Context + Domains
The importance of literacy in our society cannot be overstated. The ability to read is a gateway to the sum total of human knowledge, to our history, culture, philosophies and more. Reading is an essential component of education, especially since it allows self-education. As such, reading ought to be encouraged, and one way to do that is to make the reading experience as enjoyable as possible. It has been shown in studies that better typography creates a better reading experience and facilitates understanding. Therefore, we can safely say that good typography is an important aspect of learning and reading.
Ellen Lupton famously wrote that typography is what language looks like. As stated above, good typography is important for good reading. Our knowledge of typography today is the culmination of over five and a half centuries of experimentation, study and refinement. The Preservation of that knowledge is essential for maintaining the quality of the printed word, be it on paper or on screen.
When printing technologies change, so does the necessary physical manifestation of a typeface. For an existing typeface, available for the preceding technology, to stay in use, it must be “re-implemented”, or adapted, for the new technology. When type went from hand composition to hot metal, this meant creating new matrices for Monotype and Linotype machines. The standardized nature of each machine imposed certain restrictions on the way typefaces were represented, and some control over the spacing and kerning of letters was lost, the price of faster production and greater convenience.
When Photocompositors entered the mainstream, it meant making negatives with the outlines of the typefaces, and often compensating for the effects of light bleed. This change did away entirely with optical size, the way the proportions of stroke weight varied in metal type to accommodate different sizes. Phototype relied on a single outline, scaled up or down. This significantly compounded the other corruptions introduced by machine composition. Phototype also reduced type to two dimensions: whereas metal type bites into the paper, creating a three-dimensional character, phototype is flat on the page. In the case of typefaces designed to compensate for ink spread, the resulting phototype versions often appeared too thin and weak.
Digital type is the most recent link in the evolutionary chain of typography, but in some ways it breaks the pattern of previous advances. Granted, many hot metal and photocomposition typefaces were hastily digitized with poor spacing and the same “flatness” problem of their previous incarnation. But in recent years we have seen more and more designers harness the increasing power of computers to bring back some of the lost sophistication of type. The Unicode standard allows typefaces to include a dizzying number of characters, from ligatures and swashes to exotic diacritics and alternate forms. There is a growing trend to issue typefaces in multiple optical sizes, countering the normalizing effect of photocomposition’s single scalable outline. Digital fonts may contain extensive information for proper spacing and kerning. The possibilities for digital typefaces to recreate the subtlety and refinement of its hand-cast ancestors is far from exhausted.
Craft and Humanism
Typography is a craft: it requires the expert application of knowledge, skill and experience, resulting in a professional and aesthetic product. Craft is a distinctly humanist endeavor, in that it represents the pinnacle of human ability. Talent can only go so far—craft relies on hard work and learning, refining talent into skill and gaining experience and insight along the way.
The appeal of fine letterpress books and expert typography lies largely in its craftsmanship. The best typography cannot be automated: it requires not only expert knowledge and skill, but human intuition. The result of a letterpress printing bears very subtle imperfections, which add to the humanist feel and to the appeal. It reminds us that the text we are reading is the work of a human being like us, that the content within is a reflection of our own culture and learning. When looking to create an optimal typographic experience digitally, attention must be paid to imperfections and variations.
How do typefaces survive through technological shifts? For a typeface to continue its existence, it must be revived. The choice of which typefaces get revived, how the work is carried out, and how faithfully the original is recreated, are not determined in a vacuum. They are the result of design-world politics, shifts in aesthetic taste, personal preferences and philosophies of designers, social trends, changes in related industries and other diverse factors. To understand where a typeface comes from and how it got to where it is, it must be viewed within the context of the totality.