Has late 20th-century technology had a positive or negative impact on the proliferation of Typefaces?

I'm currently working on a thesis that discusses the impact of late twentieth-century technology on the proliferation of typefaces. It would be a great help if you would comment your opinion whether type design programmes, such as Opentype have had a positive or negative impact on the quality of typefaces designed over the past few years.

Si_Daniels's picture

Sorry to nit-pick, but proliferation and quality are different things. Also you ask about the impact of late 20th century technology, but most fonts made in the "past few years" were made using 21st century technology.

Cheers, Si

Nick Shinn's picture

Your grasp of this topic is weak, and consequently your writing makes little sense.

Rather than get bogged down in issues of “quality”, whatever that means, start by putting together a history of font production in the digital era, attempting to identify the different phases it has been through.

This will get you off and running:

There have been certain sea changes, such as the release of Fontographer in 1986, the replacement of direct mail trade advertising of fonts on floppies by e-commerce, c.2000, and more recently the introduction of @fontface, which has proliferated webfonts from the handful of Microsoft Core TrueType Web Fonts (Georgia, Verdana, Comic Sans etc.)

IMO, people’s opinions on what are the siginificant historical events would be more productive than their opinions on whether more designers publishing more fonts is good or bad.

But in answer to that question, it is what it is.

Bendy's picture

As the others have said, this is a bit of a confused question. What do you mean by 'proliferation'? The digital environment has put typefaces in the hands of everyone who owns a computer, so in that sense they're much more widespread than metal type ever was. Or do you mean digital fonts' copyability in users' hands? Or the ease of availability online through foundries' distribution channels?

OpenType is not really a 'type design programme', rather a file format that puts the typeface on screen when you key characters. The quality of typefaces is more to do with the experience of the designer and production team. Type design software like FontLab or Glyphs, like any tool, can be used badly or well.

quadibloc's picture

Now that anyone with a computer can make a TTF or OTF font for a new typeface, whereas in the past one would have had to mold lead type, create a Monotype matrix-case, or a comb of Linotype circulating slugs, I think you can be highly secure in the conclusion that current technology is contributing to a proliferation of typefaces.

The only interesting question is whether the photo-typesetting era was much of an intermediate between these two.

Birdseeding's picture

I think people are being a bit harsh on the questioner, in this thread and the other. It's a perfectly reasonable question if you break it down.

Type 200 years ago was (more or less) hand-cut and hand-set, 100 years ago machine-cutting and linotype/monotype machines were used, 35 years ago it was photolettering. Today, we've got digital typefaces in formats like OpenType and TrueType. Each of these changes has had a significant impact on the way type is used. This is extremely basic stuff, of course.

What's really made this last change different from the others is that (a) a vastly bigger amount of people are now able to use fonts than ever before, and (b) the tools used to design, manufacture and distribute fonts are now immeasurably cheaper. This has led to more fonts being produced today, as well as indeed proliferated, than at any previous point in history.

Now, the question is: what aesthetic impact has this transformation had? It's really the equivalent of queries from previous eras: Is the medium the message? What happens to the work of art in the age of mechanical reporduction? How has post-modern ways of seeing impacted our understanding of art? And so on.

The trivial answer to this question, that we're now seeing more "bad" amateur fonts than ever before, as well as a great dela many more professional-quality fonts than ever before, is uninteresting, however. It needs to be taken futher.

JamesM's picture

Technology changes have had a similar affect in many professions. In the 1800s photography was done mostly by professionals, but today with cell phones everyone has a camera in their pocket. A few decades ago graphic design involved ordering type, pasting up layouts with a t-square and X-Acto knife, etc, but now anyone with a computer can try page layout. Journalism used to involve getting hired and having editors review your work, but now anyone can set up a website and post articles and news.

There are many similar examples in other professions and the results are what you'd expect — it's great that people have access to these tools, but the results are often amateurish.

Birdseeding's picture

Certainly, but in some professions at least – I can't speak for graphic design – the ability for more people to have access to technology has also allowed for a lot more quality product to come through, from unexpected places and with radically changed content. Music is the classic example, of course, where recording, distribution and (some) instrument technology has constantly become cheaper, and each new change (like the proliferation of the electronic microphone in the 20s, or the significant increase in the number of recording channels available in the 70s, to take two random examples) has added new tools and brough new people into the cultural form, creating new angles and perspectives and styles. That a relatively poor country like Jamaica has had the innovative impact on generations of music that it has, is strongly correlated with the availability and cost of various technologies at various times.

I've got a significant interest in African music and arts, and there's a perfect example there in the way music videos have changed: HD digital cameras and processing technology has gone from unavailable to common in around five years. And in that same time time a staggering change has taken place in the artistic ambition and visual complexity of the videos accross the whole continent, from amateurish green-screen nonsense to highly ambitious aesthetic concept videos. And of course the two are highly correlated, no matter how much new mediocre stuff is also bein made!

Have we seen a smilar change in type? If not, why not? Where are the African type houses? (The South American ones are obviously doing fine.)

JamesM's picture

> has also allowed for a lot more quality product
> to come through, from unexpected places

I agree. Of course much of the work done by amateurs in any field is, well, amateurish, but sometimes modern technology gives talented individuals opportunities that didn't exist previously, which is a good thing.

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