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Type vs Hype debate

By The Drum | Administrator

October 15, 2002 | 8 min read

Mandy Beechy introduces the night’s sponsor Agfa Monotype.

Like the small parts of a car engine or the finer details of how to land a plane, typography is one of those subjects that shares a strange duality: it’s vital and fascinating to those who work with it, but completely incomprehensible to those who don’t.

Yet it’s everywhere. Advertising posters, magazines, newspapers, television, books. Wherever you look it’s impossible to miss the wealth of typefaces available to the graphic designers and art directors who use them.

For these people, choosing the right typeface for a project is as crucial as deciding what the typeface will say and, in true capitalist fashion, a raft of companies have cashed in by creating and selling fonts to designers. With the advent and integration of the Apple Mac and PC into the design process, these fonts can then be stored and easily accessed at the touch of a button.

Now, with somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 typefaces commercially available, designers have a much wider choice than ever before. But are these ready-made fonts compromising the creativity of the pieces they appear in? Are designers becoming lazy as more typefaces are made available to them? Are they becoming too reliant on their Apple Macs to simply use what is readily available rather than create something totally original or even manipulate what is already there?

Such was the topic of The Drum’s recent The Type vs The Hype debate. Held in the new Edinburgh offices of design consultancy Elmwood, the debate took place in front of a sell-out crowd of 100 creative types. They were addressed by the event’s four key speakers: Robin Nicholas of typography company AGFA Monotype, Graham Walker, of Graphic Partners, Graham Scott of Nevis and Richard Scholey of Elmwood.

The assembled mass was also treated to the launch of a brand new typeface from event sponsor AGFA Monotype. AGFA type designer Sebastian Lester revealed his labour of love for the last two years, a new font named Scene.

The debate itself was chaired by Richard Draycott, editor of The Drum, who kicked off proceedings with the somewhat controversial statement: “I would like to table a motion that designers’ love affair with typography is dead.”

He was succeeded by Nicholas, of AGFA Monotype, who stated that the range of type available, and the increased use of computers in the design process, has been beneficial to designers, not held them back.

“From my perspective, the advent of the Apple Mac and the PC has really liberated the type designer. You don’t have to involve other people, you don’t have to go through any production processes, it’s just done there on the desktop and within seconds you’ve got a laser proof to look at and assess the quality of your work.”

Another criticism levelled at the Mac and PC revolution (and championed later by Scott) has been that there are now literally too many fonts available.

Nicholas refuted this, stating that the increased choice was another positive aspect of technology’s evolution. He said: “There are many who would argue there are too many typefaces available but this is the way of life; we’re getting more and more choice in all sorts of areas. You walk into the supermarket and there are dozens of brands of every kind of item you’re looking for, so I don’t think this is something that’s going to change, because choice is a good thing, basically.”

Nicholas was followed by Walker, previously top designer at newton.eh6 and now pitching his tent in the Graphic Partners camp. Walker’s case was that the developments in technology and increase in bought-and-paid-for typography are definitely having an impact on the quality of the design process. He stated that time is definitely being saved, but that this is not necessarily helping to make the best use of typography. He was also keen to point out where his perspective was coming from, starting his speech with: “First of all, I would describe myself as a designer who uses type and not a typographer, and I think that’s quite an important distinction.”

Walker went on to argue that the number of software packages now available for Mac and PC has led to the creation of weaker typefaces, short-lived and useable in very few situations. “The developments in technology have made it possible to create useable letter forms and made it a lot easier for a wider range of people to do it. I think anyone who can get their hands on Photoshop or Quark Express can start having a play-about with letterforms, which obviously offers a much wider creative freedom for creative experimentation.

“On the flip-side of this, the danger is that the creation of typefaces is being made much simpler and therefore the careful crafting of type letterforms becomes by-passed in favour of instantly created style-of-the-moment fonts with a short shelf life.”

With so many typefaces now in existence, Scott, a former Scottish Designer of the Year, was arguing the case that designers are now spoilt for choice.

He said: “Spoilt for choice, yes, we are, most definitely, without a doubt. But is this good or bad? With the huge amount of typefaces that are available to us now, it is a full time job just trying to keep up with what’s out there, what’s new, what’s been re-issued or re-cut.

“There was a time that type-foundries would produce volumes that helped us as designers make a far better and more informed judgement on what was suitable for what project. It was all very well then, but the amount of type that was available then was minuscule compared to what is available now. People have recommended that type foundries should go back down that route, but it would probably be tantamount to commercial suicide if they did, and even then the bound volumes would be so huge nobody would be able to lift them.”

Scott said that the internet, with its ability to convey massive amounts of information, has become a useful tool for keeping up to speed on typography developments, but even then his consultancy, Nevis, employs an independent type consultant to help keep them straight.

Scott argued that the massive flood of typefaces can lead to wasting time and, ultimately, designers just choosing a typeface they already know.

The final speaker of the evening was Richard Scholey, of Elmwood, who put forward the case that, although technology and set typefaces do have their benefits, it’s sometimes a better idea to turn off your Mac and work the old-fashioned way.

“What I think the Mac has done is it’s made it very easy for people working on a Mac to do things with type that they never used to do before, in lots of different ways. At the same time, it may have made it easier, but it’s also very hard to do well.”

Scholey took the audience through a number of slides showing work done on and off Mac, showing examples of good and bad Mac-created typography as well as instances when off-screen manipulation has made all the difference.

At the close of the evening, after the audience’s opinions had been gathered, the overall opinion seemed to be that, while the Apple Mac revolution and dramatic increase in typefaces has certainly changed the way design is created, it’s not necessarily been for the worse.

There was concern that today’s students, born into the Mac generation, may not always have the fundamental typography skills the older generation possesses, and this is something that should be challenged. Generally, however, the Mac should be seen as a valuable tool, nothing more or less. It certainly shouldn’t be relied on, either for design manipulation or set typefaces.

At the end of the day, typography, as with all elements of design and advertising, has a very clear role, and it was Scholey who pointed it out.

“To me, if a piece of type, no matter how it’s produced, aids communication and adds to a piece of design then, to me, that’s good typography.”

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