On a wet, Sunday afternoon, I settled into the back booth of a diner on New York's Upper East Side with Ned Shalanski, a landscape designer, and Ellice Lee, an Associate Art Director for a book publisher. Bottomless coffee refills and sarcastic servers punctuated the glory of diner aesthetics. It was the perfect setting for a conversation about typography and culture.
Wunderkammer: What is one role that typography plays in culture?
Ellice Lee: Typography provides a sense of the times and serves as an indicator for the cultural influences of the era. For example, magazines such as Dwell, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone have a typeface that is very indicative of their content. And there is something about The New York Times logo that we hold on to. With the blending of modern and postmodern style in recent years, cultural relevance, not historical relevance, dictates typeface. It’s hard to tell where a type is from because it’s derived from various sources. For instance, Los Angeles gangster culture always uses German black-letter typefaces. Why?
Ned Shalanski: I think it is interesting how type can convey images but not necessarily the right images. The thinking behind type design has undergone many refinements, especially in the last century. I think the English alphabet may be more conducive to letter manipulation than others, while maintaining readability. Though, I may be wrong — Ellice, would you agree?
EL: Yeah. I once saw a wedding invitation that had been created to look like a Chinese character, but when turned on its side, it would read one person’s name one way and the others’ the other way. A lot of thought went into that! Often, in graphic design, after you’ve spent a lot of time working on something, someone will say, “Hey, I could have done that.” But that is when you know you’ve been successful because if everyone gets it, then you’ve obviously communicated. It can be humbling, but, unlike fine art, if people don't understand your work, you have failed to communicate.
NS: Typography is always noticed when it’s bad but not necessarily always when it’s good. If it’s eye-catching, that’s a plus. That said, if something is eye-catching it also needs to convey the designer’s intent. For instance, a calligraphy script for a brand like Pizza Hut might catch one’s eye but might also make the reader ask themselves, “Huh? Is that the same Pizza Hut I know? What’s going on?” Now that may be a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps Pizza Hut is running some sort of new, fancy promotion. Typography, like words, can signify different meanings, so it’s very important for the designer to consider context.
WK: Where does typography come from?
EL: Before I got into graphic design, I just thought fonts were generated by computers, but someone actually carefully crafts every single letter. There are even things called ligatures which are built into a font to link the letters beautifully, like when the “l” and the “f” connect at the top instead of having a space. That’s an art, a really delicate discipline.
NS: A professor of mine, Ed Benguiat, has been referred to as the “Architect of Type,” and I think that is a fitting way to think of type design because drawing a font can be like designing a building. You have to consider the length and proportion and balance of each letter, then ensure a harmony between them all. It can be a very rigid decision-making process. At the same time, as Ellice once said, “Graphic design has been referred to as the art of procrastination.” And what that says is that initial judgments are important. Designers run the risk of convoluting a design or type when they spend too much time on it. I think this is why many of the most popular fonts today are those that seem the most pared down and low-maintenance, the best example being Helvetica.
EL: Helvetica speaks a universal language. What many consider a boring font is actually one of the most influential in recent years. When you study how a lot of fonts are based off of Helvetica, you realize there is something about it that has stuck around. Serif fonts are considered easier to read, due to the “slabs” at the end of the letterforms, hence why most text-heavy reading materials still use serif fonts. I think when the Bauhaus movement arrived, everything was about “less is more.” Perhaps this is where the typographers decided to simplify typefaces by shaving the slabs off. Helvetica was one of the foundational letterforms that arose from this movement. It's clean and quite legible at any size. Look at the NYC subway signs. They were designed decades ago and are still in use today.
NS: Helvetica is a product of the times because it is a deconstruction of pretense. In previous centuries the most popular fonts were those that exhibited fine detail and evident craftsmanship, and those were a reflection of the culture in which they were made. Helvetica's success lies in its versatility of uses for a culture where people are bombarded by many different and competing images and styles.
WK: Picking up on that, what aspects of typography are changing, and what aspects remain constant?
NS: In the past, type was valued more for its beauty and less for its utility, but that is also a reflection of how type used to be created. Type is no longer created by master hand-carvers in metal. Now the alphabet can be formed digitally and seamlessly and endlessly reproduced. It is no longer the labor-intensive process it was.
EL: But I think today it’s interesting how you can deconstruct type into an image. It's interesting to see type played with, but only when done with care and respect. Just copycatting the type won't look right. Or I love when it’s done by accident. For example, I was working at a charity function and we were using razor blades to scrape the sticker type off a wall, and then I saw all the crumbed type on the floor. I had to take a picture of it. I thought, “This is beautiful. No one planned this. No one even knows what it says, but we know where it came from, and we saw it become something else.” I love stuff like that!
NS: That story alludes to the tension in the design process. Days, weeks, even months can be spent crafting a typeface and then, just like that, a small adjustment can make all the difference. In this case, the letters were accidentally scattered on the floor, and then something beautiful and inspiring happened. I think to myself, “Thank god, there’s the human dimension I’ve been missing!” Ellice recently found a fantastic book called Antique Packaging, which is a survey of cardboard packaging from the early 20th century and highlights type and illustration styles from that period. What immediately comes through is the looseness and creativity that resulted from a process where everything was drawn-out and laid-out by hand. Today, when so much is digitally mass-produced, there can be a loss of the things that imply human connection and human consideration. Typeface design and the use of typography has been affected in this way.
EL: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. I love it when you see type that was painted on a building years ago but has now faded, like an old sewing factory because you know someone climbed up there and painted those letters by hand. I recently bought a silk-screen kit because I want to go back to drawing things by hand, getting back to something that someone can’t copy so easily. I want to go back to imperfection. I love the human element of that.
NS: Mistakes are beautiful. They are such a relief to see in a culture that over-emphasizes perfection. I think it’s so fantastic when the pretenses of a methodology—in this case, clean, straight lines—get broken down. One of my favorite things Ed Benguiat always says is, “You’re gonna draw a type by just looking at the computer? Forget about it! You need paper, man! You need pencils, man! You can’t just go to your computer screen and start from scratch! You’re crazy!” The creative process with hand drawing is more intuitive because you are connecting with that piece in a deeper way. I feel that many budding designers get too easily caught up with the product and forget about the importance of process.
EL: People enjoy the human details in the typeface, which is why I allow my illustrators—who are my inspiration these days—to also do the type on our book covers because it’s so much more interesting. They can play around with the words and images.
NS: It’s refreshing that now there is a growing presence of type that has an illustrated feel, or products that have a handcrafted influence.
EL: It's a resurgence. As with fashion, it goes in cycles. When the clean, modern types were invented, they were the relevant design for a time. So the key is being relevant; when you use something that is irrelevant, you automatically disqualify what you’re doing. For example, think of the new Tropicana ads. The type is beautiful, its sans-serif, but does it look like food? Not really. It’s hard to read so it doesn’t automatically communicate that it is orange juice. And most people don’t drink orange juice out of a stemmed glass, so what audience are they catering to? Also, it doesn’t feel as inviting or have that warm, nostalgic feeling.
NS: And in an economic downturn, people crave that classic, warm feeling. When supply and demand isn’t your motivating force, you have the opportunity to give people a product that affirms a stability that once was and is now lacking.
EL: And when things are made by hand, there can be a playfulness to it, which is also greatly needed.
NS: Definitely. Do people know the value of play these days? We all need to be more whimsical.
Ned Shalanski is a landscape designer for the New York City Parks Department. Ellice Lee is an Associate Art Director for Random House.