Saturday, March 26, 2011

Opinion redux—Deviations from Standard Deviations

I am gratified that the first out-and-out Blue Pencil opinion piece has received a warm welcome. However, several people have posted comments or emailed me privately with corrections or comments that need to be addressed.

1. David Lemon of Adobe has written to point out that, “Stone was the first original alphabetic typeface designed at Adobe, but was preceded by Carta, Sonata & the now-ubiquitous Symbol. (I agree the “originality” of Symbol could be disputed, since it’s stylistically an extension to Times.)”

2. David Ikus wrote, “The initiative is great, but why are there so many American fonts & barely anything European, not to mention the lack of non-Latin type design?” Good point. One private email implied that the choices were New York-centric, but that is clearly not the case with the inclusion of fonts from Emigre (California), Carter & Cone (Massachusetts) and FontShop (Berlin). Among MoMA’s 23 fonts are six by seven Europeans (Wim Crouwel, Erik Spiekermann, Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, Albert-Jan Pool, Neville Brody and Jonathan Barnbrook.)

MoMA’s selection is a reminder that all such initiatives are governed by the perspective and unconscious bias of the selectors which is shaped by their experience and knowledge. (That also applies to my counter-list.) This is why among graphic design history books Philip Meggs differs substantially from Patrick Cramsie or Roxane Jubert when the story reaches the 20th century. However, in the area of digital type design, it was the United States that was in the forefront of digital type design from c.1980 to c.1995, both technically and aesthetically, principally due to the rise of Silicon Valley. Surely this is what governed MoMA’s thinking. My own list included more Europeans (Adrian Frutiger, Hermann Zapf, Gudrun Zapf von Hesse, Gerard Unger, Martin Majoor, Luc(as) de Groot, Otl Aicher, Jovica Veljovic, and Dr.-Ing. Rudolf Hell—the founder of the company that bore his name).

The comments from both Davids are a reminder that the world of typefaces (fonts) is larger than than that of Latin fonts. I am not an expert in non-Latin fonts so I do not know where to begin in listing which ones (and which designers) were pioneers in the area of digital type design between 1960 and 2000. If anyone (hello, Fiona Ross and Gerry Leonidas?) would like to suggest another list I would be glad to post it.

3. Craig Eliason asks for more information on Silica and the claim that it was “the first typeface designed entirely on-screen.” I used the weasel word “ostensibly” because the only support I have for this statement is what Sumner Stone said at the time about it. No one back then or since has disputed his claim, but he was making it based on his own experience and knowledge. There well may have been a predecessor.

4. That brings up the point that our knowledge of history is only as good as the facts we have, and the facts we have are always subject to being superseded. My claim that TF Forever was the first original typeface designed using Fontographer came from Joe Treacy several years ago who supported my AIGA Voice article on the history of digital type design with several documents. However, the first original Fontographer typeface may have been the anonymous one used in the Altsys 1.0 manual for the software program. “The manual was full of screen grabs of the font being produced,” I have been told by an anonymous informant. (We need a picture of this!)

This counterclaim is similar to David Lemon’s comment about Carta and Sonata. We tend to overlook the ordinary in favor of the extraordinary, the anonymous in favor of the named. Thus, Stone and Treacy promoted their efforts while the designers of Carta, Sonata and the unnamed Altsys font did not—unlike Susan Kare who eventually came forth to promote her role in Chicago.

I was eager to include Joe Treacy because he (along with Gunnlaugur SE Briem, Peter Fraterdeus and Garrett Boge) was one of the early adopters of Fontographer (pre-1987) who has been overlooked in the history of digital type design. The reason is easy to fathom: the faces that he, Fraterdeus and Boge all issued were similar to those already available from phototype companies. They did not have the look of the “new” that those from Emigre did. (By the way, let’s not forget that Fontographer was preceded by Font Studio as a font design tool.)

5. My claim that Adobe Jenson MM was the first digital typeface with optical scaling appears to be wrong. HTF Didot (1991) had that feature as well, which I knew but I did not realize it was a Multiple Master font.

All of this goes to show that we badly need a history of digital type design (and one for the filmsetting era as well). A graphic design student in Lausanne is currently working on a thesis about “Computed Type Design” that might be a step in that direction. For now, the best we have is a few chapters in Richard Southall’s Printer’s Type in the Twentieth Century (New Castle, Delaware and London: Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 2005).

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