At the southern tip of Manhattan there’s a building marked by thick, 12-foot-high letters, arranged in a semi-circle, beautifully illuminated in blue. STATEN ISLAND FERRY; that’s what the steel mesh letters read. The sign is a collaboration between the terminal’s architect, Frederic Schwartz, who selected the exact shade of blue, and graphic designer Alexander Isley, who chose to use typeface Interstate, primarily for its “chunkiness”.
To me it’s always felt like something more than a simple source of information. Because it sits in a part of Manhattan that is overstocked with big commemorative gestures – from the massive World War II East Coast Memorial in Battery Park to the Statue of Liberty out in the harbour – I tend to regard the Staten Island Ferry sign as a monument, a tribute to the power of the letterform.
I think a monument to type might be a good idea right about now. Type, as we’ve long understood it as a mechanism to transfer our thoughts and ideas to paper, is on the way out. Its function, its very essence is so profoundly in flux that our routine questions about type (Is it legible? Is it readable?) have given way to a new set of questions. What Gutenberg did over 550 years ago was invent a system in which the letters of the alphabet were cast in lead. For the centuries that followed not much really changed. Before you could print a book or a newspaper, you needed to have metal type. All that went away, beginning in the late 1940s, as cool photo-typography gradually took the place of hot metal. And type as object receded even further into the past when digital typesetting took over in the 1980s. Now, type has gotten more ephemeral and less substantial. Type is set on one screen and read on another. It no longer exists in three dimensions, and only barely exists in two.
Back in 1994, I interviewed graphic designer Katherine McCoy at the moment she was leaving her post as the head of the design department at Cranbrook Academy of Art. We talked about the effect that the computer was having on her students and she mentioned a trend that she called “rematerialisation”.
“There’s a typeface a student designed a couple of years ago and he was just beginning to feel it was too much from the machine,” she told me. “So he output each letter about six inches high, used those as the tracings, and cut wood blocks of the letters. Then he printed the wood blocks and scanned that type back into the computer with all the little blotches.”
The loss of tactility
The hunger to rematerialise type, as McCoy described it, is a direct response to type’s increasing dematerialisation. As ink and paper typography flirts with obsolescence we’ve gotten fetishistic about the disappearing medium. For example, the current generation of e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, involves a screen coated with an electroresponsive layer of tiny fragments, black and white, inside microcapsules floating in liquid. Pages of text are formed when positively charged white specks respond to a negative charge and negatively charged black specks respond to a positive charge. This coating, known as E-Ink, is strangely literal. The particles are actually manufactured from the same pigments that go into ink and paper, almost as if incorporating the essence of those traditional materials into a digital display will imbue the thing with bookishness. Like aphrodisiacs made from tiger penis or rhinoceros horn, it’s a kind of voodoo.
In the interest of restoring tactility to the written language, artists and typographers sometimes practice what I think of as extreme rematerialisation.
Anna Garforth, a contemporary London-based illustrator, writes messages on walls in lush, green letterforms grown from living moss. And Belgian typographer Clotilde Olyff creates alphabets from rocks she finds on the beach (shown, right). The pure physicality of her found alphabets recalls the heft of old school movable type, the chunks of lead, objects with dimensionality. Moss letters and rock letters are not intended to answer questions of readability or legibility, but rather they are totemic objects intended to lure type back to the human side of the screen. When I see the photos of Garforth’s moss or Olyff’s rocks, I want to touch the type.
Sure, such typographic and design experiments can be admired on purely aesthetic levels. But you can also look at them as a collective effort by artists, illustrators, and typographers to compensate for the growing insubstantiality of our written language. Such work suggests that there’s a healthy tension between the worlds on either side of the screen, a constant give-and-take between the intangible and the tangible. The creators of 3D type have taken it upon themselves to restore to our words some of the heft and gravitas they had when Gutenberg got his start. Collectively, these artists, designers, and typographers strive to take the insubstantial and make it monumental.
Excerpted with permission of the publishers from Taking Type Back to the Human Side of the Screen by Karrie Jacobs, the foreword to 3D Typography by Jeanette Abbink and Emily CM Anderson, published this month by Mark Batty Publisher; £32. markbattypublisher.com