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Artifact vol 3, no 1: Signature edition

Conceptual Type Type led by Ideas

Bil’ak, Ejlers, Bonde, Poynor, Engholm, Barnes & Quistgaard

Published by Artifact Journal 2014. Initiated by The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.  Philip de Langes Alle, D K-1435, Copenhagen K. Funded by Danish Centre for Design Research.

Signature edition

Editors: Steen Ejlers, Ida Engholm and Mads Quistgaard.

Design: Troels Degett Holmsted and Ulrik Ejlers ( –

Typeset in Theinhardt & Stanley

Printed and bound in Denmark


Steen Ejlers: E-mail: Ida Engholm: E-mail: Mads Quistgaard: E-mail:

I S S N 1749-3463 © Copyright to illustrations resides with the creator unless otherwise noted. Artifact publishes illustrations in accordance with commonly acknowledged fair use of visual materials for non-commercial research purposes. Creators who feel that publication is in violation of copyright or fair use should contact the editors.

Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademis Skoler for Arkitektur, Design og Konservering Konservatorskolen



Introduction BA - BH

Conceptual type? Peter Bil’ak


When is typography conceptual?

Conceptual hybrids – Type in the 1990s Rick Poynor


conceptual type – A commentary on the internet’s design development? Ida Engholm

Steen Ejlers GA - GL DA - DL

Considering Conceptual type – Becoming conscious Nanna Bonde

Concepts and realities – MARIAN Paul Barnes



AA Editorial Where are the idealistic fonts, the artsy fonts, the non fonts, the political fonts, the funny fonts, the difficult fonts, the fonts that don’t look like fonts, the fonts that are frontiers of new beliefs? We would like to focus on the ideas and concepts behind type. Rather than ushering in our examination about type by asking who it was that created it and what it looks like, we want to ring in this new decade by asking why we create type and what it means. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art. (Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraph on Conceptual art’, in Artforum, 1967.)

We would like to draw on Sol LeWitt’s vision and then we would like to replace ‘art’ with ‘type’, in a search for the ideatype-machines of our time. We would be most honored if you would join us in our pursuit. In the hopes of launching a non-dogmatic effort to discover the idea-typemachines of our time, a conference was held in Copenhagen in 2010, where designers and theorists convened to discuss the current status of type design with a point of departure in what was proposed on the invitation quoted above. The conference attracted more than 500 graphic designers, type designers and theorists from all over Europe and the large turnout and the huge interest in debating type inspired us to make use of the conference and the concept of ‘conceptual type’ as the basis of a combined book and special issue of Artifact. We call this combination a signature edition. The book and special issue both include presentations made at the

conference, which have been revised and edited, as well as a number of new articles written especially for this publication. In all the texts, the concept of ‘conceptual type’ forms the basis of a discussion about the current role of type design, as illustrated by specific cases and examples and with perspectives that are related to historical developments and contemporary trends in a variety of genres and publication formats. ‘Conceptual type’ is not an established term, nor does it have any clear-cut definition. But in this context, it has served as the point of departure for a non-dogmatic, thematic and proposal-oriented discussion about type design and its underlying ideas. The signature edition thus takes an explorative approach to the concept, showcasing and debating specific historic and contemporary fonts, concepts and cases, all of which address the topic of the publication in various ways. The aim of the publication is not to arrive at a consensus or an unambiguous definition. The articles represent very different voices emanating from praxis and from research. The contributors have their respective roots in various professional traditions and thus have different ways of presenting their thoughts and ideas. The editors have chosen to maintain these professional and individual differences rather than to strive for a uniform expression, since having a range of professionals offering different perspectives on the publication’s central topic has been considered to be a specific plus. Hopefully, with its open and discursive approach, the publication ought to help spark some debate about the role of type design today and in the future. The publication consists of six articles with supplementary illustrations and presentations of visual cases. With this structure, the publication can be read either ‘horizontally’, via the visual cases and captions, or ‘vertically’, via the articles’ more in-depth approach to the subject.

AB Contributions Steen Ejlers: Is the success of a conceptual typeface, rather than being an effect of aesthetic or functional qualities, related solely to the preceding idea-development process? Or to put this in a more simple way, When is typography conceptual?, asks Steen Ejlers and takes us on an explorative historical journey of type design, ending with present day corporate typefaces, which he regards as conceptual in a moderated manner, inasmuch as they deviate from the dictum that a typeface must first and foremost be functional, and instead places their thrust on conveying something beyond the verbal message. Ejlers questions whether the conceptual, in the end, is seated where functionality is no longer of primary concern. Rick Poynor: Rick Poynor takes us back to what might be deemed the heyday of conceptual type experiments. In Conceptual Hybrids: Type in the 1990s he takes a closer look at the decade that brought about a new concept-driven approach to typeface design, an era when sampling and surrealism invaded the field. Informed by the theory of deconstruction, these type experiments were seeking to unravel the stability of language and any notion of inherent meaning. Conceptual type neither was nor is an established term, Poynor says, but the letters of the alphabet certainly do carry unlimited potential for conceptual re-workings. Paul Barnes: In Concepts and Realities – Marian Paul Barnes discusses the implications of tools in type making, and uses historic examples of formulaic type-construction as a basis for calling attention to the tension between the conceptual and the realities of type design and manufacture. Bound by the same basic alphabet, Barnes contends that the central concern in type design is how we deal with the fact that the past is very much present in type design. Comparing the making of typefaces to cover-versions of classic songs, and using his own typeface, Marian, as an example, he contends that while the

idea for a new interpretation is indeed the most important factor, the most interesting place is where concept and reality converge. Peter Bilak: ‘Conceptual type is an oxymoron’: such is Peter Bilak’s opening statement in Conceptual Type? As a craft-based discipline, type design cannot be purely conceptual; the success of a typeface is dependent on its execution. “Would you hire a ‘conceptual’ plumber to fix your sink?”, Bilak asks polemically. He talks instead about the underlying ideas or intentions of the author, pointing to how the term ‘conceptual’ is often used synonymously with these other terms. Bilak questions whether usage might lie at the heart of the matter and asks: What does it entail for a typeface when author and user have differing intentions? Is a typeface that never gets used but remains instead an aesthetic exercise perhaps to be considered a conceptual typeface? Ida Engholm: In Conceptual Type – a commentary on the Internet’s design development? Ida Engholm offers a definition of the term, ‘conceptual’, that is generated by way of conceptual design and conceptual art. She then employs this definition as an analytical concept and subjects it to an examination of how conceptual typography was used as a critical design approach during the early days of the Internet. Within this venue, conceptual typography that was based on postmodernist ideologies broke away from a prioritizing of the technical-functional, focusing instead on laying bare the non-transparency of the Internet medium. Even though this type of critical stance is currently diminishing in prevalence, Engholm addresses the continued need for a concern with the relation between writing and its underlying ideas. Nanna Bonde: In Considering conceptual type Nanna Bonde examines how the two conjoined terms, type and conceptual, can be construed in such a way that the concept of conceptual type can currently be explored in a meaningful and generative

manner. Through the vehicle of conceptual art theory, she posits a distinction between experimental type and conceptual type: positioning the conceptual within the processual, and delimiting the conceptual from the ideational. She suggests that conceptual type might be intrinsically linked to the exploration of the relation between type and language – congruent with the deconstructive type experiments of the 90s.

mann represents the idea that corporate values and ideas can be reflected in a typeface. As a paradox, his typeface, Meta, teaches us that even though a typeface has originally been developed for a very specific client, it can eventually transform itself and become the ‘Helvetica’ of the 90s.

Published online 19 December, 2013 I S S N 1749-3463 print/ I S S N 17493471 D O I : 10.14434/artifact.v3i1.4368 © 2013 Artifact

Visual cases Norm, design collective: The Swiss duo has persistently been working methodically and conceptually with visual communication and typeface design. They are constantly pushing the boundaries for New Swiss design further by being both referential and almost obsessively compulsive in their attention to concept, grids and details. In the book, they show examples from their own output, focusing especially on their conceptual book, Norm: The Things, and on their typeface, L L Replica. According to Norm, all text is conceptual, because it is based on the alphabet. In the case of the Latin alphabet, for example, there has never been a tabula rasa, a re-start from scratch. Underware, design collective: The Dutch/ Finnish type design collective has, from its outset, combined humor with a highly skilled and patently original approach to typemaking. For Underware, the process of typemaking, including the initial sketching, the wrong decisions, the failures and even the naming of the fonts, are all as important as the actual finished product. Europa, design collective: Negotiating and appropriating visual culture is the hallmark of this British design collective. They have reinterpreted Johnston’s writing exercises, re-introduced the illustrated capital letter and exercised the visual style, New Ugly, before it was rebranded Pretty Ugly. Erik Spiekermann, type designer: Embodying corporate custom fonts, Spieker-



Peter Biľak was born in Czechoslovakia and lives in the Netherlands. He works in the field of editorial, graphic, and type design while teaching at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. Started Typotheque in 1999, Dot Dot Dot in 2000, Indian Type Foundry in 2009, and Works That Work magazine in 2012. 

Typotheque, Zwaardstraat 16, 2584 T X The Hague, Netherlands. E-mail:

Conceptual Type?

Peter Bil’ak



To begin with, let’s be clear that conceptual type is an oxymoron. A typeface can’t really be conceptual, because it is dependent on its execution. Typeface design is a craft, so the process that transforms the pure idea into a functional font is a critical part of the discipline. Before the typeface is executed, it is not a typeface, it is simply an idea. A few years back I was part of the jury at an art school in Antwerp, where a student proposed a conceptual font. Instead of defining the shapes, he came with a set of written instructions, so the capital E was defined as ‘three evenly spaced horizontal lines crossing one vertical line’. It was fun and very clever, but technically, it was merely a description (however witty) of the alphabet, not a font, which is based on the repetition of shapes. Sol leWitt’s famous quote ‘Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution’ (LeWitt, 1969) does not apply to type design. There are plenty of examples of nicely designed and successfully exploited typefaces based on banal models. Nowhere else is revivalism as popular

a precious commodity. Instead, the typical work of conceptual art is generally semantic rather than illustrative, a self-referential, non material meta object, art of the mind rather than the senses. The work of Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt or the group Art & Language challenged viewers’ expectations concerning the limits of what can be considered art. It even tried to be an anti-art. Type design, by contrast, was originally dependent on the expertise of the maker: the final typeface was only as good as the skill of the punch-cutter. The first examples of type design separate from the craft of manufacturing come from the Enlightenment period. Romain du Roi (see page B E ), an exclusive typeface commissioned by the French King Louis XIV, departed from the traditions of calligraphy and worked with analytical and mathematical principles of drawing type. This then, if you like, could be considered the first ‘conceptual’ typeface. The committee of the Academy of Sciences proposed a grid of 48×48 units, inventing

repressive typographic establishment by making fonts that rejected functionality as the reason to design type. The fonts ranged from purely formal exercises to completely abstract shapes independent from Latin construction, purported ‘new forms of writing’. FUSE typefaces were curiously diverse, making it hard to discern any criteria for selection. And this is precisely the problem with the use of the term ‘conceptual’: very often it is simply synonymous with ‘idea’ or ‘intention’. Since every act of creation arguably stems from intent, regardless of the function of the product; is every artwork, object or typeface therefore conceptual? Mel Bochner, American conceptual artist, disliked the label ‘conceptual’, because the word ‘concept’ is not always defined entirely clearly, and is therefore in danger of being confused with the author’s intention. I believe that the topic of this book is to look at the underlying ideas of typography, the intentions of authors, rather than to claim that type itself is conceptual. That makes the discussion less

face is actually used. While the concept of the typeface might be very clever and original, what happens when the typeface is never used the way it was intended? Does it make the typeface less inventive? How about a font which never gets to be used? Can it still be called a font, or is usage at the core of the definition of a font? So what would be a truly conceptual typeface? In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing’ demonstrated that destruction could also be conceptual art. According to Rauschenberg’s example, I narrowly missed a chance to be the co-creator of a similarly creative opus in 2001 when a thief broke into my studio and stole my computer and all the backup disks for Fedra Sans, then in the final phases of completion. Had the thief claimed responsibility, he could have become the designer of a rare example of conceptual type — by destroying months of work in mere minutes. On the other hand, some principles of conceptual art transfer well to type design. Sol LeWitt’s statement ‘The idea becomes the machine that makes the

as in type design, and recycled versions of proven models seem to form the core of most type libraries. For example, how many versions of Garamond or clones of Swiss neutral sans serif do we really need? Let’s have a look at what the term conceptual means in other disciplines. We can skip music, architecture, illustration, ceramics or dance, which similarly to typography are also dependent on performance or execution. Obviously, there are some exceptions — John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) for example, or some projects of Rem Koolhaas or Peter Eisenman — but in essence all craft-based disciplines rely on the transformation of abstract ideas into material form. Should the idea remain in its semantic form, one has to rethink the whole frame of the discipline. Would you hire a ‘conceptual’ plumber to fix your sink? Where the term ‘conceptual’ really prospers is in the domain of modern art. This term came into use in the late 1960s to describe a philosophy of art that rejected the traditional art object as

the notion of vector outlines by defining characters in terms of geometry rather than physical mass. The committee also invented the notion of font metrics and suggested the idea of bitmap fonts. Some 50 years separated the conception of the typeface and the execution of a complete set of punches for it. More recently, a type design project that approached the definition of conceptual art was f u s e (see page B E ), launched by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft in the early 1990s. FUSE consisted of a set of four original typefaces with corresponding posters, and an accompanying essay. Each issue had a theme such as religion, exuberance, (dis)information, virtual reality, etc., but the designers had complete freedom as to how they interpreted that theme. In the first issue, Wozencroft described FUSE as ‘a new sensibility in visual expression, one grounded in ideas, not just image.’ Carrying forward the ideals of the avant-garde, Brody and Wozencroft wrote with an impassioned rhetoric as if they saw themselves as fighting the

problematic, but still not easy, since there is probably no other discipline where the difference between the intention of the author and intention of the user can be so great. For example, the original intention behind Fedra Sans was for it to be the corporate type of the insurance company that commissioned it, and it was designed precisely according to the stipulations of the company’s brief. The original client, however, was acquired by a bigger fish, and development of the corporate font came to an abrupt halt. That was a disappointment at first, but a blessing in disguise in the longer term, as I could expand the family and offer it to the public myself. In the years that Fedra Sans has been available for licensing it has been used in all kinds of applications from building facades to indie publications, to Bible typesetting, to the identity of a terrorist organisation (see page BE), but as far as I know, not a single insurance company. Buildings, Bibles, terrorists… it becomes quite obvious that the type designer has no actual say in how the type-

art’ can be neatly illustrated by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum, collectively known also as ‘LettError’ (see page BG). Instead of designing fonts, they write code that makes fonts. LettError examined the process of creation, suggesting that the engineers who make the tools we use have a greater impact on aesthetic trends than most designers do. It makes sense then for designers themselves to reclaim this field by designing their own creative tools. One LettError project is Bitfonts, computer code which takes the structure of a bitmap font and interprets it in multiple ways. By deciding to design the process rather than controlling the end result, LettError embraced the possibilities of unexpected results. It is the machine that makes the type. I’ll conclude with one of my current projects, for which the background idea is more interesting than the resulting forms. For centuries, art has been defined as something that gives rise to an aesthetic experience. Capturing beauty and avoiding ugliness were considered to be the prime responsibilities of

the traditional artist. In this still untitled project I have tried to identify the most beautiful examples of typography known to mankind. I settled on a series of serif typefaces designed by Giambattista Bodoni in the late 18th century (see page B H). In the second step, I tried to identify the ugliest examples of type that we know. That was a bit more difficult, but finally the prize went to eccentric Italian from the middle of the Industrial Revolution (see page B H ). This reversed-contrast typeface was designed to deliberately attract readers’ attention by defying their expectations. Strokes that were thick in classical models were thin, and strokes that were thin became thick — a dirty trick to make freakish letters that stand out in the increasingly saturated world of commercial messages. This project is not interesting because of the forms, which have been explored before, but because it creates a tight link between the two extremes, between the beauty and the ugliness. Time will tell if this project finds some suitable application, or whether it remains purely an aesthetic exercise, a ‘conceptual’ type.


Cage, J. (1952). 4’33”. Published c. 1960. New York: Henmar Press. LeWitt, Sol. (1969). Sentences on Conceptual Art. Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art.

Published online 6 March, 2014. I S S N 1749-3463 print/ I S S N 1749-3471. D O I : 10.14434/artifact.v3i1.5165 © 2014 Artifact.



Romain du Roi, a typeface commissioned by King Louis X I V in 1692, for the exclusive use of the royal printer.

F U S E , quarterly forum for experimental typography initiated by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft in 1990.

In 1953, Rauschenberg erased a drawing by de Kooning, which he obtained from his colleague for the express purpose of erasing it as an artistic statement. The result is titled Erased de Kooning Drawing.

Epanastatikos Agonas, or Revolutionary Struggle, is a Greek group known for its bombing attacks on Greek government buildings, banks and the American embassy in Athens. Both the European Union and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have formally designated Revolutionary Struggle as a terrorist organization. Epanastatikos Agonas has been quite consistent in using Fedra Sans for its flyers. And no, they didn’t buy the licence.


Selection of LT R Python Robot: 50 fonts designed by Python scripting, distributed by LettError.


Five-Line Pica Italian dates to the mid-19th century.

A redrawn Bodoni and Bodoni with inverted contrast drawn by the author, 2010.

Bodoni is a series of serif typefaces first designed by Giambattista Bodoni in 1798.



Steen Ejlers is a graphic designer and architect. He is Associate Professor in the Institute of Design and Communication at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture. In numerous projects, books, and articles, Steen Ejlers has written about graphic design and typeface design as well as Danish graphic designers.

Steen Ejlers: E-mail:


Steen Ejlers

CC A conceptual artwork is not necessarily constituted by exceptional practical skill, sublime execution or whatever might otherwise regularly characterize ‘fine art’. Instead, the effort is seated in the preparatory process of thought – or as Sol LeWitt once put it: ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes art’ (LeWitt 1967). The conceptual work of art typically speaks primarily to the intellect and not necessarily to an aesthetic/sensual experience. But what about the notion of ‘conceptual type’? Could this be, in a way that is analogous to ‘conceptual art’, typefaces that do not necessarily function by virtue of their aesthetic or functional qualities but are interesting alone owing to the foregoing idea-development process? Or is a typeface which in its essential idiom conveys a message or an idea, conceptual? In what follows, I will try to examine these issues by invoking a series of crucial moments in the history of typeface, from antiquity up to the twenty-first century. The Latin alphabet, in and of itself, is a concept where, originally, pen and brush strokes were conjoined in a particular order and thereby created a family of characters. The Latin alphabet is the later development of the relatively less refined Greek alphabet, which - in stone inscriptions dating from the Sixth Century B C – makes its appearance on the so-called boustrophedon, signifying by definition that the direction of the script alternates with every line break: on the first line, the text reads from left to right; on the second, from right to left; on the third, from left to right, and so on (See page C H ). This mode of writing texts has taken its name from the farmers’ manner of plowing with a team of oxen – boustrophedon literally means ‘ox-turning’: a layout concept that, in our optics, has a tendency to exert a disruptive influence on the whole. Later on, stone inscriptions were organized in the form of stoichedon. Here, the Greek capital letters were placed into a completely smooth grid, vertically and horizontally, without any spaces between the words. This means to say that the spatial divisions between the


words and the sentences disappeared in an even vertical/horizontal pattern of letters: beautiful and orderly – and difficult to access. Both of these strategies of making stone inscriptions appear strange to our eyes, but apparently it must have worked out. And even so! – the everyday frequency of stone inscriptions that had to be decoded by the ancient Greeks can hardly be likened to the text bombardment, let alone the reading process, that we live with today. Moreover, the Greek inscriptions, like the Roman ones of the same time, consisted solely of capital letters, all of which could, characteristically enough, be deciphered when laterally reversed. However, when boustrophedon was brought into practice with the Latin alphabet’s majuscule and minuscule letters, a number of confusing situations could arise and pairs of letters like ‘d’ and ‘b’ and ‘p’ and ‘q’ could be reciprocally mistaken for each other. Even today’s elementary school children often employ, during their acquisition of a written language, alternating writing directions and sometimes they consistently make laterally reversed let-

Renaissance’s scriptoriums and eventually carried further into the first printed Roman typefaces. We regard it as an almost God-given basic condition that this alphabet consists of a dual representation – uppercase and lowercase letters that form pairs with the same phonetic value, notwithstanding the fact that with few exceptions (such as ‘s’ and ‘o’) the uppercase and lowercase letters don’t even look alike. The system first arose in the Renaissance’s scriptoriums, where the Roman typefaces were developed by coupling antiquity’s capital letters, which we know, for example, from the Trajan’s Column in Rome, together with a style of handwriting (Carolingian minuscule) developed during the reign of Charles the Great. Because the unconscious reading process presupposes an immediate recognition and identification, a typeface that needs to function as the body type in a newspaper or a book may not deviate radically from the accepted convention. Similarly, the signage on the highway must preferably not give rise to all too much profound meditation on the graphic’s significance.

ters – and sometimes they even employ an ox-turning approach. They have partly managed to grab hold of the concept of writing, but often cannot see or understand the importance of the writing’s direction.

Type is accordingly a sensitive instrument, if the communication is going to function effectively. However, alongside this fundamental process, display typefaces – especially – are also, if only by virtue of their idiom, bearers of a secondary kind of information, typically implemented in accordance with fairly stereotyped perceptions that one might spot, for example, in a lot of packaging and advertising graphics, where elegant Didone or script typefaces are used to peddle perfumes, lingerie and the like. The awareness of this secondary communication is always present in the graphic designer’s practice, which has now, presumably, come to be more nuanced than it ever was before – spurred on by a growing availability of typefaces on a high level of design. Paul Watzlawick’s axiom ‘You cannot not communicate’ sounds remarkably appropriate, especially in this connection (Watzlawick, Bavelas & Jackson 1967). Is the rising interest in type

Fundamentally speaking, an alphabet is a discrete set of characters that can be used as a phonetic code. When we read a text aloud, the letters indicate sounds; when we read a text for ourselves, we see not only the letters but also read in word pictures or ideograms. We can recognize words visually without having to spell our way through them. This flow presupposes that the letters are distinctly individual and predictable – and thus recognizable. In such a case, the visual image of a word stands as a code that is unconsciously cracked, so the reading individual can concentrate exclusively on the content. Typefaces in the Latin alphabet are developed on the basis of the formal convention that was established in the

design a manifestation of the fact that type has now come, more and more, to be part and parcel of a visual culture and also perhaps a reflection of a creeping illiteracy … of the fact that people are reading the message ‘on the outside’, in the typeface’s idiom, instead of in the text? We are far away from Beatrice Warde’s viewpoint, expressed in ‘The Crystal Goblet’ (1956), where the author declares that the typeface has to be as transparent as crystal in order to allow the words to shine through the text. Beatrice Warde was certainly no less concerned with aesthetics than we are but she is an exponent for an estimable effort that has characterized the printer’s profession for a good many centuries: the quest to optimize readability and accordingly the presentation of the text’s content through the typeface’s elaboration and rules for how it should be handled. Because the typography may not in any way stand as a barrier to communication between author and reader, the ideal is to achieve what is the optimally readable – ‘transparent’ – layout.

and extreme sans serif faces: forcibly stout or wide slab serif faces, angular Didone faces, all sorts of decorative types, and so on – typefaces that could give rise to pronounced graphic contrasts with conspicuous eye-catching devices, but often at the expense of readability. Perhaps, in these contexts – on posters, in advertisements and the like – there might not always have been the same importance placed on readability as that which was placed on getting people’s attention. By way of response to the dawning industrial and mass culture’s featureless types, William Morris sought inspiration by looking back to the Renaissance’s organic Old Style typefaces. What this entailed was that with the Arts & Crafts movement, there was a new and much needed focus on both readability and naturalness. Before long, however, the special organic expression came to be a style in its own right. When we zoom in on the time around 1900, there are many Arts & Crafts look-alike types that can be spotted in publications like The Studio Magazine.

quality, with a design that embodies the quintessence of the French Art Nouveau style. They were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard, and were constructed in connection with the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. The stairways leading down into the Paris Metro are admirably worked out in a most exemplary way: the lettering, the sign-frames and the signposts appear to be sprouting from one and the same formal legitimacy (See page C H). Everything is ‘organic’, and the very same ‘D NA’ seems to be seated as the basis for the lamps, the railings, the sign-frames, etc. The type-design’s highly formalistic expression is defined by the same overall form-concept. Hector Guimard was also busy designing wooden furniture and ceramics in precisely the same idiom – although the materials, the settings and the functions there are of an entirely different nature. This interdisciplinary preoccupation – regardless of material and function – with the same formal concept is a common feature of the period’s design. So far away from functionalism’s ‘Form follows function’.

Let’s hope that graphic designers are still striving for optimal readability when it comes to manipulating type in newspaper- and book-related connections, and when working with signage in wayfinding. But at the same time, what has emerged is an increasing focus on the typeface’s intrinsic signals and even laypeople have now become analysts of various type designs’ embedded layers of communication. The prevalent incidence of digital typefaces, coupled with the personal computer’s praxis, where type has now come to be a changeable and individually chosen personal expression has undoubtedly helped to sharpen the layperson’s ability to categorize and interpret the typefaces’ ‘surface’. However, the phenomenon did not arise first in the digital era. As far back as the early Renaissance, decorative types were constructed with heavy-handed symbolics, i.e. letters formed as building plans, as the human body or in some other form. On the Victorian-era’s playbills, you can find a profusion of bizarre

In this case, concept has turned into style, which mimics – without any heart and without any consistency. In the Art Nouveau-era’s graphics, the concept of ‘organic form’ was carried further in extremis. Here, the type’s logical and calligraphically determined interplay between tension and pressure was superseded by interlacing and often amoeba-formed letters – an expression that was almost reincarnated in 1968 with the flower power fonts. What is so beautiful about the Jugendstil/art nouveau typography, though, is the urge to bring forth the consummate concord among ornament, writing and image – that the type is adapted in conformity with the decorative concept. Just as the illustrative pictorial element relinquishes its connection to naturalism, the type also shakes off its roots – and accordingly the law giving qualities in its tools – for the sake of attaining an idiomatically fluid world of soft, organic shapes. Paris’s oldest Metro stations are in possession of an almost iconic

The métier, designer, that is to say, bel-esprit and practitioner in one and the same person, emerged during the crossing over into the twentieth century and one of the most important role models was the German ‘Werkbund’-artist, the architect and designer Peter Behrens. Behrens is renowned in particular for his total-design of A E G ’s graphics, stores, products and buildings. Behrens is also known for his typefaces from the beginning of the twentieth century, including the Behrens Schrift, which, as a hybrid, fashions a bridge between the old German (Fraktur/blackletter) and modernity (serif typeface). The choice between using gothic or roman serif type was an element in the German Kulturkampf: both in the conservative and, later on, in the national-socialist ideology, the gothic script was considered to be the true archetypal German expression. Peter Behrens himself stated that when he wanted to achieve a specifically German expression, he deliberately allowed the gothic’s stylistic features to exert a deci-

CE sive influence on the form (Aynsley 2000: 63). Behrens, along with the German Anna Simons – who had been a pupil of the English calligrapher, Edward Johnston – was also the originator of the typeface appearing on the German Reichstag’s façade, spelling out ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’. In the Reichstag’s classicist-inspired façade, the type is especially conspicuous because it is not, as one might otherwise expect, a classical capital inscription but rather a hybrid: an uncial typeface, which is half gothic and half Roman (See page C I ). The concept articulates a conscious effort, in visual form, to conjoin contrasts between the north and the south, between the Protestant and Catholic lands in what was then the relatively new German confederation. At first, the Kaiser forbade this ‘democratic’ inscription, which, although it was designed in 1907, wasn’t put up on the building until 1917 (Windsor 1981). In the Bauhaus milieu, on the other hand, people were busy designing modernist sans serif types and there was also a strong sense of affiliation with the standardization specialist, Walter Porstmann’s motion for a Kleinschreibung-spelling reform that would do away with the use of capital letters in front of nouns – which, in German-language texts, had long been a predominant and salient part of the layout (see Kinross 1994; Aynsley 2000). With his Universal Alphabet (1926) (See page C I ), Herbert Bayer went one step further and did away with the prevalent system with the uppercase and lowercase letters: It is not necessary for one sound to have a large and a small sign. The simultaneous use of two characters of completely different alphabets is illogical and unharmonious. We would recommend that the restriction to one alphabet would mean a saving of time and materials (quoted from Aynsley 2000). The manifesto that was being propagated in this concept was radically modernist. At the same time, the Universal Alphabet

was reaching back to the Middle Ages’ uncial scripts, which were structured around a unified system. In 1959, more than twenty years after his emigration to America, Bayer developed a ‘phonetic alphabet’, where each and every character was related to an exact sound. This entailed that compounded digraphs like ‘ch’, ‘th’ and ‘sh’ were replaced by individual phonetic types and new characters were added, so as to give rise to a complete phonetic character universe (Spencer 1968).

CF the typeface lacks in functionality is certainly re-compensated by what it offers in the way of extroverted signal value.

In 1915, Edward Johnston designed the signage and logo-type, still in use today, for London’s Underground.1 Johnston’s feat was that he could, at one and the same time, solve the task at hand – designing what was, at the time, a currently hypermodern and functional sans serif that could be applied on signs – and still remain in full compliance with the proportioning principles he had been espousing in his seminal calligraphy classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London: principles that were based on many

In his epoch-making posters from the 1920s and the 1930s Adolphe Monron Cassandre combines striking block fonts with a visual idiom that took its source in cubist painting. These text elements are of vital importance to the poster’s aesthetics and to the visual clout in the modern urban space. With Bifur (Deberny & Peignot 1929), Cassandre takes yet another step forward and designs an original printing type. With the design of Bifur, which was sweepingly simplified into rudimentary geometric uppercase letters, Cassandre was aspiring to bring forth a modern monumental typeface that could match the day’s avant-garde architecture (See page CK ). In The Typographic Scene, Walther Tracy refers to Bifur as ‘one of the most impracticable types ever produced; but it is particular evidence of a cultivated type founder, Charles Peignot, ignoring what are nowadays called market forces for the pleasure of allowing an artist to disregard conventions of letter forms and to create an alphabet which obliges the reader to ‘tune in’ in order to get the message.’

years of studying Renaissance calligraphy – a Janus head, as it were, in a conceptual-typographical perspective: technically correct modernism and simultaneously, a typeface in keeping with the Renaissance’s form ideals. Whereas Edward Johnston’s project thus articulates an exquisite continuity that gets back to the roots of type, Paul Renner’s Futura (1927) in its original, radical design, constitutes an unequivocally ‘ahistorical’ concept-typography (See page CJ). Renner designed Futura as ‘ein serifenlose Linear Antiqva’, the visual expression of which was supposed to be overtly constructed and devoid of any traces of the calligraphic pen’s strokes. The original design was radical: The lowercase ‘r’ was supposed to be drawn out as a vertical line with a dot; the ‘g’ was formed by a circle and a triangle – and so on. By the time the font was launched commercially, though, the most striking of the salient features had disappeared and had come to be replaced by more conventional forms. On the other hand, Futura has certainly enjoyed a long life.

The typeface is based solely on uppercase forms because Cassandre regarded lowercase letters as an evolutionary red herring. In 1926, he had this to say: ‘… la minuscule n’est que une déformation manuelle de la lettre monumentale, une abréviation, une altération cursive imputable aux copistes’ (see Wlassikoff 2005). Here, Cassandre is standing in sheer opposition to the German avant-garde, which, as has been mentioned, was focusing on the minuscule (and uncial) alphabet as the functional, modern and democratic choice.2 In 1936, Cassandre designed Acier Noir. This is a geometrically designed sans serif, which is part outline (white) and part black; in this way, it embodies clear references to a number of Cassandre’s posters where the type, in a dynamic fashion, changes color according to its placement in relation to the pictorial motif. The readability factor in Acier Noir is low and the speckled expression has, in contrast to the posters’ texts, no raison d’être, since it cannot be said to have any relation to a background motive. But what

for optical character recognition in 1966 - is staunch functionality. However, a generation later, the typeface enjoyed a short-lived kind of reincarnation, based solely on its distinctive visual character. That is to say, a typeface that was created without the most remote aesthetic motivation came to be ‘resurrected’ by virtue of the self-same (lack of) aesthetics.

It is widely known that the Nazi regime, up until the beginning of the 1940s, had a special affinity for gothic typefaces. Gothic types like Schwabacher were regarded as representing the authentically German (völkisch), in contrast to the Roman style, which certainly has its roots in a Latin culture. In January 1941, however, the use of the blackletter characters was surprisingly abolished by official decree; the bizarre reasoning was that Schwabacher was no more to be regarded as an authentically German style but rather as a result of Jewish influence. For this reason, Germany would henceforth use exclusively Roman typefaces (Kinross 1994: 101). Mutually conflicting interpretations and origins were, to put it mildly, being ascribed to an age-old typography. A somewhat less charged example of radical reinterpretation dates from the 1960s. The concept behind Adrian Frutiger’s O C R -b typeface - designed

In his book, Lingua Tertii Imperii, the renowned German philologist Victor Klemperer describes how Germany developed, during the Nazi era, a special usage of words. In the thoroughly orchestrated design concept, the typography was also transformed – in crucial areas - into pictograms: SA and SS, the Schutzstaffel [Elite Guard], or praetorian guard, are abbreviations which became so satisfied with themselves that they were no longer really abbreviations at all; they took on independent meanings which

entirely obscured their original signification. I am forced here to write SS with the sinuous lines of a normal typeface. During the Hitler period printers’ cases and keyboards of official typewriters included the special angular SS character (See page CK). It was in keeping with the Germanic rune of victory and was created in honour of this symbol. (…) Long before the Nazi SS even existed, its symbol was to be seen painted in red on electricity substations, and below it the warning ‘Danger – High Voltage!’ In this case the jagged S was obviously a stylized representation of a flash of lightning. That thunderbolt, whose velocity and capacity for storing energy made it such a popular symbol for the Nazis! (…) SS is two different things at once, an image and an abstract character, it encroaches on the realm of painting, it is a pictogramme, a return to the physicality of the hieroglyph (Klemperer 1957/2006: 63-64) (see page CK).

When I think back to the 1960s and the 1970s, there are typefaces that particularly come to mind as being typical of the times. Helvetica was flourishing everywhere in the public sector, on signs and in printed matter, as expression of a pragmatic mainstream late modernism which, however, became quite tiresome and monotonous. As you can see in Gary Hustwit’s film of the same name, Helvetica has subsequently taken on a surprising cult status. Or maybe it’s the film that has actually added fuel to the fire? The cultivated counterpart to the somewhat clumsy Helvetica was, of course, Adrian Frutiger’s Univers, which was so beautiful and so consistent in its design that it truly signaled a renewal in the world of type design. This can also be credited to the design’s systematic organization in 21 variations of weight- and width-values.

In contrast to both Helvetica and Univers, which both stand as articulations of pragmatically function-oriented design, Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet, from 1967, can be characterized as a genuine conceptual typeface (See page CL. Its form is radically modern, simplified into vertical and horizontal elements – allegedly designed as a response to a technological challenge, namely, the use of the cathode ray tube’s photocomposition system. The typeface’s individual characters have been simplified, boiled down to an absolute minimum of individuality and the entirety – the typeface – establishes visually interesting figures, only secondarily decipherable as words. Herb Lubalin’s Avantgarde, which also dates from the mid-sixties, was designed for the magazine of the same name and launched as an ITC typeface in 1970. What was originally a rather vivid and original ad hoc type design, built up around a broad set of ligatures, strong geometric shapes and one-sidedly inclined ‘A’ and ‘V’ capital letters (like Futura in the hands of a stoned and cheerful calligrapher), very quickly became worn out as an all too timebound typeface. Since that time, the development has been undulating back and forth: from the expressive and experimental designs of the 1990s, which are discussed in Rick Poynor’s article, to the more recent years of continuous gradation and sublimation of already known form problematics. The conceptual approach can serve as an important source of innovation, but it seldom has a long shelf life in a practical context. In connection with a reference to the Danish graphic designer Ole Søndergaard’s Signa typeface, Erik Spiekermann has written: Somehow, the discipline of a concise job at hand leaves no room for superfluous decoration, nor manipulation of letterforms for the sake of shortlived fashion. Blue jeans were made for hard-working outdoors people and became the ultimate stylish garment, as pizza

CG was poor people’s food before it became one of the world’s standard dishes. Hard-working typefaces seem to benefit from the same constraints in order to survive and become typographical classics.3


2 In Lettering of To-Day, 1945, R. Haughton James writes: ‘Deberny and Peignot’s modernistic typeface, Bifur, generally regarded as ultra-sophisticated, was designed – however inappropriately – as a railway signal alphabet.’ This indubitably adds a new dimension to the story. 3 Mentioned in connection with Fontshop’s

However, it could be maintained that the conceptual, in moderated form, can principally be found today in ‘corporate typefaces’, where that which is conspicuous in the typeface’s character is supposed to elicit associations to a company or organization. One Danish example is the design firm, Kontrapunkt’s typeface, Pharma, designed for The Danish Pharmaceutical Association in 2009 (See page CL). The font fosters a sense of ‘identity’, both through a distinctive façade signage at every pharmacy in the country and in its capacity as corporate typeface. The typeface’s design awakens associations with the painted Didone typefaces on apothecary jars of the past. It also possesses a certain affinity with a ‘round-shouldered’ lowercase type that was designed by Herbert Bayer in the beginning of the 1930s (See page CL). (The typeface has since been digitized by David Quay as Architype Bayer type). The Bauhaus-consanguinity is underscored by the fact that the pharmacy logo appears solely in lowercase. The identity-creating effect is the typeface’s essential merit; you would never want to employ it as a ‘hard-working typeface’. Fundamentally speaking, isn’t it supposedly there that people could distinguish conceptual typography from other typefaces, designs with extroverted qualities that are not rooted in specific functional grounds – as opposed to the kind of design that primarily serves functional purposes – first and foremost, of course, the aim of readability?


launching of Signa.

Literature Boustrophedon stone inscription, 4th century B C : Among the ancient Greek stone inscriptions, certain texts can Aynsley, Jeremy, & Wolfsonian-Florida Interna-

be found that are set up in such a way that the direction of the type alternates with every line shift: on the first line,

tional University. (2000). Graphic Design in

the text reads from left to right; on the second, from right to left; on the third, from left to right, and so on. This style

Germany: 1890-1945. Berkeley: University

of writing out a text has taken its name from the farmers’ way of plowing with the team of oxen – boustrophedon

of California Press. Kinross, Robin. (1994). Modern Typography: An

literally means ‘ox-turning’. This is a layout concept that, in our optics, has a tendency to exert a disruptive influence on the whole and on the readability of the text. Photo of the Gortyn Code by P R A from Wikimedia Commons.

Essay in Critical History. London: Hyphen Press. Klemperer, Victor. (2006). The language of the Third Reich: L TI, Lingua Tertii Imperii: a philologist’s notebook (Martin Brady, Trans.). London; New York: Continuum. Original work published in German 1957. LeWitt, Sol. (1967). Paragraphs on conceptual art. Artforum, 5(10), 79-83. Windsor, Alan. (1981). Peter Behrens, Architect and Designer. New York, N.Y.: Whitney Library of Design. Wlassikoff, Michel. (2005). Histoire du graphisme en France. Paris: Les Arts décoratifs/ Dominique Carré éditeur. Warde, Beatrice. (1956). The Crystal Goblet: Sixteen Essays on Typography. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Co. Watzlawick, Paul, Bavelas, Janet Beavin, & Jackson, Don D. (1967). Some Tentative Axi-

Paris Metropolitain, Paris, the 1900s metro-stairway with sign. The signs on the renowned Art Nouveau metro

oms of Communication. In Pragmatics of

stations in Paris were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard (1867-1942).

human communication: A study of interac-

The Metro stations, which were originally designed for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, are worked out in an

tional patterns, pathologies, and paradoxes.

exemplary fashion: the lettering, the sign-frame and the signposts appear to be sprouting from one and the same

New York: W. W. Norton.

formal legitimacy. Everything is ‘organic’, and the very same ‘D N A’ seems to be seated as the basis for the lamps, the railings, the sign-frames, etc. Moreover, the type is also consistent and systematic in its otherness. The type-design was defined by an overall concept that encompasses both two- and three-dimensional elements.

Published online 27 February, 2014. I S S N

The architect Hector Guimard was also the originator of wooden furniture and ceramics in precisely the same idiom

1749-3463 print/ I S S N 1749-3471. D O I :

– and even though the materials, the setting and the function there are of an entirely different nature, it is precisely


the same idiom that is deployed here. This interdisciplinary preoccupation – regardless of material and function –

© 2014 Artifact

with the very same kind of ornamentalism is a common feature of the period’s design. The contemporaneous Danish ‘Skønvirke’ (art nouveau) architect, Thorvald Bindesbøll, whose efforts were similarly

1 The typeface is presently available as a digital font – New Johnston – that was developed by the London-based graphic design company, Banks & Miles.

spread across many design areas, once said: ‘For there is no shape or any artistic motive that is exclusively linked with any particular material.’ It is a point of view that is fundamentally inconsistent with a later functionalist conception of “honesty” in relation to function, material and the conditions of production. Photo by Georgia Fowler,



“Dem Deutschen Volke”, Deutsche Reichstag. The text on the facade is designed with a somewhat rustic uncial typeface. The type is not, as one might expect on a classicist-inspired façade, a classical capital inscription, but rather a hybrid: half Germanic/gothic and half Roman. The design articulates a conscious effort to conjoin contrasts between the Protestant and the Catholic lands, between the North and the South. Anna Simons and Peter Behrens, 1907. Photo by Savh from Wikimedia Commons

Paul Renner: Futura, 1927. Futura, in its original, radical design, constitutes an unequivocally ‘ahistorical’ conceptHerbert Bayer: Universal Alphabet, 1926. With his Universal Alphabet, Herbert Bayer squared accounts with the conventional system of uppercase and lowercase letters that cropped up in the Renaissance. He did away with the prevalent system and “rediscovered” the principle in the earlier era’s uncial typefaces.

typography. Renner designed Futura as ‘ein serifenlose Linear Antiqva’, the visual expression of which was supposed to be overtly constructed and devoid of any traces of the calligraphic pen’s strokes. As we can see, the original design was radical: the lowercase ‘r‘ was supposed to be drawn out as a vertical line with a dot; the ‘g’ was formed as a circle and a triangle – and so on. By the time the typeface was launched commercially, though, the most striking salient features had disappeared and had come to be replaced by more conventional forms.



Wim Crouwel: New Alphabet, 1967. New Alphabet can unequivocally be characterized as conceptual typography. The form is sweepingly modern, having been simplified and boiled down to vertical and horizontal elements – allegedly designed as a response to a technological challenge, namely the use of the cathode ray tube photocomposition system. The individual characters have been boiled down to a minimum of individuality and the typeface establishes visually interesting figures, only secondarily decipherable as words.

A.M. Cassandre: Bifur, 1929. With his design of Bifur, which was reduced to rudimentary geometric uppercase letters, Cassandre was aspiring to bring forth a modern monumental design that could match the day’s avant-garde architecture.

Counterpoint: Pharma, The Danish Pharmaceutical Association, 2009. The type fosters identity, both through the recognizable and distinctive façade signage at every Danish pharmacy and as the pharmacies’ corporate typeface. The inspiration for the design emanates from, among other things, the apothecary jars of the past, which were often painted with straightforward Didone-like types. It also has a certain kinship with a ‘roundshouldered’ lowercase type that was designed by Herbert Bayer in the beginning of the 1930s.

Example of the use of SS-insignia in Germany, 1933-45. In the thoroughly orchestrated Nazi design concept, typography was, in a number of crucial areas, transformed into pictograms. In the Third Reich, there was the especially sharp-edged SS-type in all printers’ cases and on the keyboards of typewriters that were employed for official use. ‘(...) SS is two different things at once, an image and an abstract character, it encroaches on the realm of painting, it is a pictogramme, a return to the physicality of the hieroglyph.’ (Klemperer 2006, p. 72). Photo: Olympia Elite typewriter keyboard

Herbert Bayer: Round-arched minuscule alphabet, originally, the 1930s. One of Pharma’s ancestors is Bayer’s crisp, round-shouldered minuscule alphabet.



Nanna Bonde Nielsen has an M A in Architecture from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture, and a B A in Danish and Comparative Literature. She is currently a PhD fellow at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, working on her thesis concerning the relation of type design to meaning, regarding type as performative artifacts.Â

Nanna Bonde: E-mail:

Considering conceptual type – Becoming Conscious

Nanna Bonde

DC Becoming conscious In some ways, a type designer is like an author. In much the way that a text goes on living after leaving the hands of its author, the same can be said of a typeface when it leaves the hands of its designer. The type designer creates a range of choices. What they imply may not be fully grasped at the outset but at the same time, they ought to be acknowledged as being meaningful. Type is communicative. Even though this communication cannot be controlled, it should not be ignored. For instance, one interesting aspect of type-design is the continued influence of handwriting tools, among others, on letterforms. Type that mimes, for example, the brushstrokes of a quill is still being produced: the material effects of predecessors are replicated in instances where this materiality is no longer present. This is due to tradition but also due to the fact that what is being replicated are not merely arbitrary material traces but the ‘meaning’ one associates with a given materiality, that is to say, its connotative power. This connotative power of type no longer goes as unnoticed as may once have been the case. In an article about the movie, Helvetica (Hustwit 2007), Ellen Lupton notes that: One of the biggest things to happen to typography in recent years is hinted at near the end of the film, when Poynor talks about how members of the general public are becoming not just a passive audience for typefaces, but users in their own right. ‘What we have is a climate now in which the very idea of visual communication and graphic design – if we still want to call it that – is accepted by many more people,’ Poynor says, and goes on to show us how users personalize their MySpace pages with their own choices of fonts and graphics. ‘Those decisions you make become expressions of who you are’ (Lupton 2007).


A shift in type awareness is occurring. Awareness of the expressive aspect of type is no longer merely of interest to designers. It is becoming of concern to everyone. Branding is all-pervasive and type has become a tool for personal expression, whether it is of an individual, a corporation, a nation or some other entity aiming at expressing a certain identity. More and more people are becoming skilled in decoding the implications of type-choice. It follows that the use of type becomes meaningful to them. As type designers, or writers, you engage readers that are increasingly aware of what messages you are trying to send. In branding and advertising, the use of type and typography is pretty much always carefully thought out and the growing number of corporate typefaces certainly speaks to the shift in type awareness. At the same time, in a lot of areas, the visuality of written language is still being used in what is primarily a conventional way. Sometimes, it is striking how great a discrepancy there is between how a text engages with the nature of lan-

In this cultural landscape of expanded type awareness and possibilities, a consideration of the very nature – or role – of type takes on interesting implications. So does the concept of ‘conceptual type’.

guage and how it presents its argument visually. Several instances of using typography expressively, in the sense of text arrangement, already exist, while other examples that consider the possibilities stemming from typeface choice – and make use of this expressive tool – are on the rise. Fiction is one area where we will certainly be experiencing further explorations as a consequence of the general shift in type awareness. If you use type in a conventional way, you are still using it expressively. Perhaps you are using convention to your advantage. For instance, a novelist might want to convey a specific genre so that the reader will instantly be able to decode what kind of reading-strategy is required or implied. Just as you might want to disturb the reader-contract verbally, you might also imagine how you could achieve this visually, whether unintentionally or purposefully. For instance, you could use type to make a political message mimic a commercial one, or vice versa.

writing is type. The term ‘type’, then, is generally used in a different sense than the term ‘lettering’ (Baines & Haslam 2005; Willen & Straals 2009). Baines and Haslam set up this distinction: ‘The way lettering is distinguished from type is that it is the creation of letters that – regardless of whether they are designed for reproduction – are essentially ‘special’ and made for a specific purpose only. Type, however, was from the outset designed for duplication. Its units (individual letters) could be assembled to set a message, disassembled and reused to set other messages’ (Baines & Haslam 2005, p. 90). Pursuant to this argument, the difference is seated in the design process or perhaps, it might be said, in the intention behind the design. If I take a piece of original lettering and make a font from it, you could say that I am transferring the letterforms from the domain of lettering into the domain of type. Now, since my present focus is on exploring the possibilities or potentials inherent in the concept of ‘conceptual type’, I find it appropriate to look at

What is type? As this is an exploration of conceptual type, it is relevant to delve into the definition of the term ‘type’, since there are sometimes, in the field of typography, differing usages of terminology. The terms ‘type’ and ‘typography’ are often used interchangeably (see, e.g., Baines & Haslam 2005, Willen & Strals 2009). In Type & Typography, Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam define typography thusly: ‘Typography: the mechanical notation and arrangement of language’ (Baines & Haslam 2005, p. 7). They further note, ‘typography means writing using repeatable units, lettering is unique’ (ibid., p. 10). Those repeatable units are what is deemed type. Type designates the physical object; originally, it refers to moveable metal type.1 However, not all

both type and lettering. Although there is an important difference between actually producing one or the other (and I will be commenting more on this in what follows), my understanding of the situation, on the level of interpretation and meaning, is that both instances can inform my exploration. In other words, I look at conceptuality with regard to design of letterforms, regardless of whether these are manifested as type or as a case of lettering; in either instance, the typeform has been created in order to convey something. This is also the case with regard to the ‘arrangement of language’. Moreover, the distinction between typography as writing that employs repeatable (type-) units, and lettering which is made for one specific purpose, might not always be so easily drawn. For instance, when a font is designed and coded for purposes of allowing the individual characters to interact in differing ways with other characters, as is the case in ‘contextual alternates’, the typographic setting of type starts to resemble lettering. So although I do not wish to bypass these distinctions, I will embrace both type/typography and lettering when endeavoring to exemplify how ‘conceptual type’ might be used as a generative concept.

The life of type Being a type designer often means that you have no influence on – and no knowledge of – what use the end product of your work will be put to and on this account, it also entails that you know nothing about the contextual elements of the eventual use situation. You might have an intention for the use of your product, of course, but whether this will coincide with the intention of the user is not a given. In the end, the type will be read, or interpreted, in different ways. One way of looking at the meaning of type, then, is to consider the design, or the form, of the typeface itself as being removed from an actual situation of use. In some ways, this can be regarded as the only way to really say something about the typeface, wheth-

er specifically or generally. However, it will certainly give rise to a very limited description. The meaning of a typeface, or rather the interpretation of it, is generated through a complex intermingling of constitutive factors. The typeface never actually exists in an unattached manner: it is always conditioned – physically, socially and historically. When looking at type in the proper situational context, an analysis of form will simply not suffice. Still, any interpretation of the meaning-potential of a given typeface is limited, as is the case with any other interpretation, if only because the interpreter is necessarily positioned – again, physically, socially, historically. So, there are multiple approaches towards analyzing the meaning of type. Any one of them is bound to be partial; it is crucial to remember that this is the case. There are instances of lettering that literally cannot be divorced from their context, which means that the interpretation of them typically takes on quite a different character than the interpretations of type that are sometimes offered. Focus on contextuality is something that I believe could be explored at greater length with regard to type. There are different ways of describing the active role of type in our culture: type as a visual phenomenon that expresses certain values; type as another level of meaning in written language; type as a cultural expression and as a personal expression; etc. When looking at type in context, one notices that meaning arises from a much broader set of parameters than the inherent characteristics of the typeface alone; these, incidentally, conjoin with other aspects of the use situation. This point of view entails that these characteristics cannot be regarded as stable entities in relation to their meaning-generating capacity. It is rather the case that they are in flux. An interesting example of type analysis is to be found in the movie, Helvetica, a movie that, as stated on the website, ‘looks at the proliferation of one typeface… as part of a larger conversation about the way type affects our lives.’2 This movie documents how a typeface, as

much as any other artifact, has a Wirkungsgeschichte3 and how looking at it from this perspective serves to initiate the uncovering of the vast meaning-potential it possesses. This Wirkungsgeschichte, which can be translated roughly into ‘history of effects’ or ‘effective history’, speaks to the ‘connectedness’ of the typeface, to how it is continuously influenced and to how it perpetually gives rise to effects, culturally. This story provides us with a much denser, and much messier, picture of the typeface. As I mentioned earlier on, each particular instance of story-telling is itself edited and is imbued with a particular optics. For example, in Helvetica, certain instances, rather than others, of the font in use have been selected. To put this in other words, the story of the typeface is ‘mediated’ in a certain way. Furthermore, this particular mediation has now become part and parcel of the story. Looking at the meaning of type from this perspective gives us an insight that destabilizes ‘meaning’. When you interpret type as a meaning-generating entity which is an integral part of a much wider contextual setting and therefore produces and gains meaning in accordance with this, you come to regard type as a cultural entity that cannot be stable in terms of meaning. Interpreting type in this way could be labeled a hermeneutic approach.

Approaching the conceptual Having looked at the nature of type, I will now move on to consider the defining term, conceptual. Using a rather loose definition of the term, ‘conceptual’, one might say that it simply signifies something that has a strong ideational foundation. However, in this sense, the term is rather weak and could be applied to most if not all instances of design, seeing as most design processes start out with a concept. Looking at the term, ‘conceptual’, from the vantage point of conceptual art, then, could prove useful in order to delimit the term. With regard to conceptual art, there

DE has been a lot of debate about what conceptual art actually is; this is a discussion that can certainly inform us and bring us closer to determining what ‘conceptual’ might mean in relation to type. The term, ‘conceptual art’, might, in a narrow sense, designate the artworks that spring from the late twentieth century artistic movement4 or it might, in a broader sense, designate a particular approach to art-making that can be observed much earlier on, as well as later on, in art history.5 There are aspects that are generally agreed upon as being key denominators, though not constitutive factors, of conceptual art. Breaking with convention – by challenging the role of the artist, or to put it another way, by challenging the role of the relationship between the artist and the audience – is one such aspect; placing a question mark alongside the scope of the artwork, i.e. questioning what it is that constitutes an artwork, is another. Conceptual art is supposed to make us reflect by questioning the conventional boundaries of art. Indeed, a proclaimed aim of the conceptual art movement was to denounce the primacy of perception in art and to install the concept in that position, following the belief that the role of art was to make you reflect and that art would otherwise be obsolete. In challenging conventions, one thing that is generally said to be characteristic of conceptual art is that it is not confined to specific media; in fact, it is often said to be rejective of traditional artistic media. Instead of setting out to create a specific kind of work, the conceptual artist develops an idea and executes this idea in whatever form best befits it. Hence, the saying that concept is primary and execution secondary or, in the most extreme rendition of this, that the idea is everything, is actually what constitutes ‘the art’, whereas the execution, in effect, becomes superfluous. These two claims are, of course, divergent to some extent, since ‘secondary’ does not imply that the execution is irrelevant or superfluous. One could easily argue that the physical manifestation certainly does become part of the artwork. In any case, this kind of detachment of idea from form isn’t real-

ly translatable when it comes to type: although experiments of form and material are possible, type is ultimately confined to being the visual expression of an already given code, i.e., a conventional code. However, the rejection of the traditional form is not an imperative. There are various ways of regarding conceptuality in relation to art. In Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (2009), the author, David W. Galenson, posits a distinction between two types of artistic approach. Galenson speaks of ‘conceptual innovators’, artists who exhibit a certain artistic behavior, who violate existing artistic conventions, who are seen as reducing ‘style to a short-run strategy rather than a long-run goal’ (Galenson 2009, p. 16). He opposes these ‘conceptual innovators’ with experimental artists, the latter being those who pursue ‘aesthetic goals through the gradual development of a personal style.’ With this division posited according to the factor of behavior, he maps a history of the conceptual in art which is different from the one that focuses on the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its opposition to the conventional form of the art object.6 Galenson’s conception of the conceptual does not place the same emphasis on media, which when it comes to conceptual art would be connected with the use of non-traditional media, but places it instead on the artistic approach. This perspective, then, might prove to be more relevant when speaking of conceptual type.

The idea becomes a machine In contrast to the way conceptual art is sometimes said to arise from a sequential division of concept construction followed by material execution, noting that material might merely imply being expressed in language, what I believe is that in relation to conceptual type design, you have to regard these modes or phases as being simultaneous or parallel events. However, the concept still remains vital: it is what will inform and delimit the design.

DF It might still be regarded as a machine,7 albeit a machine that is under construction at the same time as it constructs. Now the simultaneity of machine-construction and construction-ofmachine points toward an important observation about the nature of being conceptual, in the manner I am speaking of here. Since the conceptual machine is not finished but is partly constructed by its construct, it cannot produce sameness; if it does so, it is no longer a conceptual machine but has morphed into something else. That is to say, a criterion of the conceptual could be that it inserts difference. A concept might be explored through different materializations,8 but exercising material experiments according to a given concept might not be tantamount to a conceptual approach, when the material, or one could say the stylistics, rather than the concept, comes to be the generating force. Distinguishing, as does Galenson, between the ‘conceptual’ and the ‘expressive’ might be one way of addressing this issue. However, in practice, such a distinction would certainly

words, type may always be ‘conceptual’ but depending on what definition of conceptual we are operating with, it will be so to varying degrees. Therefore, I have tried to delimit the term, ‘conceptual’, so that we might be able to use the concept of conceptual type in a meaningful and generative way. Also, I proclaimed the usefulness of provisionally disregarding the division between lettering and type. By this means, the focus of the exploration has not been trained on what type is but on what it does. I believe that a focus on the role of type and the possibilities and importance of type are what is of interest here. Above I employed the concept, ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ to explain how the ‘meaning’ of a cultural product can be understood as unfolding or developing ceaselessly. And I have tried to emphasize how this might be informative for the field of type design. When we consider the meaning of type, we certainly gain insight by looking at a contextual totality instead of focusing on formal characteristics alone. I do not deem analyzing formal

To my mind, a lot of type experiments fall into the category of expressive rather than conceptual although, as I have pointed out, the distinction might not always be so easily drawn: the difference partly has to do with intention. Consider the ‘Oscillator’ poster (see page DH): whether a piece of type/typography or lettering, we could call it ‘expressive’ if we take it as displaying a visual play on words, and if the font is taken as being an exploration into contextual alternates. Or we might call it a conceptual piece if we take it as speaking, by intent, to a more general ambiguity of language. In the latter case, you could say that this was type that explored the embeddedness of type in language. Today, the general consensus is that the notion of ‘transparent’ or ‘neutral’ type is a fiction; in other words, the idea of type being merely a carrier of preconceived messages does not suffice anymore. Type always conveys something. It is a meaning-generating entity not only as a visual but also as a verbal feature. If you regard type as being a physical manifestation of lan-

explored in certain experiments dealing with inscribing the body. And again, whether or not we deem such experiments conceptual has to do with intent and process.

prove difficult to make. The distinction between conceptual and expressive, however, is of importance if one wants conceptual type to be understood as type that crosses borders, i.e. that expands our notion of type. Shifting the focus from object to process, one that is perpetually evolving, points to an understanding that conceptual type should not be repetitive, and should not, in fact, ultimately put the concept first. It follows from this that conceptual type should accordingly not plainly repeat the movements of conceptual art. It might be the case that conceptual type could be deemed type that speaks to the meaning of type, that asks questions about the nature of type, in much the manner that conceptual art questions the boundaries of art.

characteristics of type irrelevant. However, in order to gain an understanding of what type does, I contend that we need to take a look at the bigger picture. Looking at type as an instance of communication that is historically, socially and medially determined opens up for us a broader scope, which can inspire us to rethink the conventional understanding(s) of type, designer and user. Conceptual type, then, might be type that examines and/or exceeds the boundaries of the conventional, that is to say, the conventional understanding of these categories. You might say that this kind of type is self-referential in that it explores its own conditioning. Type has such strong conventionality that challenging form and material quite easily serves to prod us to regard certain kinds of type as actually not being type: challenging our understanding of type is not all that difficult. However, not all type that falls outside neat categorization is necessarily conceptual, as can be witnessed through the distinction between expressive and conceptual type.

guage, it can be said to be situated in a sort of borderland, a place where the boundaries between the verbal and the visual are blurred. So rather than seeing type as a link between the verbal and the visual, one could regard it as a negation of this division. Taking this borderland position as a jumping-off point, conceptual type might be type that explores how type performs language. Analyzing what understanding of the nature of language lies behind certain type expressions is an area that holds a lot of potential for the understanding of the relation between type and language. Conceptual type as type that performs the ambiguity of language or that performs a deconstruction of meaning, following a deconstructive understanding, has already been an approach furthering type experiments. Also, a pervasiveness of language – following a post-structuralist contention that subjects are constituted through language or that language, in the very least, shapes us from the first instant we are in this world – might be seen, for example, as being

visual in art, the movement links to the work

A borderland existence Conceptual type is more than ‘type led by ideas’ since all type, to some extent, is led by an idea of some sort. In other

Notes 1 ‘Type is the physical object, a piece of metal with a raised face at one end, containing the reversed image of a character.’ (Baines & Haslam 2005: 6) 2 3 The term stems from the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics. 4 Established in the 1960s by a number of artists who were rebelling against art being a commodity, by challenging the art-term, the role of the artist and the art institutions. 5 In the following, I adopt the latter definition and I will briefly lay out why this perspective is more relevant for the current purpose of examining what the term ‘conceptual’ might mean in relation to type. 6 Partly being a critique of the hegemony of the

of Marcel Duchamp appearing at the beginning of the twentieth century. The challenging of art institutions and of art being a commodity are also themes in common. 7 Referring to Sol LeWitt, ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’. LeWitt, Sol (1967): ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, in: Artforum. 8 As Sol LeWitt once said, in regard to conceptual art, “For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.” LeWitt, Sol (1969): “Sentences on Conceptual Art”, in: Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art. 9 There are many, and earlier, examples of authors breaking with the conventions of the novel genre. Foer is a contemporary author who, in his work, explores borders in various ways. 10 Namely, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, the English translation of the original Sklepy Cynamonowe (The Cinnamon Shops) from 1934. 11 tree-of-codes




Baines, Phil, & Haslam, Andrew. (2005). Type and Typography (2nd ed.). London: Laurence King. Foer, Jonathan Safran, & Schulz, Bruno. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions. Galenson, David, & National Bureau of Economic Research. (2009). Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art. N B ER working paper series no w15073.Retrieved from Hustwit, Gary (Director). (2007). Helvetica. Film website accessed December 7th, 2013, Lupton, Ellen. (2007). Forever Helvetica. Metropolis Magazine. http://www.metropolismag. com/story/20070620/forever-helvetica LeWitt, Sol. (1967). Paragraphs on Conceptual art. Artforum, 5(10), 79-83. LeWitt, Sol. (1969). Sentences on Conceptual Art. Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art. Middendorp, Jan. (2004). Dutch Type. Rotterdam: 010. Willen, Bruce, & Strals, Nolen. (2009). Lettering & Type (1st ed.). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Published online 7 March, 2014. I S S N 1749-3463 print/ I S S N 1749-3471. D O I : 10.14434/artifact.v3i1.5040 © 2014 Artifact

The distinction between lettering and type can be a blurry one. Take, for instance, the poster, ‘Oscillator’, created by the design collective, Underware, the writing is based upon Liza, a typeface made to resemble handlettering. The word-unit appears in such a way that the wording is ambiguous: it can be read as either yes or no. This is either a piece of type/typography or of lettering, depending upon whether it is in the coding of the font, and accordingly part of the design of the typeface, or whether the type is manipulated to achieve the form of the ambiguously written word for this specific instance. In either case, it conveys a meaning – or rather, several meanings. © Jhoeko & Underware



An official still from the movie, Helvetica, framing the typeface as an integral part of the cityscape. The face is so common that it, to some, has become the perfect embodiment of a ‘non-face’, in the sense that it is ‘neutral’, in the sense that it does not connote anything specific. But surely, it does, depending upon the contextual elements, one of which is the viewer. To this, one might add that since the launching of this documentary film, many viewers probably view the typeface differently than they did before. Photo courtesy of Swiss Dots.

Barbara Kruger (1995), Untitled (You Are A Very Special Person). The artwork uses (a version of) Futura. When Paul Renner designed Futura in 1927, it was a typeface which, by virtue of its form, heralded the modernist style and was therefore, at that point in history, a politically loaded typeface. Obviously, today, its connotative power has changed but still it is part of a history that imbues current typefaces, or the current use of typefaces, with meaning. Barbara Kruger: Untitled (You are a very special person). Collage, 13,6 x 19,1 cm. Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London.

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Tree of Codes (2010), a recent example of breaking with conventions of traditional media9, the book as physical artifact becomes an integral part of the telling of the story: the visual and the verbal become inseparable. The story is cut into and out of an existing text,10 thereby giving rise to a new one. The process is a kind of sculpting and this way of coming into existence is visually/physically materialized, so that, for one thing, it no longer makes sense to speak about typography as a separate aspect of the work. As Olafur Eliasson puts it, this is ‘a book that remembers that it actually has a body.’11 Courtesy of Visual Editions



Writing on the body might signify how discourse, i.e. language, affects our lives and our bodies, inasmuch as we are bodily and discursively inscribed in the world. There are numerous different types of writing on the body and with the body. Might these fleshed out letters, from Thijs Verbeek’s Alfabet in huid (typeface in skin), speak to this corporeality of language and be deemed an instance of conceptual lettering? Or are they just a material experiment? Would they be more conceptual if they were scars? Courtesy of Thijs Verbeek (concept and styling) & Arjan Benning (photograpy)



Rick Poynor is a British writer, critic, lecturer and curator specialising in design, media, photography, and visual culture. He is Visiting Professor in Design Criticism and Research Methods at the postgraduate Royal College of Art in London. 

His articles, essays and reviews

have appeared in Eye, I.D., Metropolis, Harvard Design Magazine, Adbusters, Blueprint, Icon, Frieze, Creative Review, Etapes, Domus, The Guardian, Financial Times and many other publications.

Rick Poynor, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, S W 7 2EU, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Conceptual Hybrids – Type in the 1990s

Rick Poynor

EC In the early to mid-1990s, forward-thinking graphic designers focused on type design to a degree that might in retrospect seem curious or even misguided. Lettering artists and specialist typographers have always created an enormous variety of display types for use on posters, advertising and packaging, but the new concept-driven typeface design was something quite different from this purely decorative tendency. Few of the more outlandish fonts were created with use primarily in mind. Instead, for a time, the alphabet became the focus for an urge to experiment inspired by the new digital technology, desktop computers and software programs, that reflected, in the most spectacular fashion, a wider sense of change in society, communication and the media. Today, we can best understand these extreme manipulations, which burst the bounds of legibility, by seeing them as illustrations of the era of burgeoning possibility in which they were invented. Conceptual type is not, however, a designation that enjoyed any currency during that comparatively brief phase of experiment. Nor is the term widely in use today, either to describe the historical phenomena I concentrate on here, or in contemporary type design. The second edition of Robin Kinross’s Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, an essential study, makes no reference to conceptual type, not even in the section titled ‘Legibility Wars’, which deals with the same period discussed in this essay (Kinross 2004: 172-4). There is, however, a brief section devoted to ‘Conceptual Alphabets & Lettering’ in Lettering & Type, a guidebook by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals, although they don’t discuss the history of conceptual alphabets and show only a handful of recent examples. They write: Conceptual letters or alphabets rarely aim to create the most readable text, and their letterforms occasionally lack recognizably alphabetic characteristics. Instead, conceptual alphabets illustrate or embody ideas, sets of constraints, and

editorial perspectives, illustrating their concepts through letterforms rather than strictly pictorial means. [. . .] What sets conceptual letters apart is a rigid adherence to their guiding principles above other concerns. [. . .] Conceptual letters are dedicated to their idea above all else (Willen & Strals 2009: 22) If conceptual type remains a relatively marginal term within type design and graphic design, conceptual art has maintained its currency as a form of art practice since the 1960s, when the term was first used to describe a rigorous, non-visual art that puts all its emphasis on the idea. To define their territory of interest, the organizers of ‘Conceptual Type – Type Led by Ideas’ resorted to a famous definition of conceptual art by the American artist Sol LeWitt, published in Artforum in 1967: In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art While it might be possible to create type within such a restrictive framework, this definition of conceptual art cannot adequately account for the directions and concerns seen in the conceptual type of the 1990s. Type design is a finicky craft in which the smallest details require the most attentive care. It is hard to imagine a successfully realized typeface (of any kind) where the execution is merely perfunctory, as LeWitt puts it. Nor does conceptual art’s lack of concern with visual form offer type designers much room for aesthetic manoeuvre. In type design, the minutely calculated formal differences between one typeface and the next are everything. Conceptual type might still have value as a term to describe ‘type led by ideas’, but

ED a view of the activity determined by the theories and history of conceptual art is of limited usefulness when discussing experimental type design in the 1990s.

I want to focus now on one insistent theme in 1990s conceptual type: the idea of the hybrid letterform constructed, like Frankenstein’s monster, from pre-existing parts. Initially, these typefaces were stitched together from elements removed from other typefaces. The first well-documented instances are P. Scott Makela’s Dead History and Jonathan Barnbrook’s Prototype (see page EF) (both 1990) and Max Kisman’s Fudoni (1991) (Poynor & Booth-Clibborn 1991: 208-9). Makela’s hybrid combines elements of the serif typeface Centennial and the sans serif VAG Rounded, while Kisman’s similar looking font fuses Futura and Bodoni. Barnbrook’s typeface, designed from 1987 to 1990, is more elaborate and collages parts from around 10 faces, including Gill, Perpetua,

tural condition, they also represent critical reactions against it. Makela makes the sense of exhausted history, diminished options and even failed utopia aggressively explicit in his typeface’s name: Dead History. Barnbrook responds to the identity crisis that comes from operating in the ideological vacuum left behind by the failure of modernism by positing Prototype’s ‘tired familiarity’ ironically as a ‘revolutionary’ universal replacement for the Western alphabet (Barnbrook 2007: 45). In the early 1990s, many similar experiments by other designers followed these typefaces, which came to look comparatively restrained alongside their more extreme successors. Typeface names also became increasingly important in signalling a typeface’s conceptual intent and its positioning in relation to other faces. In the American designer Stephen Farrell’s Entropy (1992), fragments of uppercase and lowercase conjoin within a single character, but unlike in Dead History or Prototype, they fail to cohere. It is as though the graft hasn’t entirely taken and the constituent parts, unable to resist the corrosion of entropy,

ott Earls’s distressed and mutated trio of typefaces, Dysphasia (see page EF), Dysplasia and Dyslexia (1995), to understand from their names alone that something was profoundly amiss with these fonts.2 The everyday word ‘dyslexia’ makes the difficulties of communication obvious, but the other two names suggest more pronounced forms of damage and communicative dysfunction. Dysphasia is the condition of cognitive impairment often experienced by people who have suffered a stroke: they may have difficulty talking, listening, understanding or writing. Dysplasia, a term used in pathology, indicates a pre-cancerous change and abnormality in cells and tissues. It is hard to conceive of many functional uses for typefaces that so dramatically enact their own breakdown. These fonts are better understood as provocative propositions about contemporary culture: the conceptual typeface as autonomous art work.

Futura and Bembo. For Barnbrook, this creative procedure was a conscious attempt to apply the principle of sampling, widespread in 1980s pop music, to typeface design, and he made early sketches for the face by hand. ‘The technology was very limited so the only thing I could do was scan and draw,’ he writes. ‘It was important though that the sampling was evident in the final font, so I made the collage feel integral to the look’ (Barnbrook 2004: 44). Later, he digitized the font. All three typefaces, with their abrupt shifts in thickness and weight within a single letter, have a peculiar and disturbing visual rhythm when composed into words and sentences. This ungainliness is exacerbated in Prototype by the fusion of uppercase and lowercase, as well as serif and sans serif, in a single character; the oddest letter is the R, where a section of the capital’s curve is cut away to form the lowercase. The hybridizing principle seen in these typefaces might appear to be entirely postmodern, but if the fonts exhibit the symptoms of an inescapable cul-

are beginning to separate. Farrell’s Osprey (1993) takes this even further (Heller & Fink 1997: 28). The letters are still recognizable, but the outlines are bent, twisted and mutilated by sharp blades and spurs that form uncontrollable offshoots. Each character is a jittery field denoting the letter it stands for, while threatening to collapse into chaos. It is not just consistent alphabetic structure that appears to be unravelling in these conceptual hybrids, but the bonds of language and the sustained, intelligible communication that language makes possible. Experimental typeface design in these years reflected the assumption absorbed – often secondhand – from critical theory and the critical method known as deconstruction that language was unstable and there could be no fixed or final meanings.1 In the 1980s, a similar idea had taken hold of architectural form in the tendency called deconstructivist architecture. ‘The dream of pure form has been disturbed,’ noted the critic Mark Wigley. ‘Form has become contaminated’ (Johnson & Wigley 1988: 10). One would not even need to see Elli-

Here, we should recall that there is a long tradition of constructing artistic letterforms from pictorial images. A spectacular early example is the Gothic alphabet engraved on copper in 1499 by the South German master known only as E.S. Each letterform is a miniature arabesque composed of human figures, animals and birds in bizarre and often violent relationships, yet despite the intricate internal detail, the letters maintain tightly defined angular outlines and each character is perfectly legible. In the 19th century, the lettering artist Jean Midolle created pictorial alphabets strongly reminiscent of designs by the master E.S. One set of characters, shown in Works by Jean Midolle (see page EG) engraved on stone and published at the lithographic press of Emile Simon the younger, published in Strasburg in 1834, is built from sections of Gothic architecture adorned by the occasional dragon, gargoyle, snake or angel (Massin 1970: 92-93). Intricate devices like these bear an obvious kinship with the decorative initials found in medieval illuminated manuscripts.

The Disturbance of Form

Objects of Surreal Fantasy

Today we would also be quick to perceive the surrealism inherent in the strange juxtapositions and transformations that elevate otherwise ordinary letterforms into objects of fantasy. In the 1930s, the surrealists were fascinated by Midolle’s inventions. An article by Max Ernst titled ‘The Mysteries of the Forest’ in Minotaure no. 5 (1934) is illustrated with an alphabet by Midolle constructed entirely from engravings of branches and tree trunks (ibid.: 86). A number of his letterforms, including characters taken from the Gothic architecture and forest alphabets, appear in André Breton and Paul Eluard’s Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938) to mark the beginning of the book’s alphabetical sections. Midolle’s alphabets apply the same pictorial logic and internally consistent use of imagery to each letter. In 1952, the Czech surrealist poet and artist Jindřich Heisler created an alphabet wholly based on the surrealist principle of poetic chance encounter, with each letter collaged from its own unique components taken from engravings (see page EG) (Poynor 2010: 104-5). The left-hand stem of the A is an old-fashioned train carriage, the B consists of cog wheels and a female figure from Max Ernst’s painting The Equivocal Woman, and the cross bar of the C is made from hands clasping bottles and a wine glass. Each character is a one-off, cut out of a piece of plywood about 13 cm high, so should we regard these pieces as lettering or sculpture? In 1964, the Polish designer Roman Cieslewicz created a similar alphabet for print purposes, also based on details from old engravings, which he assembled in startling juxtapositions for use as full-page section-openers in the book Guide de la France mystérieuse (Rouard-Snowman 1993: 40-1). Cieslewicz’s alphabet (see page EH) was shown in a monograph published in 1993 and it was perhaps in those pages that the American designer David Carson saw it. Carson used six of the characters for the masthead of issue 11 of the rock magazine Ray Gun (see page EH) magazine in the same year. In this inspired coming together of surrealism and the era of desktop computer technology, the similarity between fanciful earlier alphabetic manipulations

EE and digital designers’ conceptual interest in hybrid forms of typeface becomes clear. The themes under discussion here – conceptual type in the 1990s, hybridity and surrealism – find perhaps their most complete expression in the work of another American designer, Brian Schorn, then a mature MFA student at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Schorn had studied at medical school for two years before turning to photography, creative writing and then graphic design. He was fascinated by surrealism and its ideas about the unconscious, kept a dream diary and experimented with automatism and collage; he also wrote poetry (Poynor 2007: 60). He regarded the letterform as a highly pliable container with endless potential for artistic reconstruction. In a letter he wrote to me in 1995, he explained: Although the computer aids in certain design tasks, much as the technology of lasers aids the surgeon, ultimately the hand and eye are the primary tools. Type becomes a specimen, not on the sheet, but on the operating table. Letters can now be explored as living, organic wonders by removing old tissues, transplanting new organs, or grafting new limbs. The resultant forms, sometimes curious anomalies, sometimes floral beauties, inevitably challenge the conception of typography today.

disaster has wiped out almost all traces of the alphabet except for the letter A, and left the traumatized survivors unable to speak or write (dysphasia indeed). The letter A then becomes the starting point for a new language – ‘A is everything. A is all. A is the all beginning./Here, A has become the body. A is breathing’ (ibid.: 15). Schorn’s poem is accompanied by 15 versions of the letter A, each one collaged from an array of elements. Many of these fragments are indeterminate, though body parts occur often (thumb, breast, head, foot, various organs) and sections of assorted utilitarian devices can also be discerned (spoon, scissors, safety pin). Thanks to these dated-looking devices and many other ornamental flourishes, the letters appear to be antique, as though they might have been the outcome of some classic surrealist procedure in the 1930s – the surrealists always preferred to use outmoded rather than contemporary source material. Nevertheless, the letters resemble nothing in the surrealist canon, while their framing within the pages of a hyper-contemporary design and type magazine anchors them firmly to the digital present (as it was then). The 15 specimens anatomized by Schorn are more than enough, though, to suggest that A – like any letter of the alphabet – has the potential for limitless conceptual reinterpretation and remodelling, and that in certain circumstances a letter could even become the seed of a new culture.

EF No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism, London: Laurence King Publishing, 2003, pp. 38-69. 2 For Dysphasia, see Heller and Fink, 1997, p. 35. Dead History by P. Scott Makela. Literature

Barnbrook, Jonathan. (2007). Barnbrook Bible: The Graphic Design of Jonathan Barnbrook. London: Booth-Clibborn Editions. Eluard, Paul & Breton, André. (1938). Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme. Paris: Galerie Beaux-Arts. Heller, Steven, & Fink, Anne. (1997). Faces on the Edge: Type in the Digital Age. New York,

Prototype by Jonathan Barnbrook.

N Y: Van Nostrand Reinhold. Johnson, Philip, & Wigley, Mark. (1988). Deconstructivist Architecture. Boston, Mass.: Museum of Modern Art/Little Brown and Company. Kinross, Robin. (2004). Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History (2nd ed.). London: Hyphen Press. LeWitt, Sol. (1967). Paragraphs on conceptual art. Artforum, 5(10), 79-83, Summer. Reprinted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.) (1992). Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (p. 834).

Osprey by Stephen Farrell.

Oxford: Blackwell. Massin, (Robert). (1970). Letter and Image. London,: Studio Vista. Poynor, Rick. (2007). Dark Tools of Desire, Eye, 63(16), Spring. Poynor, Rick. (2010). Uncanny: Surrealism and graphic design. Brno: Moravská Galerie. Poynor, Rick, & Booth-Clibborn, Edward (Eds.)


(1991). Typography Now: The Next Wave. London, England: Booth-Clibborn Editions.

In 1994, in Emigre, Schorn presented a long poem titled Breathing Through the Body of A (see page EI+EJ), which he had written in response to a project set by Edward Fella – another key figure in the exploration of typographic hybrids (Schorn 1994: 15-20). In an afterword, Schorn explains that Fella had asked the students to imagine a typography of the future by giving it a name, dates, an explanation, a body of work, an aesthetic, an attitude and a philosophy. Schorn responded with a collection of fictionalized historical fragments from the rubble of the future after an unspecified

1 For an introduction to deconstruction, see: Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice, London and New York:

Rouard-Snowman, Margo. (1993). Roman Cieslewicz. London: Thames & Hudson. Schorn, Brian. (1994) Breathing Through the

Routledge, 1991 (revised edition). For the

Body of A: A Typographical Approach for

concept’s source, see: Jacques Derrida,

the Future, Emigre, 32.

On Grammatology, Baltimore and Lon-

Willen, Bruce, & Strals, Nolen. (2009). Lettering &

don: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997

Type (1st ed.). New York: Princeton Archi-

(corrected edition). For a discussion of

tectural Press.

deconstruction in relation to typography and graphic design, see: Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, Deconstruction and Graphic

Published online 27 January, 2014. I S S N

Design in Design Writing Research: Writing

1749-3463 print/ I S S N 1749-3471.

on Graphic Design, London and New York:

D O I : 0.14434/artifact.v3i1.5038

Phaidon, 1999, pp. 3-23, and Rick Poynor,

© 2014 Artifact.

Dysphasia by Elliott Earls.



Gothic alphabet by Jean Midolle (excerpt). Forest alphabet by Jean Midolle (excerpt).

Cover of Ray Gun no. 11 by David Carson. Alphabet by Roman Cieslewicz.

Surrealist alphabet by Jindřich Heisler.



Several letter As from ‘Breathing Through the Body of A.’ Layouts by Rudy VanderLans, illustrations by Brian Schorn.



Ida Engholm has an MA in Danish Literature and Art History and a PhD in Digital Design. She is Associate Professor and Head of Education at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation. She is the author of several books and research articles about design and design related topics.

Ida Engholm: E-mail:

Conceptual Type – a commentary on the Internet’s design development?

Ida Engholm



‘Conceptual type’ is not a well-defined term. The concept doesn’t have any established encyclopedic definition and has not yet served as the subject of a definitional exploration in the literature related to graphic design. When you search the term on Google, links pop up to phrases like ‘amazing type ideas’, ‘striking typography images’, ‘very catchy types’ and the like, where what is primarily in focus is the visually impressive aspect. In this connection, where the topic at hand is conceptual type, it accordingly makes sense to pin down a more precise and analytic definition. Here, by way of introduction, it seems relevant to look at how the term ‘concept’ is being used within cognate specialized fields like ‘conceptual art’ and ‘conceptual design’. Thereafter, the term will be discussed in its relation to the Internet which, as a new medium for design, has served as the jumping-off point for conceptual type and for discussions centered on the relationship between typefaces and the underlying ideas. Within the realm of art history, conceptual art has been the object of various definitions,

a conceptually distanced manner, programmatically takes into consideration the design discipline’s role in society in relation to, for example, consumption and environmental issues. In critical design, the idea – the formulation of a critique – precedes the manifest expression, even though one branch of critical design, especially as can be seen with some of the more recent tendencies, is also perfectly conscious of its own exterior staging.5 In this way, critical design and conceptual art are kindred disciplines and thus also have common historical roots in the 1960s’ and the 1970s’ design- and art-milieus, where the boundaries between everyday life and art were being rubbed out.
If we take our point of departure in the significations mentioned above, we can propose a definition of conceptual type as being a typeface (of one style or size) that communicates a message or idea and that is characterized, above and beyond this, by interrogating or expanding the boundaries of the typeface’s own media; that is to say, by examining the boundaries of what a given typeface

the frame for radical exploration and for typographical innovation, and which is accordingly interesting to deal with in relation to discussing conceptual typography’s role today, as it is manifest on the Internet and in the various media of which we avail ourselves.

although this category is based primarily on the viewpoint that art exists first and foremost as idea – or concept – and meaning, and only secondarily as object.1 Moreover, conceptual art denotes artistic productions and artistic creations where the concept or the idea, when conjoined with the artwork, is more important than any traditional aesthetic or formal considerations.2 In the avant-garde artist Sol LeWitt’s celebrated definition, conceptual art is defined as art where all planning and all decisions in connection with artworks are made in advance and where the actual execution is a mechanical issue. ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’, wrote Sol LeWitt in 1967.3 More recent interpretations have, moreover, defined conceptual art as art that critically and explicitly asks questions about what it is that can be understood as ‘art’ and what the limits of art are.4 In the history of design, ‘conceptual design’ and ‘critical design’ have been collocated and are often used interchangeably to indicate design that, in

essentially represents and what that typeface can be used for. We can then define conceptual type as a typeface that is related to the design’s salient modes of operation and communicative forms and that embodies a message which transcends the typeface’s functional mission.
In modern typographical history, type, in several different periods, has been enquiring and experimental. In recent years, both the postmodern and deconstructivist typography have, for example, supplied experimental elements and have served to widen the frameworks for what type design is and for how it can be used. The experiments have been borne forth by a reaction to modernism’s function-related principles. Additionally, technological advances have brought forth new premises for typography, conditions on which conceptual type has explored and commented. One of the most crucial venues for typographic experiments in recent years has been the Internet which, especially during the formative years of the medium’s development, has served as

tive guidelines provided fertile ground for discussions centered on how the new media ought to be designed. In graphic design contexts, books and websites with principles for the design of the web were being published; to a great extent, these redressed the printed medium’s ideals about readability and functional principles for setting up the texts. These principles largely reflected contemporary discussions going on within the graphic profession between, on the one side, proponents of traditional modernism’s functional orientation and, on the other, newer designer-centered and postmodernist ideologies. The modernist approaches were represented through books such as Mike Zender, Jeff Fine and Rich Albertson’s Designer’s Guide to the Internet (1995) and Roger Black’s Web Sites That Work (1997). As ‘how-to’ books for web development with a graphic point of departure, they pleaded for a continuation of modernist conventions in the design of web pages, including grid-based modular construc-

The Internet as designbased medium
 Up until the start of the 1990s, the Internet was exclusively a code- and command-based publishing channel. But with the development of the World Wide Web ( WWW), it suddenly became possible, also, to publish pictures, sounds and graphic images. It consequently became relevant to become concerned with how the media should be designed. During the incipient years of the Internet’s development, it was largely the printed media that set the standard for how to set up websites, while the interface-industry supplied principles for the elaboration of navigation design. The various professions’ respec-

tion; and they addressed the demands for clarity and readability in the layout and the choice of typefaces. The modernistic approach found some measure of support among advocates of the interface industry who, with usability-people like Jacob Nielsen in the forefront, similarly presented a ‘less is more’ approach to the Internet, albeit one where the technical-functional consideration – the aim of offering quick and easy access to the contents – was assigned greater priority than any considerations paid to the graphic aspects. According to Nielsen, the graphics could actually stand in the way of a functional interaction. For this reason, resources in the development were primarily supposed to ensure expedient interaction and ought to focus on graphics to a lesser extent. 

In contrast to this, the proponents of the postmodernist approach argued for placing greater weight on the graphic-aesthet-

construction of the message. Taking his point of departure in the Cranbrook theories that had been derived from French philosophy and literary theory, the radical typographical arrangement should, according to Poynor, deconstruct, break up and display the manipulated visual language and the different levels of meaning that were inherent in a given design. The visual style that was connected with these viewpoints could be linked in the printed media to graphic designers like David Carson, Phil Baines, Rudy VanderLands and Zuzanna Licko and to magazines like Beach Culture, Ray Gun (see page F H ) and Emigre, which, in different ways, set new agendas on the graphic arts scene in the 1990s. On the Internet, the deconstructivist visual style was represented by experimental graphic artists like Michel de Boer who, taking his inspiration from the printed medium’s expressive approaches, sought to transpose a material tactility and artistically-oriented self-expressiveness into a digital context, albeit a context wherein there also lay the seeds of a reckoning with the hegemony of printed

as one of the first websites to explore the medium as a field for artistic-aesthetic experiments. On the website, use was being made of unorthodox HTML-codes with an eye toward bringing forth a compelling and experience-colored interaction. The site made its appearance, all things considered, as an exotic web territory with a sampling and expressive aesthetics consisting of graphically processed photographs that were eclectically juxtaposed with differing illusory depth effects and deconstructed typefaces. With visible texture- and layer-on-layer effects, Harvey managed to combine a terse material-related ‘reality atmosphere’ with a new digital finish. The goal was not transparency or easy navigation but opaqueness and artistically processed mediality. Whereas the established sector on the Internet, with the interface industry’s spokesmen heading up the pack, was aspiring to provide the user with a sense of direct, unmediated access to data and navigation through ‘What You See Is What You Get’ interfaces, Aurelia Harvey was operating in an intermediate zone situated between

ic aspects of web development. The inspiration was drawn from prepress-phase postmodernism’s and deconstructivism’s showdown with modernism’s function-oriented and utility-maximizing approaches effected for the sake of making expressive and artistic-subjective inroads into the further development of type and typography. On the Internet, the postmodern ideologies of designers were expressed by people like Michel de Boer, who dissociated himself from modernism’s requirement for a ‘neutral’ presentation of content and applauded, instead, a web based typographical style that would hopefully attract attention on its own terms and would, like art, be ‘self-expressive’. According to De Boer, ‘design […] should not be too easy, either to make or to look at. The receiver of the message should be made to work, being forced to think about what he is seeing’. Similarly, Rick Poynor, in a prepress context in 1991, suggested that typography’s role was supposedly to provoke the reader into becoming an active participant in the

matter. The graphics were not merely supposed to express resistance to modernism’s principles but were also expected to underpin the digital medium’s hypermodal character. The resistance to the printed medium’s modernism also constituted, on the Internet, a showdown with the interface industry’s prioritization of technical-functional aspects. Accordingly, the deconstructivist experiments pertained not only to the graphic expression but had also to do with how one could interact in new and different ways when working inside the new media.
The experiments were given names like ‘lo-fi grunge’, with a nod to David Carson’s ‘loose, antigrid layouts’ or ‘trash’, with reference to the fact that the graphic elements had been gathered from different contexts, as ‘dirt and filth’ that were inserted into an artistic compilation and with an interaction that was muddy and opaque. One example of what could be called ‘hypermodal deconstructivism’ was graphic artist Aurelia Harvey’s legendary website, (see page FI). It was launched already in 1994,

clear transparency and opaque mediation. A later example of hypermodal deconstructivism can be spotted on graphic artist Juliet Martin’s portfolio website from the late 1990s, which similarly stages an expressive auteur that broke away, in a radical fashion, both from contemporary modernist typographic standards and from the requirements predicating a user-friendly navigation (see page FJ). In Martin’s experiments, the classic typographical division of layouts into well-arranged grids has been replaced by a complex and opaque system, with figurative text columns that spread out as patterns on the page. Fragments of text and graphical elements have been drawn from different contexts and put together in novel ways, in the manner of a digital version of the Dadaists’ and the cubists’ collages. The navigation is cryptic. The contemporary demands for user-friendliness on the Internet have been superseded by alternative and experience-oriented modes of navigating. Through the juxtapositions and collocations, what is being commu-

Hypermodal deconstructivism



nicated here is a critical manifesto about the digital medium’s potentials for free sampling and copying that gave rise to unlimited opportunities for designers but also played a special part, simultaneously, in undermining their copyrights. In the 1990s, when slow transmission speeds placed restrictions on web design, it took, as we know, a long time to download the graphically heavy web pages; this must have been taxing on the users’ patience. The objective of the experiments with hypermodal deconstructivism, however, was not to provide easy access to the content but rather to comment on the Internet’s current developments and examine the new medium’s design register. In this respect, these experiments can be regarded as examples of conceptual typography inasmuch as the sites were commenting, in a number of different ways, on the Internet’s current modes of operation and embodied messages that surpassed the functional mission, i.e. that of providing access to content or functions.

managed also to show how they were programmed (see page FK). As an early crystallization of open source, Davis offered designers the opportunity of being able to make use of the codes and even to develop them further on their own websites. Via their open access, the sites articulated a form of resistance to commercial firms that were regarded as setting the standards and were seeking to gain a monopoly on the Internet. Through the programming of alternative forms of web design and digital typefaces, Davis was inciting designers to circumvent – and to break away from – the standards in order to become independent of software producers and consortia. Through programming, the design tasks could be liberated. A third theme in the Internet’s early development was organized around what could be called an iconoclastic exploration of the new media and around how experiments with coding served as the jumping-off point for critical objections to the Internet medium as such. The objective here was not, as had been the case in Davis’s project, to conjure up new

a message instructing the user to type in a keyword and click ‘Enter’. Whatever keyword you might happen to choose, you’ll land on a page that says, ‘Sorry, page not found’. The typeface is chopped into pieces and deconstructed and props up the website’ non-functional and sampled expressions.
 Yet another example of the iconoclastic approach can be seen in the work of the Belgian-Dutch duo, Jodi, and specifically on their website,, which is constantly being revised and updated. Here, among other things, we are shown code lists with more or less unintelligible names, arranged in a non-transparent circular process that continuously sends the user right back to where he/she started, where swatches of text and typographical elements are ‘floating around’ and constantly changing their location and function. What’s really essential on this website is not to provide access to content or functions but rather to put the user into certain intractable situations that stimulate reflection on the web’s user-friendliness or -unfriendliness. Jodi. org is pointing out that the Internet is a

expedient communication and functional interaction. Their purpose was not to uphold the conventions but rather to distance themselves from these traditions’ narrowing influence so as to make room for a development of both typefaces and typographical layout that would be based on a different kind of dialogue with the viewer. In this kind of practice, the effective jumping-off point is moved away from the authorized frames for communication over toward their underlying message. Whereas it is the case within established normal design contexts that the web-developer’s primary responsibility is to ensure easy access to the content, the sphere of responsibility in conceptual typography is moved over, to a significant degree, toward the viewer’s susceptibility in relation to the message. This demands more from the receiver, who is supposed to understand and to decode the content. And it is this susceptibility/ non-susceptibility that conceptual design focuses on and thus provokes.
Neither the showdown with the established tradition nor the programmatic challeng-

At the same time, the early experiments fashion the basis for discussions about conceptual typography’s contemporary role on the Internet and in other publishing situations.

If we look at the Internet’s development as it is transpiring in the present day, we can see that the experimental features have come to be assimilated into mainstream web design, albeit in a form where conceptual typefaces and graphic elements most often serve as detached effects or aesthetic holds in the form of, for example, deconstructed letters or alternative layouts of web pages that nonetheless do not fundamentally break away from the standards for the layout of web pages that appears to have crystallized in recent years. In synch with the dot-com crisis of 2000, what emerged was a rising demand for user-friendliness in both typography and navigation, with an eye toward ensuring the web pages’ commercial and

being expedient and efficient in the consolidated design traditions and whatever ensures consensus in the established networks of designers. Here we can see cunning implementations of the established traditions, which play a role in securing expedient interaction. However, what we are also seeing here are, all too often, rather standardized solutions, among which only experts can spot the differences, solutions that cannot avert the fate of standing in the way of adopting a critical attitude toward the modern heritage and the role that the typographical style is going to play in the time to come. With the rising regimentation of design on the Internet, it seems appropriate to ask: What has become of the experimental features that were moving the boundaries and pleading for change and critical intervention? If we may borrow from Sol LeWitt’s dictum that ‘the idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ and replace ‘art’ with ‘typography’, it would then seem appropriate to ask: What is the ‘idea-machine’ supposed to be in contemporary digital typography? What are the artistic,

Digital crafting and mediareflexive iconoclasm

and interesting typographical or interactive expressions but rather to display the symbolic typeface-conformity that the interface shields off and covers over, in order thereby to demonstrate the manipulation that was believed to be going on behind the screen, as well as to confront and challenge all the notions of ‘transparency’ that the interface industry was evidently upholding. The experimental objective appears to be crystallizing as a media-reflexive iconoclastic action that was targeted specifically at breaking critically with the established dogmas about simple communication and ‘transparency’ in the Internet medium. One concrete example of the iconoclastic approach is Eric Rosevear’s, which first appeared at the closing of the 1990s (see page FL). On the site, the user encounters deconstructed GU I-navigation elements along with hand-drawn scribblings, short snatches of texts and pieced-together typefaces. What can be seen on the front page is an over-weighted and disabled ‘free-text’ search field with

digital structure, a numerical text, over which the user really has no influence but is quite simply compelled to follow the laid-down paths and inevitably find him/herself, along the way, in the thicket of problems and limitations that the medium offers. What is common to the iconoclastic features is that when they were first launched, during the web’s formative years, they were all working towards rendering the new medium’s mediality visible and towards exhibiting the ‘non-transparent transparency’ with which the medium was considered to be operating at that time.

ing of the reader’s susceptibility are new themes; they can be spotted, for example, in postmodernism’s prepress contexts, where radical strategies of grabbing hold of communication, in order to incite the public to become engaged in the text, placed a great deal of weight on the meaning’s construction. In line with the postmodern graphic designers, conceptual typography on the Internet is aiming to engage or to challenge the receiver by displaying meaning and web design in novel ways that involve the user as an active participant and simultaneously explore the boundaries of the typography’s modes of operation. The examples cited above can be viewed as mirrors of their era and, as such, it is crucial to document them. The Internet’s development has been progressing at a brisk tempo and important phases of the early years of its history have not been documented. In this perspective, what is essential is to describe the development and to describe how conceptual typography has commented on these advances.

market-related status. This created fertile soil for a consolidation of usability principles and established graphic-functional approaches and has brought about, via the enterprises’ and the users’ sustained requests for easy access to content, a situation where web design appears, in the present day, to have stabilized into a relatively homogenous standard for layout, navigation and typeface choices. On the other hand, the incidence of experimental features, which was so characteristic of the Internet in its early pioneer years, appears to be diminishing. The mainstream on the Internet appears to have evolved within a pragmatic and, in reality, a rather unaltered approach to design. Web designers all over the world are carrying further a functional tradition which takes its mark in both modernism and usability principles that are being applied on the basis of practical considerations or in response to demands from the surrounding environment, with the upshot that they largely do not deviate from whatever is regarded as

the ideological or the political features that place a question mark beside the typographical tasks and forms today? Is the answer simply ‘greater standardization’? Or do we also have a need for alternative forms of typography? Experiments with typography have value in themselves because both working with the typeface and the visual result can bring forth new ideas. In our complex mass-communicative society, there can be no doubt that there is still a need for standardization in order to ensure expedient and effective communication, but there is also a need to explore the language of typography and the modes of operation. Here, a continued dialogue concerning the relationship between writing and the ideas behind the text might prove to be necessary. Unlike the heroic functionalist typography-pioneers’ self-knowledge and expectations, today’s designers do not have unconditional freedom to influence the development of the ever more encompassing communication-landscape. But this is not tantamount to saying that the

Another contemporary experimental tendency on the Internet grows out of a squaring of accounts with the hegemony of printed matter for the sake of conducting an examination of the digital ‘material’, which is comprised exclusively of zeros and ones and can be described as a form of ‘digital crafting’ via experimental numerical representation. One of the progenitors in the formative years of the Internet was computer artist and MIT-researcher John Maeda who, in his influential book, Design by Numbers (1999), encouraged artists and designers to learn how to program with an eye toward enabling themselves to create truly innovative forms of expression in the new digital media. Another prominent figure working on the Internet was the programmer, Joshua Davis, who, under the umbrella of the websites, Once Upon a Forest and Praystation, launched alternative forms of digital typography and type design and

The reader’s susceptibility
 When we think in an isolated way about the development’s external symptoms, it is possible, on the one hand, to regard the experimental features as manifestations of a showdown with the established Internet medium’s standards related to

Normal typography?

FG designers have no influence. It’s rather the case that the path to innovation and influence is moving, in the present day, right through a firm grasp of the increasing communications-related complexity, as this manifests itself in the various media and in the typefaces and forms of which we avail ourselves. Here, the Internet is the obvious place for experimentation and is clearly the right place to inquire into how it is possible to explore what typography’s role is today and what it ought be in the future. In this connection, the historical documentation is important because it offers insight into how typography has been developing within the compass of a new medium. Additionally, such documentation can serve as the springboard for continued discussions of conceptual typography’s role today, both in the printed and the digital media.

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Aurelia Harvey’s exotic web territory,, from 1994 is one of the earliest exponents on the Internet for a deconstructivist and self-expressive style that has come to be endowed with designations like ‘lo-fi grunge’ and ‘trash’, by way of reference to the sampled, distorted expression that is based on juxtapositions and collocations of graphically processed elements, ‘scratched’ lettering and illustrations with layer-on-layer textures.

Juliet Martin’s website from 1996 was built as an opaque system with different text columns comprised of figurative text passages that spread out like patterns on the page. In the site’s layout, there’s a hair-fine balance between positive and negative space and visual effects are created that both comment on and bypass the low transmission speeds to which web designers were subject at the time the site was launched.



In the middle of the 1990s, Eric Rosevear’s site,, was exploring the web’s codes with an avowedly mediacritical aim, which deconstructed the web-screen’s images and clearly revealed the codes behind the screen. The essential goal of the project was not to achieve interesting or classically aesthetic graphical expressions but rather to display the ideals about transparency and user-friendliness that the interface industry holds aloft but which often proved, in the middle of the 1990s, to fall short on the Internet as a direct consequence of the low transmission speeds and the limitations in the browsers and the programming languages. On the site, Eric Rosevear exhibits and comments critically on the Internet’s ‘user-hostility’ through non-transparent interactive sequences and ‘rigged navigation’.

Joshua Davis’ sites, Once Upon a Forest and Praystation, served, in the late 1990s, as the frame for code-based experiments, as a vehicle for circumventing limitations in the browsers and H T M L-codes, and as the springboard for a radical exploration of the medium’s register of expression. As an early crystallization of open source, the sites offered codes that could be used in the further development of designs and fonts on the Internet.



Paul Barnes is a graphic designer specializing in the fields of lettering, typography, type design and publication design. In the early 1990s he worked for Roger Black in New York where he was involved in redesigns of Newsweek, U S and British Esquire, and Foreign Affairs. Since 1995, he has been based in London. He designed the Guardian Egyptian typeface and founded the Commercial Type type foundry with Christian Schwartz. In 2007, The Guardian named Barnes one of the 50 best designers in Britain.

Paul Barnes, 45 Benbow Road, London, W6 0AU, United Kingdom. Email:

concepts and realities – marian

Paul Barnes

GC The Marian font family created by Paul Barnes recreates the classical canon of roman and italic typefaces from the 16th to the 19th century with a single blackletter typeface thrown in for good measure. In this essay, Paul Barnes reflects on the typographic heritage that informs Marian: the process that led from the letters of antiquity over classic print typefaces to the reduction of complexity in the 20th century and finally digital type.


The revolution in typography of the early twentieth century left an enduring legacy on the appearance of printed material. The concept of reduction and simplification central to the ‘new typography’ are evident throughout both the printed and now screen world. Could we imagine a mobile phone interface as a 19th century experience design? No, of course, but we could as something that the Bauhaus or the Ulm schools might have designed. In the design of letterforms it is harder to see this influence; whilst the revolution in layout occurred towards the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the revolution in letterform

not be applied; serif endings and the bases of serifs are not perfectly rendered. To make an improved letter requires a greater amount of instructions, to a point where to construct them becomes a chore. The image of the construction is more beguiling than any letter constructed by the method; it is in itself a work of art, not a producer of art. The Roman du Roi, which is perhaps the conceptual letter par excellence was perfectly rendered in geometry, but the resulting typeface by Grandjean is something different. It shows the tension between the conceptual and the realities of type design and manufacture. The notion of construction made by formulas remains popular where letters cannot be applied from a pre-existing source. For non-professionals throughout the twentieth century, geometry offered a guide to making letters, which allowed a greater consistency and quality than the hand and eye alone. But these rules make stiff forms, which should be viewed with some caution when manufacturing type. What we gain from these exper-

In reducing the letter, the designer has to make decisions: what is it that constitutes the most important parts of the form, and which elements can be removed. The modernists saw that the sans is the simplest letter form; but a sans derived from a serif is not a simple transformation, nor are the results necessarily desirable or new. A simple removal of serifs creates a form that is not unfamiliar; it is rather like Optima, or experiments by Matthew Carter and Jan Tschichold. Equally a sans serif version of a hairline weight is attractive, but not a new form. The roman form can be created with a certain amount of ease, whereas the italic poses many questions. The Granjon style italic relies on the strokes that begin and end each form in lower case. It seems that even if we remove stress, the letterforms still need the tails and serifs to form the complete letters. When the originals were created these serifs were seen as integral parts of the form, and the loss of them is greater than the loss of the stress. In the 1980s Alan Meeks created Claude, a sans derived from the classic Garamond (or rather Jan-

had occurred significantly earlier: In the early part of the nineteenth century, symmetry typography dominated and the serif book typeface had lost its monopoly. The layouts of the ‘new’ typography introduced by Jan Tschichold around 1925 use the sans serif typefaces that had been re-introduced in the previous century, but had existed since ancient Greece. Experiments in geometric only typefaces, such as those by Herbert Bayer, Max Burchartz and Jan Tschichold, remained just that: experiments. Bayer’s later seriffed typeface, Bayer-typeface for Berthold (1933) was the only example that made it into production. The typefaces that did reflect these ideals such as Futura are geometric in idea, but not in reality. Conceptually, geometry may appear to make sense to apply to lettering, but it has a tendency to make letterforms that are stiff and forced. The guides from the fifteenth and sixteenth century, such as those by Cresci, Palatino and Dürer, allow a certain amount of interpretation where geometry could

iments is the approach of reduction; to try and remove all superfluous ‘ornament’ and to find the most basic elements. In the case of the modernist experiments, this was to create a sans serif letterform, but there is no reason one couldn’t apply this to another form and try to reduce it to its most basic element. In the case of Marian, a series of hairline serif typefaces based on forms of the sixteenth to nineteenth century, it is a removal of all stress and terminal forms. The letters are reduced to skeletal lines of almost mono linear weight. The variation between thick and thin strokes can be seen as a trace of how letters were originally formed: by the broad nibbed pen, the stroke of a brush. That variation is the flesh upon the skeleton of the letter; by removing the stress, the basic and simple letterform is revealed. This forces the designer and user to re examine the forms afresh; for the designer this is to understand what is the most important factors in the letter, and for the user to remove the letters from the notion that they are ‘antiquated’ or ‘old fashioned’.

non) model that had been revived in the early part of the twentieth century. The serifs had been removed, but he did not remove the tails in the lower case; the reduction had only been taken so far.

The tools of production Letters used to reflect the tools of production and the material they were applied to. The brush, the broad-nibbed pen, the copperplate nib or the stonemason’s chisel would all form certain kinds of letters. When printing arrived, the first typefaces made were no longer formed by the pen, but an engraving tool making marks on the tip of a metal punch; the form of the letter could be anything, depending on size and the quality of the punch-cutter. Its form merely imitated what had come before; only gradually did the printed letter become different from the written one, though the traces remained of the handwritten. By the end of the nineteenth century and the invention of the

pantograph, letters were made simply as drawings which could be scaled to any size. The drawing could be a form that was originally made by any tool. The form of a single thin almost mono line stroke letterform such as Marian is not a modern style, though it may appear so. The earliest Greek inscriptions, of which the Gortyn Code in Crete (c. 5th century BC) is a mono line sans serif form. The tool that made it, probably a simple chisel, and the material it was cutting into, mean that a simple letterform with no variation in stroke width was the easiest and speediest to produce. The v-cut is relatively shallow, compared to the depth of the chiseled seriffed form of the Imperial Roman age. The 18th century letter from England shows the effect of the material more than the tool. Cutting into marble presents tremendous challenges for a stone cutter. The cut made into the stone is almost just a scratch; to create a wide thick stroke typical of the seriffed form would be too much of a challenge; attempts to make deeper cut letters in marble are generally much cruder than a letter cut in slate. The infilling of the cut gives the letter definition as without it, it would be hardly noticeable. In our own time the mono line letter is the natural form for certain tools and materials. Neon for example forms a simple mono line form. A visit to any cold climate in winter will show many examples of this. Most typically, though, they are not seriffed forms, but script and sans serif. The challenge of adding serifs to a letterform involves bending the tube many more times. Of course in the case of say a seriffed logo, this challenge cannot be avoided; this example in Stockholm is based upon the typeface Dante. Until the development of the computer as tool for all designers, most layouts were produced by hand, and technical pens such as the Rotring Rapidograph will form a line that is near mono line. To give a letter any weight at text size would be achieved by a thicker pen. It would be possible to make a more accurate representation of a seriffed letter, but it would take significantly longer (the

pen needs to make more strokes), and the level of consistency would be much harder. A biro or fibre tip pen will give a similar style of letter, but without the fineness nor the accuracy. Much closer to Marian’s conception is the reflection of the single weight stroke that Illustrator will draw: whereas type is a filled in shape, Illustrator draws a line that is itself the shape. The version of Courier that was installed with the first postscript printers was not an outline with a filled form, but just a stroke. The heavier the weight the greater the stroke. In Adobe Illustrator, a letterform made as stroke as opposed to shape is much easier to work with when using the multiple number of effects or renderings. Marian comes from experimentation with a simple mono line copperplate-like script. It is easier to use step and repeat effects than if the letter were simply a shape. A single stroke can be rendered in many ways, such as dots, which would be impossible with a normal typeface.

Thinness Marian’s thinness of weight comes both from necessity, but also the desire for the stylistic qualities of such thinness. Letters that are based on single stroke weights work most successfully when thinner. As the stroke becomes heavier, so the letter begins to deform as the eye perceives that the vertical stroke is lighter than the horizontal stroke. When two strokes meet it appears to the eye as a much bolder part of the letter. As these original seriffed forms are considered ‘elegant’, conceptually it would seem sensible that Marian tries to reflect this. During the fashion for constructed geometric sans serif during the nineteen twenties, perhaps the most successful and elegant solution is Jan Tschichold’s designs from 1926-1930. In form it is very light, and this lightness makes it more successful formally than the other designs of its time. Herbert Bayer’s design of 1926 which is much heavier in weight in comparison suffers from the problems of

increased universal weight. One does not notice where strokes join in the Tschichold design, yet they become very prominent in Bayer‘s design. In Futura, we can see how the problem is solved. A variation in stroke is made between the vertical and horizontal strokes to optically correct, so the weight seems even. As the weight increases towards the boldest weights, the change is clearly noticeable. Where two strokes meet, the horizontal stroke and vertical strokes narrow to give the appearance of uniform weight. In the lighter weights the variation in stroke is needed less and less, though optically still the horizontal stroke must be lighter than the vertical. Fine, light typefaces are not a new phenomenon. In the nineteenth century a reaction against the heavier display typefaces saw a vogue for hairline or skeletal forms. These, it would seem, were mainly cut at text sizes. Greater skill in engraving allowed a very light Clarendon (not unlike a typewriter typeface) with little variation in weight to be cut. Whilst common in specimens, where printing standards were high and could be maintained, they were less common in trade printing. They were hard to print and the type was easily worn and damaged. Maintaining such standards in letterpress requires care whereas contemporary lithographic printing allows greater detail with higher and easier to maintain standards. Now of course typefaces are no longer limited to paper; they can exist in other mediums, on screen, in signs, etc.

Revival and interpretations The past in typography and in type design is almost unavoidable; either it is embraced in some way or we try to escape and deny it, though this seems an impossibility since we use the same basic alphabet. The issue must be how we deal with it. Traditionally revivals go from reissues of the original (as in the Caslon revival by the Chiswick press in the 1840s), revivals that attempt to recreate the original and then to the other

GE extreme, an interpretation of the original. This can vary from being quite close to the original to something that might only share the name of the original (how many Garamonds have that much to do with Garamond?). Making faithful revivals would be worthwhile where the original has not been revived, but that pool is getting smaller and smaller. Often interpretations can lose sight of the qualities of the original. Marian treats the process of revival and interpretation in a different way; it is both a highly accurate revival, yet is utterly unfaithful to the original and is a highly personal interpretation. If one considers the original not as one defined design, but rather a musical score or a script, then one is making something faithful, but a new interpretation. So the concept is of a faithful revival of these classics, but rendered in a totally new way. Sol LeWitt’s original essay on conceptual art suggested that the concept was the most important part and that the manufacture was almost a secondary part of the process. In type design, the idea is still the most important part of the process, but the manufacturing is vital to the end result. Type is not something that can be quickly defined and easily made. Despite all the technical advances, type manufacturing is still a highly manual process. With Marian it is further complicated by defining where the line of the letter should go; if one reduces the stroke to a thin line, what is the best representation of the form? It is not simply the average or the middle of the letter, nor the outside, nor the inside. In the end it will be the eye and not a preconceived idea that determines how the letters must look.

The concept of concept Marian is made from several sources dating from the sixteenth to the beginnings of the nineteenth century. These typefaces are considered ‘classics’, whether it be the italics of Granjon, the modern of Bodoni or the rococo of Fournier.


Marian version

Italic progenitor

Roman progenitor

phie ist eine Kunst für sich. In Typographis-

Marian 1554



che Monatsblätter, no. 4, April 1973 (as quot-

Marian 1565



ed in Burke, 2007: 307).

Marian 1571



Marian 1650



Marian 1740



Marian 1742



Marian 1755



Marian 1800



Marian 1812



They are limited to the period when book seriffed typefaces were the dominant form; after this new letterforms dominate: sans serifs, fat faces, Clarendons, Egyptian, Italians, etc. Some of these can be described in hairline form; Marian 1812 is not dissimilar from a Clarendon form, but others like fat face would be harder to define; it would appear to be just an extended modern, but how would one describe the weight of the balls? Later models of ‘classic’ seriffed typefaces from the twentieth century such as Cheltenham, Times New Roman, Perpetua and Goudy Old Style exist, but these are typefaces that are not ‘extinct’, they have never disappeared from usage. Conceptually if we have considered these series of typefaces as classic songs or ‘standards,’ we can see that the collection becomes an ‘album’ of songs or ‘cover versions’. The designer like a singer becomes an interpreter of the standard. Marian may be likened to Bryan Ferry’s 1973 solo album These Foolish Things or perhaps Walter/Wendy Carlos’ SwitchedOn Bach (1968), an album of classical compositions rendered on one of the first Moog synthesizers. Such an outlook supports the view that Marian is conceptually the mixing of the old in a modern style; recreating the past in the present.

Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach Sol LeWitt (1969) Tschichold’s quote emphasizes the limitations that typography and type design has to deal with; LeWitt’s the lack of limitations he perceived for conceptual artists. Marian as a typeface has to respect the ‘conservative’ nature of type design, yet at the same time by taking the classics and remodeling them takes an audacious step. It is faithful, yet bends them to the same rule reduction to an almost disappearing line. It is where concept and reality meet.

From specimen of Bayer-Type, Berthold 1933. As shown in Bayer &al 1982.


Bayer, Herbert. (1926). Versuch einer neuen Schrift, Offset, no. 7. Bayer, Herbert , Wingler, Hans Maria , & Droste, Magdalena. (1982). Herbert Bayer: Das künstlerische Werk, 1918-1938. Berlin: Mann. Jammes, André. (1965). Académisme et Typographie, the making of the Romain du Roi. Journal of the Printing Historical Society, no. 1. Burke, C. (2007). Active Literature: Jan Tschichold and New Typography. London: Hyphen. LeWitt, Sol. (1969). Sentences on Conceptual Art. 0-9. Mosley, James. (1964). Trajan Revived. Alphabet, Volume 1. Re, Margaret (curator). (2002). Typographically

G. B. Palatino, design for a constructed inscriptional capital (c. 1550). Berlin, Kunstmuseum. As shown in Trajan

Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter. New

Revived by James Mosley. Alphabet, Volume One, 1964

York; Baltimore County: Princeton Archi-

Alphabet sheet issued as a guide to signwriters by the ministry of Public Building and Works in Britain, 1949. As

tectural Press; The Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, University of Maryland.

Nobody should forget that typography is the least free of all the arts. None other serves to such a degree. It cannot free itself without losing its purpose. It is more strongly bound than any other art to meaningful conventions and the more typographers heed these the better their work will be. Jan Tschichold: Typogra-

Study of Bayer-Type 1930/2 by Herbert Bayer.

Published online 15 March, 2014. ISSN 1749-3463 print/ ISSN 1749-3471. DOI: 10.14434/artifact.v3i1.5176 © 2014 Artifact.

shown in Trajan Revived by James Mosley. Alphabet, Volume One, 1964



The letters (top rows; reduced) engraved on copper in 1695 for the Académie des Sciences compared to the first punches (bottom rows; enlarged) cut by Grandjean in 1599. As shown in Académisme et Typographie, the making of the Romain du Roi, André Jammes. Journal of the Printing Historical Society, no. 1, 1965.

Above: Matthew Carter, untitled alphabet, c. 1960 as reproduced in Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter, curated by Margaret Re, University of Maryland, 2002.

Sixteenth century style serif typeface with serif removed, by the author, 2005.

Left: Early monoline sans serif form, detail of Gortyn Code in Crete, c. fifth century B C

Below: Marian 1554 rendered as a sans serif form in regular and oblique, by the author, 2011.

(photograph courtesy of Mike Parker). Right: Memorial plaque cut in marble, Hereford Cathedral, England. c. 1752.



Marian 1554 as rendered as a single line weight , by the author, 2011

Royal cinema neon sign in Stockholm.

Copperplate script developments by the author, 2003-.

Left: Svenska Missionskyrkan neon sign. Original logo is in Dante. Right: Marian family as rendered in neon, showing how a single tube renders the entire word. Thieves like us show, October 2011, New York. Commercial Type and Dino Sanchez.

Geometric alphabet, Jan Tschichold, 1926–1930 as shown in Typographische Mitteilungen, no. 3, 1930.

Hand rendered type drawn with a Rotring Rapidograph. Author, 1992.

Top row, designs based on Tschichold’s alphabet to match Futura weights, bottom row Futura Mager, Halbfett, Dreiviertelfett, Fett, from Futura specimen, Bauersche Giesserei, Frankfurt am Main, Barcelona, New York. Issued c.1932.



Non-pareil hairline from Specimen of Printing Types by Blake & Stephenson. (Successors to Mr W. Caslon of London. Letter-Founders) Sheffield. 1839. Detail and actual size, (reproduced with kind permission of St Bride Printing Library).

Three different lines interpreting Baskerville and Marian 1755; the first follows the external line, the second follows the centre of the character and the third the internal line.

Baskerville and its influence. From top center column; Baskerville original type as printed in France, c.1780, Baskerville as issued by Deberney & Peignot, from the original matrices. Monotype digital Baskerville, based on Monotype Baskerville, 1923. Mrs Eaves by Zuzana Licko, as issued by EmigrĂŠ, 1996. Baskerville as issued by the Bauersche Giesserei, designed by Henrish Jost, 1924. Marian 1755 is shown in the far column. lt is both faithful, but is also a radical interpreation of the original.

Top and middle: Isambard fat face designed by the author as interpreted as a hairline, 2011 Bottom: Times New Roman as interepreted as a hairline by the author, 2011.



Mads Quistgaard is a graphic designer and architect. He holds a M A from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture and an M A from Center for Designresearch He is founder of A P O G S , Pleks and Danish faces and former creative director at Kontrapunkt and currently an affiliated professor at Designskolen Kolding.

Mads Quistgaard: E-mail:


Mads Quistgaard



Erik Spiekermann: D B font

‘A color and a typeface is all you need to establish a brand’. ‘The very idea of a corporate font that reflects the values of the company is conceptual’. Erik Spiekermann: Stadtsschouwburg theater font

(Said about the first version of the D B font): ‘That first concept was really, really shallow. To think that echoing the railroad’s technical achievements or constrains in the typeface was a good idea, was really dumb. It’s not a concept.

‘What theater really means, is that you take reality and reflect it... That is basically the concept for the theater. We turn reality upside down - and we can turn this in to a typeface’. ‘The conceptual thing is twofold: on one hand there is the idea concept - an artistic aspect. But there can also be a physical concept, where the constraints or limitations become the concept which we work’ from.

It’s a boring physical constraint ... So what is the concept of D B font? It is that people can read it!’.



Europa: Material Presence identity

‘For the exhibition ’Material presence’ at the 176 gallery in London, we decided to use Steingruber’s alphabet for the exhibition identity. It was a quite literal idea, because it was an alphabet, talking about architecture, in an exhibition about achitectural space. These buildings were never built, so part of our interest was in giving these letters new life, by using them in new ways. It was an homage to Steingruber.’ ‘We wanted to explore depictions of physical spaces, so we drew the letters in 3d software and turned them into architechtual renderings. The curators were interested in the identity, to blend into something, that actual existed, in the actually space. They wanted the identity as an object, in its own right.’

1: ‘Steingruber’s letter ‘M’ redrawn by Europa’, 2: detail. 3: The title of the show: Material presence, spelled out over 8 pages.. 4: Banner on the side of the facade 176 gallery. ‘We used a detail from one of the letters to transform the actual gallery.’. 5: ‘We are walking through the letter ’c’ here. Here the guests could se themselves walking through the title of the show.’


‘This is a skeleton typeface. This is Edward Johnston’s interpretation of the Roman letters in writing and illuminating and lettering from 1911. In the book Johnston says: ‘These letters may be scratched with a point, in wax or clay, and if so, using practice would give raise to fresh and characteristic developments’ We were interested in taking Edward Johnston up on this, by talking his typeface through different ’filters’ and materials. We were interested in how different tools and material would effect the typeface.‘

1: Edward Johnston original drawing. 2: Europas interpretation of Edward Johnston’s skeleton typeface. 3: With calligraphic strokes. 4: Rounded. 5: Embossed in polystyrene.




‘The idea was to make an intelligent typeface that is as good as a manual sign-painter. That means that if you write liza twice it will not look the same because a sign-painter would always make them differently. This whole process Underware explaining the creation of 3D letters by applying child logic to letters

‘When a child draws a helicopter, it will always draw a lot of rotor blades. The child knows that the helicopter only has two or four rotor blades. But what the child wants to do is different. He doesn’t want to represent the helicopter. He wants to explain it. Because the rotor blades are turning, a lot of blades are drawn. The same goes when they draw human beings. They know the feet are not placed like that. But they draw them like that, because the feet have the function that people can stand on them and not fall over.’

was about making Liza as human as possible.’

The many different charater combinations in the Liza typeface explained.


‘There is perhaps one big limitation in all written language. It’s black and white. If I write ‘yes’, it will always be a ‘yes’. If I write a ‘no’, it will still be a no’. There is no room for interpretation, which is something spoken language has. For example if you are nervous, you can say ‘yes’ in such a way that, you perhaps communicate ‘no’. We wanted to try to communicate this in a special version of Liza. It looks like this. The funny thing is that women, tend to read ‘Say Yes’ and men tend to read. ‘Say No’.’




‘In‘In conceptual conceptual artart typedesign typedesign the the idea idea oror concept concept is is the most important aspect ofof the work. the most important aspect the work. When a artist typographer uses a conceptual form When a artist typographer uses a conceptual form ofof artart type, it it means that allall the planning and type, means that the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution decisions are made beforehand and the execution is is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes artart type.’ that makes type.’ SolSol LeWitt LeWitt The The Royal Royal Danish Danish Academy Academy of of Fine Fine Arts. Arts. ‘Paragraph Conceptual type’, ‘Paragraph onon Conceptual artart type’, Artforum, 1907 Copenhagen, November 2000. Artforum, 1907 Copenhagen, November 19,19, 2000.

N O R M : Paragraph on type

‘Following a proposal in the conference brief to replace the word art with the word type in a quote from Sol Le Witt, we ventured to see what a concept for type design might be, and if there even are concepts. We think the two terms concept and idea have to be seperated in a way and that you can say that all type designs are essentially conceptual.’

Where are the idealistic fonts, the artsy fonts, the non fonts, the political fonts, the funny fonts, the difficult fonts, the fonts that don’t look like fonts, the fonts that are frontiers of new beliefs? We would like to focus on the ideas and concepts behind type. Rather than ushering in our examination about type by asking who it was that created it and what it looks like, we want to ring in this new decade by asking why we create type and what it means. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes art. Sol LeWitt, ‘Paragraph on Conceptual art’, in Artforum, 1967. We would like to draw on Sol LeWitt’s vision and then we would like to replace ‘art’ with ‘type’, in a search for the ideatype-machines of our time.

Editors: Steen Ejlers, Ida Engholm & Mads Quistgaard

Artifact Conceptual Type Signature Edition  
Artifact Conceptual Type Signature Edition