The Grand Passions and Radical Dogmas Held in a Typography Book

Type Only offers a dazzling, diverse history of images made with words.
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A type nerd's love for fonts can be eerily similar to real-life romance. Did you know that the impression of type on a sheet of paper is called a “kiss”? Typographic romance can range from deep affection for a perfect chiseled face to raw passion for lusty, full-bodied alphabets.

This emotional power helps explain the rise of “expressive typography”—referring to fonts boldly designed and full of attitude, where the form of the letters themselves speak as loudly as the words they spell out. Type Only, a new book by Tony Brook and Mark Sinclair,  examines  almost a century of typographic expressionism by presenting an array of images defined by fonts—pictures made with letters.

The line between graphic design and typography is being blurred more every day. “Type is fast becoming the solution of choice for many designers around the world,” Brook says. “You can see work by pretty much all the designers that have ever existed online for free, and it is clear that this is having an impact. It is also possible that the economic downturn might have an influence. Type is cheap to produce, photography and illustration can be costly.”

But the approaches captured in Type Only are not for everyone. The book traces the development of a very iconoclastic (sometimes fashionable and at times anarchic) approach to type, representing three generations of typography—analog, analog-digital, and digital. Purists particularly may not appreciate the overriding "anything goes" message.

The earlier work in the book springs from ideologically grounded movements such as mid-century modernism. “The recent work occasionally appropriates some of the visual affectations of the past but not, it seems, the dogma,” Brook says. “I was very keen to show a degree of commonality, both in spirit and in formal approach between the earliest and most recent work, to make an overt connection.” The opening image from 1922 by Theo van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters is very deliberately placed: “To my eyes it feels incredibly contemporary and, in terms of being radically expressive, puts down a marker for the rest of the work to follow.”

The book’s design is intended to be rhythmic, with the selected examples suggesting both tonal and atonal compositions. The effect is musical, in a way. "I feel we have the relationship between the anarchic/organic plays and the ordered/structured working well," Brook says. "We’ve consciously chosen some of the more provocative and extreme examples of what is happening, for sure. However I would say the use of type as a solution in itself without the aid of photography or illustration is firmly in the mainstream.”

The featured works are best appreciated as a critical mass, a collection. Some individual ones are beautiful, others are not; there's the “willfully ugly and the puzzlingly strange.” It is the marriage of the strange and the clean that makes the book compelling for type nerds like me. “I confess I’m now coming round to some of the more ‘out there’ flights of fancy,” Brook says. “They make for awkward, but hopefully not boring, viewing.”

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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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