After 500 years of practically unchanging techniques for cutting the matrix for hot type, technical changes over the last twenty years or so in particular have radically transformed the ways and means of shaping, producing and distributing script.
After Gutenberg, the second revolution began with the replacement of hot-metal type by the photosetting of the 1950s. In 1985, hot on the heels of Macintosh – the first computer with a graphical user interface – Apple brought out its laser printer based on Adobe’s Postscript. With PageMaker, Aldus introduced the first DTP software and Adobe’s Illustrator enabled the production of vector graphics by means of bezier curves. In the same year Altsys developed an outline font-processing program, Fontographer, which contributed greatly to the accessibility of production tools for font creation and, together with Postscript, was one of the major causes of the subsequent explosion of fonts.
In the mid-1980s we were still in the aftermath of the punk movement. This had also left its mark in the visual world. Not only the joy of experimentation, low-budget production and the resulting contempt for the established rules, but also fresh ideas and the ability to be your own designer eliminated the fear of failure and led to an uninhibited, free approach to aspects such as fonts.The subsequent rave and techno era, with its plethora of flyers, made use of the computer, which had become an established design tool. It was now the time of ‘anything goes’, when the limits of legibility were stretched wide and overstepped. Font sampling and customizing was a popular technique, and font aesthetics were a component of the increasingly rapid shift in visual trends. In the initial euphoria, the knowledge and skills in font design acquired over the centuries were being widely overlooked, or totally disregarded due to ignorance. Things only changed towards the end of the 1990s. Many of the classic font providers, such as Linotype, Berthold, Monotype and Agfa, reacted too sluggishly to the technological changes and either disappeared or were taken over by other companies. The first independent digital type foundries, such as Emigre, were able to establish themselves successfully. The internet offered the ideal operating platform. For the first time in history the individual font designer was independent of traditional foundries and able to manage everything himself from conception, via realization of the final digital design to marketing the font. Many of the pioneers taking advantage of these new opportunities were ‘unqualified’ font designers, generally with a background in graphics, but no training in font design in the classical sense. This was nothing new; throughout the history of typesetting it has been these incidental players who have provided interesting contributions and stimuli.There were no more than four font cuts available at first and, in addition to visual shortcomings or a simplified shape repertoire, these suffered from the same qualitative limitations experienced in lithography to a degree unknown in hot-metal type, even in Gutenberg’s time. Where, with hot metal, it was the custom to produce an individual shape for each font size, using optical adjustments, the standard Postscript and TrueType fonts are based on a single shape for all sizes. Additionally, the number of characters available for a single setting was limited to 256 (while Gutenberg had already applied a larger repertoire in his Bible, with a letter and ligature setting of 290 characters). Solutions such as MultipleMaster fonts, with an optical axis that integrates characters according to their size, were unable to achieve widespread success, as the level of skill demanded of the user was too high. New technologies such as the OpenType format, developed in 1996, and the introduction of Unicode alleviated many teething problems and technical limitations of the past and were a welcome sign of progress for both font designers and users.
The majority of today’s digital fonts are based on the shapes of a vast array of existing designs. The choice is vast. Reference material includes centuries-old historical printing, typewriter and advertising faces from past decades and fonts from sample books from the not yet digital, pre-Postscript era. Many of what we assume to be new fonts prove, on closer examination, to be digitalizations or versions of existing fonts. The proportion of really new creations is small. Even in this field, the gaps between existing fonts are being filled with increasingly minor variations. Nevertheless, new, exciting, independent creations do appear every year. These are regularly accompanied by high-quality reproductions of historical fonts, which, like the new creations, also demand well-founded knowledge and skill. Experimentation, design creativity and changes in visual/aesthetic customs, trends and preconditions also contribute, as do new techniques.The stormy period of the last two decades has been an important phase in the debate on fonts. Many of the designs that appeared during that time will not last, but the discussions they generate on fonts and font design have awakened the interest of an increasingly wide public. There is increased acknowledgment of the fact that outstanding designs, as in the past, require a solid foundation of sound expert knowledge and talent, an investment in terms of time and associated professionalism. Also on the increase is the rapid, uncontrolled spread of digital fonts, like that of audiovisual material, with all the problems that this entails as regards copyright and the payment of font designers, an issue unresolved to this day. This has led to massive font libraries on computers. Trying out the fonts acquired in this way does, however, bring the designer closer than any font sample book of the past, providing the opportunity to first test the fonts and only purchase the necessary licence if the font is used.
Today, more than ever, fonts can play an integral part in visual concepts and solutions. Fonts can be designed specifically for a project and support a design concept in its entirety. Whether it be for individual usage, such as a poster or logotype, which only requires a limited number of characters, or for specialized applications, up to corporate faces, which emphasize the distinct look and the unmistakability of an organization or company, the font creates the identity. As far back as 1702, Louis XIV of France commissioned Philippe Grandjean of the Imprimérie Royale to create an exclusive household font family, Romain du Roi, for all their printed matter. Unlike 300 years ago, today there is an added factor. A global company with its own house font not only obtains an exclusive face, emphasizing its brand identity, but from a certain volume upwards it can also make cost savings. Ordering one’s own font nowadays is often less expensive that purchasing a few thousand non-exclusive user licences.Higher monitor resolutions in the future and new communications media, such as electronic documents and books, will have as much influence on the creation of fonts as increasing visual globalization, with all the counter-movements that can be expected. Only time will tell which of the font creations of recent years will become tomorrow’s classics.
André Baldinger, Paris, 2006
Essay taken from 'AGI: Graphic Design Since 1950' by Ben & Elly Bos