What is new

Producing a new typeface is almost trivial — it can be done in a day. But making it feel new in the wider sense, making it feel culturally relevant is the hard part.

481 words by Kris Sowersby

This is the introduction for Shoplifters 8: New Type Design by Actual Source.

In 1553 Wolfgang Fugger wrote:¹

Wolfgang Fugger in 1553 (translated), from Vincent Figgins Type Specimens 1801 & 1815 (Facsimile), 1967.

The good, old legible types formerly used in print are being scorned in these days (on account of the new ones being cut every day). And yet, however many new faces may be cut, when they have been forgotten and no more new ones can be imagined, the old ones will once more be produced under the pretence that they are new, as is the case with other things.

Typeface designers have forever struggled with concepts of new and old. We’re constantly balancing historical precedent with contemporary needs. The tension between our peers and the market is almost palpable — witness the recent spate of neo-grotesk releases by young foundries. Established type industry insiders collectively roll their eyes, but designers — our actual customers — love them.

Young foundries are criticised for merely recycling old forms and not making new or original work. This is a traditional attitude towards typeface design, one that favours the legacy and history of the craft above all else. Writers like Josephine Livingstone express these concerns within the wider culture: “For as long as we have Instagram accounts we’re going to keep emptying out the history from our visual signifiers, turning them into pretty shells that we arrange into advertisements for our own personal value.”²

Alternatively, current type design practice can be viewed like fashion — a process closer to reframing than recycling. When Vetements debuted their DHL T-shirt in 2016 they’re not merely recycling a logo or the ironic strategies of the 90s. They’re reframing the signs and symbols of corporate globalisation within the language of fashion and culture. And, like many new font releases, it’s priced accordingly.

There’s nothing new about a corporate logo on a T-shirt, but something about the specific context of the Vetemenets brand in 2016 culture made it work. The combination of these conditions felt new. This is something I sense within the typeface design world: the conditions are changing. The internet has pushed everything to the surface, we’ve all got the same tools and methods of production. Producing a new typeface is almost trivial — it can be done in a day. But making it feel new in the wider sense, making it feel culturally relevant is the hard part. Getting a typeface to sublimate from ‘new’ to ‘excellent’ is where the real work happens.

Josephine Livingstone, “Why Brutalism and Instagram Don’t Mix”, The New Rebpublic August 25 2018. Retrieved October 11, 2019.

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Notes & references

Wolfgang Fugger in 1553 (translated), from Vincent Figgins Type Specimens 1801 & 1815 (Facsimile), 1967.

Josephine Livingstone, “Why Brutalism and Instagram Don’t Mix”, The New Rebpublic August 25 2018. Retrieved October 11, 2019.

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