Current 10/2009

French Typography

The content of each brochure usually touches one subject very briefly and gives an overview of the cultural activities related to graphic design in France for the coming year. The whole product gives a striking view about how graphic design is valued in France. This year's publication had more body than the previous ones. The subject is 'Typography in France', an attempt to make a concise inventory of the developments over the past ten years, since the publication of two small booklets about type design and typography in France. Publications about these subjects are exceedingly rare in France. Four authors made a contribution to this publication.

Typography in France.jpg
The cover of the 'Typography' brochure...
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...and the accompanying letter.


Michel Wlassikoff, historian and auteur of the sizable 'History of Graphic Design in France'. He describes the developments of the past ten years and mentions designers he believes have made contributions to the French typographic landscape. It seems that there are signs for a turning typographic tide in France. Finally. For the longest time, Jean-François Porchez (Le Monde, the Paris Metro) seemed to be the only type designer who could live of his métier in France. That situation has not dramatically changed, but there are now more design schools in France that run extended typography courses-There used to be only one-and young French designers specialise in the field, taking a type design education abroad or working at the office of Jean-François. The experimental approach to typography has always had well known followers in France, Michel mentions: Philippe Apeloig, Catherine Zask, Pierre di Sciullo and the M/M studio in Paris which seems to be pretty hot (or cool, or both) these days. An interesting development is also that the famous lead font collection of the National Printing House of France will be digitised by Franck Jalleau. The government first sold the collection a while ago to an American collector but bought it back later under pressure from the design community. Jean-Babtiste Levée, a young (28) French type designer explains briefly the borders of the professional field and what designing a typeface entails. A lot of it is well known, the basic design stages of a typeface design for the Latin script haven't changed much in the past centuries. The professional practice has, where cascading technological innovations have created the need for 're-creation' of existing typefaces to adapt these designs to the specifics of the new technology of reproduction. That is a much tougher job than one may assume. Also the demand for corporate typefaces is much larger than before, and the (standard) character set of a font keeps on growing and growing all the time. OpenType seems to have opened the gates to let the flood of signs come into the new sets. 'Une mer a boire'! Jean-Babtiste muses that there is little point in further nurturing the French inferiority complex about its graphic culture and he announces new initiatives for publications of monographs of French typographers (Bibliothèque Typographique) and the start of a new French type foundry. Peter Bilak, born in the former Czechoslowakia and now working in the Netherlands, writes about the opportunities and limitations of the distribution of typefaces today. Many type designers have started their own font foundry, because for the very well organised this is a feasible option these days. Font piracy remains a problem, thought, that is not easy to counter. Peter starts with quoting a recent article in Eye magazine saying  that we live in the Golden Age of type design. And that is likely to be true. Digital technology has 'democratised' type design, so the market has been drowning in tsunamis of new typefaces. Most of it is rubbish but there are bucketful of pearls to be found amongst the trash. Many type designers now treat their product like the Italians treat their expresso coffee and pasta in an attempt to perfect even further the already outstanding. Thomas Huot-Marchant (32) is a type designer who lives and works in Besançon. (Not everything in France is happening in Paris, although the government officials seem to be keen to keep France bizarrely centralised). Thomas writes about the type design courses he teaches in various design schools in France. He has developed a well tested curriculum and he is amazed about the quality of some of the type designs students had created within the time frame of short workshops. Thomas could be one of those teachers who could initiate a new wave of type designers in France.The revival of the interest in typography in France is a hopeful sign to help the amazingly long overdue emancipation of the profession in France. Typography is the core competence of graphic designers, and this aspect was painfully neglected in most of French design education, which had a clear preference for developing the illustrative skills of its students. Handwritten text became almost the visual brand of French graphic design. Matters change slowly in France, though. France is the world's civil servants paradise. Officials never leave their positions and therefore stagnate all normal dynamics. People who are put in place to stimulate matters are in fact in the way of further development. Graphic design is still mostly considered as a sort of minor branch of the visual arts, fabricating a sort of discount art. Artists have a special status in France unlike any other country. There is also a canyon between arts and crafts ‘artisanat' in France. I have the impression that the status of being an artist is in the way of a 'normal' development of the profession of graphic design, because it almost forces 'graphistes' to assume a position as minor artists. They even have to trick the system to set up a normal business for themselves. Having the attention of the domain mostly occupied by the Fine Arts can be stimulating, but when graphic design merely lives in Art Schools and Cultural Institutions as it is the case in France, the attention becomes a kiss of death. Products of fine art live well in museums, but design looks fossilised when exposed between museum walls, like chinese meals on display.

In the meantime, French Art Schools churn out graphic designers 'diplomé' by the hundreds each year. These young people are basically sent out in the desert carrying their artistic soul under their arms. While the design quality of practically all governmental means of communication is so embarrassingly low that it needs desperately some professional support. France should start a 'Grand Réveil pour le Graphisme de l'Etat'. To live up to its rather ambitious self proclaimed status as a cultural country and to give young students a life after school. Otherwise art and design remains only an interesting business for teachers and 'fonctionnaires'. Hopefully, such an initiative will create some wider appreciation for the profession.

When I look at the letter that accompanied the very nicely designed brochure about typography in France, signed by the director of the institution that issued it, I realise that change is still far off. The letter looks as if it was produced 50 years ago. With a date stamp and a name stamp under the director's signature, who is also probably responsible for commissioning the logo on this letterhead that looks as if it was ordered from one of the $ 99.90 internet logo sites. It all looks very French. For some reason graphic design doesn't integrate easily in the French culture, that savours complexity and 'Le Grand Geste' while graphic design often attempts to exploit the immense power of the obvious and relentless detailing. Another reason must be that graphic design doesn't have a luxury appeal that the French love and surely the very traditional French educational system develops and rewards more than anything the left hemisphere of the brain. That's why design quality doesn't stick easily in that society.

A bit like the hold of water on a duck's feathers.

The content of the brochure


New Life For Fonts On The Web

Well, that is all history. Now, everyone involved in the process, the designer (who has also become a producer along the way) and the reader must all possess in some way or other typefaces (fonts). The reason is that digital dissemination of graphic products is done in a digital code that needs reconstruction of the original at the receivers end to be able to view it. You don't need to have the typeface of a printed newspaper to be able to read it, but you need it to read the digital version of the same newspaper because your computer rebuilds the original design using the digital data sent to your computer and it needs the original font files to do so properly. The second reason for general font ownership is that all computer owners have become designers and producers of graphic material, and one need fonts to do that.


web fonts

So fonts have become a commodity. They are everywhere, people have hundreds of them on their computers. Good news for type designers one would expect. Well, in a way yes, but font piracy has become a bit of a spoilsport. The digital era has changed people's view on intellectual property and most seem to be less and less bothered by dealing with illegally IP protected content. People expect all digital material including fonts to be for free. In some way, it is understandable, digital stuff is weightless, duplication and transportation is practically for free, but development can be exceedingly time consuming. Anyhow, type designers had to fight back, protect their stuff and find new sources of income. So they all started selling t-shirts, life has to go on. The latest new opportunity seems to be selling their fonts specifically for web applications.Why is that ?Well, it has to do with a technology called font embedding. The most efficient way to make sure that the receiver uses the proper font to view graphic content is to send the font files packed together with the content in the same file. Type designers didn't like this 'embedding' method for obvious reasons, but for print the global standard for exchange of graphic content is firmly set by the American monopolist company called Adobe which has other and much larger interests than font protection. For print, practically one format is now used and that is Adobe's PDF format.The font files (or the relevant parts of it) are part of any PDF file. When you open a PDF file the computer effectively installs the required font file (temporarily) on your computer. However, you can't see or grab these files, so you can't easily 'steal' them. Of course, computer geeks can, and they can put their illegal font collections on the web. Type designers and font foundries have effectively ceased to reject this kind of font embedding. The monopolist has gloriously won the battle.The situation for typefaces appearing on the web is different. Probably because web standards are set by a consortium of stake holders and not by one private company. Type designers and font foundries have successfully opposed to let their products be imbedded in the websites that use them. It would be too easy to extract the font files from the source page of a website, thus encouraging font piracy. The result is that most websites only show the fonts that can be found on most system softwares, because these fonts are everywhere available. This is particularly bad news for all non-Latin typefaces since the very few global system software manufacturers/vendors have not been particularly keen on investing in high quality non-Latin fonts, to put it friendly. The much used alternative solution to show specific fonts is to turn text pages into illustration files that do not need font files to reconstruct the image, but this method has the disadvantage that individual web pages become bigger in size and the text is no longer searchable, translatable or indexable. The text is no longer recognised by the browsers as text so to speak. (There is a workaround by putting identical but invisible text under each web page).It seems that a system is now established that allows for font embedding on the web which is endorsed by type designers, font foundries and way, way, way more importantly recently supported by the major web browser softwares. It's a nifty system although considerably more complicated than rendering a PDF file of your designs for print. The basic structure is that the type designer or font foundry put their font collection or a series of secured servers. A web designer can get access to one of more fonts on these servers by acquiring an access code to the server for each individual website address and a special identification name for the font(s) required on each site. These codes are used as a font identification in the website files. Every time a website is opened by a viewer the relevant font file will be downloaded from the server and temporarily and invisibly installed on the viewers computer on the same spot where all other fonts are located - as it is the case with opening a PDF. The nifty part of this procedure is that one of our AGI members, Peter Bilak has developed a system by which web designers effectively create a special font on the fly through his website that is a customised version of an existing font from his collection to meet the specific web designer's need. The reason behind making this option available is that popular fonts have become Godzilla sized, bloated with weight, style, language, script variations and OpenType bling-bling that is not of any use in a web environment or simply irrelevant for a specific site. This way the file size can remain small and fast to upload. Moreover, piracy is more difficult and less attractive.There appears to be a need for this nifty system which is effectively a move in the direction of the way we will use computers in the future. Today, most of the data and software we need to view and work with are physically located on our computers, but our computers are now also by necessity 24 hours a day connected to the internet, generating a large incoming and outgoing digital traffic that we only partly are aware of. So our 'private' digital possessions are best to be viewed as owning a house with no walls. Everybody walks in and out of your digital place as they please, change the furniture and leave their small territory marking droppings of all kinds on your property. That is considered 'decent' behaviour in a digital environment. Besides, every move in and out of your property is registered and stored into perpetuity somewhere, and hardly protected. Privacy is practically a meaningless notion in the digital universe and so is the value of your possessions without having access to a complicated infrastructure. It would be like owning a bike at sea. Without access to the environment your expensive computer has less value than a single nail. When you buy a new computer the first thing you do is get your software updated on line. New, is an extremely short lived conception in the digital world but increasingly vital. Software updates arrive with ever shorter intervals. Google offers services for free by which your computer becomes effectively a peripheral workstation to the mainframe located on their servers. (Stopping the enormous and rather bizarre traffic of software updates to millions of computers). All your data and the software you use is on their computers, not on yours. It makes me feel a bit uneasy but maybe that is a generational issue.The new web fonts procedure fits into this trend. It all works fine as long as three conditions are met: the major browsers support the system, the servers holding the font files are available at any given moment and the company you made the deal with is still around or keeps its delivery conditions in place. Trust is the best thing you may possess when designing with these new procedures. But maybe my business horizon is way too far in the distance for current standards.



Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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