The 20th century saw type developments unimaginable to the old mid-millennium masters. We explore the history of modern typography, tracing its form from 1900 to the present.
At the start of the 20th century, the world was in the midst of rapid change. It was becoming consumerist and industrialised, with advertising and a range of commodities leading to increased demand for new type. Oddly enough, despite the industrial revolution and the growth of mechanised processes, significant movements in type during the new century were to be shaped by an Arts and Crafts movement championed at distance by William Morris. Morris, and those like him, believed that mechanisation removed mankind from creativity, and he sought to revive a sense of craftsmanship in all his work, including his typography.
This Arts and Crafts movement was certainly an influence on Britain's two foremost type designers: Edward Johnston and Eric Gill. The pair met in London in 1902 when Gill became Johnston's pupil in the study of calligraphy.
They studied ancient letterforms keenly, and in 1915, when Johnston was commissioned by Frank Pick to create a typeface for the London Electric Rail Company, the lettering betrayed an eye for calligraphy and classicism, rather than merely being a display typeface as sans serifs had been at the turn of the century. The same is also true of Eric Gill's fonts, in particular Perpetua and Gill Sans, both created to appear as if cut from stone rather than drawn.
Die Neue Typographie
It was mainland Europe that saw the most far-reaching developments in typography during the first half of the 20th century. Certainly of note was the Italian Futurist movement kicked off by Filippo Marinetti in 1909. Where the likes of Gill, Johnston and Monotype advisor (and commissioner of Gill) Stanley Morison looked to history to inform their present, Marinetti and the futurists cast their eyes to a world they imagined would soon arrive. It was a world driven by electricity and locomotives, telegraph communications and completely new ways of thinking. The Futurists vowed to tear down "museums, libraries, academies of every kind" and swore it would "fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice."
Marinetti spelled it out in the manifesto, published as an ad in Le Figaro newspaper: "Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man."
The Dadaist movement also challenged the status quo. Where traditionally letterforms were set in grids and blocks of text, the Dadaists mixed up fonts, set them almost into contraction with each other.
These movements were to have a massive effect on the designers of the Soviet Union, following the 1917 revolution. Constructivist artists, particularly Alexander Rodchenko and El Lissitzky were so inspired that they declared: "Art is finished! It has no place in the human labour apparatus. Labour, technology, organisation... that is the ideology of our time." Their work wasn't about artistic self-expression: it was about revolution. It was designed to change the viewer's perception of the world with a mere glance: to get them to join the revolution. It incorporated typography, photography, painting, architecture and a range of all art forms.
Where Rodchenko remained focused on the Soviet Union, Lissitzky was a fluent German speaker, and spoke throughout Europe. In fact, he freely exchanged ideas with Bauhaus visionaries like Josef Albers, László Maholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer and Joost Schmidt at the school, set up in 1919 from the creative ashes of a Weimar arts and crafts college. The Constructivist movement reverberated right through the century, influencing and interacting with the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s through to the work of Neville Brody in the 80s.
Bauhaus and beyond
The Bauhaus sought the perfection of form without flourish, where the needs of the user were met with end products created with perfect balance. In terms of lettering, they believed: "Typography is an instrument of communication. It must present precise information in a suggestive form. For legibility, the message must never suffer from a priori aesthetics."
Notably, Herbert Bayer designed his 'universal' font, a curved sans serif with no upper case set. Josef Albers also experimented with typography, producing sketches for a universal typeface consisting of the perfect harmony of circles, squares and rectangles. The Bauhaus school was eventually closed in 1933 by the Nazis, who declared it too 'Jewish'.
The period also saw Swiss designer and Johnston-fan Jan Tschichold write Die Neue Typographie in 1927, a modernist design manifesto which condemned all but sans serif fonts, and advocated asymmetry and standardised paper sizes. It also discussed ideas about balance on the page in terms of blocks of text versus white space. Tschichold would later be blasted for producing reactionary work, and he himself went on to reject it, but it still resonates with designers today.
Type design piped down during the war, but by its end, the US had emerged as a leading nation. Paul Rand's essay 'Thoughts on Design' was a clear statement that the US needn't look to Europe for inspiration any longer. Advertising, corporate identity and cinema all provided new heat to the typographic movement. Rand's corporate logos for the ABC network and IBM are still in use today.
Saul Bass's film opening sequences, starting with Carmen Jones in 1954 for Otto Preminger and followed by The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, declared that type wasn't simply there to tell you who was in the movie: clever animation of the sequences and lettering enabled Bass to summarise a film's plot and mood, too. Between them, Rand and Bass designed some of the world's most enduring corporate identities, including UPS, Westinghouse, United Airlines and Minolta.
But Europe still had plenty to offer the post-war world. Herman Zapf's 1948 Optima and 1950 Palatino are cases in point. But Europe was all about the sans serif, with early, turn-of-the-century faces such as Akzidenz-Grotesk and Franklin Gothic widely used. In 1956, the Haas Type Foundry commissioned Max Meidinger to redesign Akzidenz-Grotesk, to make it more legible to modern applications. The result was Haas Neue Grotesk, which the foundry's owner renamed Helvetica in 1960. This was followed shortly thereafter by Meidinger's Univers. Helvetica went on to become the most in-demand font for near 20 years.
Technology has always driven typography: from the printing press replacing scribes mid-millennium to the rise of photographically based Lumitype to replace linotype and monotype processes. However, as Superbowl XVIII rolled to half-time, the dawn of the Macintosh computer announced that type would never be the same again.
It was this world that saw the arrival of Emigre magazine, founded by Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. A husband-and-wife team, the two began designing fonts for the magazine because they found the original set that came with the Mac wasn't adequate for their purposes.
The revolution was completed by Adobe. Or, should we say, nearly completed, for it is still upon us. In 1984, the company unveiled PostScript, essentially a software language for printers that enabled them to 'draw' letters as precise vector shapes, accurately rendering quality classics such as Garamond and Bodoni.
"Undoubtedly, the invention of the Mac and Fontographer [were the 20th century's most significant typographical development] because for better and worse it democratised the font design industry," says Device Fonts' Rian Hughes.
As for the future, typography will be driven by both advances in technology and the need to communicate via a new set of platforms. Just as the Reformation was the backdrop for Gutenburg's original moveable type printing press, and the rise of advertising and consumerism drove typography in more cutting-edge directions, it will be screen communication that most agree will be the new frontier.
"I just read online that all those fancy people with their PDAs and iPods are getting eye-strain from the small fonts, which is interesting because they are all in their 30s," says Kris Sowersby, the brains behind Klim Typographic Design in New Zealand. "Just making the fonts bigger won't help with things like that. So with all the mobile hardware and whatnot, there has to be some typographic awareness in the [foundries] to do [something] decent."
Device Fonts' Rian Hughes echoes the sentiment, saying: "I think that once the onscreen resolution problem has been licked, type will be free of most restrictions, and most existing fonts will operate well in most situations. No special consideration will then need to be given to bitmaps for small sizes."
Sowersby continues: "It will also rest heavily on the UI, screen resolutions, and so on. The precedent always seems to be printed typography, so with the inevitable increase of screen resolution, many display problems will be solved. The next big thing will be broad accessibility of the 'displayed word', allowing accurate access to the information in a plethora of languages."
The means to achieve this will come from one simple intercapped word: OpenType. "OpenType is the most significant recent advance in typography. It's just another tool, but it's a powerful one, allowing more advanced typesetting than the limited PostScript and TrueType font formats," says Stephen Coles, Editor at Typographi.com. Indeed, because OpenType enables designers to create thousands of glyphs per font, rather than 256 with PostScript, many believe OpenType will bring about a resurgence in the ligatures, unlimited character sets per font, types that reflect handwriting and so on.
Just as the rise of consumerism and advertising brought about a resurgence of type in the early days of the 20th century, it appears that mobile devices and OpenType will do the same for type in the 21st. Well, for the first few years, anyway.