Why Invent New Fonts?

House Industries' revival of a retro typeface is part art, part marketing tool.
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House Industries

In the design world, fonts are like cars. Type foundries routinely issue new models that range from high performance to overly stylized, from functional to ephemeral, some meant to fulfill professional desires and others meant for personal use. 

House Industries, one of the leading purveyors of digital fonts in the United States, just released its new "Carnival” font, a narrow slab serif (meaning: extra-wide horizontal bars adorn the top and bottom of the vertical strokes) that recalls the wanted posters and playbills of the 19th Century Victorian period. It's a lot like if Ford decided to update the Model T.

House releases one new or revamped alphabet every two months, and “most of the type we draw is initially for our own use,” says Rich Roat, a co-founder of the Yorklyn, Delaware-based digital foundry. Carnival, designed by Photo-Lettering and digitized by Dan Reynolds, is made for headlines or display copy, and its thick and thin lines are certainly attention-grabbers. Yet its nostalgic references could narrow its scope. 

“We thought Carnival might make a good masthead for an Italian cycling-fan fashion magazine or for a prosciutto-flavored soft candy logo,” Roat says. "However, type is a design tool, and we would not presume to tell a designer how they ultimately should use it."

For House, Carnival is one of many “revival” fonts derived from a project that started in 2003. That's when the foundry purchased a collection of around 10,000 film alphabets owned by Photo-Lettering, the largest photocomposition house serving the publishing and advertising industries in 1960s New York. The decision to release Carnival for digital use, Roat says, comes from a personal, sensual attraction to the typeface combined with a business strategy. “We try not to respond to trends or fads," he says, "because everything starts to look the same.”

But given the huge number of fonts already available, it's worth wondering why more of them are necessary. Roat’s answer is common but logical: “Why do we need new music, new cars, new clothes?” In fact, type has become part of today’s digital and cultural consumerism. A fashion analogy works here. “Let's be honest: You buy the Prada suit because the model looks so good in it," Roat says. "We try to make beautiful things with our fonts for the same reason.”

House Industries

With the creation of more types, Roat says that House Industries is always evolving while respectfully referencing the past. “Don't let the whimsical nature of Carnival fool you," he says. "It's fun to look at and fun to use, but engineering the curves and contrast is hard work. Plus interpreting and extending the design to a modern character set while preserving the historic flavor is sometimes harder than starting from scratch.”

Artistry aside, he admits that there's a marketing power to designs like these. “You might not want or need Carnival," he says, "but it might point your eyeballs to something you do need.”

I asked Roat what, in his mind, will make Carnival a success. He answered without hesitation: “It already is successful. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it made you look.”

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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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