Why new typefaces?

There could be 30,000 or 300,000 fonts available to purchase and use, covering every use and circumstance. So why design more?

No one knows how many typefaces there are. Affordable, easy to use software such as Fontographer, and later Fontlab and others have revolutionised type design and production beyond belief. From cumbersome and expensive woodblock or hot metal to cumbersome and expensive photosetting the design and dissemination of type had previously been hugely limited. Computer design made it democratic – doable and easy to distribute.

Why new typefaces? Why new anything? So if too many typefaces, then surely we have enough songs, or films, or books. No? Are songs, films and books different somehow? Perhaps the argument is that they’re somehow more creative. Or are they creative in their own right, whereas presumably type design needs the conduit of graphic design to exist.

As well as ignoring the layers of processes, skills and crafts needed in any creative enterprise, this suggests that there is somehow a sliding scale of creativity, where some skills are more important than others, and that they are not part of a connected cultural whole. In this thing that is all around us that we call Culture everything that is made, designed or recorded and disseminated shifts, develops and changes, reacting to each other and according to myriad social, political, technical (etc) reference points. We may not be aware of or like a lot of it, may cherry pick as ‘cultural’ the things we like, but it all interconnects, even as opposites pushing each other to extremes of separation or difference.

So as all these factors change, so culture changes also. Just as we change as we grow up, our bodies, opinions and tastes. This is Time. This is Life. They are defined by Change. So Change is inevitable, it’s outside of need or necessity. It just Is.

If what is said and written exists of this world of change, on page or screen, then how can the shape of the individual letters through which this is expressed not be? Whether better than before, or different, of course there is always opportunity for New. To suggest otherwise is a redundant argument, supported by what? What is too many? Is there a specific number? Who decides?

Type has a uniquely special and important place in culture as the medium through which language is recorded and disseminated. To suggest there are ‘enough’ or ‘too many’ ways of doing this I find odd and wrong.

New messages in new media can be best described through new design. Specialists in screen based type design are amending existing fonts to meet its particular requirements, in part of a continuing process of making new according to context – in manufacture and use.

Graphic designers can choose to use new typefaces, old, or like Massimo Vignelli just three. They can choose to use none, writing everything by hand – that would look amazing. There is room for every approach, just as there are type designers specialising in every kind of niche market of design.

Type designers will disagree with what I consider to be new and relevant, graphic designers will respond to the needs of function and fashion in what they use, and new work good and bad will be made and argued about.

There are commercial imperatives to consider also, too many new fonts are effectively tweaks of existing designs, aiming to cash in on profitable niche markets. Notions of difference in these cases become subtle, with myriad new designs openly marketing themselves as a ‘new’ or ‘better’ Helvetica, Caslon or whatever. In such circumstances clashes over perceived similarity become complex to argue. How to define closeness of appearance between two functional, 1950s derived sans serif fonts? What amount of similarity is acceptable? It is generally an easier claim to make of someone else’s work than your own.

If there is one basic shape per letter (it isn’t quite that straightforward, but you know what I mean), then there are only a set number of musical notes, or basic story structures. There is always room for difference within systems. If a start point is Difference rather than Similarity, then you will make work that defines your position in the world and asserts your value within it.

Above are four Alias responses to Helvetica – Grist, Noah, Glue and Progress.