The history of superficially mucking about with lettershapes

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Johan Palme's picture
Joined: 23 Jan 2011 - 6:07am
The history of superficially mucking about with lettershapes

I'm sure we're all bored to tears by now with those 'experimental sans' typefaces that flourished a year or two ago. Essentially they're taking naivist, vaguely Futura-esque geometric lettershapes and adding extra lines, disporportionate character extensions, strange glyph shapes and whatnot for the hell of it. The basic style is clearly still geometric, but the're a bunch of extra crap haphazardly thrown on, negating the original simplifying intent. (This distinguishes it from the actual experimentation Renner was doing with Futura, and from more traditional alternate and swash shapes that tend to emanate from varying the basic ideas of the skeleton itself.)

I thought this affliction was a particular blight on our age, but then while looking for info relating to this thread I came across a set of similarly silly Art Nouveau types: Washington and the two in http://this comment. Again, it's obviously basically shapes from a particular genre of type (grotesque, in this case) with a bunch of extra, haphazard changes thrown in to make it trendy.

Makes me wonder: Can you think of other examples from other historical periods, that give off a similarly ill-fitting vibe? It's sort of fascinating.

Nick Shinn's picture
Joined: 8 Jul 2003 - 11:00am

Do you think this would have been better in a simple geometric face?

Victor Curran's picture
Joined: 31 Dec 2008 - 3:34pm

Matthew Carter gave a lecture on this subject at the Society of Printers in Boston in 1994, with the title Experimental Type Design: Historical and Contemporary Alternative Letterforms. It's possible he published a version of it somewhere.

Follow-up: I can't find an edition of this lecture in print, but it appears that some colleges where he delivered it have it on VHS tape in their libraries, including the University of Illinois at Chicago Library and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I hope someone has digitized it and posted it somewhere, but I couldn't find it with Google or YouTube.
You may be able to send Matthew Carter an inquiry through his company, Carter & Cone.

Cory Maylett's picture
Joined: 18 Jan 2007 - 1:11am

There have always been gimmicky typefaces. Most are poorly designed and poorly constructed, but some are quite nice. Very few will ever enjoy widespread use, but every now and again, one of them will be perfect for a particular project (like in Nick's example).

I won't say that I'm bored with the "experimental sans" designs you mentioned. I might not use them, but that's because their personalities haven't matched what I've needed for the design projects I've been working on. Mostly, I pay little attention to the trends that come and go, and it hadn't even occurred to me that this trend had arrived and then gone by.

For what it's worth, I see nothing wrong with typographic experimentation, and the fact that the results from these experiments are derivative of something else doesn't bother me either — all typography is derivative of what came before it.

Donald H. Tucker's picture
Joined: 13 Dec 2012 - 3:47pm

Interesting. I learned a new term from this discussion: Art Nouveau Grotesk. A very useful pigeon hole for some monoline fonts that are a hybrid of a grotesque/sans-serif and swash stokes, like the old Washington by S&G.
As for use, I don't see a lot of applications for most of these. Too quaint for cutting edge presentations like Serena Ryder Harmony. Retro labels perhaps?
Many are interesting mainly as exercises in alternative forms, such as the S&G 1912 boxy sans design with reverse contrast and Hebrew style tabs at and discussed in the thread noted by Johan. It can now join its strange sisters in the Art Nouveau Grotesk playground.