Re-contextualizing Type - Alternate Histories
Date: April 3rd, 2012 @ 17:12
Typography is not just a function of design, but of time and context. If an image with typography exists, the type can help one determine the age, country of origin, or the social, political and historical context of the image. On the other hand, if one is examining typography for authenticity, it is often possible to determine that an image or document is a fake if the typography is wrong: if an image of a 1938 advertisement uses text which is exactly set in Robert Smith’s Brush Script, it’s a forgery, as the typeface wasn’t created until 1942.
Typography is often a vehicle for national and political zeal. The Nazis embraced blackletter Fraktur until 1941, where it was determined that it was a “Jewish typeface”, and instead of requiring its use “Antiqua” or traditional Roman letterforms were mandated for new work. In reality, it is not likely that Fraktur was actually considered “Jewish” by the Nazis, but was merely provided as a better-sounding reason (for the intended audience) than the actual reason. It is far more likely that German publishers were running low on Fraktur type, and it was not worth diverting metal from the war effort to forge new type when perfectly usable Roman type was plentiful, and that it was a practical position given that the inhabitants of Nazi-occupied countries often found Fraktur difficult to read.
A Didot-style typeface is typical of 19th century French and Italian work, whereas the related Baskerville typeface was more typical of English output of the same period. We take it for granted that “fonts” are “just there” in the age of digital desktop publishing, and plenty of books and a plethora of blog posts have been written about the enthusiasm novices exhibit for inappropriate type, or the overuse of many styles of type in a single document. In his book “Just My Type”, Simon Garfield describes certain fonts such as Souvenir as “novice magnets” which have bold style that attracts the untrained eye.
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at iconic images and documents deliberately rendered in the wrong type. This is related to Comic Sans Project, but with a different goal: I’m interested in the contextual and cultural loading of specific typefaces, and not trying to bury Comic Sans in irony (that’s too easy and it’s already been done well - if you care about design, you don’t need anyone else harping at you about Comic Sans, and if you like Comic Sans, no design crank is ever going to talk you out of it). Some typefaces I’ve used are those which are most commonly used inappropriately, such as Algerian and Souvenir. Others are typefaces which can be misused, but are often appreciated by many designers when used well, such as Gotham and Galliard. I’ve generally steered clear of typefaces which are unusual or of limited utility.
Many of the images use a typeface or technique considerably out of their time. The Gutenberg Bible is presented as it were created in a typeface and technology from over 500 years later which suggests a science fiction time travel story. Others are out of place, such as a French fashion magazine rendered in Fraktur, which one could read as an alternate history in which the main difference between that timeline and our own was the fate of Europe after World War II.
I hope you will enjoy some of these. Click any image for a full-size version.
The Gutenberg Bible
Original image credit: Staatsbibliothek Berlin
The Gutenberg Bible is the first instance of movable type in Europe. I have rendered it in ITC Galliard Std Bold, turning Gutenberg’s 40 line Bible into a 51 line Bible. Gutenberg’s type is not readable to most untrained laymen, and by setting it in Galliard, it is made instantly readable, presuming one speaks Latin. Galliard and other modern faces are smaller than the blackletter of Gutenberg, so I had to decide between keeping the same amount of lines in a much larger font size with less of the text, or add lines and alter the spacing. I chose the latter, and spread the spacing out per-line to capture a bit of the original’s dense flow. The elimination of the original type layer is far from perfect, but then again, I’m not attempting to create forgeries. I discovered something interesting which hampered the execution of this a bit: there is no plain-text version of the text of the Gutenberg Bible out there, and to be fair, not every Gutenberg Bible is textually identical. As a compromise, I have rendered the text of a later version of the Vulgate Bible than the one Gutenberg used, without the text abbreviations which were common in these printings. Using an English translation would have changed far more than the typography, so I opted not to do that. I have added a red duplicate underneath the caps to bring the look closer to the original’s use of red-ink rubrics.
The Constitution of the United States
Original image credit: National Archives
The beautiful manuscript of the Constitution of the United States opens with a dramatic “We the People”, which is an iconic, easily-recognized symbol of the nation in its original pen. I have rendered it as if it were not penned in it’s final presentation form by Jacob Shallus, but rather as if it were the result of Shallus hunching over a typewriter in the early hours a September morning in 1787. The quality is not consistent with an early typewriter, but a much later electric model, thus rendered in a suspiciously precise Courier New. The flourish and grandeur of the first three words is gone, in its place is underlined text. Though the original Constitution has an occasional overmarked correction, I chose not to simulate Whiteout and a manual proofreading mark, as this is more likely the result of one of those word processing typewriters common in the 1980s which allowed one to write and correct text before committing a line.
Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica
Original image credit: Cambridge University Library
The definitive statement of physical motion which largely stood unchallenged until relativity theory as rendered in the extremely modern and geometric Gotham family of type, from 2000. The Principia described a world whose mechanics did not seem to leave a place for the hand of god constantly keeping everything in check, but only required him to start. That Newton’s greatest work should have later been called “atheistic” would have angered Newton, a notorious Puritanical religious bigot and a generally disagreeable person to deal with.
Like many printed works of its time, there is a fussy use of various sizes and weights of type, so Gotham’s multiple weights and variants came in handy, as does its Æ ligature and italics. Gotham’s geometric sense is most extreme in its capital forms, and I think there’s a good fit of subject matter to typeface here. This copy of the Principia is fire-damaged, and I have kept that damage in place in the lower right of the title page.
Gotham seems to be taking the world by storm right now, due to a lot of high-profile designs, including the 2008 campaign of Barak Obama. More on him later. If you’re in design, this is a typeface you’re probably seeing overused recently, and there’s little sign of that trend stopping.
Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species
Original image credit: University of Sydney Library
An idea for our time in the typeface of our time? A controversial idea in a once-ubiquitous typeface whose popularity has made it controversial? Both have inspired movies, at any rate. This is set in Helvetica, the voice of the people, or the voice of authority, depending on the context and your point of view. I’m going to avoid coming outright and making a pun about “accidental design” and some of Helvetica’s warts, such as its “R” and its “g”, but I’ll imply it instead. Some of the stranger features of Helvetica almost humanize it in comparison to some of the more geometric faces such as Gotham or Futura. Helvetica makes this text look suitably approachable.
Dewey Defeats Truman
Original image credit: Original unknown
Possibly the most famous newspaper of all time, and almost certainly the most famous photograph of a newspaper of all time, rendered in Souvenir. Though created in 1914, early enough for it to have actually been used in this photo, it was not until the 1970s that this typeface became prominent and overused. In this photo, that resurgence took place about 25 years earlier.
New Alphabet, Kwadraat Blad
Original image credit: Wim Crouwel
I have always loved this typeface and this design. Originally printed for Kwadraat Blad in 1967, this is something between a magazine, a typographical experiment, and a design brochure. Wim Crouwel considered the New Alphabet typeface to be an experiment too far-out for any real use, but the typeface does show its head from time to time, including on the cover of Joy Division’s 1988 anthology Substance and the 1988 re-release of their 1980 single Atmosphere. On those covers, it’s actually used incorrectly - some letters are substituted for others, mostly due to how non-standard and difficult to read New Alphabet can be. I have a long-standing relationship to this typeface, and have actually created several OpenType instances of it for my own use, including variants which differ from it fairly dramatically.
New Alphabet was developed for the Hell Digiset digital photo-typesetting machine, a dot matrix lettersetting device from the era when computers were very rare and whose displays were frequently vector-based. The angles show off their vector influences, but the extreme simplicity of the New Alphabet letter forms meant that when set in a dot matrix context, it could be used without degenerating into an unsatisfying blocky mess. This was radically experimental, and served primarily as a thought exercise to consider the ramifications of digital typography many years earlier than when it became practical.
I have rendered this exercise in Garamond, the polar opposite of New Alphabet, as if Garamond were the radical departure from accepted letter forms of the day rather than some of the best-received instances of serif type.. Rather than overlay a block grid, as on the original, I have rendered “an introduction…” in a blocky anti-aliased text, which I think captures the spirit better than a more literal re-creation of the series of separated square dots of the original. I imagine a world where Garamond looks as alien and peculiar compared to tradition as New Alphabet does in our own world.
General Post Office K6 Phone Box
Original image credit: Derek Quantrell
The iconic image of 1940s to 1980s telecommunications in the United Kingdom is of the red phone box, and the K6 is the most numerous and well-loved. The K6, like most models, was very loud, visible, and decorative. The typeface which labels it is probably one of the few utilitarian choices made in its design. In its place I’ve put a typical example of an Art Deco typeface. By the time the K6 was released, Art Deco was in decline. This could have existed as-is when the K6 was commissioned, or by the time the K8 replaced it, but would have been quite an unlikely choice for text during the height of the K6’s popularity.
Space Shuttle Discovery
Original image credit: NASA
The first Space Shuttle design was the Enterprise, built as a test for the Space Shuttle program, finished in 1981. Then as now, NASA was invested in Helvetica, used as a clear, culturally-neutral label for its spacecraft. The details of these images are probably too small to see in the thumbnails, so please view the full-size versions. What if, instead, NASA had chosen Algerian? Algerian was created in 1988 based ultimate on old signage type, and is often used inappropriately and poorly. I think Algerian in this context connotes a country whose typography is more consciously connected to its wood type days, and its appearance on a space age conveyance fails to inspire confidence, much like the notoriously cantankerous steampunk vessels common to that genre of writing and art.
Atari VCS (2600) Gaming Console
Original image credit: David Dunfield
Atari’s second generation 2600 was a critical market success for the company, whose later years would see it hobble from one spectacular failure to the other, before being purchased by Jack Tramiel and seeing its ultimate demise in 1996. The name was resurrected from time to time after that, but bears no relationship to the company founded by Nolan Bushnell.
Originally rendered in Harry from 1970 by Visual Graphics Corporation, rendering it in Avant Garde makes it seem more modern, even though it was designed in the same year. To be honest, the only place Avant Garde looks perfectly correct is when it is used to spell “Avant Garde”, whose logotype was the origin of the typeface. Although Avant Garde has been woefully abused ever since, there are two things which make it seem more relevant than Harry: Harry’s rounded shapes have not aged well, making it look soft, fluffy, and decidedly low-tech, and Avant Garde has benefited from time. The backlash against overuse of Avant Garde was successful enough to put it under the radar for a while, and it has had a recent resurgence from use in contemporary videogames and advertising. Its stark angularity and more less elliptical curves put it more in line with current ideas about what futurist design should entail, while Harry seems stuck in a past, a neighbor of MICR-inspired typography, only to be trotted out for nostalgic or ironic use.
Commodore 64 Start Screen
Original image credit: Commodore Business Machines
In the history of 8-bit computing, most people designing character sets for computers and video game systems certainly didn’t consider themselves typographers, and it’s a safe bet to assume most of them wouldn’t have been familiar with the word, since this was before the era of affordable WYSIWYG editing and desktop publishing. There wasn’t much concern, therefore, with intellectual property with regards to font design, and I believe this is why so much of this bitmapped typography was so daring and experimental—if you liked something, you could adapt it, and if you really wanted to stand out, you had to push the envelope quite a bit.
System-included character sets were generally not so daring, and with good reason: they had to be functional. But this lack of distinctive type on the interface itself (something Apple was to pioneer later with bitmapped fonts such as Chicago) resulted in some typefaces being used and re-used or slightly adapted over and over. The Commodore 64 used a system font whose lowercase and most of its upper case were identical to the earlier Atari 400. Today, this sort of thing would be called “branding” and jealously defended.
Re-enter Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet. I don’t think this works too well here, but I find it interesting, as if Crouwel’s 1967 experiment had been a rousing success in digital typography. Two of the reasons I re-cut New Alphabet and re-imagined a successor OpenType typeface based on New Alphabet was because I was sick of drawing the letter forms manually every time I needed them, and some of New Alphabet’s daring experimentalism needed to be toned down a bit. This is the original, with shortened nubs for ascenders to accommodate an 8×8 character size. My own variants of New Alphabet are informed by a simple desire to make some of the more radical letter forms such as “g”, “k”, “s”, and “x” and all of the numerals more legible. The numbers are definitely a weak point for New Alphabet, as this modified screenshot demonstrates. Other characters have been made more distinct in my variant, including “e” and “t”, both of which derive from where the cutting edge of bitmap typography lay: videogames, crack group intros, and the demo scene. This was second time I overhauled a writing system to take advantage of a “7″-style “t”, the first being my own handwriting, which was quite deliberately influenced by 8-bit videogame typography and Arabic calligraphy.
Original image credit: Vogue Paris
The original magazine’s title is rendered in classic Didot, and the headline text is set in a typeface which was almost certainly created for Vogue specifically, and draws heavily on Didot and Bodoni. The “e” character distinguishes it from either. This is an issue from September 2009, and the modified version is a celebration of Fraktur. Given the political and cultural load of Fraktur, I didn’t want to do too many pieces like this, lest it come off as political grandstanding - suggesting that maybe the Nazis weren’t a great historical development isn’t exactly controversial or a necessary statement to make to anyone other than white supremacists and radical nationalists, who are the least likely to listen to such an argument anyway. Reading this as “Vogue Paris as imagined in a world where Hitler won World War II” would be silly, as it would have created a command economy to keep itself on a war footing somewhere between the Cold War and regional conflict (”We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”); “command economy” and “fashion” have never co-existed.
What if, instead, the Fraktur typeface and other blackletters had never been supplanted by Latin Antiqua-based letter forms throughout most of Europe? Or perhaps they had remained strong in Germany but had not been embraced (intially, until they were banned in 1941) by the Nazis or any other political interest? Without that baggage, it might have remained more widespread for decorative use. Clarity, however, has always been a major concern. Rendering “VOGUE Paris” in caps turns the title into a maze of illegible spiral swashes to the modern eye, and ends up looking more like “BOGUG PARTS”, so some accommodation must be made for modern post-Fraktur sensibilities. With mixed case, most of the more bizarre Fraktur capital forms become obvious in context.
As with the Gutenberg Bible, no attempt is made to actually change the language here—it remains French. This alternate history isn’t about empire, but rather textual taste and trend.
Barack Obama HOPE Poster
Image credit: Shepard Fairey
Regardless of one’s feelings about Shepard Fairey or Barack Obama, the HOPE poster is an effective merger of pop art and political statement. The power of Gotham’s geometric forms fist graced the cover of GQ, engaged in a frontal assault on New York City, and went about as viral as a typeface can get after the release of (and controversy about) this poster. Like a sci-fi version of Futura (or perhaps “a more sci-fi version of Futura” would be more accurate), it reaches back toward earlier geometric sans serif faces, but captures something new which grounds it solidly in the 21st century. Rosewood, by contrast is a relatively recent typeface from 1994 whose origins reach back unapologetically to the mid 19th century. Rosewood is a decorated Clarendon typeface reminiscent of wood cut type commonly seen in advertising and catalogue posters of the period. Most ornate woodcut type is so dated, that it’s making a comeback for retro-chic design, but it’s not the right way to sell most products, communicate with typical customers, or brand a politician. It has a certain circus appeal, but is at odds with what people are trying to communicate in the political spectrum today, suggests an era long gone, a lack of media savvy, and outdated values and design sensibilities.
The Beatles Stereo Box Set
Original image credit: Apple Records
This logotype was hand lettered on Ringo Starr’s drum kit, first seen in this form in 1963. It has cropped up in various Beatles products since, and was used extensively in the branding to the 2009 boxed sets. The letter forms are similar to Latin Condensed, and originate from hand drawn signage text. What I’ve done is to squeeze all the interest and style out of the logotype by presenting it in a few weights of stretched Futura. Different weights were required to stetch it without grossly overweighting the horizontal strokes compared to the vertical. It’s now a bad logotype which, by being stretched, is an example of one of the most annoying things one can do to a typeface. It is now better-suited to selling a product nobody cares too greatly about than a rock band whose popularity is wide and whose cultural significance is huge.