The future of typography

Morrison work

First a warning – If you’re after some quick style tips on what’s hot in 2013 then perhaps this is not the article for you. Why? Because it is appropriateness and not style that drives typographic development. Look closely into any significant shift in typography and you’ll see a response to new reading environments, new technologies or social change. Although type has been aptly described as the ‘clothes words wear’[i], it is a creative field that doesn’t so easily translate into the language of fashion, i.e. ‘Winter 2012 is definitely a thin geometric sans…’

Despite the impossibly ambitious title of this article, much in the field of typography can in fact be quite easily forecast. The reason for this is simple – the design of letterform is basically miniscule variations on a theme, that being the alphabet on which our language is based. Each typeface design (no matter what its pretensions otherwise) remixes and reinterprets all that has gone before. This creates one of the most beautiful aspects of typography – sets of very finely-tuned and delicate variations that give letters their subtle distinctive tones of voice. And much like music, the more knowledge you have of a particular genre, the more depth and variation you infinitely discover.

Given this continuum of ever-changing reinterpretations, type can only be truly understood when seen in its historical content which is why archives are so important. By seeing a historical lineage, particular patterns begin to emerge. Certain figures, approaches or cultural contexts are seen time and time again within typographic history, creating a cohesive narrative. These linked points create the story of a person, the tale of a technology or even an entire and distinct national design language – something that Australian graphic designers have been pondering for many decades.

Only a few weeks ago I found myself in the Powerhouse Museum archive researching their collection of works by the early Australian typographer/designer Alistair Morrison. While looking at the originals of pieces long enjoyed as little images in annuals from the period, one very distinct emotional response was felt – a wonderful sense of humility. As a practicing designer, you are confronted by the fact that one day this is all that will be left (at least in the physical world anyway). But rather than finding this realisation depressing, it was in fact inspiring. One of the more unexpected roles of a design collection is to remind the living practitioner that one will only be remembered by the work that is left behind – so it had better be good.

Quality aside, perhaps the most significant challenge for typographic archives is accessibility. Any archive striving to document typographic history must acknowledge that the form of that archive will be a predominantly digital one. We only have to look at current shifts in the typeface market to see where it is heading – while print-fonts are now becoming available as web-fonts, the demand in online communications will eventually reverse this situation. The standard font format will become a web-font with the print-font being a special purchase when required.

But that’s not all. With type foundries being able to promote their libraries online using extensive previewing, now even inside active design programs and simple animations right through to full promotional trailers, the ‘physical object’ in type design, the printed type sampler, is now becoming a rare thing. As somebody who still produces these, it’s my suspicion that many type samplers are being produced as a ‘durable record’ of the contribution and enduring status of the foundry far more than a mere promotional vehicle for the fonts themselves. This shift in intent has changed the ‘archival footprint’ of type design and will continue to do so in the future.

With the exception of a scarce few institutions of which the Powerhouse Museum is one, Australia has been rather slow in archiving and documenting our graphic/typographic history. Thankfully this is steadily changing, due to the ever-increasing mainstream interest in typography. But even if we did get to the situation of having bursting design archives – what then?

Its then up to others; researchers, academics, students and practitioners to ventilate these resources through study and exposure. For this to happen we need to continue to reiterate the importance of embedding ‘design research’ into ‘design practice’, instead of each being ‘siloed’ into the restrictive and often divisive notions of ‘industry’ and ‘academia’.

At the very same time that typography is ‘the sexy thing’ in graphic design education, it is an irony that history and theory subjects are being sidelined or even abolished in many design courses. This connection between technical craft and a broader awareness of a social, cultural and technological context is perhaps nowhere more important than in the teaching of typography. As an employer I bear witness to the sad outcome of this disconnection – generations of design graduates deluding themselves into thinking that they have created ‘something new’. While the design departments within large universities are cutting back on ‘unpopular’ subjects such as design history, the current bloom of stubbornly vocational private design schools seems to simply add to this dilemma.

By reinstating this connection and context through an informed curriculum, a more mature and enduring typo/graphic design culture in Australian design will develop a fuller ‘micro’ (craft) and ‘macro’ (cultural) perspective. Coupled with ever-dynamic technological change, this will all make for a fascinating typographic future. Ultimately, as practitioners we can only acknowledge the past and craft the present. How the future will be seen is in the hands of others – those understated custodians of our design future, the archivists. It is in their white-gloved hands that the story of Australian design will be told.



[i] Erik Spiekermann, Typomania (BBC Film Production, c.1985)