Welcome to the Infill Font Foundry

4 July 2016

Emigre-logo-pasteup.jpg

Emigre logo on paste-up board, 1983.

Introduction.

Emigre Inc. aren’t very vocal these days. Interviews and commentary from either Rudy VanderLans or Zuzana Licko are rare. That’s why this promotional interview with VanderLans by Sébastien Morlighem got my attention. I’m a huge fan of their work and ethos, I will read anything even remotely related to their output.

Emigre: Time and Time Again isn’t a substantial, well-reasoned article that either Emigre or Morlighem are known for. It is a breezy marketing piece advertising Emigre’s recent inclusion in the catalogue of Fontstand, a font trial and rental site. It was in this spirit I posted this flippant tweet. However, after re-reading the interview I’ve decided to respond seriously. VanderLans does indeed raise some “serious points”, but they’re not about “In-fillism”.

Emigre-flyer.jpg

Flyer announcing Emigre magazine #10, 1988.

Serious Points.

When Peter Biľak tweeted, “Rudy VanderLans of Emigre raises some serious points about current state of type design (‘Infill-ism’)”, this is what he was referring to:

“In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as ‘Infill-ism’, where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need? We’re less interested in those pursuits.

We coined this term ‘Infill-ism’ because it’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s easy to imagine that with each addition, there are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs. We’re left with filling in the gaps, and the gaps are getting smaller and smaller. We’re starting to question the point of adding one more variation.”

I have no doubt that “Infill-ism” is a sincere belief and concern for VanderLans. Reasonably affordable typeface design software and accessible online distribution are now used by a great volume of people to make and sell typefaces. These same conditions initially exploited by Emigre and others to flourish now allow thousands to thrive, and there are no signs it will slow down.

But “In-fillism” is merely a sleight of hand. As a shoddy neologism, it is derogatory, misleading and hypocritical.

It is derogatory because, like most type criticism, it relies on a vague notion of ‘other fonts’. It assumes a tacit agreement between elite insiders of what these other fonts actually are. VanderLans neither specifies the typefaces defining the boundaries of these imagined gaps, nor does he say what typefaces sit inside these imagined gaps. These omissions imply Emigre have helped define the boundaries, but everything made since is inferior infill. He insinuates the last true stylistic pioneering was done by Emigre: having bravely discovered the last lost continent of typographic genres, they can finally take a well-earned rest and chastise the following generation for lazily gap-filling.

“In-fillism” is misleading because it conjures images of finite physical space, rapidly gobbled up and filled by greedy developers. I’ve said before that the alphabet is a concept, and VanderLans too admits that the “options are technically infinite”. He frames it as a problem, inferring a pending crisis as these physical gaps are rapidly filled. This is a cynical view. I see the opposite, I see the infinite possibilities. I see work made in the same spirit as Mrs Eaves: valid, relevant, reinterpretations of type design’s rich history by people from different cultures and backgrounds.

And this is why “In-fillism” is hypocritical:

“Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need? We’re less interested in those pursuits.”

Firstly, Emigre themselves designed and sold typefaces inspired directly by the classics. In this interview Licko says Triplex started as “slightly friendlier Helvetica”, and then states that Mrs Eaves and Filosophia are “Baskerville and Bodoni revivals” respectively. She then reveals Mrs Eaves had been Emigre’s “best selling font for years and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.” And rightly so, it’s an excellent typeface. But it is based on the bones of a dead designer’s work. This is simply how the corpus of typeface design progresses: all new work references the old. No typeface emerged ex nihilo from the hand of a genius. It’s hard to keep this in mind, looking at the major stylistic developments over the last 500 years makes it seem like these changes happened quickly, it’s easy to compress and telescope down the timeline. But in reality, these changes happened very slowly.

Secondly, implying the concepts and ideas embodied in Futura are the best expressions of those concepts and ideas is dangerous. It leads to veneration of the classics and dissuades any critical reappraisal or reinterpretation by future generations. It forgoes Futura from being viable and valuable source material for new typefaces, and suggests a sort of cultural/aesthetic half-life for any subsequent works referencing Futura. Emigre is therefore entitled to the classics but others are not.

Emigre-cassette-tapes.jpg

Cassette tapes containing interviews for Emigre magazine, 1988-1998.

Controversy, Criticism and Money.

During its 69-issue run Emigre courted controversy. People wrote letters responding thoughtfully and passionately to articles in previous issues. Some issues were even handed over wholesale to outside designers and others showcased competing foundries. It provided an excellent forum for thought and debate at a time when the graphic design world was being shaken up both technologically (the computer) and aesthetically (grunge/post-modernism/deconstruction). Controversy was also a successful sales tactic. Emigre’s magazine was the perfect trojan horse to get their fonts into design studios. This isn’t a unique sales method however, there are a several examples of foundries using the magazine format as catalogues for their fonts: Monotype’s (recently revivedThe Monotype RecorderLinotype’s Fonts in FocusFontShop’s Font Magazine & FuseITC’s U&lc; Agfa Compugraphic’s 26. What differentiated Emigre was the quality of the debate and their editorial willingness to print and support arguments that actively contravened their own design philosophy and clearly stated business goals. This is still a unique position: virtually all foundry sites, communiqués, conferences and affiliates are criticism-free zones (Klim included, that’s why there are no comments). Our marketing messages live hermetically sealed from outside critical infection, their truthfulness, historical accuracy and honesty can lie unchallenged.

The virtual drought of any criticism in the type industry makes verdant soil for marketing: anyone can say anything about a typeface and it’s swallowed unchallenged. A marketer’s wet dream! As Stephen Coles rightly bemoans, the increasing amounts of fonts released every year “are half-baked, landing on the shelf with gobs of hyperbolic promotion and no critical commentary.” Emigre not only supported critical commentary, VanderLans wrote freely and openly about their promotion. In his 1995 essay, Radical Commodities he explained:

“Secondly, like the BauHaus, we are also ferocious promoters of our work. Whether it overshadows the quality of the work we produce is arguable, but what I do know is that without a focused public relations effort, Emigre would simply not exist. And perhaps the BauHaus might not have existed either. Promoting our work, making our work public, in any way we can, is simply an inevitable necessity when publishing a magazine and selling typefaces for a living.”

Re-reading this in 2016, it’s almost audacious in its plainspoken explanation of their business goals. VanderLans walks the path between authentic autonomous authorship and neo-liberal economic reality. Along with criticism, talking about money is virtually taboo in type design circles these days. That’s why there was so much interest in how little Monotype paid for FontFont/FontShop (“approximately” $13m USD) and how much they paid for MyFonts & Bitstream ($50m USD). We finally had an idea of the difference in earnings between big and small foundries.

Emigre helped show the way out of the big foundry cul-de-sac. They proved there was an appetite for authentic, individual style and a voice outside of the establishment. It is worth revisiting the prevailing conditions of the time. As Licko recalls:

“Then, in the late eighties, the personal computer exploded the field of type design onto every designer’s desktop, and some took up the challenge. Many of them harnessed it as a way to add more of their personal vision into their graphic design work. But it took a while before we saw other people designing complete typefaces. Except for Bitstream and Adobe, who were mostly digitizing traditional fonts, nobody was designing original fonts on the Macintosh. For a while, Emigre was the only company creating original typefaces.”

VanderLans completes the picture:

“For the first time in history, the established foundries found their market share yielding to a new breed of font foundries: those involved in high technology. Over the next ten years, besides many font “volume discounters,” a growing number of smaller “alternative” foundries were started. While the latter were initially seen as insignificant, recently they actually seem to be breathing new life back into the older foundries, as both Monotype and Agfa have become official licensors of foundries such as [T-26], one of the numerous upstart foundries known for its many experimental student typefaces.”

While their contemporaries such as Bitstream started by digitising Linotype’s existing catalogue, Emigre endeavoured to make new work. This same pioneering spirit fuelled FontFont and many other “alternative” foundries. In the intervening 20 years things changed. Afga-Compugraphic acquired the Monotype Corporation and was renamed Agfa Monotype. TA Associates, a private equity firm, acquired Monotype’s assets and it was reincorporated as Monotype Imaging. Monotype’s struggle against its legacy competitors and the energy of the innovative new digital zeitgeist was thus solved by first being bought, and then buying the remainder outright: Linotype, ITC, Bitstream, MyFonts, FontFont and FontShop.

This gives us clues to understand the current economic conditions of the type market. Comparing the breakdowns of the $50m Monotype paid for MyFonts/Bitstream and the $13m for FontShop/FontFont is telling: there is more value for Monotype in huge distribution networks like MyFonts and FontShop than there is in original type, like FontFont’s catalogue.

Emigre-online.jpg

Emigre on various websites.

Distribution.

These narrowing distribution channels have consolidated a lot of power with corporations like Monotype. At the time of writing, Emigre’s fonts are distributed through their own site, Monotype-owned FontShop and MyFonts, Adobe Typekit, and Fontstand. “In-fillism” isn’t the main issue for Emigre, far from it. VanderLans makes it quite clear what their actual problems are:

“Today, we’re focused mostly on marketing and promoting our current library, finding more outlets to reach new markets, and trying out new licensing models, such as the rental service that Fontstand offers… So we’ve turned our attention to promoting and exhibiting our existing fonts by creating different contexts and showing our fonts in a new light. It’s a great typographic challenge to use fonts with a history in new, unexpected ways.”

This statement illuminates the very real challenge Emigre faces: how to sell fonts inextricably tied to a previous time and place in a distribution channel—saturated with competition—that they have no control over.

What was once a cohesive, related collection is now dispersed haphazardly in vast catalogues of competing fonts, unmoored from their original context and creators, awaiting discovery via propriety search algorithms, incoherent user-created ‘tags’ and whatever promoted bundled discounts the marketing team decides to ‘curate’. Emigre once had full control over the presentation, marketing and context of their fonts and they now have almost none. These are the same conditions for many other foundries in distribution networks.

At the time of writing, there are 6,876 individual fonts available on FontStand, 315 of which are Emigre’s. It’s fair to say most of these fonts were made after the heyday of Emigre. When VanderLans audaciously implies the other fonts on the Fontstand platform are merely infill it’s a subtle marketing manoeuvre: he’s parlaying an established, well-used catalogue as more relevant than the mere infill of his competitors. “In-fillism” is simply part of Emigre’s mandate for “ferocious promotion”.

I can’t speak for other foundries, but making new typefaces is the life-blood of Klim. This is my core motivation, the professional impetus that propels the foundry forward. Of course, as VanderLans clearly stated 20 years ago, “Promoting our work, making our work public, in any way we can, is simply an inevitable necessity when publishing a magazine and selling typefaces for a living.” But when you’re no longer publishing new magazines or typefaces and your focus changes to maximising sales of legacy products, like Monotype for example, your options become limited: lambasting the work of a newer generation becomes a viable marketing strategy.

Emigre-various-inserts.jpg

Various font packaging inserts, 1990-1996.

Time and Time Again.

I miss the energy and vitality of typography and design from the late ’90s and early ’00s. It is very likely nostalgia for my fledgling career combined with a real longing for typographic experimentation. The dominant styles and narratives of contemporary digital design and its pseudo-scientific testing and canonising of user interfaces, content arrangement and menus has quickly funneled us into a panacea of neo-modernist flat graphics. It’s familiar and usable, but boring. However, all things seem to come back around. Who would guess that Memphis would get another go or Hobo would be revived then masterfully reimagined? Following this train of thought, the late-90’s hits from the Emigre catalogue will get another spin. If Sagmeister’s flaccid penis can flop out again two decades later, perhaps Keedy Sans can be pulled off the shelf, dusted off, and lovingly hand-crafted into a bespoke identity for artisanal goods or embedded into an Android app for geo-tracking your children? I’d love to see that.

While I was researching this response I came across The new “Horror Victorianorum” by Michael J. Lewis. Some parts are tangential to design and typography, but there were many coincidental parallels:

“Every new style and fad emerges from the husk of some discarded predecessor, which is usually consigned to history with no more ceremony than a jocular “Roll Over, Beethoven.” But there are those movements that are not content with simply displacing their precursors but insist on discrediting them permanently and definitely.”

Despite Emigre emerging victorious from the husk of modernism and the grip of expensive propriety typesetting systems, Helvetica simply snored loudly, rolled back over and crushed the post-modern aesthetic without even waking up. How and why this happened would make a fascinating topic for investigation. I suspect it’s because graphic designers of my generation, those of us forged in the crucible of post-modern typography and annealed by glowing iPhone screens, began to question and seek out these ancient and irrelevant typefaces that Emigre was against. The post-modern aesthetic became establishment, and making neo-modernist work seemed refreshing: it felt new to us. I have no interest in discrediting the achievements of Emigre and their pioneering generation, but it feels like VanderLans is trying to discredit my generation. I feel an eerie echo from The new “Horror Victorianorum” when I read this:

“The physical corruption of Victorian architecture seemed the outward expression of its moral corruption… When architecture ought to have squarely faced the challenge of radically new facts, materials, and social conditions, and created radical new forms to express them, it chose instead to rummage through history’s storage locker of dead styles, trying on one costume after another: not only Greek, Gothic, and Romanesque, but preposterous styles such as the Egyptian and Moorish. Architects shirked their duty to confront modern life in all its tragic complexity, preferring to amuse themselves with—as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner put it—a “fancy dress ball.””

This would be an easy criticism to level at modern typeface design: we too have shirked our moral duty and are merely rummaging through the specimens, playing dress up and filling in the gaps. Emigre didn’t shirk their duty, they confronted modern design in all its tragic simplicity. They also rummaged through dead styles—but that isn’t very important at all.

Emigre-mousepad.jpg

Emigre mousepad, 1998.

What is Important.

To finish his essay Radical Commodities, mentioned earlier, VanderLans explains lucidly that the amount of things being made isn’t really important:

“One can pose the question, “What human need and use is there for yet another book on design history or criticism?” but that’s not important. What is important is that these books were published undiluted and untouched by the influence of a major book publisher. Whether there’s a need for them will be decided in the marketplace. I hope someday to do an interview with Kinross for Emigre. I can’t wait to find out whether he’s finding an audience for these books, and whether he’s making a profit. If not, I suggest that he invest a bit more time and money in his public relations efforts.”

Along with VanderLans’s established themes of money and promotion, he elucidates the crux of any creative endeavour: publishing and audience. It’s vitally important that we can publish our types “undiluted and untouched” by the influence of major publishers and distributors. This golden sentiment remains true to typeface making today. If “yet another” neo-grotesk is released next week, our audience will decide whether it’s needed or not. Our audience are largely designers. When another neo-grotesk is released they look very closely, scrutinise every detail and evaluate it against their current stock.

Furthermore, they absolutely see the value in this: they don’t dismiss new types as imagined “infill”. They didn’t dismiss Infini as another Albertus, they don’t reject GT Walsheim as another Futura, they won’t question Haltrix as simply another Mistral. I see the work of my contemporaries used everywhere and it’s amazing. I see my own work, like VanderLans once did with Template Gothic in the Time Warner Annual Report, in the most unlikely of places. It fills me with pride. VanderLans once advised to let the market decide. Well, the market has decided: it’s clearly got an insatiable appetite and need for this generation’s “infill”.

Emigre-Triplex-proof.jpg

Marked-up trial proofs of Triplex typeface by Zuzana Licko, 1990.

Pulling up the Ladder.

Every generation of type designers has taken inspiration from/mercilessly plundered the past, including Emigre. This is how the profession has slowly, but inexorably, flourished into new styles and genres. VanderLans frames our contemporary efforts as simply filling in the gaps, and during his impressive 30 year career these gaps have suddenly narrowed—the typographic equivalent of ice caps melting or overcrowding. I simply don’t see his narrow gaps. I see wide open fields of possibility, and I see my peers and colleagues in the type industry working hard and making new, interesting type. Maybe in 25 years time, when I’m a similar age to VanderLans I’ll see it differently. Perhaps I will recoil in horror at the stylistically dead costumes we are making for the fancy dress ball.

But that’s a quarter of a century away. VanderLans’s present-day concern for the industry is valid, but misdirected. Instead of focusing his fear on the younger, independent creators of new type—those of us struggling along like Emigre once did—he should aim higher and follow the money. The real problems in type are not the younger generation’s “in-fill”, nor are they Fred Smeijer’s “waterfalls of mediocrity”. They exist above and around VanderLans, his own peer group and generation. These are the minority of people that now own large tracts of the distribution networks, the very same networks that enmesh independents like Emigre and OurType.¹ The problem isn’t with the sheer number of fonts being made in earnest by young and old alike. The problem is that these vast “waterfalls of mediocrity” are slowly being dammed by corporates like Monotype, Google and Adobe, creating the equivalent of any other minority-controlled hydro-electric power scheme channelling profits to benefit their shareholders.

If VanderLans really wants to raise “serious points” or court controversy, these are the places to start. It would be astonishing if, for once, someone at the top of the ladder didn’t just try to pull it up. What if someone at the top of the ladder looked around and reported back honestly. Someone like VanderLans with his reputation and experience could properly aim his unflinching gaze and fearless insight. But unlike the Emigre of then, the Monotypes and Adobes of now are highly unlikely to tolerate and support a dissenting, critical view from one of their product suppliers.

I think we can assume VanderLans doesn’t consider his own catalogue as infill, he’s still proud of it: and rightly so. I’d love to hear him elaborate on the “Infill-ism” idea, illustrated with specific examples from contemporary practice and explaining how Emigre has magically side-stepped such a pressing issue. Unfortunately I can’t read it any other way than a desperate attempt at marketing a body of work reflecting “the prevailing esthetic preferences of the time” by denigrating the efforts of a new generation. That’s fine, Mr VanderLans, you’re still our hero. Don’t mind us, we’ll keep plugging the tiny gaps you’ve generously left for us while you figure out how to flog off your back-catalogue.

Welcome to the Infill Font Foundry!

See you at the checkout.

 

***

Images are sourced from The Letterform Archive’s announcement of their acquisition of the Emigre archives.

1. Update 2016/07/06: OurType now only sells directly through their own website, not through any other resellers. However, the point about “independents” remains valid. Typos and misspellings have also been corrected.

Update 2016/07/13: VanderLans replies with Tilting at Windmills.