On modern typography

Over the last few months – starting, I think, with a screening of a new film on Dieter Rams, continuing with a rediscovery of Robin Kinross’s writing, also including an encounter with the many books from and about the milieu of Swiss-German and Dutch modern(ist) design in the Spread archives, and in conjunction with work on some self-initiated book design projects and on this website – I’ve been doing some renewed reading, looking, and thinking about modern(ist) design and my relationship to it as a twenty-first-century typographer. 

Modern typography is the title, of course, of one of Kinross’s books. Kinross suggests that typography is inherently modern, in that ‘typography’ properly so called, which he opposes to ‘[mere] printing’, comes into being with the first attempts to analyze and explain its workings in public, outside the realm of guild secrets and local printing practices, and with typically Enlightenment attempts to standardize measurements and so forth.
But what I think was one of his sources – an article by D. F. McKenzie on Congreve’s collected Works – undermines such an argument by pointing out plenty of examples of ‘conscious printing’ going right back into the sixteenth century. Of course, printing was already inherently an artefact and shaper of the modern world – a means of mass production and mass communication – from its beginnings in the fifteenth century, and the manuscript tradition is full of examples of very clear developments in finding and showing the shape of the text – from colometric writing to hierarchies of script to word spaces to foliation and running heads to all sorts of other markings.

On the other hand, ‘modern typography’ on the lips of some others gets lumped in with ‘modern(ist) graphic design’ (graphic design always being the louder, showier sibling of typography) and interchangeably labeled ‘Swiss Style’ or ‘International Style’. In this sense it’s shorthand for a constellation of tropes including the reduction of everything to the ‘rational’ or ‘functional’; the glorification of the machine; the exclusive use of one of a handful of grotesk types; the obvious use of modular grids; few if any distinctions in type face, size, or style.

But modern typography is something more, or other, than this style or indeed any style; more than any one designer’s work or even an established canon of work; more even than ‘rationalism’ or ‘functionalism’ or ‘minimalism’ or any ‘ism’. (Indeed looking at a selection of some of the supposedly exemplary works from this canon – die neue Graphik, Designing Programmes, and Compendium for Literates [Gerstner], Gestaltungsprobleme des Grafikers and Raster systeme [Müller-Brockmann], Typografie [Ruder], and the like – it’s a bit hard to find examples of what I’d consider true typography, or at least of ‘readable typography’ as opposed to ‘visible typography’, in Bruno Pfäffli’s helpful terms; of course, the truism that good design is impossible absent good content may hold here.) Rather, it is an approach, an attitude, a discipline, a goal: the discovery, sometimes even the shaping, of the form and meaning of a text, and the clear articulation of same through (or its translation into) preexisting letterforms and related means.

This may well be a modern understanding or pursuit, but when it succeeds it creates what I would call classic design: that which, though in one sense it may not be ‘perfect’ – which indeed likely includes some kind of irregularity or ‘grit’ – nevertheless seems an inevitable response to a given prompt; is practically timeless because largely ignorant of fashion; is distilled to its essence, though like the products of literal distillation does not eschew delight. This kind of design is subtle, sometimes elusive; it may or may not win awards or get much press or even look impressive on camera. It may be functional or rational, but the process of making it and the experience of using or receiving it can also be quite contemplative. It can’t be achieved by chasing success or by imitation, but rather only by relentless analysis and refinement, searching and self-criticism, by the acceptance of constraints (the grid; the inherently mechanical nature of typography and the particular means of production; the surprisingly few typefaces that really compose and print well; as well as those limits specific to a given project).

Kinross and another (the other?) typography critic, Alan Bartram, are right, I think, to point to the modern movement as it took shape in Britain as a touchstone for the fuller working-out of some of these principles (there are or must be similar developments in Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries with recently strong book-making traditions; and no doubt to some degree in the US and elsewhere), where an interaction between the traditions of book typography and the insights of modernism (and perhaps a workmanlike, no-nonsense, get-on-with-the-job mentality) produced work both in some ways more subtle and in some ways more articulate than that of the core Swiss School. And though I might not choose the same hall of heroes as either of these writers, nor understand the social contexts from which they come and about which they write (nor perhaps even believe very strongly in the power of typography to reflect or create certain social attitudes), I do think it’s often in the unpretentious and uncelebrated byways that good work is to be found.

I just mentioned the socio-political aspect of typography, which is an emphasis of Kinross’s that, perhaps more than anything else he has written about, has intrigued and perhaps unsettled me. Modern typography will, Kinross says or implies, be not only ‘humane, modest, self-critical’, but also ‘dissident’, ‘anti-authoritarian’, ‘democratic’, characterised by ‘openness’ and ‘equality’. Is there such a thing as ‘socially committed, critical typography’ or ‘an aesthetics of resistance’? Perhaps, perhaps not. But such a thing seems more worth striving for than the opposite. If ‘multiplication of text is a social act that provides a forum for dialogue and exchange’, then ‘an approach and an attitude: unapologetic intelligence and unbeatable moral integrity. Drive hard for content and for the real object, refuse the delusions of the image’ [Kinross on Martens] and the approach outlined in the closing paragraphs of Froshaug’s article ‘Typography is a grid’ seem something worthy for which to strive. And if this recent round of reading and thinking has shown me anything, it is that typography can be, must be, something in which and for which and through which to strive, that every text is an undiscovered country waiting to be mapped.