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In Search of a Comprehensive Type Design Theory

By Peter Bil'ak

Have you ever heard a conversation between two type designers? Even the most patient, well-intentioned outsider might find himself smiling embarrassedly, excusing himself and looking for an exit, dumbfounded. Type designers, like computer programmers, clinical biochemists, entomologists and agricultural scientists are marked by an unintelligible jargon and slavish devotion to their pursuits; what sets them apart, however, is the seeming unimportance of their discussions. We type designers might be convinced that our profession is vital to society, but we wouldn’t risk going on strike to test how indispensable we really are. Like printer cartridges or pen refills, fonts are undoubtedly very practical and serve their function, but the public seems to take them for granted and largely ignores them.

Writing about fonts is equally as difficult as talking about them. Articles on type design rarely appear outside the realm of the trade magazines, probably because of their highly technical nature. (The development of type has always been inextricably connected to the development of printing technology.) Writing about type and typography in the mainstream media is somewhat of a rarity even in the Netherlands, a country which is renowned for its highly-developed typographic culture, not to mention other countries where type design is still waiting for any sort of recognition. Yet searching through the past year’s issues of the New York Times reveals a surprising half dozen articles on typography, and even weekly satirical paper The Onion, carried an article on type, "Helvetica Bold Oblique Sweeps Fontys," thus confirming the public’s interest in type design. (Of course, this article, which reports on the winner of a fictional annual font award, appeared next to other ‘news’ like "Sheepish Secret Service Agent Can’t Explain How Vacuum Cleaner Salesman Got Into Oval Office," which perhaps gives us a better perspective of the general public’s true level of concern in matters related to type.)

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