|DISTORTED WHEN MAGNIFIED, The Wall Street Journal’s Retina typeface was designed to keep ink from blurring the tiny agate type of stock tables.|
Given its subject, Michael Bierut’s Seventy-Nine Short Essays on Design, published last May by Princeton Architectural Press, is remarkably plain. It has no pictures. It isn’t oversized. It doesn’t even have a dust jacket.
Video: Fine Print
Graphic designer Michael Bierut comments on the development and uses of typography.
Interview: What's in a Font?
Virginia Postrel talks with Gary Hustwit—director of Helvetica—about filmmaking, creativity, and the expressive implications of one of the world's most popular typefaces.
Yet the book is a graphic extravaganza. Each of the 79 essays is set in a different typeface, ranging in age from Bembo, designed in 1495, to Flama, created in 2006. This profusion of typefaces would have been inconceivable when Bierut, 50, was starting out as a graphic designer. “I’m not sure in 1982 I could have come up with 79 different text fonts,” he says.
Nowadays, even nonprofessionals take an abundance of typefaces for granted. My computer includes about 100 English-language fonts, many of them families encompassing multiple weights—Baskerville in bold, bold italic, italic, regular, semibold, and semibold italic, for instance—and all available instantly. Basic cultural literacy now demands at least a passing familiarity with typefaces: witness a November episode of Jeopardy that featured the category “Knowledge of Fonts,” with correct responses including “What is Helvetica?” and “What is Bodoni?” A thoroughly entertaining (really) documentary called Helvetica, tracing the rise and fall and rise of the 20th century’s most ubiquitous typeface, played to sold-out crowds on the film-festival circuit last year.
|WATCH AN EXCERPT from the documentary film Helvetica|
The profusion of fonts is one more product of the digital revolution. Beginning in the mid-’80s and accelerating in the 1990s, type design weathered the sort of radical, technology-driven transformation that other creative industries, including music, publishing, and movies, now face. Old business models and intermediaries disappeared seemingly overnight. Software replaced industrial processes. Tangible products—metal, film, computer disks—dissolved into bits and bytes sold over the Internet. Prices plummeted. Consumers started buying directly. From their kitchen tables, independent designers could undertake experiments that had once required bet- the-company investments. “Having an idea for a typeface used to be like having an idea for a new-model car,” says Bierut. Now the distance between idea and execution, designer and user, has contracted.