Computer Arts

Experiments in typography

From readable fonts that stretch the rules, to abstract projects created for aesthetic kicks, the experimental wing of typography is where the fun really happens. Dom Hall takes a closer look.

Mention something as innocuous as experimental type to traditional typographers and they fly off into a rage. Just check out what the guys hanging out at the well-regarded Typophile website have to say on the subject. They tie themselves into a series of existential knots over the meaning and purpose of experimental type.

"The true meaning of 'experimental' must include an analytical study of results as opposed to an introverted infatuation with mere unorthodox process," says one person in the hotly debated experimental type thread. "I think in experimenting, the process, the finding-out-about-things or the playing-around-without-things, is very much in the foreground," says another.

The problem with a term like 'experimental type', it seems, is down to the phrase itself. Perhaps experimental is the wrong word and we should be thinking about concepts such as 'unorthodox' or maybe just 'weird'. Whatever the semantics, though, what we're talking about here is the fruits of the typographer's craft that turn your head, that are truly pushing the typographer's art into uncharted territory, that make you want to get busy with the Mac and Fontographer yourself.

While that's a process that has been taking place since the birth of the written word itself, there are plenty of people working in typography at the moment who are constantly looking to move the discipline onwards.

Take Stefan Gandl, the Berlin-based designer at Neubau. Although he doesn't even consider himself to be a typographer, he approaches type projects with an ingenuity, enthusiasm, and creative force that makes all his work truly unique. One of his best recent typefaces - NB-Grotesque No9 - was created in collaboration with Klaus Voormann - the legendary German illustrator, musician and designer responsible for The Beatles' Revolver cover - for a new book called Remember Revolver.

"NB-Grotesque No9 is a customised version of Grotesque No9, which was the typeface originally used on Revolver," Gandl tells us. "Compared with the record sleeve's typeface, the newly derived bold single character shapes of NB-Grotesque No9 are reduced to the extreme. Readability is only guaranteed due to small variations of the very basic outer form of the letters," he explains.

Gandl says he and Voormann wanted to "pay tribute to the analogue feel" of the original Revolver sleeve, so they produced some elements of the typeface using rubber stamps. "A vector version of NB-Grotesque No9 was sent to an institute in Austria where all characters and some additional letters got laser stencilled in rubber," he says.

Creating fonts at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to Gandl and Voormann's handcrafted labour of love is John Harris. A designer and typographer based in Basel, Switzerland, Harris has been attempting to make typefaces out of the stuff that surrounds him - his Smoke font being a case in point.

"The Smoke typeface began as marks left by the soot of a burning candle," explains Harris. "I would move sheets of paper back and forth over a variety of candles to leave marks resembling letterforms on the page. Later I created custom brushes in Photoshop and painstakingly recreated the marks using a Wacom tablet."

The results of this meticulous work are staggeringly beautiful - a typeface that hangs in the air. But does it work as typography? Is it useable, or is that missing the point?

"In some circumstances you need terrifically functional typography, but that is not to say that terrifically functional typography can't also be beautiful and experimental all at the same time," says Harris.

The Smoke typeface has been used in print, he adds: "It appeared in a literary journal published at North Carolina State University titled Windhover. It was used after a poem titled Wasted Light, along with a photograph of a twisted bent mesh screen that had similar formal characteristics to the typeface."

At Finnish type foundry Fenotype, designer Emil Bertell works to create typefaces that are both useable and decorative. His Tower Generator font is firmly in the latter camp, but it's a fascinating examination of the beauty and forms of modern architecture.

"It's more of a visual system than a font," he admits "and I suppose I'm guilty of abusing the font format. Each letter gives a certain part of the tower and writing 'words' gives you different kinds of tower images. I've been thinking of expanding the idea for more complex image-sets that would allow you to 'write' complete worlds or buildings," he says.

Also building a name for itself in the pattern font end of the typography spectrum is Hoxton-based Kapitza, whose work has graced Computer Arts Projects' previous covers.

The company, founded by sisters Nicole and Petra Kapitza, has created a wide range of pattern fonts that set out to "explore the possibilities of basic graphic shapes in creating repeat patterns, and using the font format and its intrinsic features as a tool for creating patterns". While both Kapitza and Fenotype's work could, as Emil Bertell says, be described as an "abuse of the font format", it succeeds in working on a number of different levels. It also illustrates a wider point about experimental typography: namely, when does the experimental become conventional - how long before Emil's Towers and Kapitza's dazzling geometric patterns slip into wider usage?

Probably not too long. As sure as underground culture worms its way into the mainstream, once radical and challenging typefaces have a habit of becoming ubiquitous. Take Herb Lubalin's 1970 sans serif Avant Garde, the typeface designed for the high-brow US magazine of the same name. The Bauhaus-inspired font that appeared radical in the early 1970s, with long sloping lines and clean curves, has been overworked in recent years by everyone from 90s rock group Travis to, strangely enough, most of the scaffolding vans currently traversing the UK's roads.

Experimental typography can be mystifying to anyone outside the design community, but to those tuned into its nuances and codes, it's one of the most creatively satisfying and beautiful design disciplines. And long may it prosper.

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

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