Monday, November 17, 2008


I recently watched a documentary about a font: Helvetica. It was surprisingly good! I mean, I like fonts, so I knew I'd be interested, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how interesting it really was. I had no idea of the history of this now-ubiquitous font-- its creation as the pinnacle of modernist typographic principles, its role in revolutionizing mid-20th-century design, and the sharply divided opinions about it amongst typographers and designers. And listening to these people talk about fonts is gloriously insightful and funny.

All of that, of course, is what the makers of the film were going for. For me it also highlighted an issue I hadn't thought about too specifically-- the difference between calligraphers and typographers. Now, I'm not formally trained in either, I just do what I do. I'd always assumed that medium was about the extent of it-- calligraphers work with paper and ink and gouache and so on, and make wedding invitations or cards or books or art objects, while typographers/ font designers might draw an initial version of their alphabet, then do whatever digital stuff it is they do so you end up with a font. I imagined there was lots of overlap, and of course the fact that many typographers are also accomplished calligraphers did nothing to disabuse me of this notion.

I also assumed calligraphers and typographers have a similar sense of how letterform effects your understanding of the text. And that assumption held up, but what became clear is that what typographers see fit to do given that observation can be dramatically different from the choices calligraphers make. Here in this film are these legendary modernist designers, saying that fonts should not convey additional information; they should fade into the background and leave only the message. They should not be a message in and of themselves. I guess this is a characteristically modernist perspective, but it surprised me to hear that so many typographers take themselves to be doing something that is diametrically opposed to what I try to do as a calligrapher.

Maybe I'm just postmodern at heart.

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