Can the Rule-Breaking Font Designers of Three Decades Ago Still Break Rules?

The reason for so many variations is that the original Mrs Eaves is not a typical reading face. (For the type nerd reading this, here's Vanderlans rationale: "It's spaced a little too loosely for lengthy texts and the x-height is too small. And although I've seen it used in books, it works best in shorter texts when there is room to set it bigger with ample line spacing. It also works really well in poetry. And we've seen it adorn hundreds of book covers. It's the additions, Mrs Eaves XL, where we increased the x-height and tightened the spacing, and the companion Mr Eaves XL Sans fonts, that can easily compete with some of the best text fonts out there.")

Although Vanderlans steers clear social media, he and Licko have adapted many of their designs for web use. Their brand-new face currently in development is called Program, and it's what Vanderlan's calls "a type designer's typeface."

"It's very much about typeface design and the challenges that type designers encounter when they design type," he says. (Again, for the font aficionado: "It features both rounded edges evoking the effects of reproduction, and ink traps, the technique used to counteract the effects of reproduction. It also mixes different stem endings, structures, and weight distributions in a way not usually done in a family of fonts. The idea is to create a series of fonts with strong individualistic features, almost busting the constraints of a central theme that is usually imposed on a family of fonts, while still relating to each other in terms of overall look and feel.")

When Emigre started there were only a handful of digital foundries. Now, with the Internet, there are literally hundreds of websites selling hundreds of thousands of fonts. It's become extremely competitive. "One way we hope to set ourselves apart is with our promotional material," Vanderlans says, referring to the aforementioned specimen sheets. "We're one of the few type foundries left that still publishes printed type specimens... because it is a big expense. But since most typefaces are still designed primarily for use in print, it only makes sense to send people printed samples of the typefaces."

Yet Vanderlans admits he is still very impressed—"jealous even"—by all the incredible typefaces that are being produced by young designers these days. "When I look at the work that comes out of the colleges KABK in The Hague and Reading in the UK I'm just amazed," he says. "These young design students spent only a single school year studying type design and they finish with fully formed, professional-looking type designs. But I am also struck by how conservative most of the work is. You're young only once, and that's a great opportunity to experiment, to do something out of the ordinary. It's the one time in life that you can claim innocence and get away with anything and in the process perhaps create something emblematic."

He and Licko played a role in the so-called design-culture wars of the '90s over legibility and illegibility, classical versus experimental. But times have changed. "I don't see any kind of larger conversation going on at the moment," he says. "There's no hoopla. [Type designer] Jeffery Keedy once mentioned that that period during the '90s was an aberration in graphic design. That it will likely not happen again. And the way that influences our work today is that we're feeling much more isolated again. Our type designs often responded to the larger conversations that were circulating around design in general. Now our work is far more inward looking."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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