The History of Typography, in Stop-Motion Animation

The evolution of fonts through the ages

Let’s face it, fonts and typefaces have officially become a mainstream obsession. In our current design-centric culture, terms like sans-serif, Helvetica, and — heaven forbid — Comic Sans have breached the cultural consciousness. Fortunately, for those of you who still can’t tell your Futura from your Papyrus, Yukon-based designer Ben Barrett-Forrest has crafted this charming stop-motion history lesson to help you get up to speed.

Built with 2454 photographs, 291 letters, and 140 hours of his life, Barrett-Forrest’s animated short is a delight . As he guides us from the lowly beginnings of Guttenberg’s printing press, all the way to the computer age, it becomes apparent that the art of type is a corollary for history. Like architecture and fashion, typography is a reflection of the world in which it’s created. Barrett-Forrest explains his interest in type and the genesis of the project in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did the project come to be? Have you always been knowledgeable about typography? 

Ben Barrett-Forrest: I have always been a type nerd, but it was about two years ago that I really caught typography fever. I was taking a design class for my multimedia degree at McMaster University and it was recommended that I read a book called Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton. This brilliant book showed me that typography has huge diversity and a long history, and I was quickly hooked.

What made you decide to go with hand-cut characters and a stop-motion approach?

There are hundreds of beautiful kinetic typography videos on the internet, with their shiny graphics and smooth movements. I wanted to create something that allowed people to experience typography on a tactile, unrefined level. My hand-cut style brings the faces off of the computer screen and onto a more physical level that can be pushed around, manipulated, and imbued with extra personality.

It seems that collectively as a culture we have become more knowledgeable about type and fonts. What do you think has spawned this interest?

One of the catalysts for the recent interest in typography is the availability of font-making software such as Fontlab, which allows anyone to make their own digital typeface. There are now tens of thousands of excellent (and not so excellent) typefaces available for download. This allows people to move away from the familiarity of Helvetica and Times New Roman, and to become aware of the different kinds of typefaces that are out there.

Any particular typeface trends that you're currently a big fan of? Any that you're not?

I am quite fond of slab serifs like Archer Pro and Josefin Slab. They display words with a humorous seriousness, and look great everywhere from book covers to chip bags.

There is a current trend towards hand-drawn looking typefaces, such as Hand of Sean and GoodDog. These can look great in certain circumstances, but people often use them in places that call for a more formal font. It seems to be a common problem that in an effort to make a design look fun and friendly, people just make it look unprofessional (ahem … Comic Sans).

Is there a particular font or typeface you wish would just go away?

Gotham is one of the most beautiful typefaces out there, and also one I could stand to see a lot less of. It is quickly becoming the next Helvetica — a beautiful typeface that is used so often by amateur designers in unflattering ways that it becomes associated with bad design. If we can all just take a bit of a breather from Gotham and use it tastefully and sparingly, then it will regain its former glory and once again be recognized as an elegant and beautifully designed typeface.

For more work from Ben Barrett-Forrest, see Forrest MediaTwitter, or YouTube.