A Brief History of the Postmodern Revolution in Typography

Ask a fledgling technologist or avid mediaphile for a summary of post-World War II media theory and you are more than likely to hear the phrase "the medium is the message," popularized by renowned media critic and academic Marshall McLuhan in his groundbreaking Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man in 1964. The idea is simple: the medium itself (TV, radio, the Internet) should be a primary focus of study, not the content carried within, as different vehicles for content create different social or political effects throughout a society (or, for the Gen X-er in most of us, video literally does kill the radio star).


While McLuhan wrote primarily about the age of mass media, his conception of medium-as-message can be applied to one of the first real mediums for communication: writing. In a masterful article for Smithsonian magazine, Jess Righthand traces the brief history of the postmodern revolution in typography. "Typography conveys meaning," said Gail Davidson, curator of an installation on digital type currently on display at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. "The kinds of letters that you use say something about what you're trying to project. They can portray hipness, they can portray authority, they can convey playfulness, they can convey power."

Through the early 1960s, before the advent of digital technology, typographers used metal type, often hand drawing on graph paper and using photocopiers or ink transfer to create typefonts. From the end of World War I until the 1960s, "Sans serif" fonts, distinguished by their lack of feet, or "serifs" on the ends of each letter, ruled typography's proverbial roost. Sans serif fonts had existed as early as William Caslon's 1816 "English Egyptian" type, a round, simple lettering that faded into obscurity almost as soon as it was invented. In the wake of World War I, typographers connected to the German-based Bauhaus design school found aesthetic value in utilitarianism over artifice and adornment.

But with the coming digital revolution and the gradual demise of the high-cost printing press, aesthetics began to infiltrate the modern typeface, turning it into an art form.

Game Over, a poster created by Swiss designers Cornel Windlin and Gilles Gavillet for an exhibit on computer games, displays two different typefaces made using computer game design software. As if reinterpreting Crouwel's grid-based experiment of the 1960s, the poster contains the word "OVER" on the face of a die divided into four cells. Each cell contains one letter of the word, forming what looks like a grid out of the word. Windlin completed the entire design on the computer, without so much as a preliminary hand-drawn sketch. The computer not only served him in a methodological sense, but also as a source of direct inspiration.

What's truly fascinating is the divergent forms of typography that have emerged from this revolution. While the casual observer would expect a plethora of curlicues and other whimsical indulgences, many of the pieces at the Cooper-Hewitt installation fall into the "machine oriented" camp of designers, maintaining some of the geometric forms often associated with the machine-like rigor of modernism. But it is this diversity that speaks to the revolutionary flexibility of the digital typeface; the ability to move between the intricately ornate and the deliberately manufactured has turned typography into its own art form.

Read the full article, "Postmodern's New Typography" here.

Image: Game Over, Museum fŸr Gestaltung, 1999 Designed by Cornel Windlin (Swiss, b. 1964) and Gilles Gavillet (Swiss, b. 1973). Printed by Spillmann Siebdruck.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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