Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Typographic Tipping Point

How many typefaces is too many typefaces? A million? 100 million? Or is it the case, as Massimo Vignelli memorably observed, that a graphic designer can function effectively with only a small stable of thoroughbred sans and sans serif typefaces? 

Today’s graphic designers can choose from countless sophisticated, highly serviceable, and precision-engineered typefaces. Not only that, but thanks to the miracle of the download, they can be on our desktops within seconds—beautiful families of immaculately conceived letterforms, all fully operational and legal (if, of course, we’ve taken the trouble to include our credit card in the transaction). 

But what happens to our ability to discriminate and exercise good judgment when we have a near-infinite number of possibilities? How do you choose anything when you have everything to choose from? The concept of “too much choice” is an acutely contemporary problem—a digital world problem caused by the superabundance and super-availability of everything. We find it in music, literature, food, tv channels, consumer products, in information itself, and now in typography. Enough, it seems, is never enough.

Have we reached peak typeface? Apparently not. More fonts appear daily in a seemingly endless quest for newness. And if we factor in the search for a viable, fully-responsive typographic ecosystem for the web, the results offer a near infinity of variables. Why? Our inner Marxist would remind us that the reason for this ever-expanding galaxy of typographic alphabets is simple: markets need perpetually escalating commodity production or they wither. And while the world of typeface production cannot be compared to the worlds of automobiles or apparel, it does offer us a microcosm of these larger spheres. 

Beyond the capitalist need for serialized production, this explosion of activity in typeface generation seems to have two driving forces: the first is the corporate lust to posses bespoke typefaces and the attendant eagerness of designers to cater for this demand. The second is the huge upsurge of interest in typeface design amongst young designers. 

The corporate hunger for ownable typefaces is easily explained. Why wouldn't they want to possess a vital piece of their brand real estate? It’s what corporations do—they land grab. Odd, therefore, that so many of them end up with corporate fonts that look alarmingly similar to other corporate fonts. 

A far more interesting question is why do so many designers want to design their own typefaces? Why all that painstaking work when there is, most likely, a typeface already in existence that will serve your purpose? Of course, the work of type creation is far less laborious than it once. Software has reduced much of the drudgery, but type design is still a task that requires quiet dedication and hours of patient refinement. 

The designer Mark Kingsley takes a jaundiced view of the current fad for type design: “The reason so many design students feel compelled to design a typeface,” he says, “is that typefaces don’t speak back like clients do. It’s a safe place to work where one is dealing strictly with form, and the complexities of human interaction are minimized. There’s no thought, other than formal thought. And when you’re done, you have the semblance of relevance.”

I share Kinglsley’s view: type design is widely seen as the last arena where the graphic designer is still in charge of his or her own work. Typeface designers will bang the table and say that commissioners of typefaces are every bit as picky as commissioners of other types of graphic production. But to idealistic young designers appalled at the interfering tendencies of clients, stymied by the rise of templated graphic environments where everything is already designed, and demoralized by the slavish adherence to business strategies that limit creative thinking, typeface design feels like one of the last arenas of free expression. It also feels like the exercise of a craft. It feels like proper old-fashioned ‘making’, at a time when huge areas of graphic design practice have become increasingly robotic.

Posted in: Typography

Comments [5]

It's not just young type designers who are sick of clients, us older designers are sick of them too. I hope the market can still support new typefaces as I've just quit my job to start designing them.
Simon Stratford

As an Israeli designer, I have a different point of view regarding Hebrew typeface design . Design of Hebrew typefaces became quite popular in the last years. In my opinion it has strong cultural and political reasons (besides of being part of a trend). In Israel, which has no visual tradition of it's own, the Hebrew alphabet is a unique visual asset, and the act of giving it a shape is being considered by many as participating in the construction of the local visual field. You can ask why should one do it specifically threw typeface design and not threw other graphic assets. I think this is partly because many designers feels a rejection from the sociopolitical situation in Israel and the visual symbols that represents it. Typeface design is being related to a culture rather then to a territory or regime, which makes it's design practice more relevant for many.
Hadas Zohar

I am so happy to see this article. The curse of plenitude is very much on my mind these days. Your analysis of why young designers are so focused on fonts is an angle that had not occurred to me. Your last paragraph is insightful and brilliant, yet points to a misunderstanding on the part of new entrants to design of the true "craft" behind design as a profession. I have always understood my place as a designer as a part of a symphonic whole composed of other players. The conductor may be the client, or it maybe a hybrid of client, market voice, and a design team. A large part of the craft behind design is the practice of unifying a client's needs with the form of design. This is the symphony — oh, I forgot, we no longer have them, it's Spotify I was hearing. I may not agree with client comments or their taste, but they give my work reason to be. My "own" expression is my personal calligraphic expression and my fine art, and I see no reason to confuse the two or pit them against each other. If you don't love collaboration there is no reason to be in design for clients — far better to make products and brand them with your own taste (furniture? posters? t-shirts?) Perhaps fonts are seen as one of these products, but it is a massive effort to make something from which there will be little or no income stream, and for which, as this article has highlighted, there is questionable need. The template culture is brutal. But what the designers who are proliferating fonts don't seem to realize is that a font too is a template, squeezing out the place held by custom typography, hand lettering and . . . . thinking. Whereas (pre-font explosion) a creative director might think with a pencil sketch and ask me to realize it in new and creative work, now I am most often given a "hand-lettered" font and told to improve it, or to customize it slightly in a one-off brand or campaign. Although the presentation of my own work makes clear that I am a maker of custom unique letterforms, my inbox is barraged with requests for my "free fonts." In language, the word "font" has replaced other terms, and is used interchangeably to replace "calligraphy," and "hand lettering." Language is important. In common use a term that originally referred to a "template of the alphabet" is now used to represent anything related to letterforms, even if it is an original work. By extension status seems to accrue exponentially to the person who makes a font compared to the status of the maker of an original single-use work. So if the idea behind making fonts is to hack the template culture it has come full circle and bitten its own tail.

Completely agree. I have been saying this for years. There is always room for exceptional new design, but the vast majority of "new" types are derivative, copies or novelty/disposable-after-used-once
Guido Jiménez-Cruz

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Taposy Rabeya

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