Book Arts Collaborative: On Typography and Culture – PATTERN

Trendsetting Type: On Typography and Culture
By: Marisa Sloan

Discovering pre-digital typefaces is like uncovering an unsigned Van Gogh while cleaning out the attic. The thickness of each stroke, the angle of each serif, and the curve of the letterforms are buried treasure. While working as an apprentice in a letterpress shop, I have spent hours sorting nostalgic pieces of metal type into their respective cases.

Despite the accessibility of modern technology, I did not know about most of these typefaces before I found them tucked away in California Job cases. Upon studying their forms, I developed a sense of their practical uses. French Clarendon looks like it could have been nailed on the walls of a Western saloon. Bradley Gratis echoes the bold and meticulously crafted Blackletter text of the Gutenberg Bible. My personal favorite is Tuscan Ombree, whose fishtailed serifs evoke a carnival setting. Considering how decorative and whimsical these nineteenth-century typefaces are, it is hard to believe that they have become so obscure.

To gain some context about typographic trends, I interviewed Dr. Brianna Mauk, an English professor at Ball State University who teaches technical writing and document design. She possessed an optimistic view of how technology and traditional media would influence the aesthetics of graphic design.

“Typography has changed with each culture,” she said, “and developing technology has no small influence on that either.” That observation certainly applies to the general public’s view of typography. Prior to studying graphic design, I could not identify many fonts that were not in the dropdown menu of Microsoft Word, and most millennials likely have had a similar experience.

As an example of the cultural fluidity of typefaces, Dr. Mauk showed me the decorative font ITC Aftershock, which imitated linocut lettering: “The ease of digital composition has made this possible,” she said.

The irony of this generation’s typographic mark is that we are using technology to break away from technology. A quick search for typography on Pinterest yields dozens of handwritten typefaces, but marketing teams have taken the handmade demand further. Just as Gutenberg imitated the medieval scribes with Blackletter fonts, Adobe released the Adobe Originals collection in 1994 to revive Old-style and modern typefaces. This package contains reimagined versions of the Garamond, Jenson and Caslon type families to name a few.

Letterpress-inspired fonts such as Veneer, which simulates distressed ink, are also popular. With its grunge texture and slightly uneven lines, Veneer projects this vintage, handcrafted appearance.

But letterpress fonts do not fully encapsulate traditional letterpress printing.

Kim Miller is the owner of Tribune Showprint, the oldest continuously operating letterpress shop in the United States. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Miller adheres closely to the letterpress heritage by using centuries-old metal type produced by foundries rather than creating her own. Although letterpress is no longer viewed only as an industrial art, Miller is glad to see it being kept alive nonetheless.

“They’re still using the same equipment,” Miller said about younger printers, “although letterpress is evolving more into an art form with this generation.”

Miller’s posters evoke a sense of timelessness with their beautiful tri-color gradients and vintage type. The irony of this aesthetic is that the typefaces Miller uses are traditionally commercial ones.

A prime example of this generational shift in aesthetic preferences is illustrated by Arden Stern’s essay “Freaks of Fancy, Revisited: Nineteenth-Century Ornamented Typography in the Twenty-First Century.” In this piece, Stern delves into the relationship between contemporary letterforms and nineteenth-century ornamented typography through an analysis of Rosewood, a slab-serif typeface that was released by Adobe in 1994.

Rosewood is a carnivalesque display typeface that resembles an overprinting technique, which involves printing different colors on top of one another to create a three dimensional-effect. As Stern explains throughout the article, Rosewood is based on Ornamented Clarendon, which was released in 1859. Stern writes that Rosewood’s predecessor, and ornamented typefaces in general, were “once associated with cheap, mass-produced commercial ephemera.” In that case, how did commercial typefaces become symbolic of handcraft?

Perhaps the answer lies in that fact that digital prints have the universal quality about them that used to plague commercial typefaces. The market has been saturated in typefaces like Futura and Helvetica that are clean and minimalistic, which makes ornamentation feel rare.

While some might view this letterpress boom as a vintage craze, this marriage of contemporary and historic design is poised to dominate our cultural landscape. Typography is no longer the domain of the pressman, and this democracy of letterforms reflects in our abundance of fonts. From chalk signage in coffee shops to front end web development, this taste for the futuristic and the embellished seems here to stay.