Revert to type

In 1991 , the emergence of new digital technologies was opening up the design of typefaces to a generation keen to push the limits of language and the very definition of what a font could be. Fuse, the experimental publication launched that year by Jon Wozencroft and Neville Brody, gave such designers a platform. As a new book brings together its 18 issues in one volume, Mark Sinclair reviews Fuse’s important, perhaps overlooked, contribution to graphic design

The best way to encourage a new generation of type designers,” wrote Jon Wozencroft in the first issue of the experimental publication Fuse in 1991, “is to break open typography’s closed circle, to question its traditions, and to support risk-taking.” Wozencroft and designer Neville Brody took exception to the prevailing view of typography as a purely rational carrier of information and launched Fuse to champion the more experimental work permitted by new digital platforms such as Freehand, Fontographer and the Mac. Many young designers now had the tools to design their own letterforms, with which to question the old order and to take risks in the new. The impact that this sense of freedom would have on typography was only beginning to reveal itself.

Over the course of 18 issues, the last of which was published in 2000, Fuse involved some 64 contributing designers and typographers, many of whom are now well-known industry figures. It’s strange, then, that its mission has not been more widely catalogued, blogged about or even much discussed online by the design community. Writing on Design Observer in 2010, Rick Poynor flagged up the scarcity of Fuse-related material on the internet and wondered whether the time had come to evaluate the role of the project in shaping the evolution of digital type. This month, Taschen publishes the first 18 issues of Fuse together with two new editions in a single volume, Fuse 1-20: From Invention to Antimatter, offering those who missed it a chance to see just how far typography went in the 1990s.

Runes, codes, secrets

The material elements that made up each issue now seem straightforward enough: a slim cardboard box housed a 700k floppy disk (a CD-Rom with issue 18) and a series of folded posters. The disk featured a selection of fonts created by four designers; the posters showed off each typeface and delivered the editorial – an essay, usually written by Wozencroft, on the particular theme of the issue (Runes, Codes, Religion, Secrets etc), plus brief biographies of each designer. These elements also blurred boundaries. A disk of fonts delivered in a wrap-around stickered box eschewed the more familiar plastic casing of digital formats: this was a kind of hybrid, born out of an attempt to represent a new, restless typographic landscape.

When its creators approached a definition of what Fuse was, it was in fluid terms, too. In the editorials which came with each issue, Fuse is variously referred to as a “laboratory”, a “space”, or “white paper” or, in more abstract terms, a “forum”, an “interactive medium”, even a “catalyst”. It was regularly published, so ‘magazine’ became a catch-all term for what Brody and Wozencroft were making, though this seemed wide of the mark. Viewed collectively, the 20 issues of Fuse represent a manifesto, one that both called for new territories to be opened up and showed what exploratory work was already being done to advance typographic thinking in Europe and the US.

Fuse began life as a quarterly but only really achieved this frequency in its first two years, then again in 1994-5. In 1996, 1997 and 2000 it produced a single issue in each of those years and it was over a decade before the appearance of 19 and 20, complete with work from Fuse newcomers Stefan Sagmeister, eBoy and Jonathan Barnbrook, included as part of Taschen’s new retrospective. The floppy disks have been assigned to history, the new fonts from Fuse 19 and 20 are downloadable from the Taschen website, via a unique code that comes with the book. But in the early 1990s, initial discussions of Fuse stemmed from the formation of FontFont, the independent type foundry created by Brody and Erik Spiekermann, who the British designer had first met in 1987. Spiekermann’s Berlin firm, FontShop, was to publish and distribute Fuse. The name, Brody recalls, was never suggested with any particular intent, though it hinted at the explosive potential of a new medium and the ‘fusion’ at the core of the project from the outset – of graphic design and type, of legibility and abstraction and, in Brody and Spiekermann, two designers with quite different approaches to typography.

“There were designers out there experimenting with new ways to design type as a reaction to the new tools that allowed sampling and other manipulation of existing typefaces – just like music,” says Spiekermann. “None of these people could have designed a ‘real’ working typeface, but they all started looking at letters as images, rather than just code for communication.” Spiekermann believes that this had been Brody’s approach all along. “I have always maintained that he is a digital painter and thus not afraid of distorting letterforms beyond their readable function – something I could have never done. That is why we made a good combination.”

For Brody, his own approach to typography came from an increasing level of engagement with the medium, despite initial misgivings. “Historically I hated type,” he says, “when I started doing The Face, I hated type. But I began to understand that if I approached type as image-making, it would allow me to really engage with it. It was a discovery – I could move beyond the taught regulations of typography and discover new possibilities, that then would change the way we behave. So when we started Fuse we understood that the way we design our typefaces is about changing behaviour, and also allowing for other emotional content.”

While Brody and Wozencroft were setting an agenda squarely against typographic conservatism, in amongst the edgy letterforms, the glyphs and runic symbols there is the odd crack of a knowing smile. Fuse 13, the Superstition issue, went unnumbered, while in the fourth Exuberance-themed issue, Rick Valicenti’s unfettered Uck N Pretty typeface claimed to make “headlines fun again”. For issue two, Gerard Unger wrote an essay about the Dutch predilection for classic serifs made of chocolate. “The public does not seem to want modern typefaces,” he observed, alongside a picture of a well-crafted and edible Verkade ‘F’. “We tend to be quite pious about these kinds of spaces,” Brody recalls. “A lot of the fonts were very serious, some were just pure experimentation, or decorative, which we received more of from American typographers than anyone else. But there was another category that we don’t talk about much: some of them were just gags, just visual jokes.”

In Fuse 5: Virtual, designers Lo Breier and Florian Fossel explained that their Spherize contribution was revenge on the traditional Franklin Gothic typeface. Spherize is a “virtual Franklin”, the typeface inflated to the point of being spherical, they said, as fatuous in appearance as the designers believed the US standard face to be. Wozencroft’s essays, too, could take the form of prescient social commentary in one issue and a rant against the culture of the city van driver the next. (And his texts contain a surprising number of exclamation marks – elevating a sense of discovery and wonder in his writings – a technique largely unimaginable in serious-minded design criticism today.)

With issue 10 in 1994, Fuse reassessed its own position and produced its most divisive issue yet. If readers thought that what they had been presented with up until that point was challenging, Brody and Wozencroft brought in John Critchley, Tobias Frere-Jones, Sylke Janetsky and Cornel Windlin to go all out on the Freeform issue. Among the projects, the main point of contention – or just plain irritation – was the issue of legibility. Frere-Jones’ Fibonacci typeface, for example, was a tangle of impenetrable lines where “each character has been replaced by fragments of the Golden Section”. Brody’s own Freeform typeface was a set of five fonts based on organic shapes and dots.

The Fuse designer signs off the brief description of his fonts with “Freeform is frightening!”, while in the same issue Critchley offers up his Mutoid typeface made of bodyparts with “Create your own creature!” This was hardly the stuff of designers blinkered to the controversial nature of what they were doing. “We were thrilled by the possibilities of being able to convert the keyboard into what we thought of as a musical instrument,” Brody recalls. “That was the big shift. And we also understood that language was a contract.” Its elements can change “as long as there’s an agreement on what the elements are and how they’re ordered”.

Moreover, in his provocative editorial for issue 10, Wozencroft wrote that while the keyboard was to be freed up as an instrument, this was as much rooted in a desire “not to restrict its potential to the endless refinement, sophistication or abstraction of Roman letterforms”. Indeed, how could digital typography be radical, or claim to be seeking out new ground, if the design process was only ever a continual re-imagining of the 26 characters in the Western alphabet? This was an issue that designer Michael Rock tackled in his essay, Beyond Typography, for issue 15 of Eye magazine, following on directly from the Fuse Freeform issue.

“The alphabet presents a unique contradiction to the quest for originality,” he wrote. “The alphabet is a given that predates all who come to it. Every designer that works with the conventional forms of the alphabet is condemned to endless repetition of those accepted forms. The designer can manipulate them only insofar as the end result still falls within the realm of what is known to be the letter…. It is fascinating that such vocal proponents of a kind of artistic freedom work in a medium that is so innately restrictive.”

For Brody, Rock’s argument is too caught up with the pragmatic application of type. “He’s looking at typography as a functional space,” he counters, “and coming back to form follows function; define your function. It doesn’t have to be about, ‘How do you say STOP?’ One of the functions of Fuse was to open the mind to new possibilities and new thoughts – so, actually, we were being really form follows function.” In fact, elements of Rock’s argument sound exactly like the kind of outcomes that Fuse was trying to avoid. Many of its contributors certainly were tired of repeating the alphabet, and this goes some way to explain why so much experimentation with form appeared – untethered from the need to communicate anything using conventional modes and expedited via digital media.

“Fuse was part of the development from type being a fairly fixed ingredient of graphic design to becoming one other thing that designers can manipulate, like photography, layout and illustration before,” adds Spiekermann. And so they did, with Fuse 10 acting as the flag-bearer for a new desire to move away from type as “textual content” (Brody) and to exalt the expressive, emotive, even manipulative powers inherent in typography. Many of the Fuse typefaces rejected the traditional letterforms of the Roman alphabet, but just as art had moved towards abstraction following photography’s new-found ability to capture reality, so it became typography’s prerogative not to have to be representative anymore. For Brody, Wozencroft and Fuse’s contributors, type now had every right to be as ‘freeform’ as abstract expressionism, experimental film, or avant-garde music. “We realised it was part of a process of removing the elitism from typography, of popularising something that had been very monastic before,” says Brody. “We quickly understood that our languages were too limited and we needed to explore them – finally we had the opportunity to do that.”

For David Crow, who submitted two typefaces to Fuse (Religion and Genetics issues), the political space was an integral part of the Fuse experience and political language something that could be explored within the format. “Fuse was underpinned by a political idealism,” he says, “and it was really exciting to be able to create new forms of visual language that were a reflection of the moment we were living in, to take hold of the tools themselves and generate new ways of describing the world,” he recalls. And in the late 1980s and early 90s, computer technology was changing everything. “In purely practical terms, one has to remember that before Apple Macs arrived in our studios, most type was specified as a technical instruction and sent to a type house who would photoset it and return it by courier,” he says. “Using technology to design your own letterforms in a way that was mechanically repeatable was completely new.” Fuse was, as Wozencroft had predicted, functioning as a catalyst. “There was a very experimental and playful approach to the technology which went beyond what the technology was intended to do,” says Crow. “The inclusion of a disk centre stage in the package was a celebration of technological change.”

Crow believes there are echoes of Fuse in experimental websites, apps and geo-locational work being made today. “Using technology as a catalyst for changes to visual language and cultural production is what artists and designers do really well, ” he says.

Rick Valicenti, who contributed the aforementioned Uck N Pretty typeface to issue four believes that “typography is a rare art form”, particularly because of its “ability to encapsulate the zeitgeist of popular culture. Fuse remains a window into that time unlike any other.”

So what would Fuse 21 look like, given that the digital landscape has now subsumed visual culture? At the recent E-motional Type lecture at the British Library where Fuse featured prominently, Wozencroft suggested that something with sound and moving image would inevitably be the place where Fuse regrouped. He cited the experimental data-fed glitch films of Ryoji Ikeda and the archive of work amassed by PJ Harvey in researching her Let England Shake album, as two examples that would fit within the remit.

“I see Fuse as still being a stick to poke with,” says Brody. “We always need space for alternative thinking, and we decided after a while that Fuse had run its course. But now I think there’s more need than ever for something like Fuse. It would still be exploring language, fundamentally, but it would be sound, moving form, exploring the interactive space.”

Fuse 1-20 by Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft, with an introduction by Adrian Shaughnessy, is published by Taschen; £34.99. The book comes with ten new posters and a keycard to download fonts from issues 19 and 20.

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