. Scott Makela’s design into a workable font. Some of the dates given by MoMA are questionable, most notably that of Mercury which the Hoefler & Frere-Jones website describes as “the product of nine years’ research and development.”
‡ See http://paulshawletterdesign.blogspot.com/2011/03/opinionstandard-deviations.html for extended arguments for other fonts.
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