About a year ago, I participated in a student portfolio review involving nearly a dozen American schools, many (most?) exhibiting the classic projects that characterize all undergraduate design programs — the color studies, the poster problems, the typographic exercises — all of which teach the student about that most essential design conceit: letterforms, and how to use them.
And here, I quickly discovered that something had gone horribly wrong. One after another, bright-faced young hopefuls displayed the products of their long hours in the studio. Book after book spilled forth with content ranging from how to cook a frittata to how to understand Freud. There were personal books, commercial books, literary and poetic books, serious and silly books, childrens books, how-to books, and everything in between.
And there they were — virtually all of them — typeset in Futura.
When Paul Renner released the typeface Futura in 1928, he was inspired by the streamlined geometric forms that celebrated the newly-minted wonders of the machine age. Futura was important for a number of reasons: arguably the first sans-serif font to be widely distributed, it has since its inception influenced countless other typefaces and remains, to some, the epitome of modern design. Save for a brief revival sometime in the 1970s (no doubt a reaction to the nostalgia-laden excesses of macramé, big hair and Victorian clip-art ) and its dazzling persistence throughout the oeuvre of Barbara Kruger, Futura remains a typeface of its era: smooth and sleek, round and uncompromising. (Renner, an early member of the pre-Bauhaus Deutscher Werkbund — was guided by a strong belief in the union of art and industry, and was, as Futura brilliantly demonstrates, a staunch opponent of ornament.)
Power Pleasure Desire Disgust, 1997, multimedia installation. Deitch Projects, New York.
Kruger notwithstanding, I found it vexing to see what amounted to a miniature Futura-fest in all these student portfolios, and began gently questioning those responsible.
"What made you choose this typeface?" I inquired of a lovely young woman whose senior project involved a series of book jackets for Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.
"I liked how modern it was," she replied.
"Did you read the book?"
She blushed, shook her head no, and looked down at her lap.
I tried a different approach. "Do you know what year this book was published?"
Again, she shook her head, and apologized for the lapse in research. But I wasn't so interested in the apology (a common refrain, particularly among students) as I was concerned that she was about to graduate and had no fundamental knowledge of design history — a failure of the curriculum, and by conjecture, of the faculty. I explained that when Freud's book was published in 1899 (and in it's first English edition the subsequent year) it's impact was significant — that the whole notion of addressing the subconscious was seen as wholly unprecedented, even radical at the time. And yes, broadly speaking, such a novel concept might be considered to be "modern" — and what might that entail, typographically? I could see that an abbreviated lecture on the rise of modernism in America would be about as pointless as quoting George Santayana — or even Harry Truman — and besides, the next student was already awaiting his turn for review — but the bottom line was: why Futura?
"I just kind of liked it."
Clearly, designers make choices about the appropriateness of type based on any number of criteria, and "liking it" is indeed one of them. There are an infinite number of considerations to be taken into account, from readability to copyfitting to concerns over what works on a screen to what translates into other languages. Followers of the Beatrice Warde school of thought believe that typography should be invisible, while an equal argument can (and should) be made on behalf of expressive typography — type that extends and amplifies its message through more robust gestures in form, scale and composition. (Guillaume Apollinaire's caligrammes preceded Renner's Futura by more than a decade: might not these be considered modern, too?)
It's not the designer's voice that concerns me here so much as the designer's understanding of history — a body of knowledge that once acquired, can be edited, modified, even jettisoned at will, but only after giving it a good, hard think. Designers in general (and students in particular) have an overwhelming tendency to consider anything that's been achieved in the past as a kind of "been there, done that" straitjacket, while the opposite is not only true, it's surprisingly actionable.
There are those who believe typography, like beauty, rests in the eye of the beholder. And while it is not now nor has it ever been a science, there are certain typographic tenets that remain somewhat protected by, well, the vicissitudes of cultural civility. In general, we like to be able to read our typography. Organizational conceits — like headlines, bylines and pull-quotes — offer scalable options in editorial design, while book designers guide readers to different points of entry through things like chapter headings and running heads. Poster designers get to make type big. Motion designers get to make type move. Branding and identity designers have to do it all — their task involves orchestrating visual language so that, say, the same word is recognizable whether reduced to a website icon, printed on a business card or emblazoned on the side of a truck. And yes, the starting point for all of it — whether it's a student assignment or a massive re-branding of a corporation — is likely to be the designer who says, "I just kind of liked it."
Nevertheless, one assumes that, at a certain point in the evolution of a visual idea, a certain amount of judgment intervenes, and appropriateness is questioned — even though appropriateness can be boring. (Even some of the world's most fastidious typographers know that.) True, we live in a multi-cultural, aesthetically pluralistic world now — one where the form-to-content relationships aren't so easily identified, let alone made visually manifest. Nor, perhaps, should they be: nothing really modern has ever been easy, has it? It is highly likely that the majority of the general public will never know — or, for that matter, care — that Paul Renner designed Futura nearly 30 years after Sigmund Freud published his seminal book on dreams. But does that make it right? Typography may well be the most critical component in the education of a young graphic designer. Let's begin by teaching our students what they really need to know — not just the formal and technical conventions but the cultural, intellectual, critical and yes, historical context in which hundreds of years of typographic practice preceded them. Choosing a typeface is fun, and making language visible is nothing short of enchanting; in these modern, computationally-enabled days, it's also way too easy to wander and stumble and fall. To fail to address the degree to which design history plays a fundamental role in any typographic course of study is nothing short of tragic.