Type Only

Type Only, the forthcoming book from Unit Editions, looks at contemporary graphic design that relies solely on typography, unsupported by illustration or photography, to get its message across. In his essay for the book, CR’s Mark Sinclair explores the roots of a design technique which has been reinvigorated by a new generation of practitioners. Here, alongside an edited version of his text, we feature some of the radical type-based projects selected for inclusion in the book

Designers are increasingly forgoing traditional pictorial elements in their work to use type – and only type – to make and send visual messages. As a title, Type Only is more than a curatorial filter through which the work in this book has been selected – rather, it is used in recognition of one of the most significant ways graphic communication is being made today. “Type can create an image; it creates content, texture, materiality,” says Dutch designer Hansje van Halem, whose work features in the book. “Type lets you say everything at once.”

That much of this new work is the product of a radical and restless journey that begins in the last years of the 19th century, running a parallel course with shifting technological change, goes some way to convey the resonance of this particular method of typographic communication. These days, amid the proliferation of imagery in daily life (both offline and online, of anything and everything), text can function as an integral part of the given message, but can also act as an escape from the ubiquity of the image itself. The work collected in Type Only then, at some level, may represent a loss of faith in the power of the image, in favour of a renewed devotion to text. The converse is that text now has to adopt the language of image-making in order to exploit its position in the visual culture.

Type-based design remains a remarkably direct approach – in a sea of pictures, letters grab the eye, even if the words they form sometimes require effort to decode and process. (And as many designers continue to prove, even near illegibility need not work against the successful transmission of a message.) The kind of text that we interact with everyday, via ever-simpler methods of digital communication on the web, through social media, in email and text messages, has itself perhaps inspired a reaction in designers to cut ever more adventurous paths. But the internet also now offers instant access to a wider range of typefaces and type design than has ever been available before: online is a medium saturated with functional text, but remains a distribution vehicle for some of type’s most experimental work.

While all these considerations may be new, making type the principal form of expression within visual communication is not. From the Futurists’s proclamations in the 1910s to the polyphony of work shared freely online a century later, type has been used to communicate without illustrative or photographic accompaniment by a range of visual artists and designers, be they associated with the Dada or Bauhaus movements, Swiss Punk or postmodernism.

Today, the difference is that such a plurality of radical typographic styles are now both generated and put to use within the same time frame. While maximalists conjure vibrant, barely legible text in cascading fonts, for example, more pragmatic minimalists choose to use accessible, plainer, even ‘undesigned’ typefaces, but subvert their very familiarity through the way they are deployed. The link between the two approaches is a commitment to letting words do the work.

Technology has undoubtedly played a significant role in the development of type only design – and in a way, typographers and type designers continue to be at the behest of the tools and equipment they have in front of them. While designers such as Armin Hofmann, Herb Lubalin and Wim Crouwel had used type only approaches in the 1950s and 60s, the advance of phototypesetting took typographers and designers way beyond the constraints of metal type and into a field of working where techniques such as graphic layering and distortion could be achieved more readily.

The level of manipulation brought about by the repro camera led to visual ideas that previously could only have been imagined – and many of the effects hinted at what would be achievable in type design by the century’s end. In some of the work by innovators such as Steff Geissbühler, who used a ‘mylar cone’ to generate spiralling type for Geigy, and Helmut Schmid, in whose covers for the Grafisk Revy journal letterforms blurred and fizzed, it is often difficult to tell on first look just which decade the work might belong to.

For Richard Hollis, writing in Swiss Graphic Design about the experiments performed in this area in the 1970s by the typographer Wolfgang Weingart, however much the German designer’s work “appears as visual hysteria, it was nonetheless a sharply exaggerated illustration of the realities of technological change”. Weingart himself later wrote in his book Typography of the armoury he now possessed, and with which he could generate new type-based work: “I could stretch type, make it fatter, condense it, extend it, blur, distort or cut it into pieces.”

Indeed, the malleability of letterforms offered up by the photo process enabled scores of designers to put type at the forefront of their work. Even the most austere of typefaces could be distorted in a way that generated new, unexpected forms that often required more attention and, indeed, effort from the viewer/reader. And if type could behave as image – contain the message and express it at the same time – there would be no need to include any superfluous pictorial elements.

Only a few years later, however, the technology that would have the most impact on the creation (and eventually the distribution) of radical type-based work again emerged in the form of new machinery. And while it still used the language of typography, it came with its own new lexicon: hardware, software, monitor, pixel.

In the mid-1980s, designer Zuzana Licko began designing type on a computer. Her fonts were first created specifically for Emigré, the journal she had founded with her partner, Rudy VanderLans. While companies like Adobe and Bitstream were working to digitise fonts that already existed, the Apple Macintosh offered designers the chance to construct completely new typographic forms and put them at the centre of their work. “Up until then, the manufacture of a typeface required access to very specialised and expensive equipment, which was only in the hands of a few type foundries,” Licko recalled in an interview in 2007.

In education, CalArts and Cranbrook Academy of Art in the US became early Mac adopters – and much of the most radical type-based work of the time came out of these colleges. This pollination of largely academic ideas helped spread the influence of digital typefaces and type-based approaches back and forth between the US and Europe.

In addition to designers such as Jonathan Barnbrook, Why Not Associates and new devotees of experimental type-centric work such as Tomato, the pull of digital had an early appeal for a handful of other type designers in the UK in the late 1980s; even those who spurned the more expressionistic work coming out of the US and were committed to a kind of neo-formalism in print.

Writing in the book On the Outside about the time at which the British studio 8vo began working, Simon Esterson recalls the mid-80s design climate as dominated by “the business-suited, heritage graphics designer revolution” which had replaced the Swiss-leaning influence of post-war designers such as Ken Garland, Derek Birdsall and Richard Hollis. “The prevailing design approach in Britain in 1986 used centred layouts, the type probably had serifs (and was set in all capitals) and the images were as likely to be illustrations as photographs,” he recalls. “How had we got into this state? A half-remembered revival of English typographic traditions combined with an amazing business boom that had transformed design into an industry.”

In fact, 8vo had been united from the outset with a belief in the purpose of a type only approach. The team worked together because, they recalled in On the Outside, “we believed that typography, the key building block of printed communication, could be the core ingredient of a graphic solution – unsupported by illustration or photography.” The studio achieved this in a number of influential projects, from the design of its self-published Octavo journal of typography, to its posters for the Manchester-based Factory Records.

In the early 1990s, Neville Brody and Jon Wozencroft’s Fuse publication sanctioned typographical experimentation but also offered it a critical positioning. Fuse was published by the type distributor FontShop, whose co-founder Erik Spiekermann saw how designers were reacting to new tools which encouraged both the “sampling and other manipulation of existing typefaces” and the creation of work that used type as the essence of its visual construction. In an interview with CR, Spiekermann has said that while “real working typefaces” were not the intended outcome of Fuse, the featured designers “all started looking at letters as images, rather than just code for communication”. This was a significant shift – and many designers embraced it.

Type designers associated with the publication continued to be interested in questioning typography’s role and the forms it might now take; and this move would mark out the emergence of a more conceptual approach to the medium. A font such as Paul Elliman’s Bits (Fuse 15, 1995), literally constructed from bits of detritus and found materials – “shards of industrial waste” – said much about the process of creating a typeface, and what might be regarded as acceptable forms for the construction of written language; taking ephemeral, thrown-away matter and fixing it into text.

That type design is still caught up in this state of flux – which in 2005 Peter Bil’ak referred to in an essay on typotheque.com as “the recent shift of interest of European graphic design from forms to ideas” – points towards the emergence of type only work that has taken on a more self-conscious, self-reflective attitude. Many designers have begun to place further emphasis on the choices made when designing a font (as Elliman had and does) and, equally, what it means to employ certain typefaces in one’s work.

Barnbrook’s concept-driven approach, evident in his work which references blackletter faces, for example, is continually invested with historical and political references in the pursuit of new forms. And studios such as Mevis en Van Deursen, Experimental Jetset and, later, Metahaven and ZAK Group have also used specific type applications to explicitly address social and political issues. Often this has meant using established, classic, even prosaic typefaces in the creation of new work.

In Thinking With Type (2010), Ellen Lupton wrote that it is “technology [that] has shaped the design of typographic space, from the concrete physicality of metal type to the flexibility – and constraints – offered by digital media. Text has evolved from a closed, stable body to a fluid and open ecology.”

This last word of Lupton’s suggests how significant the study of the way in which texts relate to one another and, in particular, to their environment might now be. Just as texts are no longer regarded as entirely fixed or stable entities, so it follows that the constituent bits of type used in their construction can similarly be dismantled and unpacked, or subjected to outside influence. Type can work alone, expressive rather than passive; as the protagonist in a piece of design rather than a supporting element.

As Lupton observed in Fluid Mechanics, an earlier essay which contextualised the changes in typography that had taken place just prior to the millennium, the “smooth surfaces of modernism proved an unsound fortress against popular culture, which is now invited inside to fuel the creation of new work”. Typography’s high walls had long since been breached, new forms were now able to emerge from within. “All systems leak, and all waters are contaminated, not only with foreign matter but with bits of structure itself,” she wrote. “A fluid, by definition, is a substance that conforms to the outline of its container. Today, containers reconfigure in response to the matter they hold.”

That metaphors of liquids, fluids – and attempts to hold them – run through writing on contemporary type is no accident. They refer as far back to (and subvert) Beatrice Ward’s 1930 notion of a “transparent or invisible typography” as the best “glass” for holding content, while putting the relative rigidity and closed off nature of type prior to the advent of digital technologies in stark contrast to what Lupton calls its new “open and pliant” mode.

Far from being the neutral carrier of meaning and message of a unilateral ideal, type has long been mixing freely with other elements in the generation of new, wildly liquid, forms. In doing so it has shaken off the need to relate to, or be dependent upon, associated imagery. The creators of the most recent work in this medium are following an established visual tradition, but continue to manipulate letters and words in order to produce new forms and new surprises.

Type Only is published by Unit Editions in August. To pre-order a copy for £36 (RRP £45), go to uniteditions.com. Essay by Mark Sinclair. Foreword by Tony Brook. Editors: Tony Brook, Claudia Klat, Adrian Shaughnessy. Design: Spin


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