Typography: What it is and why it matters


Previously, we discussed the history of typography and how it came to be widely used in today’s society. However, being able to choose the appropriate font for our typing purposes doesn’t make us typography experts. We must also consider the role typography has played within history and what effect it has on us today.
Advertisers, businesses and governments have traditionally used typography to produce a sense of cohesiveness within society and have often employed it to reinforce the mood or message that they want to convey to the public. This idea can be seen in the decade after WWII when a focus was placed on rebuilding and suggesting a sense of stability and trust while looking to the future. These emotions are reflected in the dominating typography used in the 1950s.


Typical 1950s advertisements

One of the most popular styles of this decade was the International Style or “Swiss School.” This form stresses cleanliness and readability. It is a well spaced typeface and was often set at an angle on the page, flush left which gave the idea of looking forward. Its spare lettering and lack of ornamentation communicated the idea of dependability and candidness while representing a move away from the past and into an age of modernity.

Swiss School typeface

Building on these same characteristics, Univers was created in the mid-1950s. As its method of design allowed for more versatility, and its clean lines made it readable even at great distances, it quickly gained in popularity and is still widely used today. In addition to being used for signage all over the world, it also has made an appearance in such diverse places as Deutsche Bank, Walt Disney World and in the UK it is the font of choice for school exams.

Univers typeface
The end of the 1950s marked the release of Helvetica, one of the most popular and widely used fonts in the history of typography. Still prevalent today, Helvetica was conceived with the aim of being clear and readable and impartial in tone so it could be used for signage. Characterized, Helvetica is a serious font that conveys dependability and reliability. It is considered a safe font, as it is neutral and therefore can act as a platform for more innovative design or to impart a message to the viewer. Today, Helvetica is utilized by a variety of companies including Lufthansa, McDonald’s, Microsoft, BMW and 3M.

Helvetica in use today
The 1960s marked a time of great change, not only in the world, but in the world of typeface as well. Typographers, rebelling against the rigidity of modernist type began to develop their own typefaces in reflection of a changing attitude that was sweeping the world. Aided by innovations in typeface development, it became easier to create and alter typefaces. Notable examples of this period are the Avant Garde typeface and the freestyle, hand-lettered style popular in advertisements for musical concerts and other counterculture events. Designers began to experiment by utilizing letter shapes to form parts of pictures, or even using blocks of texts to create shapes on the page. With the advent of pop art and the psychedelic mood overtaking the younger generations, the old rules of typography seemed to no longer apply.

Avant Garde typeface

Psychedelic style

Typography in the 1970s continued in this vein, becoming more extravagant and outrageous. However, in 1970, another significant event was the foundation of the International Typeface Corporation which was created to design, license and market typefaces. ITC was one of the first type manufacturers to have no ties to the metal type production of the past. ITC not only released new typefaces, but it reworked old ones as well. Type foundries such as ITC and Unimark, along with notable graphic designers of the time, began to push the boundaries of typography. Thus, typography began to evolve from a set of guidelines used for advertisements into a proto-branding style for businesses in which their identity was reflected in large part through the typefaces they used. A fabulous example of this is the ubiquitous “I ❤ NY” logo which was invented in 1977. Utilizing American Typewriter typeface, another product of the 70s, the design evokes a feeling of simplicity and timelessness. Although it was originally conceived as part of a short-term marketing campaign to attract tourists, it quickly became the logo of New York and today is still a recognizable brand of the city.

I love NY logo

The 1980s brought about the advent of the computer, and with it, the world of typography was forever changed. 1981 marked the year the internet was invented and Bitstream, the first type foundry for digital typefaces, was founded. With the introduction of computer-aided design software such as Adobe, which was first released in 1982, typefaces were widely available and everyone had the capability to utilize them in whatever fashion they desired. Notable typefaces of this decade include Lucida, Papyrus and Arial, a digital version which closely mirrors Helvetica and is bundled in all Microsoft software. The typefaces of this era represent the fulfilment of a need within society as they were all developed solely for digital use.
With this freedom in typeface, the 1990s can be characterized as a decade of playfulness. Typefaces became more expressive and began to be utilized not just as conveyers of the message, but as part of the message itself. The 90s also brought about the disintegration of the consistent reasoning behind the development and use of specific typefaces. This can be seen in a comparison of two popular typefaces of this decade, Century Gothic and Comic Sans. Century Gothic’s influences can be traced to Twentieth Century and Avant Garde Gothic typefaces which were produced earlier in the twentieth century. Because of its enduring appeal and its clarity and versatility, Century Gothic is still widely used today. In comparison, Comic Sans which mimics the style of comic book lettering, was produced by Microsoft in 1994, and was designed as a casual font to be used in informal situations. Unfortunately, Comic Sans usage has become something of a joke as it became widely used in many inappropriate ways. Now, although still in use, Comic Sans is one of the most detested typefaces ever created.

Misuse of Comic Sans

Imagined rebranding with Comic Sans

Throughout the ensuing decades, typeface has continued to evolve and widen its user base. Today, designers have the freedom to create and implement a new font in any way they can imagine. Presently, the biggest concern is trying to produce a typeface that will appear consistent over a variety of technological devices. However, as the world has become more connected through the use of technology, cohesiveness in typography has not been the expected result. Instead, globalization has brought about more individualism and specificity in typography and design. What may be popular and well received in one area of the world may be disdained or misunderstood in another. This can be seen in the usage of the Gotham typeface in the 2000s in America. Created by a designer in New York City, Gotham took its influence from the surrounding city and the older signage found there which utilized popular typefaces of the 1920s like Futura. Described as being something strictly American, credible and a touch masculine, Gotham was widely used in Barak Obama’s campaign material in the 2008 elections. Hailed as the cornerstone of the Obama brand, Gotham is considered to have played a significant role in communicating Obama’s message to the American public. Despite Gotham’s popularity, and its ongoing extensive use in America, it is not widely utilised outside of the United States.

Barack Obama Campaign poster. Left side, original with Perpetua font. Right side, final result with Gotham

Clearly, our history from the 1950s to the present day can be marked and characterized by the differing typefaces that were used in each decade. From the stable, forward thinking typefaces of the 1950s, to the digitally created typefaces of our current times; each era has its own distinctive traits and emotions. This begs the question; where will the world of typography take us next? Will it continue to set the tone, or will it become more a reflection of where we are and how we feel? Only time will tell. Regardless of what the future of typography may be, its continuing influence is guaranteed.



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