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Computer Arts

Experimental typography

The digital era has brought about an explosion of new ideas and approaches in type design, but can the experimental school get along with typography's long-established traditions?

Since the arrival of the Mac on the design scene in the 1980s, typography has experienced a huge creative renaissance. Unhooking type from its physical presence on metal blocks and giving it the immediacy of the desktop has enabled it to interact with the other elements of design in ways previously unimaginable.

However, this revival isn't without its problems. Not only does the experimental spirit clash with the strong traditions with which type design has grown up, but even its proponents aren't agreed on what makes experimentation worthwhile. It looks like typography is having a mid-life crisis.

"Typography was one of the last areas of design to engage with the process of 'going overground'," explains Jon Wozencroft, Co-founder of FUSE. Thanks to the PC, "A previously closed-off activity turned into the everyday chaos of communication." For Jon, "Type experimentation is the expression of this new freedom."

"Of course, type design is a discipline," says Bruno Maag, one half of the Dalton Maag foundry. Nobody disagrees with this assertion, but must experimentation and discipline be at odds?

For Jon Wozencroft, discipline isn't the enemy of experimentation - it's a driving force: "The part discipline plays in experimentation can be likened to the role of improvisation in music - before this can happen with any degree of accomplishment, you have to know your instrument inside out."

If Jon's right then the nature of that discipline will inform the direction of experimentation, and Bruno has a clue: "I would suggest that it's probably the starkest of all design disciplines. You only deal with black and white, with straights and curves." If this is the case then a natural direction for typographical experimentation would be towards self-expression and emotion.

These are the rules

Discipline means rules, and according to Silja Bilz, Editor of the soon-to-be-released Type One, these have two aspects: aesthetic and technological. Silja should know - a survey of experimental typography, Type One is subtitled 'Discipline and Progress in Typography'. In the book's introduction, Silja identifies a few of typography's golden rules. These are often surprisingly specific: "The 'm' must not be a double 'n'; the counter of the 'o' must correspond with the optical width of the 'n'; the 'u' should always be slightly narrower than the 'n'."

To these, Thomas Schostok, the man behind Cape Arcona, is happy to add a few of his own: "Don't underestimate technique, and don't sell every font you make." And, of course: "Don't work too much - go to the beach, have a drink and look at the girls."

But if Identikal's Adam Hayes is right when he says, "Type design becomes experimental when the traditional rules are broken," then eventually experimentation has to undermine discipline. This is the dilemma faced by anyone wishing to push the boundaries: without the boundaries, they'd have nothing to push against and their experimentation would become completely meaningless.

The price of progress

"Experimentation by its very nature means trying new things. Legibility is dependent on what we're used to reading and so when you introduce something new, it will be less legible, for a while at least." Bruno Maag lays out the essential trade-off between legibility and experimentation which faces designers as they attempt to balance progress against utility.

Thomas Schostok agrees, but is keen to put things in context: "A hardly legible headline can attract the reader's interest, while an illegible text will bore him. So the trade is done with that in mind." It's important then to know where to draw the line, literally.

Jeff Knowles of Research Studios goes one step further, "It depends on what you want the outcome to be. If you just want to use a typeface as a medium for an experiment, I don't believe legibility should even be considered." Illustrating the point, Bruno relates that, "When Baskerville introduced his new typeface, people thought reading it would make you go blind." Of course, nobody went blind, but if he'd worried about that eventuality, we'd have no Baskerville font.

These considerations are a long way from the roots of typography, but the sentiment is echoed by Alexander Gelman, Head of Design Machine in New York: "Like experimental music (the kind that can actually be painful to the ear) experimental type is usually unreadable and worthless in terms of verbal communication." Strangely, this isn't a total condemnation, as Alexander says: "Nevertheless, the conceptual and artistic can be quite stimulating for the eye and the mind."

"The boundary of experimentation moved quickly once computers were introduced," says Jeff Knowles. "Experimentation now can be almost anything - press a key on the keyboard and it doesn't necessarily have to result in a character being displayed. It could be anything: a movie, a sound, a colour, a journey."

This begs the question, what makes type experimental? According to Jon Wozencroft it's simply, "Challenging an audience's perception of information." This implies a constant curve of development, as Jon explains: "The experimental has to keep abreast of new modes and habits that quickly 'familiarise' the new."

But Bruno Maag offers an interesting point here: "My aim in regard to aesthetics is to produce a beautiful piece of design work. A typeface that is good enough to be appreciated as quality craftsmanship." Is this a goal for the experimental designer too?

Thomas Schostok starts the ball rolling on this subject: "The way a font is perceived depends on very subtle details. They define the character of a font, its 'taste'. You read something and the word can give you a different feeling depending on the font used. Going deeper into this psychological theme is very important."

For Silja Bilz, experimentation is, "When the design leaves the type space as we have come to expect it so far." By this it seems Silja is saying that a simple departure is enough. "That can be expressed in the look and feel of a font or can be reflected in the intention of the designer. It can also be earned through the use of unusual means, solutions, samples and ideas."

This seems to be the clincher - experimentation takes account of the designer's intention in making the font. For Bruno Maag this wouldn't suffice: "Aesthetics are not enough," he says. "The same design has also got to fulfil its primary function - to communicate the word in a most legible form."

Thomas Schostok's final explanation pulls this all into focus: "If it expands the borders; if it finds a new code for a character; if it allows itself to go wrong." That's when typography becomes experimental.

The final frontier

"Depending on the style of type, size, leading, spacing, you can alter how the viewer reads information. You can create an image with typography. You can influence opinions with typography." Bruno Maag is right when he makes these points - type has undeniable potential, but it seems that its experimental side has a long journey ahead if it is to realise its full potential.

Jeff Knowles has an interesting take on the situation: "We are so saturated with typefaces that the greater challenge is to create a pure, timeless typeface."

Experimentation should be part of the process but not the end itself: "The research and the inspiration should be experimental, the outcome should be breathtaking."

For more info on type terms, check out the What is Typography post on our sister site Creative Bloq.

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