Why we need new typefaces

The alphabet is a concept made concrete through countless written and designed letterforms; the alphabet is not defined by a single typeface but expressed through all of them.

729 words by Kris Sowersby
2 May 2016

It is like a snowflake or a sonnet, whose innumerable members remain bound to an eternal integer. The polarity of water molecules constrains a snowflake to be a six-sided polyhedron, and a sonnet comprises fourteen lines. The universe does not contain a seven-sided snowflake or a sonnet with five quatrains. But within the expanse of these restrictions lie endless permutations of beauty.

— A General Theory of Love

“Why do we need new typefaces? Haven’t we solved that problem already?”

This is a perennial question from non-designers and folks who don’t use typefaces. They do, of course, need them on a daily basis. Modern life would grind to a halt if every typeface suddenly vanished overnight. Typefaces are so ingrained into our existence that it seems like they’ve always been there. It’s a “problem” that’s been “solved”. Most people don’t see the typeface, not consciously anyway, they read the words. To notice the forms of the letters is a learned, higher-level process and largely unnecessary for daily life. If meaning and information have been sucessfully extracted from the words, conscious recognition of the typeface is unnecessary: any old typeface will do.

However, if this were strictly true, the purpose of typography would be to merely convey information, to crystallise spoken words into symbols. It would thus render people as simple automatons blithely absorbing data. Efficient, but utterly joyless. Our relationship to typography is like our relationship to food — we eat for pleasure, not simply for nutrition. Sometimes we want an exotic dish to celebrate a special occasion, other times we just need a piece of toast.

Typefaces are the ingredients and typographers are the cooks. A good cook can make ordinary ingredients into a great meal, a bad cook can scandalise the best ingredients. The same five ingredients could make great meals, but we crave variety — even novelty — in our diets. Hundreds of new typefaces are created every year by type designers around the world. Few of these new releases are original ideas per se. They are generally inspired by existing historic typefaces or genres, like recipes handed down from generation to generation, adapted and updated according to available ingredients, technology and prevailing fashion. And, accordingly, we have different categories of typefaces for specific situations and occasions.

Current typeface classification systems are probably enough to classify all existing and future typeface designs. Within these genre boundaries, which are admittedly permeable and contentious, there is no definite form; there are only agreed ideas and descriptions of what genre a typeface fits. This creates enormous freedom and possibility for typeface designers. Attempts to make a new and better Garamond, for example, has generated many excellent typefaces.

At no point has the type industry elevated a single typeface as canon, despite the ongoing tendency for foundries to claim a name for their own interpretation (eg. Adobe Garamond, Linotype Garamond, Stempel Garamond, Monotype Garamond, etc). This lack of a definitive version is a blessing, it gives typeface designers a free hand to interpret and modify as they see fit. There are no real facts when it comes to quantifying the quality and veracity of a typeface design. The only definitive thing is an opinion, like “Univers is the best neo-grotesk”.

Most importantly there is no definitive form of the alphabet. To think that we’ve “solved the problem of typeface design” is to assume that the alphabet has been “solved”, that its forms have all been discovered. The alphabet is not a problem to be solved by a typeface. It is a concept made concrete through countless written and designed letterforms; the alphabet is not defined by a single typeface but expressed through all of them.

Typeface design is an ongoing discipline. Typefaces speak of where a culture is, its priorities and aspirations. We no longer live in the same societies as our predecessors. The world-view of Giambattista Bodoni, for example, does not necessarily align with our own.

This is why we keep designing new typefaces, the job isn’t done. It’s never finished. The paradox is that there are probably too many typefaces, and yet there can never be enough.

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