The joy of X


How differently would you treat government press statements if they were printed in comic type? What would supermarket shelves be like if all packaging was the same? As a conference on typography comes to Dublin, JOE BREENlooks at how the shape of words shapes our world

IMAGINE A world without typography. I don’t mean a world without type. Imagine that there is only one typeface. For argument’s sake, let’s say that face is the ubiquitous Times Roman.

So let us walk into our local supermarket. Everything is packaged differently but the typeface on every product is Times Roman and signage indicating where the products are and what they cost is in Times Roman. At the newspaper stand, all the papers, redtops included, parcel their news and their mastheads in Times Roman, while the magazine rack groans under the weight of hefty colourful publications, again with all type in Times Roman.

Without any differentiation in type, we have lost one of the key tools that informs choice. It’s an eerie thought.

The bulk of us don’t think about type; we don’t have to. But type thinks about us. It is one of those subliminal forces that directs us to differentiate, prioritise, and identify something. In the jargon of linguistics, it is a major signifier. Picture a government press release delivered in Comic Sans. The words remain the same but the authority of the message is totally undermined — but only if you see it. Typography is one of those arcane fine arts that we use all the time but of which we know very little. But the good people of the ATypI (Assocation Typographique Internationale) make up for us mere mortals. They know an awful lot and then some more.

Founded in 1957, this organisation provides a platform for “communication, information and action amongst the international type community”. This week they have been meeting in Dublin for their annual conference, ATypI 10, which takes as its headline theme, “The Word”.

“From the Book of Kellsto Samuel Beckett and beyond, the word has always been at the centre of Irish political, cultural and social life,” according to the blurb for the conference. As such the agenda is studded with Irish-related lectures. Wendy Williams, from the National College of Art and Design, in a paper entitled “Edible Words”, looks at “à la carte letterforms in the branding of Jacob’s biscuits, 1900-1939”.

Ciarán O’Gaora, of website debates with renowned French typographer Jean-Francois Porchez on the vexed theme of “type nationalism”, while Mathew Denis Staunton aims to shake up a few preconceptions with his paper, “Open and Closed Doors – Gaelic type as dialogue”. This issue of Gaelic or Irish type is central to Thomas Foley’s presentation “Nib: a typographic response” in which the Irish graphic/type designer explains the background to, and inspiration for, his creation of the Nib typeface, which has been adopted as the ATypI conference typeface.

He is in very good company. The keynote speech today is by Robert Bringhurst, a poet, typographer, historian and linguist who is the author of the hugely influential The Elements of Typographic Style. His paper, entitled “Who Are These People?”, was described as a “brief sociology and maybe some pathology, of type design”. Invariably there is a large showing for the obscure: Prof Anthony Cahalan’s paper on “Metal nameplates on farm properties in south-east Australia” might fit that bill.

THIS MIX OF THE sociological, historical and technical dimensions of typography is par for the course. To some people typefaces, in all their many and various forms, can be things of great beauty and style, models of ingenious design that convey clarity, harmony and sophistication. To others, typefaces are an integral part of the long history of the word in which their development is linked to major artistic movements such as the Bauhaus. And to others they are simply tools of their trade which must fill a need.

I like to think that I tick the boxes of all three but really my working life has been concerned only with the latter.

In 2008 we selected new typefaces for The Irish Times as part of a redesign. The search for the right typefaces was tortuous. We literally looked at hundreds, all the time keenly aware that readers are highly sensitive to change and that whatever we selected had to convey the same authority and personality as the existing typefaces – only do it better with greater punch and clarity.

And it is not just media that take their type very seriously.

Brand identity and other corporate devices rely heavily on strong use of typography. In many cases a distinctive use of typography is the brand identity. RTÉ, for example, relies on a type-based logo, while the type used in the Eircom logo was created by the British company Dalton Maag with clear reference to Irish or Gaelic type. Some very famous fonts started out as commissions for specific companies or institutions. For instance, Whitney, an elegant face designed by New Yorker Tobias Frere-Jones, was initially commissioned for the Whitney Museum in New York.

Whitney is a sans typeface. Strictly speaking there are only two kinds of typefaces – sans and serifs. Sans faces tend to be bold, clean and modern. Serif faces, which trace their spirit back to Roman times, are so-called for the squiggly bits – the serifs – at the end of the strokes that make up the letter. They tend to be ornate and distinguished, leveraging their inherited history to denote seriousness and authority.

From there it gets complicated. Suffice it to say that there are many, many sub-categories such as “slab serifs” and “humanist sans” and each one has a role to play in the confection of styles that make up our typographical planet.

Why do we need so many?

Frere-Jones once replied when asked if the world really needed any more typefaces: “The day we stop needing new type will be the same day that we stop needing new stories and new songs.”

In itself a distinctive typeface can convey a distinctive tone. That is exactly what the Guardianset out to achieve in 2005 when it relaunched in a Berliner format with a design featuring a new version of Egyptian slab serif. This novel combination of format and typography swept the design boards, but, more importantly, it instantly gave the new Guardiana distinctive profile.

The application of type can also reflect joy, sadness, seriousness, and levity; it can amuse and provoke, seduce and convert, whether it be advertising, book covers, biscuit wrappers, cd covers. In short, the sensitive and creative use of type helps tell a story while the selection of well-designed faces can improve legibility and readability.

And while other parts of the print business wrestle with their future, typography long ago adapted to the digital age. Indeed, the ability to manipulate type is both a boon and a curse. Many believe it is now too easy to stretch or squeeze type leading to all kinds of visual horrors. Even the internet, once a graveyard for type design, now allows more extravagant use of type with new faces being created to suit the platform. As the ATypI delegates would no doubt agree, the word goes on.

Just your type

The ATypI programme includes talks on:

Edible words: à la carte letterforms in the branding of Jacob’s biscuits, 1900–1939;

Overlooked treasure: Irelands tradition of Gaelic type;

Aer Lingus and the typography of domestic aviation;

Easy marks:the hobo’s code;

The Types of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic(on how many versions of the Proclamation found today in print or online are “very far from authentic”).

Joe Breen is a former Irish Timesmanaging editor – production, presentation and design