The dichotomic tension of experimental typography

Gavin Ambrose, Beth Salter

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    This paper is written from the perspective of exploring two key words, ‘experimental’ and typography’ and their apparent dichotomic relationship and tension.

    A cursory search for the word typography results in a description of order and semblance ‘Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed.’ An equally lazy definition of ‘experimental’ is as follows, ‘… a new invention or product, based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalized’.

    The starting position therefore of experimental typography, and indeed the pedagogic teaching of it as a craft and activity is one of binary opposition, and for a young learner not one of a natural, harmonious, symbiotic relationship.

    Jeffrey Keedy in his essay Style is not a Four Letter Word identified this binary distinction of typographic practice as being a failing of the contemporary designer as they relinquish ‘ownership’ of the experimental in their pursuit of order.

    ‘Unfortunately, the single-minded pursuit of structural meaning and authenticity, decorated only with irony in the aesthetics of the twentieth century, has left style, ornamentation, and beauty in the hands of amateurs.’

    This tension of typographic legibility and experimentation has been an ongoing, and sometimes contentious debate in the emerging field of Graphic Design theory. Graphic Designer Neville Brody and editor Jon Wozencroft created FUSE in 1991 as a vehicle for exploring the boundaries of typographic practice. Arguably, it’s concerns were rooted in the development of a culture of experimentation and celebration of the emerging interest in vernacular design. Each edition featured a series of designers responding to a theme, through the medium of typography. The resulting typefaces, for example Truth by Darren Scott or Linear Konstrukt by Max Kisman are explorations of typographic practice often foregoing the ‘conventions’ of typography including legibility and readability in favor of aesthetics, form and embedded meaning.

    Whilst Fuse help redefine the topography of the typographic landscape for a new wave of Graphic Designers it wasn’t universally well received as cited by design critic Steven Heller ‘Vernacular carried to stupidity …It ain’t funny. There are certain extremes that are unnecessary, or too ingrown. Design for design, and so what?’

    It could be argued the ‘so what?’ questioned by Heller is the dichotomic relationship and tension inherent in experimental typography. It’s safe to assume many of the typefaces created over the 18 editions of Fuse were never really intended to be used as body-copy typefaces and to communicate language. Their purpose was to establish new thoughts on typographic practice and to present typeface design as a discipline in its own right as opposed to a purely functional set of marks serving the ‘master’ of language. At the heart of this type of experimental typography are two key facets, rigor and experimentation. However experimental a typeface design is, it still takes rigor to develop that into a working font, as evidenced in the detailed and ordered sketches of Truth by Darren Scott.

    Rigor and Experimentation
    At the heart of our teaching are two seemingly binary opposite approaches, rigour and experimentation. We teach a program with two distinct parts, that as the course progresses we actively try and converge. The basic principles of design can be taught even if the technology is arguably all but redundant. Our students learn typography through amongst other things, letterpress. The chances are most of them in the commercial world will have little, if any exposure to letterpress – but the principles remain paramount. As designer Brian Webb said ‘letterpress isn’t made of rubber, you can’t cheat it’ – in other words there is a rigor to it. Conversely, we actively encourage experimentation and deconstruction of typography through workshops to encourage students to consider both what they are saying through typography, but importantly not to abandon aesthetics in favor of the universal reasoning of modernity.

    Ultimately some of the greatest graphic design work has been forged through both rigor and experimentation. This is exemplified in the work of British graphic artist Chris Ashworth, who describes his approach as ‘Swiss Grit’. That is to say it is deeply rooted in the historically tradition of Swiss Modernism, and indeed exhibits lots of the traits of this era, hierarchy, reduced color palette and clarity of message. However is also experimental and challenging, often playing with notions of legibility and readability.

    It could be argued that this balance, this dichotomy of rigor and tradition combined with challenging experimentation is the aim of contemporary design – to inform and engage, and the two ultimately can’t be seen as being separate.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019
    EventTypoday India 2019: Focus on 'Experimental Typography' - IDC School of Design, IIT, Mumbai, India
    Duration: 2 Mar 20194 Mar 2019


    ConferenceTypoday India 2019
    Internet address


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